Raising the voice of protest

Lee Sustar looks at the significance of Occupy Wall Street and actions in other cities.

Wall Street occupiers gather for a general assembly (Will Russell | SW)Wall Street occupiers gather for a general assembly (Will Russell | SW)

ALEX CARTER couldn't keep up.

Having slept on the sidewalk outside the Chicago Federal Reserve building on a rainy night, she was taking advantage of a couple of dry hours Thursday morning, September 29, to update a placard listing the Twitter hashtags of the growing list of cities where protests had begun, modeled on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York. Philadelphia, Las Vegas...

"Nebraska?" someone asked. Nebraska.

"We're spreading awareness," said Carter, sizing up the list. She doesn't fit the description of the protest movement offered in the mainstream media--"a motley assortment of slackers, students, environmentalists, socialists, feminists, and hippies," as even a somewhat sympathetic journalist put it. Carter is a 23-year-old African American from St. Louis who's been freelancing while seeking full-time work in fashion design since graduating from the Illinois Institute of Art in 2009.

Carter has been increasingly engaged in politics since the 2009 police murder of a young Black man, Oscar Grant, in Oakland, which prompted her and her friends to spread the word about the killing on their social networks. A year later, Carter worked with friends to start a nonprofit company to raise funds to support a water filtration facility in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake there.

While visiting St. Louis, she heard that activists inspired by Occupy Wall Street had set up camp at the Chicago Fed. Once back in town, she stopped at home to grab some clothes and head downtown.

What you can do

In New York City, you can find news about the occupation, a regularly updated schedule of events and what you do to take part at the Occupy Wall Street website.

Neither Carter nor any of the other dozen or so protesters on hand were quite sure of the details of other occupations, apart from whatever news that can be gleaned from 140-character tweets. They hadn't even met each other until a couple of days or even hours earlier, taking their place in a rolling protest that's involved scores of people since it began September 23.

But they were united--"comrades," Carter said--by common opposition to what she called "corporate greed." "That's the main subject," she said. "Then there's a lot of subjects underneath that."

One, for her, is opposition to capital punishment: She'd attended the local rally for Troy Davis, the innocent man murdered by the state of Georgia the previous week. But there are other issues she wants to take up, too: "They're not funding education. They're not funding jobs."

Meanwhile, in New York, the Occupy Wall Street action is nearing its second week, but its size and prominence grew massively just in the past few days. Several hundred people are typically part of the overnight encampment at a park nearby Wall Street, and many more people visit the Liberty Plaza and participate in activities throughout the day.

On Friday, September 30, activists are planning a march and demonstration in solidarity with the victims of a vicious police assault on peaceful protesters on September 24. Occupy Wall Street is also winning growing labor solidarity, and October 5 is shaping up to be an important day in which a number of unions and community organizations plan to participate in actions.

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ON THE morning of the 29th in Chicago, activists were gearing up for what they expected to be a big general assembly the following night.

"We had 75 people last night, and tonight's going to be bigger," said Emilio, a 17-year-old high school student who'd been reading socialist websites since he was 15. Emilio had been politically active, helping to lead a student walkout to protest school budget cuts and attacks on teachers. He and his roommate, Taylor had come the 40 miles from Carpentersville, Ill. a few days earlier, determined to be part of the effort to recreate Occupy Wall Street.

Right-wingers might try to dismiss these young men as bored suburbanites seeking a thrill. But for Taylor, the action is a chance to speak out against the economic policies that have upended his family life, from the loss of his father's job at a video game developer and the subsequent foreclosure on their home.

He said his parents moved their family to California to find work--and now 11 of his family members live in a four-bedroom house there. "My mom had a hard time finding a job. She's working part-time in a bar," he explained. Taylor stayed behind in Illinois to attend community college.

But the action isn't just attracting young people buffeted by a 53.4 percent unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24. Two men from the western Chicago suburbs of DuPage County had come downtown to check out the action and offer support.

Dave, who did an eight-year stint in the Army in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hasn't found work since losing his job with a moving company five years ago. His friend Gary has been jobless for more than a year after the small print shop he worked at went bankrupt. "The banks wouldn't give them a loan," he explained, glancing around the block dominated by the Fed and the big Bank of America building.

Asked why he had made the 20-mile trip to check out the protest during the morning rush hour, he gave a short answer: "The corporations."

It's those discussions among participants and sympathizers that explain the dynamics of the new occupation movement.

The action in New York City is the only one to have taken on a big size yet, and while the initiators of Occupy Wall Street haven't succeeded in their aim of turning lower Manhattan into a U.S. equivalent of Egypt's Tahrir Square, the action has provided a needed focal point for activists--both first-timers and veterans--who have been frustrated for years by the lack of sustained popular mobilization against the economic crisis and its devastating social consequences.

