It has been an eventful weekend for the tens of thousands of economic protesters around the United States, and for the tens of millions of poor and working class people those protesters represent. Although Occupy Wall Street has been underway for some weeks now, recently it has caught the attention of leading activists and public figures. Moreover, 2011 has been an eventful year for the resurgence of public action on behalf of the working class, a new trajectory of resurgence that started at the beginning of 2011 in Wisconsin, spread to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, and have now culminated in open defiance of Wall Street, a two-party corporate duopoly intent on making the working class pay for a crisis we did not create, continuing illegitimate military occupations used as further justification for cuts in education and social services, and the legal sanction of financial autocracy in American politics.
Occupy Wall Street has become Occupy America, with protests in Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, San Francisco, Tulsa, New Orleans, Houston and elsewhere. In Boston, protesters filled the streets, getting arrested and camping outside of the Federal Reserve Bank. In Los Angeles, several hundred demonstrators gathered outside of City Hall, planning to camp out indefinitely, demanding policies that would benefit people other than the richest 1% of Americans. (The indefinite nature of these protests is one of their distinguishing features; these are not weekend events. And there are enough unemployed and under-employed to fill the streets for weeks, maybe months.)
But it is in New York City, starting on Wall Street and spreading across the city, that the epicenter of the new, creative anger is displaying its maginitude. Police brutality has been an ongoing theme against the protesters at least since last Thursday, when the unprovoked use of pepper spray against a group of women was captured on videotaped and provided a “Birmingham fire hoses” moment of exploding publicity to the Occupy campaign. The World Socialist Web Site reported that the officer who used the pepper spray, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna
is a defendant in lawsuits against the New York cops arising out of protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention, which was held in New York. 1,800 people were arrested at that time, many of them held incommunicado and under appalling conditions. A suit was filed against Bologna and another officer in 2007, and is expected to come to trial next year.
Yesterday, having effectively occupied Wall Street, demonstrators began to spread. In an epochal moment in the afternoon, they began to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, when the NYPD (who allegedly herded many demonstrators to the auto-crossing of the bridge for the very purpose of arresting them) moved in with coppish enthusiasm.
According to several on-scene Twitter posts, protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge were chanting to the police as some were being arrested, “You belong with us. We’re fighting for your pensions.” At the end of that chant you can hear one person say, “You do not see it now, but you will.” Of course, if the police had simply let the protesters march over the bridge, it would have delayed traffic for 30 minutes or so. By arresting them in the middle of the bridge, traffic was delayed for three hours.
Yesterday I asked fans on the Shared Sacrifice Facebook page to name the most useful web sites covering these events. Two nominated sites were Reflections on a Revolution (R.O.A.R.) and Waging Nonviolence, both of which have provided comprehensive, sympathetic coverage of the Occupy movement since its inception last month. To these sites, I would add the livestreaming Global Revolution site, with live footage of protest events around the country. This was what tens of thousands of people were watching during the Brooklyn Bridge debacle. This is a site that needs viewer support, and provides a service that we simply won’t find where it ought to be found, on either public or commercial news media (see below).
For external and internal reasons, the movement isn’t perfect. Externally, the mainstream media would rather spend hours covering two dozen tea party protesters than thousands of people protesting the injustices of multinational capitalism. Whether media condescension takes the form of open abuse from Fox News or creative ignorance from CNN, the movement for economic justice cannot expect to receive fair coverage from media owned by the very corporations whose interests are being questioned en masse.
Dustin Slaughter (founder of the David and Goliath Project) reported via Twitter that CNN gave 15 seconds of air time to #occupywallstreet and said 50 were arrested. Allegations continue that Twitter is blocking #OccupyWallStreet from trending in the United States.
Internally, perhaps by design (or conscious lack of design), this is a leaderless, creedless, decentralized movement. Such a lack of a central thesis will inevitably put off many activists (admittedly, this author included). Already, criticism has emerged from sympathetic circles contending the movement needs both a stronger message and a better public relations strategy. These are salient, not naive, criticisms. Orthodox Marxists will argue that the movement is not industrial enough, doctrinaire enough, communist enough. It’s true that many, if not most, of the protesters believe capitalism ought to be substantially reformed rather than overthrown. Democrats will argue that the movement is too militant and scary. It’s true that the people on Wall Street and elsewhere are angry (and you can hardly blame them given reactions from the autocrats like this).
But human beings are infinite and unpredictable creatures, both individually and collectively; and late capitalism has always manifested itself in fragmented, unruly ways. Conservatives, moderates, and apolitical academics may dismiss the youth and anger of the activists, smirk at talk of class conflict, “the richest 1%,” and economic justice. But economic inequality trumps, contextualizes, and defines every other meaningful identity struggle in human history. Poorness makes racism, sexism, homophobia, age discrimination, and the marginalization of those with disabilities worse, even as it strips everyone of dignity and the ability to participate in political life and civil society. Privileged academics and those lucky enough to still be in the ever-shrinking middle management set may scoff at any passion towards mass politics. Aloofness from politics is an option for the privileged. Alienation from the political process is an imposition on the poor.
Whatever the course of these events, they are the beginning, not the end, of the story of a new chapter in American and global politics, and socioeconomics will continue to be the central, ever-more-obvious theme of that chapter.