Turning up the heat on Wall Street

Danny Katch reports from New York City on the latest stage of the Occupy Wall Street movement after the mass arrest of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Participants in the occupation of Wall Street march toward the Brooklyn Bridge (Doug Singsen | SW)Participants in the occupation of Wall Street march toward the Brooklyn Bridge (Doug Singsen | SW)

THE STAKES went up for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement this weekend after police escalated their repression with the arrest of over 700 peaceful protesters during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1.

But the arrests couldn't stop the growing enthusiasm for the movement. On the contrary, similar occupations continued to spread to other cities around the U.S., and the movement in New York City received more endorsements and pledges of support from labor and community organizations, ahead of a major union rally planned for this Wednesday.

Occupy Wall Street and its sister actions around the country have become lightning rods, drawing people fed up with every aspect of a world dominated by the greed and power of the "1 percent" on Wall Street and at the top of U.S. society.

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IN NEW York, Friday and Saturday saw the largest marches yet from the Occupy Wall Street encampment at the renamed Liberty Plaza nearby Wall Street. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people participated each day, first in a protest against police brutality at One Police Headquarters on Friday night, and then the march across the bridge on Saturday.

At the Saturday demonstration, marchers left the camp and took both the pedestrian and vehicle lanes when they got to the bridge, halting traffic. Police didn't block the takeover of the vehicle lanes. Instead, a handful of supervisors lined up before the throng of marchers announced over bullhorns, heard by only to a small number, that those blocking the roadway would be subject to arrest.

Then, as protester Etam Ben-Ami later told the New York Daily News, "it seemed as if they deliberately moved back to allow people onto the roadway." According to the New York Times, whose reporter Natasha Leonard was among those arrested, "There were no physical barriers...and at one point, the marchers began walking up the roadway with the police commanders in front of them--seeming, from a distance, as if they were leading the way."

Once protesters were about halfway across the bridge, police suddenly encircled the marchers in the car lanes, blocking both the Brooklyn and Manhattan sides of the bridge. More than 1,000 were trapped for hours in the pouring rain.

Hundred of marchers who hadn't been caught on the bridge by police gathered on the Manhattan side of the bridge. Some appealed to the cops with chants of "Join us, you're one of us"--but others angrily chanted, "Protect and serve? That's a lie!"

After their arrest, protesters were transported to different precincts in Brooklyn and Manhattan, often remaining in handcuffs for many hours before being transferred to jail cells. Many weren't released until well past midnight--despite the fact that most people were only charged with violations, the equivalent of a parking ticket and not even considered to be a criminal offense.

NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne asserted that the police only arrested those in the front of the march who had heard the warnings not to take the streets, a claim contradicted by numerous eyewitness accounts.

Of course, many New Yorkers had already stopped putting much stock in the words of Browne, who just days earlier had confidently defended the indefensible--the pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters during a march from the Occupy Wall Street site one week earlier.

The police assault in Manhattan's Union Square on September 24 was the focus of the Friday demonstration, which went from Liberty Plaza to NYPD headquarters. The call of "We are the 99 percent" roared through the cavernous arches of 1 Police Plaza as marchers streamed toward the rally called by activists in the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY (PSC-CUNY), the union of professors at the City University of New York.

"I almost cried when I saw them coming through the arch," said Christina Morales. "For the first time in years, I felt like I'm not alone, screaming at the TV with my father, seeing other people suffer, losing their jobs, unable to retire."

Matt, an elementary school teacher who has been involved in Occupy Wall Street since the first general assemblies that planned for the action over the summer, said, "We're experimenting with new ways of living and interacting with each other. I'm not interested in demands. In that sense, we have already succeeded in that we've held this for 14 days."

Matt's comment reflects one of the many debates among activists over how the protest movement should organize and what comes next. Many who participate in the action are asking the question of how to involve wider layers of people in the struggle, including those whose work and family obligations don't allow them to participate in the all-night occupation at Liberty Plaza.

That discussion took on a new significance last week when Occupy Wall Street was endorsed by the women and men who operate New York's trains and buses, members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100.

A few dozen TWU members turned out to the Friday protest. "They're trying to destroy our livelihoods, our present and our future," said a Local 100 vice president, Kevin Harrington. "And they're trying to take away the future for the young people."

More endorsements followed from the United Steelworkers of America, the National Nurses United coalition, and SEIU 1199, which represents 360,000 service workers and is the largest union local in the U.S.

The Beyond May 12 coalition--made up of many of the city's largest labor and community organizations, most notably the United Federation of Teachers and New York Communities for Change (formerly NY ACORN)--announced plans for a solidarity march on Wednesday, October 5, that will go from City Hall to the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

Other unions, led by PSC-CUNY, TWU Local 100 and the health care union 1199SEIU, are planning independently for a rally one week later on October 12 that could be even bigger than the Beyond May 12 march this week.

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MEANWHILE, THE movement is spreading to other cities. Most of the occupations--or planning meetings to organize one--are modest in size, but in Los Angeles, the first day of Occupy LA on October 1 drew more than 1,500 people for a march from Pershing Square to City Hall, where activists plan to set up an encampment. That night, more than 500 demonstrators were still on hand for a general assembly meeting.

As the big marches over the weekend showed, the movement is still growing in New York. This spreading support--and the potential for the rebellious mood at Liberty Plaza to reach further among the city's working people--may be the reason why New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hinted on Friday that a crackdown on the encampment might be coming.

"People have a right to protest, but we also have to make sure that people who don't want to protest can go down the streets unmolested," Bloomberg declared on his radio show--while not citing any report of pedestrian molestation. The mayor also ludicrously claimed that "the protesters are protesting against people who make $40,000 or $50,000 a year and are struggling to make ends meet."

Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase, one of the corporate targets of Occupy Wall Street, recently announced it was making a $4.6 million donation to the New York City Police Foundation.

Whether or not Bloomberg and the police escalate their repression, the mass arrests on Saturday are likely to inspire more people to join in at Occupy Wall Street actions--the same way that the widely seen pepper spray attacks by police one week before focused national and international attention on the occupation.

The size and character of Wednesday's protest will be a key marker for the movement. The labor-initiated rally and march represents an important opportunity to help raise the confidence and expectations of thousands of city workers, while deepening the links between the Occupy Wall Street action and the labor movement.

Occupy Wall Street has energized growing numbers of people to take a stand against corporate greed and power, and as the movement grows--along with the threats of police repression, as colder weather sets in--so, too, do the questions and possibilities for the struggle to take up.