I spent about five hours observing the march last Wednesday related to the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, most of the time hanging out at Zuccotti Park, which is the privately-owned park open 24 hours to the public that the organizers have taken over. That doesn't make me an expert, but it merely means I pried a little bit more than most of the journalists crawling over the area,who tended to focus on the camera-worthy scenes of people shouting slogans or ranting about evil capitalism.
The liberal, libertarian-- and even conservative -- press is extremely giddy about the appearance of this movement. They're relieved that finally there is something that looks and smells like a movement that isn't the Tea Party. It's been hard for the liberal media in particular, touting as they have all these years the authenticity of people power and grassroots activism, covering it in places like Egypt or Tunisia, and then seeing that for the last few years here, it's taken a form they don't like here, associated with Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. A magazine like the New Yorker is then reduced to trying to portray the Tea Party as all funded by the Koch brothers-- as if organizations like moveon.org and other lefty outlets aren't the mirror images already funded for years by the Soros and MacArthur Foundations and other progressive institutions.
Movements -- as I know from taking part in my first protest march at the age of 14 with Unitarian Universalists in Rochester, NY against the Vietnam war, and from participating in peace marches with the Mobilization for Survival in the 1980s -- can start out very radical and then spread and accommodate more mainstream concerns and people. Even so, there are worlds of political and cultural differences between the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, Charles Manson -- and the Universalists of Rochester, NY. By the 1970s, the beat and hippie movements of the 1950s and 1960s were commercialized into a lot of head shops selling beads and rolling papers, record stores, and jeans outlets, and the roach clip became a recipe holder. What will happen to OWS?
Liberal media has been quite fascinated with the utopian outlines of "a city on a hill" incipient in the layout of the Zuccotti Square occupation (it really isn't an occupation of Wall Street per se). Why, these people aren't just dirty hippies and druggies, they organized themselves into a place that has a kitchen, a medical station, a volunteer sign-up table where people divide into task groups, a press area, a library, and a General Assembly -- named for just that very organ that was meeting at that same time in the UN (see map above).
I had to chuckle at the press area -- here we're supposed to be overthrowing our corporate overlords, eh? Sticking it to the man? But the most sacred place on the plaza -- kept scrupolously free of other movement people and gawkers even during the height of marches -- the place more sacred than the sacred drumming circle area -- is the area marked MEDIA for the mainstream media to set up their cameras. Hah! No mere blogging mortals need sit down -- move along, this is for the *real* news cameras! Manning the sacred mass media space are some geeky kids running laptops and cameras in a tangle of wires, streaming their own version of events and winnowing the impressions of the mainstream with the "alternative."
I'll do a separate post just on the library, which was fascinating, but as to the other aspects of this makeship utopianist town:
Piles and piles of soggy sleeping bags and inadequate plastic (it had been pouring rain) -- that makes up most of the view.
The kitchen was staffed by those earnest types you see at RenFaires and flea markets -- chaotic but clean with lots of organic bean sprouts and cut veggies -- there was an enormous bin labelled "Grey Water" (water that is from washing dishes which can be used for washing other things) with a makeshift filter created out of tree branches and leaves. Dinner was served to a contingent of mainly older men who looked like Bowery bums -- it consisted of greasy green beans on paper plates.
The group there of 300 or 500 or so is diverse, in the fake way that movements like this always try to advertise themselvse as diverse. Yes, there are Rastifarians, dreadlocks done up in huge knitted caps; yes there are Trustifarians, well dressed and thumbing expensive smart-phones and carrying latte cups, yes there are a lot of fresh-faced high school and college kids from upstates wearing clean white t-shirts denouncing corporate greed; yes, there are People of Colour and People of Paleness working shoulder to shoulder. Yes, there were 87-year-old ladies with their walkers and a sign saying "I'm mad as hell."
The third sacred space (Media and Library) was the area cleared away -- again, despite the crush of people -- for cardboard, hand-made signs. These were arrayed on the pavement so they could be studied, and many people were crouching down and reading them reverently -- a few would take them to march around with, but it wasn't clear you were supposed to take them as they seemed to be a kind of a reification of ephemera.
Diverse, yet every 15 minutes or so, someone would start up a chant, "Mike check" and everyone around the crowd would echo "Mike Check, Mike Check". This is the People's Mike, and one of the creepiest things about OWS, one that they briskly try to sell as their creative answer to the city ordnance banning them from using megaphones or loudspeakers -- you could most certainly have these at a picket or march -- we had them just the week before picketing Fashion Week and protesting the use of child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton industry -- but you can't have them permanently in a park like this, which, after all, is not intended for 300 people to sleep in it and take it over. (The OWS pride themselves as being "leaderless," but any cursory view of the scene lets you know that only a few people step up and run "People's Mike" -- it's not like anyone does.)
"The People's Mike," whatever its charms in terms of overcoming the problem of getting speakers heard over the reverberating din in a canyon of skyscrapers in Wall Street, still has an insidious effect. It means that any speaker can count on everyone there to mindlessly repeat his slogans -- and hear them twice, if not three times.
After awhile, chanting like this takes over the body and mind, and it becomes the norm -- other people take up the chants and the ideas, and your job as a good movement person is merely to repeat *exactly what they say*. One young man was showing the "signals" that the crowd could use to show that either they couldn't hear, or they disagreed, or they were 50-50, or they were in agreement. But it wasn't set up with a mike (obviously) or a "speaker's corner" box like Hyde Park that different people were welcome to come and occupy. Ralph didn't have a conch here, that I could see.
