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The Whole World is Watching

On the heels of a great recession, the Arab Spring and mass European austerity demonstrations, a generation of Americans mobilizes against economic injustice

by Paul Rosenberg on October 6, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which has erupted suddenly into national prominence after weeks of being ignored in the corporate media, has many different roots, but the most overt is a July 13 call from Adbusters magazine: “On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.”

Photo by Ben Valentine.

What one demand? They didn’t say. Though they did offer one suggestion: “The most exciting candidate that we’ve heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: We demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington,” the magazine wrote. “It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it.”

Ultimately, Adbusters was out to inspire a movement, not lead it. Reflecting on what had happened in Egypt and in Spain, the two most sustained and massive uprisings over the previous seven months, Adbusters advanced the idea of a bottom-up democratic process with deep roots in the tradition of nonviolent struggle and particularly in the Quaker community, dating back to 17th- and 18th-century roots of feminism and the civil-rights struggle.

“[W]e talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies . . . We zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future . . .  and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.”

That is how Adbusters imagined it. It didn’t exactly work out that way. Although a few thousand people turned out on Sept. 17, no one demand had been agreed on and the number of people prepared to stay numbered only around 200 as the corporate media utterly ignored them. But those who did stay continued the conversation that Adbusters had called for—or something similar at least. There was no sign of quick convergence on a strategic demand—something others found quite frustrating—but the democratic discussion continued nonetheless. And even though they’d been blocked from actually occupying Wall Street, the place they did occupy, Zuccotti Park (dubbed Liberty Square), was close enough to serve symbolically, and they formed a strong enough community—linked through social media to like-minded people across the country—that when the police riot inevitably came, the process Adbusters had envisioned suddenly caught the nation’s attention.

It took anthropologist David Graeber, author of the just-published book Debt: The First 5,000, writing in London’s Guardian, to explain the obvious:

“We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: They studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated—faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.

“Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”

The initial police violence was relatively small-scale, deliberately pepper-spraying a handful of protesters already in custody. Similar incidents were commonplace a decade ago during the wave of anti-globalization demonstrations cut short by the Sept. 11 attacks. But that was 10 long years ago—pre-blog, pre-Facebook, pre-videophones-for-all, pre-Twitter. Videos of the event quickly went viral, drawing the attention of celebrity supporters and pledges of support from a few key unions, and sparking the formation of local counterpart groups, first in large cities like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles—all of which had already seen their initial occupation demonstrations by the first weekend of October. Groups are now organizing in scores of other cities nationwide—there’s even an Occupy Boise group [and Occupy Albany; see Newsfront, page 8].

Also on the Oct. 1 weekend, a major march across the Brooklyn Bridge—intended to “connect the boroughs”—turned into a more controlled exercise of police repression, with about 700 marchers arrested after police initially allowed them to march onto the bridge.

“Their demonstration quickly turned into one of the largest arrests of nonviolent protesters in U.S. history,” Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman reported on Monday.

One participant, Aaron G., recounted what he saw:

“We were marching, as you know, and a group of people were funneled by the police off into the road. So, there were police up in front of us and we were marching. . . . So, they were like clearing the road and they were up in front of us, so we were following them and all of a sudden they cut off about, like, 700 of us. . . . Then, they blockaded us from the back and they were telling the front to turn around and go back, and they were telling the back to turn around and go frontwards. So, they were like—-people were getting squished in the middle because no one knew what to do. Then, eventually they brought out these orange nets and they circled us and they just did a mass arrest on the bridge.”

Similar strategies of deception-based mass arrest became commonplace during the anti-globalization demonstrations that began with the “Battle in Seattle” in November 1999. Now, however, the police have new strategies and equipment—such as the orange nets mentioned by Aaron—that are specifically designed for illegal police actions. Just as widespread labor-law violations became standard operating practice in repressing union organizing during the 1980s, a similar approach was developed toward anti-globalization activists a decade ago, and has been enhanced significantly since then, under the rationale of anti-terrorism.

Marina Sitrin, an attorney with Occupy Wall Street’s legal working group, told Democracy Now!, “It is an attempt, in our opinion as both a legal group and I think also the activist group, to intimidate people so that they don’t come out into the street.” She added that it was “a potential message to people around the country,” not just in New York.

Goodman also spoke with British journalist Laurie Penny, who drew parallels to earlier European protests.

“I’ve talked to activists from Spain and elsewhere who’ve said that this is exactly the same thing, just a slight cultural difference. But, it’s exactly the same; open space, nonhierarchical leadership structure, your free kitchens, your welcoming atmosphere. It’s really, really, very similar, and it’s striking to me how much this seems to be not about America or about any individual country, but about a global uprising. You’ve seen from below, really with no real clear direction, but a kind of defined sense that something needs to change.”

Police strategies and tactics are similar as well, she noted, amounting to “a form of collective punishment designed to show people that they can’t come out onto the streets, that they can’t come out and dissent. It’s designed to deter dissent.” The media’s attempt to trivialize, marginalize and demonize protesters was similar too, Penny said.

Here it’s worth noting another similarity, not just with Europe, but with the Arab Spring as well: In all three situations, there is a significant youth contingent that is well-educated yet unemployed or underemployed, while the economy seems to still be working just fine for a relatively insulated elite. Throughout the world, protected oligopolies—such as Wall Street banks, oil companies, health insurance companies, mercenary firms and the like—are raking in record profits as if the Great Recession never happened, while most of the rest of us are living like it never really ended.

Hence, one of Occupy Wall Street’s most prominent themes is, “We are the 99 percent” whose lives are being plundered for the sake of the top one percent. And this is not just empty rhetoric. Internal Revenue Service data compiled by University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez shows that incomes of the top 1 percent have increased by 200 percent since 1980, while incomes of the bottom 99 percent have increased just 25 percent in those 30 years—and most of that went to the 9 percent just below the top 1 percent.

It’s been three years now since the great Wall Street meltdown, and no one’s been arrested for it, despite copious evidence of all kinds of chicanery—not just before the financial collapse but long after it as well. But in three short weeks, close to 800 protesters have been jailed. It’s perfectly obvious who the system works for—and who it works against.

The Arab Spring may finally have come to America.


Paul Rosenberg is senior news editor for Random Lengths News, in Los Angeles, and  is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English.