Friday, October 7, 2011

All Day, All Week, Occupy the Beats (and Fight for a Safety Net)

Last night was peaceful and pulsing at Zuccotti Park.  When I arrived at the space, Naomi Klein was speeking at the delegate assembly.  

After Klein finished I walked down to the Blarney Stone, a pub in walking distance of the park.  I was meeting some old friends, comrads I have known from the garden movement, biking, squatting, global justice and anti war activism dovetailing from the Lower East Side Collective to Reclaim the Streets.  As usual in these salons, the conversation vascillates between personal family issues and our awe of this new movement, propelled by a new cohort of activists.  This, of course, is the revitalizing function of movements.  Pete Seeger recalls that when  young people joined the Civil Rights Movement, they pushed the movement establishment to push harder.  They were not going to sit and accept things as they were.  And they made all the difference.  The same can be said for this movement.  Many movement veterans, including myself, are quick to note that if anyone had asked us if a movement could occupy Wall Street for weeks and rather or for even an afternoon, we would have said it could not be done.  It did not work for Reclaim the Streets in 1999 when we planned to march from Zuccotti Square.  And we could not immagine it happening today.  Forunately, no one asked us.  And a new generation of activists was willing to try something out on their own terms, take their lumps and learn their lesson.  Just like Ella Baker and SNCC propolled the Civil Rights movement to take risks few had been ready to take before, a new cohort has pushed New York to take risks and innovate in ways few can remember.   To those who have critiques of the movement, I suggest you get off the computer and go down to the general assembly and air your grievances.  This is an open ended space for ideas and hopes.  It is just too easy to be an arm chair critic without offerring alternatives.  This is a pulsing alternative.  At Zuccotti Park, everyone is invited into a pulsing conversation about economic justice astutely framed as a struggle between the 99% of whom do not benefit from our currently economic policies and the 1% who owns 6% of the wealth. This is a space where activists are not playing by the rules. In poker, you bet against the house you lose.  Some goes with movements.  Don’t ask for permits.  That is playing by their rules.  This movement is smart enough not to write their own script.  And it is not afraid to push through a few barricades.  
            As our conversation continued, we turned to the topic of friends and families and the challenges of bringing up kids in a city with expensive child care, decaying foster care, underfunded schools, cuts to transpertation services, and a crumbling infrastructure.   The core problem is a dwindling safety net.  Young people are getting out of college with debt and few opportunities, much less of the public sector jobs, education, pensions,  or social security their parents had.  Many at Occupy Wall street have nowhere else to go.  And with unemployment high, Occupy Wall street encampments are openning from coast to coast.

 Before arriving at the space, I had taken a group of students from my college to a local syringe exchange program.  Funded on a shoestring, programs such as this connect the poor with desperately needed healthcare, social services, and comradery.  Yet, today the new austerity means programs for the poor face cuts, while those who use these services are forced to cope the best they can, sometimes ending up in prisons and park benches.  The mutual aid Occupy Wall offers a distinct alternative.  I serve on the board of New Alternatives for LGBG Homeless Youth.  These are youth who have moved to New York to get away from desperate violence and abuse.  Once here, they find that there are few shelter beds or services for them, much less a place to call home. 

This is the image of the new austerity. 
Pat of what made the Wednesday labor rally so dynamic was the mix of unions and community groups, including ACT UP, the Professional Staff Congress , VOCAL, FUREE, and members of other various harm reduction and health groups.  Each group recognizes that the social safety net is crumbling.  It needs repairing.    Mulling through the crowd of some 20,000 people, I ran into my friend Andrew Coamey, of Housing Works, a group challenging the twin epidemics of homelessness and HIV/AIDS.  He explained why he was marching.
Every day, we hear how cities and states are slashing budgets, cutting jobs and eliminating or reducing services needed by our friends, relatives and neighbors because there just isn’t enough money. Somehow, though, our federal government has found a way to launch two wars, bail out big banks and dish out major tax breaks to corporations and billionaires.
I marched last night because without food stamps, Housing Works clients can’t eat. Without Medicaid, Medicare or AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, they can’t see a doctor or get medication. Without disability benefits, they can’t pay their rent. And without student aid, they can’t access education and become the innovative, productive community members they want to be.
I marched because there are now nearly 9,000 people in the U.S. who cannot access critical AIDS medication through our nation’s drug assistance programs. I marched because last night more than 38,000 New York City residents had to sleep in homeless shelters. I marched because this movement can serve as a launching pad for real change.