Oh, I'm quite aware that in the General Assembly, most likely anyone can take a turn to speak. But in the hours I was there, it worked differently -- a few highly efficient and seasoned movement cadres would appear and shout something, and everyone in the crowd would dutifully and mindlessly repeat what they said. The effect of this might be empowering and exhilarating to the young people gaining a sense of cameraderie from it -- to anyone else, it was sinister.
One young black woman from the National Guild of Lawyers (a leftwing group that provides free legal aid and monitors marches) who said she was a law student, and that what she was giving was not legal advice -- the same woman who talked to the press about the allegations of police kettling on the Brooklyn Bridge -- was shouting out instructions for how to behave during the coming onslaught of people, which she estimated to be about 6,000. I was curious that she didn't tell people to go limp if arrested (passive resistance, remember that?), and didn't tell people to sit down and link arms in a "sit in" to become less threatening -- the standard MO of many 1960s and 1980s marches -- but instead, told them to defy police searches and say they refuse to cooperate. Perhaps this is good practical legal advice, but I have to wonder about the movement: what kind of march is it where you don't get rid of your pot before setting out so that the police don't have an excuse to bust you?
She was wrong about the 6,000 -- I would say at the peak of the march when the tail was arriving toward 7 pm it was about 5,000 at the most, with a good 30 percent consisting of media, gawkers, and Japanese tourists.
Let's look at the signs people were carrying, both in the park and in the march. People were mainly reduced to milling around showing their signs to each other, as there weren't any pin-striped bankers in sight anywhere. Most of the people heading to the subway after work were the kind of young and middle-aged men and women of the lower middle class or working class that work in capitalism's back office -- the real offices of those fat cats the OWS are concerned about are located uptown (they didn't suffer in the 9/11 terrorist attack, either). The only symbol of The Man that could be found was a lone black security guard in front of the office of the One Liberty Plaza building, surrounded by police gates.
The police were relaxed and casual and friendly. "How are you doing this evening, ladies," a cop said to two fashionably dressed women protestors who looked like they own stock or at least are near somebody who owns stock, before telling them to kindly move along and keep the sidewalks clear. There were several butch-hair cut middle-aged kindly matrons from the NYPD Community Service listening politely to marchers, who ranged from an elderly woman who decided this was occasion to denounce Hiroshima (at least someone was taking an international perspective in this largely Amero-centric self-preoccupied bunch) to everal other middle-aged teachers' union folks reminding the police that they were marching for their pensions, too.
There were no billy clubs or pepper spray because....the marchers were keeping to the terms of their parade permit and not blocking the street...and the OWS were maintaining corridors of order in the park. To be sure, once the crowd started pushing up against police gates, police pushed them back. The roiling in the crowd increased, and that was my cue to leave (you can always tell when the crowd is turning south and if you don't want to be caught up in it, you need to leave). About 1,000 people started marching off route (you know, parade permits have routes you clear with police? And that's ok, because that's a legitimate restriction of the First Amendment) and they headed down to occupy more of the "real" Wall Street -- and that's when the billy clubs began flying, as people blocked the street.
Don't want to be beaten by the agents of evil imperialism or sprayed by people whose pensions you're fighting for? Don't block the street or sidewalk.
Here are some of the signs I witnessed:
"US Boat to Gaza" -- this, on the jacket of a young man wrapped up in a kaffiyeh to let us know his support of the Palestinian cause. You don't have to look far to find this element in the movement.
"Average CEO Salarary $9.6 million"
"Marx Was Right: End Capitalism"
"Let us Develop a Kind of Dangerous Unselfishness" (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
"We Made You Rich With Our Blood Sweat and Tears"
"Lost My Job, Found My Occupation"
"Corporations Are Not People" (this, from the lefty critique of the Supreme Court decision ruling that corporations can give to political campaigns, too -- you know, like those unions and non-profits that were populating this march -- a union or an NGO is a corporate entity that can donate to campaigns -- why are they more peopley than companies that provide people jobs?)
"Beware of Dogma" (It's too bad this fellow didn't head on over to the "Marx Was Right" guy and show him his sign!)
"Stop CUNY Tuition Hikes" (Did you know that CUNY charges...about $3,500 for a full load of a year's courses -- not even -- and that you can get a lot of this in stipends and loans that even after a year, you have no pressure to pay back?).
"Socialism Means Freedom and Justice for All"
"Bring Troops Home" (the only antiwarish sort of placard in a sea of socialist stuff)
"Stop Wage Theft"
"Wall Street Should Buy Stocks, Not Politicians"
"Show Me the Money"
"Capitalism Profits on the Backs of the Working People"
"No to Imperialist Globalization"
"Parasite Capitalism Destroys, Holistic Socialism Heals"
"Shut Down Capitalism" -- this, from the Socialist Contingent, which you had to wonder, was only a "contingent," since the entire march was rivulated with anti-capitalist and pro-Marxist signs.
"I'll Believe Corporations are People When Georgia Executes One"
"Stop Robbing from the Middle Class"
"Workers Rights are Human Rights"
"Occupy Wall Street"
"Shut Down Capitalism"
"We Will Not be Watchdogs and Servants of Capitalism"
"Let's Be Realists. Let's Do the Impossible" (Che -- this from a contingent of Filipino socialist party members).
Ok, you get the idea!
The crowd chants were not that original:
o "We Are the 99 Percent" -- the Ad-Busters created meme
o "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (not so frequent)
o " This is What Democracy Looks Like" -- well, no, it's what 5,000 people, largely city-funded union workers and 300 people occupying a park look like, but of course, sects are part of democracy, too! Indeed, they are the life-blood of democracy!
Mike check, mike check...