“Mic check!”: A Year of Occupy Wall Street
Mic check! Mic check! Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is still here one year later, even as the New York Times, and Valley News Live started singing another funeral dirge for the movement before the anniversary celebrants had even left the party.
Meghan Barr of The Associated Press reporting on ValleyNewsLive.com stated on Monday: “The movement is now a shadow of its mighty infancy, when a group of young people harnessed the power of a disillusioned nation and took to the streets chanting about corporate greed and inequality.”
Jeff Reeves, financial journalist and editor of InvestorPlace.com said: “Failed Occupy Wall Street Movement needs to wake up”, and The New York Times’ William Alden didn’t even wait for the last protesters to disperse from Zuccotti Park, OWS’s initial and former home base, before reporting: “Occupy Wall Street: From Frenzy to Fad? Occupy Wall Street doesn’t seem to be generating the same buzz anymore.”
The real fad here may be the ringing of the death bell for OWS, which started with Mayor Bloomberg announcing the end of the movement in November 2011, when he ordered the mass evacuation of protestors from the park encampment they’d created with tents, library, communication center and a kitchen in the heart of the financial district in downtown Manhattan.
On 17th September 2011, a small group of people began protesting the wealth disparity between the 1% wealthiest Americans and the other 99% in the financial district of lower Manhattan. It happened right on the heels of the major uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. It caught fire. The group set up their encampment, and hundreds, then thousands, flocked to their hub.
With protest signs, music, art and conversation addressing this wealth disparity and how it has led to the destruction of our lives, communities and our planet, we were able to reach into the hearts of New Yorkers and touch them. A movement began that no one expected.
Fast forward one year to this past weekend celebration of the movement’s one year anniversary. Rebecca Solnit, author of 13 books and an original activist in the OWS movement in Truthout.org writes that the movement has “exploded across the nation and the western world from Alaska to New Zealand and some parts of the eastern world. Occupy Hong Kong was going strong until last week”. In fact, there are occupy strands in 1,500 cities globally, 82 countries, and over 600 communities in the United States.
These strands are taking direct actions at the local level of communities across the globe, teaching each other and others what works and what doesn’t. They are re-appropriating homes, rehabbing neighbourhoods, teaching people how to move their money from big banks to people’s credit unions and supporting labor movements.
They are educating, protesting, and offering their presence and their numbers to other resistant movements and they are doing all this under the weight of derision from the mainstream media, the political left and the right. The story goes: they have no message, they have too many messages, they are dirty, they are unorganised, and they are dead. The mantra continues as these young people continue to organise, grow, change and resist.
The papers didn’t get it all wrong though. Something was missing in this anniversary celebration. I felt it myself and I saw it in the faces of those around me. It was lackluster. The protest appeared a lot smaller than it was in actuality because there were different contingencies working around the lower part of Manhattan that only came together at intervals, but it was much smaller than many of its protests over the year since its inception.
It seems OWS, contrary to all the press derision, is actually more organised, not less. In the three days of the anniversary education, resistance and celebration were all part of the mix and very well structured. Was all this organisation a disadvantage? Is it possible that OWS is losing its beating heart of rage against the machine with all this organisation?
I’m all for strategising, but too much organisation and you get yourself a perfect little bureaucracy. People’s disappointment in the movement may come from the fact that OWS started out with a true revolutionary edge, and somewhere along the line they seem to have lost that.
To quote Lierre Keith, an activist and co-author of Deep Green Resistance: “The task of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much personal integrity as possible; it is to dismantle those systems.” OWS came on to the scene like a brush fire ready for this fight. As a nation we don’t fight the system collectively anymore. OWS gave us the idea that maybe we could. I wonder what our European cousins think of our lack of willingness to get out into the streets, to put our bodies on the line.
I remember being in France in the 90s during which there was an issue of the government wanting to raise taxes on schoolbooks. Millions of French people went roaring into the streets to protest. Over taxes on schoolbooks! This is a country where education is free, health care is free, and everyone gets a paid five-week vacation every year (hardly a coincidence with a population that is ever on guard for what the power base is doing).
The populace shut down everything with their numbers and the taxes on books were not raised. I look at the populations of Greece and Ireland and Spain raging in the streets and I wonder what Americans are thinking. What are we waiting for? Where is our fight? We have all the reason to stand up and we are not doing it. OWS can hardly be blamed for this.
On Monday, OWS’s anniversary, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the enclave of the power elite that is stripping this world of meaning and health, a woman from Africa is screaming into a crowd of about three hundred people, one of many factions scattered through the financial district. “This is ecocide! This is genocide! We cannot grow our food! We will die together or we will choose life, today!”
Americans are not used to this much reality but Occupy has opened the door for truths like this to be told out in the open, and if it did nothing else this entire past year we would still have to be grateful. Our planet is being bludgeoned: 60% of America is experiencing drought so severe it is setting off wild fires across the nation. Our soil is dying. Greenland and the Arctic ice are melting at speeds that are terrifying the scientists studying them. We are suffering traumatic events: nuclear disasters; huge, hellacious oil spills; oceans and forests under siege; joblessness and excoriating debt with no foreseeable way out and going about our days as if nothing is happening. Occupy has offered up a space to confront these traumatic experiences, to talk about them as if they are real, because they are real, and to confront why they are happening.
This is OWS’s strength. It is speaking the truth about what we are living out loud and giving others the space (physical and now psychic) to do so too. If we can’t talk about the truth, we can’t reach the truth in our own bodies. If we can’t reach the truth in our own bodies about what is happening to our world, then we will not become enraged enough to respond. Enraged is the appropriate response to what we are living, and most people can’t even work up a little anger anymore.
We are a nation that has grown unaccustomed to fighting. We want to stare down the facts with our optimism, positive thinking, prayer-vigils and “inner-work” on ourselves. We have life coaches and gurus, psychiatrists and anti-depressants. No other nation approaches such power discrepancies with prayer and hope as we do. When I look back to 2008 when Obama won the presidency and saw people weeping with relief when he was elected, I get a similar sensation as I get now from people disappointed in OWS. People in this country want a savior. They don’t want to have to pull themselves away from their gadgets and their TV sets to do the hard work of confronting power themselves.
Faced with police in riot gear with batons, shields and pepper spray they are all too willing to use, fighting is a scary prospect. Watching kids being pepper-sprayed in the eyes for non-violent demonstrations on their college campuses is terrifying. This is supposed to be legal and yet the police are responding with a savage brutality that is going unaccounted for. Despite this brutality, in-fighting, media derision, failures and successes, the young people at the heart of this movement are not giving up. Are we going to let them do this alone?
OWS has every reason to celebrate its accomplishments, but if it doesn’t get back its raging heart of true dissent it may just be subsumed by capitalism like the rest of us.
Happy birthday Occupy!
Photos: Giulia Bianchi