URPE Supports Occupy Wall Street
By Paddy Quick (email@example.com)
Member, URPE Steering Committee
Written on October 23, 2011
The initiative of a small group of New Yorkers served as a catalyst which ignited a wave of protests in New York and across the US. The level of militancy in the US is far lower than that of the protestors in Europe and elsewhere, but they too have been encouraged by Occupy Wall Street (OWS). The Great Recession led to an acceleration of decades of attacks on the US working class, but at last we are beginning to protest.
The OWS activists are mostly starting from scratch to build a new movement. There are, of course, many organizations, from the Democratic Party to Workers World, who are looking to add members from among the occupants of Liberty Park/Zuccotti Park. But the movements of earlier decades left few significant mass organizations, and the organizations that do exist played no role in the start of OWS. The overwhelming impression that comes across when listening and talking to the OWS people is their insistence on the importance of the participation by each and every individual in decision-making, rather than on finding ways to participate in current organizations. The General Assemblies that take place every evening at 7 p.m. are structured to be models of democratic participation that aim at decision-making by consensus. People can register agreement by waving fingers upright in the air, or dissent by waving fingers downward. (This allows for discussion to continue without being disrupted by either applause or “boos.”) Extreme disagreement, which means a person’s unwillingness to continue to be a member of Occupy Wall Street if a proposal is adopted, is shown by crossing one’s arms.
The Park itself is fairly small and very crowded at times, particularly at the end of the workday. There is always a lot going on, in addition to the many one-on-one conversations. Anyone can draw people into a crowd to listen to an unscheduled talk by calling out “Mic [microphone] Check.” This is a signal for people to serve as collective substitutes for the loud-speakers which are banned by New York City. The speaker calls out a short phrase, e.g. “Wall Street today,” and those who can hear what s/he says repeat it loudly, “WALL STREET TODAY,” and so the rest of the talk continues. Thus those who are not close by can “hear” the speaker. It is a low-tech solution to a big-government regulation. There are many talks given every day, including some by URPE members. The quality of the talks and discussions is often higher than those that take place in “traditional” colleges. There are also speeches by people who could be described as “eccentric,” but this is not only expected but welcomed as an indication of the openness of OWS to new ideas. At the same time, some ideas are not welcome. When Geraldo Rivera came to visit, his words were drowned out by chants of “Fox News Lies.”
The goals of OWS cannot be summarized in a single phrase. The media often characterize the protestors as opposed to “corporate greed,” but this is only a part of what motivates people. The one concept that seems to unite people is a commitment to democratic decision-making. But the activists are not simply registering their opposition to being “co-opted” by one organization or another, let alone becoming a support group for the Democratic Party. They are asserting the importance of new ways of restructuring not only production but also gender relations, and proclaiming the possibility of a new society. Some see the need for minor reforms, some for major reforms and others for revolution. Collectively, they are committed to democratic discussion. This is very frustrating to the ever-present media folks who are reduced to selecting quotations from the many interviews they carry out with individuals and trying to present them as “representative” of the ideas of OWS. The mainstream media are also enamored of the “celebrities” who visit Liberty/Zuccotti Park. While OWS welcomes everyone who comes to the park, it does not assume that the ideas of the well-known are more important than those of others.
The movement is new. It is hard now to remember that Occupy Wall Street began only on September 17, 2011. The organizational tasks within OWS are enormous but people are coping well with them. Supporters email in orders for pizza deliveries to the well-organized food station in the center of the park. Spanish-English translation is available and a library (for both adults and children) functions well. But sanitation is a problem, and local restaurants which provide facilities are concerned. When Michael Bloomberg (Mayor of NYC and, incidentally, the 13th richest person in the United States) asserted that the need for improved sanitation in the park required the successive “clearing out” of sections of the park, OWS organized a systematic cleanup that impressed even jaded New Yorkers, and Bloomberg had to back down. The incidents of police brutality and mass arrests have, overall, led to an increase in support for OWS, while the New York City police are reportedly divided between those who support and those who oppose OWS. The park itself is a “privately-owned public park,” established as part of a 1968 deal on zoning regulations in return for a relaxation of regulations for a new office building, and named Liberty Park Plaza. (Its name was changed to Zuccotti Park in 2006.) This means that, unlike city-owned parks, it must be open to the public 24 hours a day, although some “regulations” (unspecified) are allowed.
The October 5 march brought together major New York City unions in support of Occupy Wall Street. The marchers included many more African-American and Latino people than were typical of the OWS occupants. The signs they carried were typically pre-printed, unlike the varied and creative hand-lettered signs that abound in Liberty Park. The “cultural” gap between their participation and that of the OWS occupants was significant. Unions in the US, despite significant limitations, provide vastly more opportunities for democratic participation than our major political parties. But there is a strong affinity between OWS and union members, and regular discussions take place between them. On Thursday, October 27, for example, Wal-Mart workers are scheduled to talk about their struggles. Other demonstrations have also originated in OWS such as the October 15 occupation of Times Square and the Saturday student-focused protests in Washington Square. There have also been significant demonstrations at the businesses and homes of prominent corporate executives.
The protests are spreading, and, perhaps of even more significance, so is the legitimacy of protest. On October 21, Parents Support Occupy Wall Street organized a sleep-over in the Park. The same day saw a national set of demonstrations by Afterschool Alliance in support of after-school programs. About 70 elementary school students, with their teachers and parents, stood in front of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall chanting “Lights Out Afterschool,” while passers-by applauded them as yet another group of demonstrators.
Fall is here and it is getting colder. The city has banned the installation of tents in the park, so people are sleeping under tarps. The city is hoping that it will not be necessary to remove the occupants of Liberty Park by force and that instead the winter will bring an end the occupation. But cold weather cannot stop the movement. Meantime, as OWS-inspired protests grow around the country, so too do the challenges of coordinating this mass movement to confront the centralized power of the state. The creativity of the protestors in their use of 21st century technology promises new approaches. Meantime, the OWS people and the millions who are joining them can be counted upon to find their own ways to continue the movement they have ignited.