October 04, 2011

The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement

I must admit that the Occupy Wall Street movement took me by surprise. Back in June, I had written that one of the lessons of the Arab spring was that one needed sustained protests and demonstrations and occupations, day in and day out, to bring about major changes and that the US practice of one-day demonstrations, usually on a holiday, was ineffective however large the turnout. I pointed to the October 6 movement to create a permanent protest site in Washington DC in the vicinity of the White House and Congress, as a sign of such a movement emerging.

When I first heard reports of groups of young people occupying Wall Street to protest the corporate takeover of the US government, I thought it would be ephemeral, that these idealists would be there for a short while and then it would fizzle out. I also worried that it might shift the focus away from the October 6th movement and thus harm it. But I was wrong. What started out as a seemingly spontaneous occupation and protest movement that was greeted with condescending snickering of the "Oh, these kids today, what will they think of next?" has grown into something quite big. They have used their own website to publicize their message, and there is even a newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal, with a starting print run of 50,000, that has been published.

These protests were initially treated with some disdain by the media, portraying the protestors as young and clueless with no clearly defined goals and agenda. We even had the sight of well-dressed people, possibly Wall Street executives, drinking champagne and laughing at the protestors from the balcony of a tony restaurant, as if they had never heard of the legend of Marie Antoinette. Even some liberal commentators treated them with disdain. But the message of the young people is quite clear and correct. They have identified the business interests symbolized by Wall Street as a maleficent force in American politics and are using the occupation to demonstrate it. What they are doing is inspiring people to get off the couches, leave their keyboards behind, and take direct action.

What is interesting is that it is also ceasing to be purely a young people's movement. The protests seem to be catching on and spreading with trade unions and community groups joining in. Pilots in uniform also showed up. The protests are now spreading to other cities including major ones like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and smaller ones.

As a result, after some initial silence, the media have been forced to pay attention. Although the protests began on September 17, up until September 26 NPR had scorned the protests as not worth covering with its executive editor for news saying that it was because "The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective", although it covered small groups of Tea Partiers with great gusto. But after NPR was shamed by media commentator Jay Rosen pointing out their neglect, they have now started giving coverage on a regular basis. Another journalist got arrested along with many others and wrote about his experience. Some 'prominent people' like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore have dropped by, which should make NPR happy that its news standards had been met.

As the occupation and protests have grown, so has the repressive police tactics being employed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is clear that the occupation has stopped becoming a laughing matter for the oligarchy as the police have started to use considerable force to disrupt the protests. In this scene, it looks like mace or pepper spray was used on some women who had been penned in by plastic mesh and did not seem to have done anything threatening that could have warranted it. Then last Sunday the police seemed to have first encouraged the protestors to march across the Brooklyn bridge and when they were halfway through, penned them in using plastic netting (a process known as 'kettling') and arrested over 700 of them. You can watch a video of the event.

What do the demonstrators want? Given that it is a loose and spontaneous coalition of young people, it is too much to expect a coherent single platform. Bloomberg has tried to deflect attention from the real targets of the protests, the oligarchy centered on Wall Street of which he is a member and protector, by saying that the protests are targeting the middle class, which is patent nonsense.

The movement has in fact issued a manifesto that lists their demands. But the specific demands are, in some sense, less important than the general goal. What these young people have done is placed their collective finger unerringly on the problem: 1% of the population in the US has become a monster that is devouring the other 99% and the heart of that beast lies is in the financial sector in Wall Street.

Their slogan "We are the 99%" has increasingly resonated with the public because in their bones people know that it is true, which is why the movement seems to be growing.


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A caller mentioned on the Diane Rehm show last week that NPR wasn't covering the protests, then all of a sudden after that day, they started covering them. Coincidence? Probably, but still interesting.

Posted by Scott on October 4, 2011 09:22 AM

I am rereading historian Peter Linebaugh's book, The Magna Carta Manifesto - Liberties & Commons For All.

He describes that in the Middle Ages, all land was owned by the King, noblemen and churchmen. Everyone else was a peasant. Most of the peasants were serfs (to live on a landowner's land a serf became indentured to him).

Enough peasant uprisings forced the King to issue the Charter of the Forest in 1217. In it, the King gave some of his lands to the free-men (serfs no longer indentured).

That land was called the "commons" and those free-men who equally shared it were called "commoners".

The larger point being that we can see parallels with what is happening to today!

An even larger point being that the Earth is "the commons" for all of us. It isn't fair to establish systems of massive wealth imbalance.

P.S. The Charter of the Forest was the longest standing English statute. It was in force until 1971!

Posted by healthphysicist on October 4, 2011 09:23 AM

It was great to see Joseph Stiglitz down there yesterday. He made the telling observation on Lawrence O'Donnell's show that his political expression was limited by a police ban on bullhorns, while the oligarchy can pump as much money as they want into the electoral process.

Rachel Maddow later highlighted the power of North Carolina's Art Pope, a convenience store emperor, who effectively bought 18 of the 22 state legislative races he targeted. That legislature is now doing everything it can to effectively disenfranchise poor and black voters who voted for the "wrong" person in 2008.

Although it's slightly heartening to see the mainstream media finally report on the protests, notice how often they present it as a "human interest" story, telling us who individual protesters are and where they came from. They are deliberately losing the forest in the trees.

Posted by Richard Frost on October 4, 2011 11:45 AM

Thanks for your thoughts, Mano. I was about to email you this morning and ask your thoughts on this movement. As always, you've included some links I hadn't seen yet. Thanks for sharing them.

Posted by Tim on October 4, 2011 03:11 PM

Glad to see you weigh in on the matter. I'm proud to see my generation finally doing something other than bang out complaints online. Now I need to go join them. :)

Also, felt this hit the nail on the head:

Posted by Hunter on October 4, 2011 05:23 PM

Ack, wrong picture! Sorry about that. Meant this one:

Posted by Hunter on October 4, 2011 05:26 PM

Although 700 citizens were arrested for protesting on Wall Street a statement was made that the government is not going to run over us and do what they want. I am beginning to see countless protest worldwide emerge which means it's time for justice and citizens need to stand up for change. These protest on Wall Street will make a big impression in New York that's positive.

Posted by Belly Fat on October 4, 2011 06:45 PM

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I take note of the fact that the protesters seem to be protesting for the sake of protesting rather than protesting something specific. That in itself is interesting. I found it more interesting that when questioned the protester really had no unified purpose or single unified point. So I think they are just a bunch of kids enjoying being kids with no real agenda so lets not give them one.

Posted by Huntsville Chiropractor on October 5, 2011 11:41 PM

Has anyone figured out what their demands are yet? I have found their manifesto where they talk in constructs about what they hate but what is it they DO want???

Posted by Cal Emerson - Occupy Wall Street Protest Protestor on October 11, 2011 01:17 AM

It is interesting at the number of politicians that are coming out in favor of the occupation, and from very unlikely sources. Here in NC my Representative, Senator Kay Hagan has publically come out in support of the protesters. Equally interesting is the "Anonymous" group that reportedly started the protest, aren't they a criminal hacker group?

Posted by Michael on October 14, 2011 08:11 AM