Occupy Wall Street has captured the world’s imagination. Anindya Bhattacharyya reports from New York on how the camp is organised—and what that says about its politics
Zuccotti Park is a slice of prime downtown Manhattan real estate, named—with an almost comical lack of imagination—after the chairman of the private company that owns it. Yet for just over a month now, the site has had another name—Liberty Square.
It has been renamed by its current residents, Occupy Wall Street, a radical protest movement against banks, corporate greed and economic injustice.
The occupation has captured the imagination of ordinary Americans and galvanised the left in the US. Hundreds of similar occupations have sprung up in towns and cities across the country.
“We voted in Barack Obama as president, but he hasn’t been able to change anything,” said Louis, a high school student involved in Occupy Wall Street. “That’s made me realise that the whole system was the problem.” Millions of ordinary Americans are now drawing the same conclusion.
People are fed up with watching the rich getting mollycoddled while the rest of them cope with joblessness, home repossessions and crushing personal debt in the wake of the global financial crisis and the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.
That’s why the Occupy movement has been the spark that has lit a fire now raging across the US.
Protesters and their supporters have so far resisted attempts by New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to clear them off their site in the city’s financial district. They have fought off repeated attempts at police repression, including mass arrests, and held the park.
One of the first things a visitor notices about Zuccotti Park is that it isn’t really a park at all. The ground is concreted over and dotted with small beds housing flowers or trees. From a distance it seems as if the trees are miraculously sprouting out of sheer concrete.
The square is ringed by protesters holding up homemade cardboard signs featuring their personal slogans. Some have a libertarian bent, citing the constitution and other patriotic symbols—a staple of US populist politics.
Yet it would be misleading to think that is a particularly significant current within Occupy Wall Street itself. Once you get into the square you realise that it is dominated by a very different kind of politics, much more radical than the initial images suggest.
Liberty Square is loosely divided into zones devoted to various functions—a library, a Spanish information stall, a table for trade unionists, a media point, a kitchen, a medical tent and so on. The atmosphere is calm but busy, with badged volunteers briskly moving back and forth ensuring that the occupation functions.
It is also very young. The bulk of the protesters in the square, and the overwhelming majority of those staying overnight, are in their late teens or early twenties. The greying baby boomers who form the bedrock of the US left—who were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s over issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam war—are visible, but they are a minority. This is a protest movement led by a new generation.
Occupy Wall Street is young in another sense too. Its politics are fresh and unformed—a bewildering and exhilarating mixture of anarchist, feminist, liberal and socialist ideas constantly bouncing off each other and recombining. But the hubbub and debate are held together by a shared determination to speak out. There isn’t a hint of the inwards-looking cultishness that sometimes drags down occupation movements.
Its participants are aware that they are a radical minority, but one with a duty to reach out to the majority of ordinary Americans—a duty that motivates the occupation’s central slogan, “We are the 99 percent” (see below).
This emphasis on “outreach” involves a couple of significant constituencies. Most important is organised labour. Groups of workers in their union T-shirts are a constant sight.
The occupation’s “labour outreach committee” has drawn together socialist and syndicalist radicals involved with the movement with more traditional trade union activists. This has two effects—providing solidarity for the occupation from the organised working class and pushing out more militant tactics into the working class.
When Bloomberg threatened to evict the occupiers under the pretext of “cleaning” the square, trade unions issued calls urging their members to drop by Occupy Wall Street on their way into work to show solidarity with the protest. That morning saw some 2,000 people blockade the site, preventing the police from clearing it.
But there is an unresolved tension in this. Should the link-up between occupiers and workers be one restricted to tactical coordination? Or can it go deeper, taking the radical energy of Occupy Wall Street and channelling it into strikes by workers?
This is one of the questions the movement is grappling with. Some see the occupation’s organisation and tactics as an alternative to or substitute for traditional trade union methods.
Others, typically activists with socialist politics, see the occupation as a galvanising force for much wider working class struggle—and see the labour outreach committee as a potential rank and file organising forum.
The labour outreach committee meeting is run, as are all Occupy Wall Street meetings, using a complex, modified form of the “consensus” system. The upside of this is that it helps prevent damaging rows. But the downside is that meetings proceed at a slow pace, especially when the “people’s mic” system is used.
The “people’s mic” developed in response to New York laws banning the use of powered amplification systems. Speakers split what they are saying into short sentences. Each sentence is then repeated loudly by those around them. It is a creative solution to a specific local problem.
In fact, many of Occupy Wall Street’s apparent eccentricities make more sense when seen in context. Understanding them is more useful than either dismissing them or ritually copying them in other, inappropriate contexts.
One burning question there is little consensus on is where the movement should go next, and what sort of demands it should raise, if any.
Protesters I spoke to understood that the movement’s lack of explicit demands ran the risk of hampering its efforts to reach out and explain itself.
But they were also wary that raising demands could narrow the movement down—or lead to it being coopted by the Democratic Party or other organs of “business as usual” politics.
Yet anyone hanging around Occupy Wall Street will soon notice that certain sharp demands arise organically from within the movement—writing off all student debt, ending foreclosures on people’s homes, punitive regulation of Wall Street financial institutions.
These are concrete demands that could be used to reach out and build the movement, but also ones that the system would not concede without a serious fight.
There is a palpable sense that this is the start of a new chapter in radical American politics, and this time the stakes are higher than ever. There is a world to win—and Occupy Wall Street is part of a global movement that has risen to meet that challenge.
Are we the 99 percent?
The slogan “We are the 99 percent” has sparked some debate. Some have complained that the working class comprise significantly less than 99 percent, or that the ruling class is more than 1 percent.
This criticism misses the point of the slogan. It isn’t meant to be statistically accurate. Rather it captures the sense that the vast majority of us are bound by a common interest against a small minority at the top of society that robs and exploits us.
Most ordinary Americans see themselves as “middle class”, even though they are in practice working class. But the slogan cuts through this old argument by suggesting that the 99 percent are allies in a political struggle against their enemies—the 1 percent.
This focus on enmity is everywhere at Occupy Wall Street. Placards don’t say things like “We are America” or “We are the people”. Instead they bear slogans such as “The 1 percent is my enemy” or “The banks and corporations are our enemies”.
The slogan doesn’t so much describe a state of affairs as prescribe a course of action. “We are the 99 percent. You are the 99 percent” is a common chant at marches and demonstrations—urging passive onlookers to get active and join the snowball growth of the movement.