Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Day 11 and Thoughts about Democracy

Just got back from the morning rally through Wall Street, a daily ritual of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The previous day, many in the movement reveled in the good press, as well as attention from papers around the globe. Papers and blogs around the city were posting articles on the brutality witnessed at Saturday’s rally. The Nation published a corrective story on the limits of a condescending Sunday article in the Sunday week in review section of the Times. Lawrence O’Donnell lambasted the NY Police Department for their treatment of those involved in the Occupy Wall street movement. He linked the harsh treatment of activists, including a woman who was pepper sprayed and a cameraman who was forcibly shoved to the ground for filming Saturday’s rally with a long pattern of police abuses. Monday evening, a statement of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street from Noam Chomsky, furthered the point that the world was taking notice.

‎"Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street -- financial institutions generally -- has caused severe damage to the people of the United States (and the world). And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power. That has set in motion a vicious cycle that has concentrated immense wealth, and with it political power, in a tiny sector of the population, a fraction of 1%, while the rest increasingly become what is sometimes called "a precariat" -- seeking to survive in a precarious existence. They also carry out these ugly activities with almost complete impunity -- not only too big to fail, but also "too big to jail."

The courageous and honorable protests underway in Wall Street should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course."

Noam Chomsky

Tuesday morning, I heard more rumors that the city planned to shut down the event. But few could be confirmed. It was a lovely ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Riding across the bridge, I always look at the city and wonder what she has in store as I ride off the bridge and take a left in front of City Hall. I met my wife on this route years ago; I’ve also watched hundreds of activists arrested, stood in line for press conferences, hung out with Brad Will there, waited for friends to get out of the Tombs, and helped amplify the voice of the people fighting the power – all within this vicinity. Yet, no experience I have had in almost 15 years of activism in New York compares with the experience of Occupy Wall Street. And few in the movement want to stop. No one at Liberty Plaza had heard reports of a police shut down. Everyone’s stuff still lay there when I arrived at 9:15.

“Has the morning rally started yet?” I asked a man sitting at a soap box, turned reception table for the movement.

“They are already moving. They just left,” he explained with a smile. “Good luck man.”

So I walked down and took a left on Wall Street to take part in the morning rally. Walking across Wall Street, I heard one man comment, “It’s like they want to get arrested.” “Fucking hippies,” another complained when he could not get around the crowd, penned between police and barricades and the street.

Marchers stood to stood to speak, echod by the human mike. And we made our way down to Bowling Green and back up Broadway, accompanied by police who stood on guard in front of the bank windows. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” we screamed with the retort. “And so did you.” Walking up to the bull a new chant, “Get up, Get down! There’s a revolution in this town” reverberated with the members of the crowd.

Up at Trinity Church the police, the march attempted to zig back toward Wall Street, but the police pushed it West behind the old church. More and more police surrounded the street activists. Earlier in the day, the Times has posted that the NYPD seemed ill equipped for such an ongoing, non-violent campaign.

The police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism, in a city whose police commissioner acknowledges the ownership of a gun big enough to take down a plane, but that may appear less nimble in dealing with the likes of the Wall Street protesters. So even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized … their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department.

So, the police carried their batons and escorted the march back to Liberty Plaza. “Mike check” one man called. “Mike check” the crowd responded. “We want to thank the NYPD for allowing us to have another peaceful march.” I love the earnestness of the movement. I also love their insistence on moving forward despite police harassment. At the General Assembly members recite the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In this writer’s humble opinion, those in the streets do not need to thank or ask the government for the right to exorcize constitutionally protected speech. Yet, this is what city appears to want from street activists. As the Times reported this morning:

In interviews, police officials described the lack of a permit and the fact that protesters were obstructing traffic as key factors in the arrests and the department’s decision to end the march.

“If you have a permit, the police will accommodate for things like diverting traffic,” Mr. Browne said. “If you take a street for a parade or protest without a permit, you are subject to arrest.”

Brown is referring to a police rule supported by Council Speaker Chris Quinn which suggests that groups of fifty or more must access a permit to exercise their First Amendment rights. Of course, countless parades take place a year throughout New York City without permits. Implementation of the parade permit rule is far more arbitrary than uniform. It is far more subject to whims and biases than clear policy. The courts have not been kind to the NYPD when it comes to battles over parade permit rules. And no doubt, the city will have to pay out large sums to those arrested without warning, pepper sprayed, and beaten by police. My friend Andy from ACT UP likens the First Amendment to pregnancy. “You cannot be kindov pregnant… The same principle applies to the First Amendment. Either you have it or you don’t.”

As police pushed activists West behind Trinity Church, I skipped out of the parade. My rule of thumb in these things is not to be penned in or surrounded by police at any time. I’ve been swept up by police too many times. Watching police surround the movement of youth speaking out, I turned right to look at the graves in Trinity Church. I noticed at Alexander Hamilton’s gave and wondered what he might think of the whole affair. On February 23, 1775, Alexander Hamilton commented on the inherent right of people to speak out for freedom.

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

Watching the police corral the crowd, it sure looked like the police were attempting to “obscure” the movement’s right to “peaceable assembly.” This is not an unruly mob or a gang; it is not a group ready to riot, despite what the mayor says. And contrary to what the Times reports, they are quite aware of what is going on. They helped elect a president who has not had their back or made the kinds of reforms many hoped for. So, they are taking solutions into their own hands, as a peaceful, dynamic movement. Twelve years after the WTO meetings of November 1999, comparisons between local demonstrations and the Battle of Seattle by police feel like another way to demonize a crowd and justify a crackdown. This is not a group ready to brake windows. They do want some of their future back. And many worry it is being traded away.

Yesterday, I ruminated about the Chinese Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-9; ten years later, between ebbs and flows, tanks rolled into the occupation in Tiananmen Square. I certainly hope the same does not happen in Liberty Plaza. Yet, watching the police standing around the space, I wondered.

“I hadn’t even noticed the police standing around until you mentioned it,” a woman standing labeling books at the Occupy Wall Street library commented, when I pointed it out. “I have to pick up my kids this afternoon. I have been dropping them off in the mornings and then coming here.”

Throughout the morning rally I talked with participants about our action and its impacts. Few had heard about a police crackdown planned. And were prepared to stick it out. Many are happy the word is getting out to the world. “They are hearing us,” one woman pointed out as we marched. “They hear us. The question is do they care?” It certainly is. Rather than create a confrontation this consensus based movement has chosen to stay the course, create art and support an occupation which will last till October 6th when members will travel to Washington DC for a nationwide action of the Occupy Wall Street movement now stretching from New York to Los Angeles.

Walking away from the park, I stopped to reflect on the messages along the democracy wall of posters and signs posted around the park. “Bankers stole my kids future” read one sign. Among the cacophony of signs another spoke to the more solemn mood of the day: “Ideas do not turn into solutions over night.” Stick with it Occupy Wall Street. The whole world is reveling on your commitment to direct democracy of the people, by the people, for the people.

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