text and photos by Brian Awehali | originally published in Earth Island Journal
October 13, 2011
“The biggest difference I see between China and the US is that in China, our government owns the corporations and in the US, the corporations own your government.”
–Chinese people’s historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武), July, 2010
On September 27th, the Occupy Wall Street rebellion was clearly gathering momentum. The NYPD’s macing of several peaceful protesters the previous weekend, and their arrest of roughly 80 demonstrators in the following days served primarily to spark more coverage, outrage and broad-based support for the movement. Donations were pouring in, a group of hundreds was turning into thousands in lower Manhattan, and similar occupations were blooming in dozens of other U.S. cities.
In the first days of the occupation, most corporate media reporters approached the protesters as would any good B-movie alien delegation: “Take us to your leader,” they demanded. Confronted with a decentralized organizing culture, they furrowed their brows, demanded demands, preferably in sound bite form, and generally derided protesters for being young, unrealistic, weird-looking, and/or unhygienic.
As I made my way to Zuccotti Park from the Wall St. subway stop, portable metal fencing divided crowded sidewalks from empty streets in all directions. People shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder down the sidewalks past policemen stationed every 50 feet. After walking several blocks I saw a straight line of men in dark blue uniforms marching up the street, commercial pilots protesting in advance of next year’s scheduled merger of United and Continental airlines.
Immediately after I passed the pilot’s strike, and opposite the New York Stock Exchange, my progress was blocked by a throng of people gathered to watch a thin blonde model in abbreviated white clothing being photographed against an imposing concrete wall. High above her, a gold flag that said “Hermes” fluttered in the wind, advertising the name of a high-end clothing, jewelry and handbag company that appears to utterly miss the folkloric gravity and meaning of their namesake. Hermes, the Greek incarnation of the Trickster, the Coyote, the Crow, the Raven, Eshu in West Africa, Krishna in India, is the change agent who facilitates intercourse between gods and mortals, captain of the threshold, lord of the in-between.
What any of that has to do in spirit or substance with $4,000 weekend bags or $500 pairs of shiny silver cufflinks for the dapper man is unclear, but I took even this “misnomeric” presence of Hermes as a great symbol for the day, and for the occupation in general. The Trickster, after all, is the attacker of connecting joints in armor, ever poised to tip established orders into flux. And as Lewis Hyde, in his landmark book, Trickster Makes This World notes:
If Hermes is involved, after a touch of chaos comes another cosmos. Hermes is a god of luck, but more than that, he stands for what might be called ‘smart luck’ rather than ‘dumb luck.’
I turned the corner on Cedar to Zuccotti Park and there was the encampment, a small but bustling improvised agglomeration of people at various workstations, surrounded by pink, red and yellow marigolds, sleepers, bedding, blue tarps, umbrellas, food, first aid, and, of course, hundreds of hand-painted cardboard signs:
“One Planet, One People”
“Greed is Not Good”
“Abolish Corporate Personhood”
“Bring Back Glass-Steagall”
“In this country, the Richest 400 have more $ than the Poorest 50%.”
On one side of the park was an elevated NYPD surveillance station with coal-black windows, a panopticon on an articulating hydraulic arm and mobile base, covered in cameras and antennae. It’s official name is “Sky Watch,” and it’s a machine used by the military and various U.S. police departments, but was apparently first used as a tower for hunting quarry from overhead. [Nick Turse has a good piece about Sky Watch and what happened when he asked about it, on Alternet]
The scene brings to mind the 1999 Battle of Seattle, the last time, to quote Naomi Klein’s address to the OWS General Assembly on Oct. 6, “a global, youth-led, decentralized movement took direct aim at corporate power.” Much of It also brings to mind the 1996 and 2000 Nader/LaDuke Green Party campaigns, which militated against many of the same corporate interests, and had tens of thousands of mostly young people lustily protesting economic polarization and the subordination of people to money. (Indefatigable, Ralph Nader addressed the Freedom Plaza crowd in Washington, DC, on October 8th, saying it was good to keep the ruling classes guessing, and noting that “a leaderless movement can’t be decapitated, can it?”)
The grievances are deep and longstanding; the movement is many movements. Protest tactics and strategy have evolved, but what’s changed most between 1999 and today, and one big reason why the Occupy Wall Street surge for economic justice might develop some teeth is that since the late ’90s, capitalism’s global bubble has been shrinking and threatening to burst.
While surveying the hundreds of signs spread across the periphery of the plaza, I asked one volunteer, Will Duffield, 19, what he thought united the messages on the signs.
“I think it’s opposition to collusion between government and big business,” he said.
“Does that seem particularly radical to you?” I asked.
Will made a sad little smile. “No, that doesn’t seem radical to me at all.”
Most of the volunteers and organizers I interviewed in Liberty Square, all of whom indicated they were speaking for themselves, not as spokespeople for Occupy Wall Street, expressed that “messaging” was of secondary importance to actual organizing. Many emphasized that while some protesters were here for jobs or wages, some for environmental issues, for peace and demilitarization, racial equity, or fair military veteran’s benefits, the main point was to gather, to amass, and to build solutions together.
