Chris Rude & Sara Burke: The Fires Were Already Burning

The Fires Were Already Burning: An Occupy Wall Street Backstory
and Entreaty to Members of URPE
By Chris Rude (chris.rude@ciper.org) and Sara Burke (burkesara@me.com)

Ever since the occupation of Wall Street took shape on September 17th, there has been much speculation as to its origins—including the notion repeated frequently that Adbusters, the Canadian marketing-meets-politics magazine founded by Estonian WWII refugee Kalle Lasn, lit the spark of Occupy Wall Street with its call for a peaceful occupation. The marketing-savvy magazine certainly helped bring attention to ideas that a lot of New York City activists—working together and in parallel since the early winter months of 2011— had been advancing based on our efforts to occupy banks, to hold action assemblies and people’s town halls, and to occupy the streets near City Hall (in an occupation called “Bloombergville”). Bloombergville activists spent three weeks in June/July on the sidewalk around the base of the Woolworth Building, at the corner of Broadway and Park Place, to protest budget cuts, public-worker layoffs and other austerity measures threatened in the 2011-12 New York City Budget. Adbusters (and social media) reflected the spark from fires that were already burning.

We learned about this smoldering discontent with inequality and corporate capitalism on a cold day in late February when we joined up with US Uncut, a direct-action movement to expose corporate tax evasion/avoidance by creatively occupying their places of business, for their first New York action. We carried a homemade sign to the targeted Bank of America. On one side the sign had graphs of the average US corporate tax rate from 1947-2010. (It moved steadily down through the decades.) The other side showed average US corporate profits during the same period. (They moved steadily up through the decades, with only a 1-quarter crash due to the financial crisis in Autumn 2008.) Everyone who had come to give Bank of America hell was fired up about citizens’ occupation of the Wisconsin state capital to demand due process and freedom of expression and to defend collective bargaining. It was during a subsequent Uncut meeting in late March to plan future actions – a meeting held in a downtown union hall – that we discovered folks in the adjacent room organizing what they were calling “action assemblies” and “peoples’ town halls” as part of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts. They had action assemblies percolating in all the NYC boroughs except recalcitrant, Republican-dominated Staten Island, where we live.

So we decided to see if we could light a fire on Staten Island, home to a huge number of unionized workers—firefighters, cops, teachers, nurses and public employees of all kinds—and with a punishing rate of foreclosures. Reaching out to a group of some 15 independent activists in the borough, some of whom had worked together before but never with this overall group, we found ourselves able to pull in people from the anti-war movement, rank-and-file unionists, representatives of social service agencies serving the elderly, homeless and immigrant populations, Democratic, Green Party and other political activists, students, teachers and economists (more than one!). We formed Staten Islanders for Realistic Budget Solutions (SI4RBS) and organized a People’s Town Hall in four short weeks that drew almost 400 people (from every zip code on the Island) and fed directly into Bloombergville.

Some in SI4RBS also went to meetings of the citywide May 12th Coalition, which made two crucial contributions to the movement: 1) homeless advocates’ strategy (sleeping on the streets as a form of protest), and 2) an influential report, “Pay Back Time: $1.5 Billion Ways To Save Our City’s Budget and Make the Big Banks and Millionaires Pay Their Fair Share” (which emphasized that over $1 billion of current subsidies, tax credits and special deals go to the big-six banks for jobs they have failed to create; it also pointed to tax loopholes for millionaires, hedge funds and private equity firms that should be eliminated for a more fair tax system; and it detailed all the ways in which the social safety net of the city could be cut, including which agencies would be affected and with heartbreaking stories from individuals). Our group’s chief economist (Chris) vetted the data in the report, presented to the group, and we agreed to endorse and promote it, along with independently researched Staten Island supplements. The experience was a crash course in the kind of “we-can-organize-ourselves, thank you very much, and don’t-need-outside-experts-or-organizers” autonomy that has blossomed in and been magnified by Occupy Wall Street.

We unfortunately missed the next chapter of this backstory. On August 2nd, with a looming debt-ceiling deadline facing Congress, we caught a flight to Berlin in the late afternoon, just as Bloombergville and New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts were holding a General Assembly at Bowling Green’s bull to plan for September 17th. When we returned to New York on September 7th, working groups were already in formation, and there was just time to hook up with the group of Spanish activists who were organizing the General Assembly’s Open Forum, which takes place now at 6pm nightly. Chris spoke at the wonderfully chaotic, first Open Forum—held just before the General Assembly on September 17th—on the fiscal crisis of the state.

Chris spoke again at the Open Forum a few days later, just before URPE’s October 1-2 Brooklyn conference, which helped to solidify relations and helped secure OWS participants to the conference. It was difficult to tear them away — their thirst for economic knowledge was that great. When Sara spoke at the Open Forum about a week later, on how long-term rising inequality destabilizes economies, and the role that trade unions can play in stabilizing the economic system, the crowd of 30-40 people asked penetrating questions: how can collective bargaining be strengthened? What is the potential for organizing debtors to collectively bargain down their loans? How do institutions like central banks and the IMF work in the US and the global economies?

By the time you read this newsletter, we’re sure many of you will have joined forces with the Occupy Movement in some form or at least have stopped by your local Occupation to check it out. We urge you to actively participate. It has been astounding to watch mainstream media struggle to explain where the movement comes from. The fires have been burning here and there for some time, and those involved are educating and organizing with the intent to create serious change. If our political economy is indeed radical — penetrating to the core of how things work — we can and should assist them. Speak at an Occupation. Organize a teach-in by joining one of its working groups. Create an open university. Write a policy brief or a working paper. Engage in hard-hitting, politically relevant economic research. Knowledge is a weapon.


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