Certainly there's been widespread recognition of the potential for a new movement ever since Wisconsin's huge labor mobilization against anti-union legislation last winter, which featured an occupation of the state Capitol that became a nonstop, self-organized center for political debate and strategizing. That struggle didn't succeed in blocking anti-worker legislation and was ultimately diverted into an election recall strategy.

Nevertheless, Wisconsin showed that our side had the capacity and willingness--make that hunger--to fight back.

The same spirit could be seen since then in a number of struggles, large and small, from the 45,000-worker strike against Verizon in August to the recent strike by teachers in Tacoma, Wash., who ignored the law and a judge's order to win their fight. That same willingness to defy the law was also seen by longshore workers in Longview, Wash., who blocked trains with scab cargo in a fight to save union jobs.

Then came the national outrage and activism over the execution of Troy Davis--horrifying evidence of the racism, class justice and state repression at the center of U.S. politics. In the background, there is the disillusionment and despair over the Obama administration's pro-business and pro-Pentagon policies.

It was this political environment that gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street initiative, which was itself rooted in earlier New York activist initiatives, including the small but vibrant Bloombergville encampment near City Hall to protest budget cuts imposed by the city's billionaire mayor.

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THE "OCCUPY" movement is, in many ways, familiar to those of us who participated in the 1990s global justice movement and who spent several days debating politics in the Seattle jail following the 1999 mass protest against the World Trade Organization meeting.

Among the occupation movement's core organizers, there's a stress on self-organization and the autonomy of activism and independence from Democratic Party. Some reject the notion of any formal political demands whatsoever, contending that any such effort lends legitimacy to a system that should be challenged in its entirety.

Liberal commentators scoff at such an approach as "unrealistic"--as if they are being realistic in expecting Barack Obama to deliver progressive social change. While such people may offer condescending praise to activists, their aim is corral the struggle and turn it towards the 2012 elections.

Nevertheless, there is a question that must be tackled by all participants in the movement: Can the "no demands" approach sustain and develop a movement that's rapidly spreading across the U.S.?

There are, of course, crucial differences between the global justice movement and the today's occupations. The late 1990s were years of an economic boom, and those drawn to activism were often students and youth who focused on the environment and the struggles in developing countries against the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Unions, focused on trade issues, were also involved. But the alliance of "turtles and Teamsters" didn't withstand the political pressures of 9/11.

Today, young activists and veteran union members alike confront the prospect of a pathetic economic recovery lapsing back into full-blown recession. Today's activists aren't struggling on behalf of their brothers in sisters in Africa or Latin America, the chief focus of the global justice struggle. They're fighting alongside them against the ravages of a crisis-wracked international capitalist system.

Left-wing writers are therefore right to link Occupy Wall Street with the mass struggles taking place on the streets of Athens, Cairo and Madrid. But it is important to remember that those movements took off as the result of years of smaller struggles--from militant walkouts and workers' demonstrations in Egypt to the series of general strikes in Greece to the general strike in Spain.

In the U.S., by contrast, the weakness of the labor movement--and the ties of union leaders and liberal groups to the Democratic Party--have led to a low level of struggle in recent years. Demonstrative action by a minority, no matter how committed, can't substitute for mass action.

So while the creativity, flair and visibility of the occupation movement has been crucial to spreading the struggle, a lot of patient and systematic organizing is necessary, too--as any Egyptian or Greek activist will tell you.

For the occupation movement in the U.S. to maximize its potential, it needs to clearly focus on the issues of the day, such as demanding a government-funded jobs program and defending the public sector from cuts. This can become the bridge for far larger numbers of people to get involved in activism and raise wider political debates around racist police violence, sexism, the war and more.

One challenge for activists is to remove any perceived barrier between those who are able to occupy the protest locations around the clock and those with family and work obligations that prevent them from doing so.

Most important, the occupation movement has to develop a strategy of moving from protest to tapping into the social power that only working class action can provide. The all-out occupation of the Capitol in Wisconsin, after all, was made possible by teachers' sickouts that shut down most of the state's schools for several days. That's why it's so important that one of New York City's most important unions, Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents bus and subway workers, has endorsed Occupy Wall Street.

All this highlights the potential for the occupation movement to develop, both in breadth and depth. The big labor and community march in New York on October 5 provides an opportunity for activists in cities across the U.S. to reach out to unions, social movement organizations and grassroots groups. The occupations can continue to be hubs for organizing and political debate, providing a political space that's all too often lacking in most cities.

Everyone who's sick of politics as usual--of corporate greed, permanent war, racism and all oppression--should help build this movement.