The encampment holds twice daily assemblies, and a growing number of working groups for media, new arrivals, sanitation, legal issues, facilitation, finance, public relations, education and other needs meet throughout the day. Careful attention is paid to procedural matters: facilitators rotate, a “stack” is kept to determine speaking order, and hand cues are used as stand-ins for many verbal expressions: fingers up for agreement, level for uncertainty and down for disagreement. Making a triangle symbol means “point of process,” indicating that an agreed upon protocol is not being followed. Other different procedural mechanisms can be agreed upon on by different working groups. (Nine days later, on October 6, I saw these same procedures explained, practiced and implemented with impressive speed and clarity at a planning meeting prior to Occupy Austin’s first General Assembly. The video below, by Meerkat Media, is a superb and fun look at this process):
Demonstrators in New York are forbidden to use electrified amplification, so the occupation has implemented a “human microphone” system, where a speaker talks in short bursts and is then echoed by a handful to several dozen designated people located strategically throughout the crowd. This requires speaking simply, and makes humorous expression a challenge, but seems also to rein in potentially disruptive speakers, who can’t broadcast their message without the participation of the group. The use of hand signals instead of clapping or yelling also serves to keep potentially confusing crowd noise to a minimum.
Matt, a 28-year-old from the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, who’d come to the occupation the previous Friday, explained his involvement: “I liked the vibe, and the unity. Everybody came out and we’re figuring out ways to talk peacefully with each other and to find ways to agree on things we might otherwise disagree about. I think the outcome of this whole thing, nobody knows what’s going to happen at this point, but I believe that as long as we all continue to stand in solidarity that something’s going to shake here. This is a hub, we’re at the very center of it, and we have spokes coming off in Chicago, Austin, Dallas, Philadelphia, LA, San Francisco, Sacramento. We have all these major cities where people are waking up and doing the exact same thing. This is…we’re forming our own democratic society, one we want to live in.”
There’s a complicated and somewhat porous line between being the change you want to see in the world and actually changing the world. As one online commenter noted in an activist forum on consensus and activism, “the way we conduct our meeting ain’t a revolutionary act no matter how we do it. The revolution comes from changing and challenging institutions and power structures.”
Thus far, Occupy Wall Street has proven in the short term that it can mobilize thousands of people, adapt to communication and shelter restrictions, weather the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, hold public space, and organize itself in alignment with radically non-hierarchical values. It’s proven it can wage a media war effectively, disseminating its own message, on its own timeframe, through a variety of live streams, well-moderated forums and social media, and has won increasing respect from corporate media, without pandering. And the growing support and participation of unions, faith-based organizations and military service people suggests that this movement for economic justice can win still broader, perhaps even revolutionary levels of support.
No matter how non-violent and peaceful demonstrators are, however, a growing threat to elite power can expect to face ever greater resistance, violence, infiltration and disruption.
In the wake of the 1999 WTO protests and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, many urban police forces in the U.S. essentially paramilitarized themselves. This may have been marketed in the name of combating terrorism, but it functions far more as a means to control and manage the domestic population.
I asked another organizer how she regarded the prospects for mass mobilization in the US today. As eternal as my hope is, I pointed out the failure of massive mobilizations to stop the US invasion of Iraq, or to tangibly affect the 2004 Republican National Convention. I gestured toward the NYPD police panopticon about twenty yards from us, and mentioned the growing reach of surveillance and the police state.
“Well,” she said brightly, “It definitely requires greater mass now than in, say, the ‘60s, because back then, there wasn’t so much a business hand within the hand of politics. But now that government and business are in bed with each other, depending on which politicians you’re looking at, there’s a hell of a lot more pressure to apply. But it’s like Newton’s Third Law goes, ‘For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.’ That opposite reaction has yet to become equal,” she said, before hurrying off to a working group. “But it’s building.”
The Nassim Nicholas Taleb quote in the photograph to the left, from a sign in Liberty Square, is from a book advancing the theory that most large, redefining events are “black swans”– actually unpredictable events only rendered predictable by conceits of hindsight. Neither the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, nor the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia were forecast, yet all seem now, in hindsight, to have had their causal antecedents. They weren’t predicted, but they weren’t random matters of luck either.
The global “mistakeholder” economy is presently teetering under the weight of its own dysfunctional management and hubris, and there’s little doubt that the revolutionary tide kicked off in Tunisia and Egypt will claim more governments and economies before it’s crested. There will be more market panics, more loan defaults and more rioting over housing, food and fuel prices as the plump chickens of oligarchy come home to roost, and no one can predict the moment of revolution.
Organized and committed masses of people willing and able to adapt on the fly have a way of making their own luck in such times of great flux.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Earth Island Journal’s EnvironmentaList on October 14, as “Occupy Everywhere: Notes from Wall Street”