I have marched with Housing Works many times. In 2005 the group formed its own  Poor People’s Campaign as a Campaign to End AIDS
Throughout the march, I reveled in the great signs. “Lost a Job, Found an Occupation” was one of my favorites.    A nun carried a sign noting: “My Soup Kitchen Needs a Bail Out!” Another spoofed the New York Times and corporate media, “All the News We’re Paid to Print.”  

Throughout the rally, some sang songs.  Michael Franti jammed, firing up the crowd.   A group of woman with a stand up base and accoustic guitars sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved” joined by many in the crowd.  Another group sang their rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Bring Em Home.”

We're the ninety nine percent
[unison] Occupy, occupy
Our demand is common sense
Occupy, occupy

The rich don't need another tax break
Occupy, occupy
They need to learn to share some faith
Occupy, occupy

We might be right we might be wrong
Occupy, occupy
We have the right to sing this song
Occupy, occupy

You might not see us on TV
Occupy, occupy
We'll be there when you're in need
Occupy, occupy

Wall Street is the place we stand
Occupy, occupy
And we'll circle the whole land
Occupy, occupy

We're the ninety nine percent
Occupy, occupy
Our demand is common sense
Occupy, occupy

I talked with writers and nurses, and even a friend’s five year old son who sat on his dad’s shoulders rallying the crowd with his fist up in the air: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”  Generational sharing and story telling was part of the space as some twenty thousand of us moved a slow amoeba from Foley Square down to Zuccotti Park. Reverend Billy was preaching.  And a smaller group continued the rally, moving from Zuccotti Park to break through the barricades protecting the banks at Wall Street.   And the police retaliated, exposing a panicked frenzy of batons and fists  reminiscent of the Tompkins Square Park riots.   The next morning, the front pages of the Daily News, New York Times, and even Fox News offered sympathetic accounts.  Its very exciting out here.  

 That evening, the Time Up! Decompression Dance Party was scheduled to start at 10 PM at Zuccotti Park.  Times UP! put out the call:

TONIGHT!!! Meet ABCnoRio, 158 Rivington, and ride to meet OWS after their General Assembly; we'll lead all interested occupiers to dance with us a few blocks away. It's sOOo good to get out of the park for a while, and to dance with the dedicated. Come support and dance in public space!
TWITTER: @nyctimesup

I was supposed to ride up to ABC No Rio, but got stuck in the park talking.  For those who have spend the night not, this is part of the process.  My friend dropped down for lunch last Monday to make some signs.  Between meeting a new lover, making art, eating free pizza, rallying, and talking, he didn’t end up leaving for three days. 
            Those at ABC riding the sound bike asked that I notify people we were coming.  So I walked through the park telling people.  And someone suggested I use the “people’s mike.”
            “I can’t.  I’ve never done this,” I thought to myself.  But the next words coming out of my mouth were:
“Mic check!”
“Mic check” the crowd replied. And I made my announcement.    A few people clapped; some didn’t believe I was serious or turned back to their conversations, and others joined.  Emma Goldman’s sentiment can certainly be found here, so is the impulse to dance. Many roar and we dance with the sound bike down to the plaza outside the Blarney Stone.  “All day, all week, occupy the beats!!!” a young man chants, followed by more claps.  We shake it to Jay Z, New Order, James Brown, Public Enemy, and so much more.  It was not untill past 1 AM that the dancing slowed and we meanderred back inside the pub.  A friend had just come back from Europe.  “When we saw the pictures of 700 arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, we knew we had to come home,” explained.  The whole world really is watching.  Having been part of the riots and street theatrics in Greece this scene felt familiar for them.  And we talked and talked and talked until 3 AM.
"You guys are sure stimulating the blue collar downtown economy," noted the bartender.  The vendors are pulsing with business well into the night.   And people are making connections across, cultures, and generations.  Even the mayor has acknowledged the activists have a point about a economic inequalityNo one is going anywhere.   This a movement connected from the Rank and File to Civil Rights, from Global Justice t the Arab Spring.  None of us know where this is going.  What we do know is this movement is taking us into a new kind of a space and connection.

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