Making a billionaire blink

October 20, 2011

New York City's biggest unions joined the mobilization to defend Occupy Wall Street.

LIKE EVERYONE else with a social conscience and a dwindling bank account in New York City, I've been running around these days to protests and marches and mass gatherings to defend Occupy Wall Street and extend its reach.

I'll admit, it's strange how you can spend a lifetime organizing resistance only to be somewhat startled when it actually takes off in ways you never anticipated. So much the better!

Just a quick note on the October 14 predawn victory against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose fortunes have slipped a smidge of late--he's only the second-richest man in New York City these days, behind David Koch with $25 billion, as opposed to Bloomberg's piddly $19.5 billion.

As many are aware by now, the private owners of the square being occupied, Zuccotti Park--renamed Liberty Plaza by the occupiers--attempted to use the ruse of needing to clean the square in order to try and oust the movement from its encampment. Folks reading this are likely to know many of the details by now.

My point here is to highlight what I think is the single most significant factor in our victory that day, which inspired tens of thousands to take over Times Square the next evening for several hours of impromptu speeches, music and protest.

The pivotal force that made the mayor blink was the unprecedented (at least in the last three decades) show of confrontational unity by unions--from the Communications Workers of America and 1199SEIU health care workers' union to the behemoth of them all, the AFL-CIO, that is, the national federation of millions of union workers.

IN THE 12 hours prior to the anticipated showdown, unions felt pressure from their members to call out their troops. Only unlike most labor events of recent years, this was not some pro forma, well-choreographed affair.

This was expected to be a potential confrontation with city officials standing behind a phalanx of New York City police--a force that has beaten, pepper-sprayed and generally disrespected the civil rights of thousands of peaceful New Yorkers these last weeks, and that brutalizes Black and Brown New Yorkers as a matter of course.

As a seasoned activist, I was absolutely stunned by the unions' unanimity and defiance. An e-mail from the AFL-CIO--sent just before 7 p.m. Thursday evening, with the subject line "Go to Wall Street. NOW"--read:

Since the protests are a truly organic movement, and aren't organized by the AFL-CIO, we can't tell you exactly what will be happening. But what we can tell you is this: the more people who can stand in solidarity at this critical moment, the better.

At 5 a.m. the next morning, my own Brooklyn subway stop was abuzz with workers and students. Six young people with me on the platform had left their school in Wesleyan, Conn., at 2:30 a.m. to be there. We waited for the train alongside a freelance photographer, a nurse and an off-duty bus driver, all headed to the square.

By the time we arrived to defend the occupation at 5:45 a.m., the square was packed with the circus of humanity that New York City is known for the world over. Less than an hour later, we cheered a flat-out victory that none of us had expected to come so swiftly. The deputy mayor issued a statement (do wealthy people do anything for themselves?!) that the city was "satisfied with the cleanliness of the park."

Elation erupted. We won. We made a billionaire blink!

I have no idea where all of this is headed, and I've no doubt that some forces, including among the union officialdom, will attempt to derail this dynamism and fighting energy into the tame and harmless waters of electoralism. But nothing, nothing is carved in stone right now. Everything is up for grabs. What leftists do to help shape and push this struggle forward matters.

One simple fact stands out in all of this: Class lines have been drawn, and you're either on one side or the other.

First published at Sherry Talks Back.

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