A spotlight on Wall Street greed

September 28, 2011

Doug Singsen and Will Russell report from New York City on Occupy Wall Street.

DAILY PROTESTS and an ongoing park occupation in the financial district of New York City are gaining growing national attention as an expression of anger against Wall Street greed--and now the brutality of police against demonstrators, after the NYPD savagely attacked a march from the encampment to Union Square on September 24.

The hundreds of people who have participated in Occupy Wall Street since it began September 17 are protesting economic inequality and the power wielded by banks and big corporations in U.S. society. The occupiers say they represent the 99 percent of society that is fed up with the massive wealth and corruption of the top 1 percent.

The initial demonstration drew some 500 people to Bowling Green Park, site of the famous Charging Bull sculpture that is a famous symbol of Wall Street. Organizers had hoped for thousands to turn out, but activists continued with their aim of establishing an encampment--it was set up in nearby Zuccotti Park.

The protesters renamed the park Liberty Plaza in homage to Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo--the symbol of this year's Egyptian revolution. In a stroke of happenstance, it turned out Liberty Plaza was actually the original name of Zuccotti Park.

New York police on a rampage against demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street
New York police on a rampage against demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street (Brennan Cavanaugh)

The number of regular participants began to build over the week that followed, but interest turned intense after the September 24 police attack on marchers from the encampment.

More than 1,000 activists had started the Saturday with a march on Wall Street, before turning around and heading north, peacefully marching more than two miles to reach Union Square. There, they were met by a massive police resistance.

The cops moved in, using pepper spray against the nonviolent protesters and using orange nets to separate them into pens where they could be more easily arrested.

Officers were caught on videotape brutalizing the demonstrators--using pepper-spray at point-blank range, grabbing and dragging one woman by the hair and slamming several people to the ground. Some 80 protesters were arrested. One of the officers identified in the images of the attack has a record of using force against demonstrators in 2004.

A solidarity demonstration for the victims of this police violence has been called for Friday, September 30, at 5:30 p.m. at NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza.

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.

THE OCCUPATION of Wall Street was initially called for in July by the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, the coalition that organized the Bloombergville encampment against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget cuts earlier this year, took up the call and organized a general assembly (GA) on Wall Street to begin planning for protests to begin September 17.

At that initial meeting, activists formed a new organization, the New York City General Assembly, which began meeting weekly to plan for September 17 and the hoped-for occupation of Wall Street. Not only the Egyptian revolution but the occupations of public squares in Europe--most spectacularly, in Spain and Greece--were a source of inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street action.

The weekly meetings leading up to September 17 drew between 40 and 100 people, making it possible to create working groups to plan different elements of the actions. Various debates--over, for example, how much emphasis to place on actions that were sure to lead to arrest, and the GA's decision-making process--were serious and often contentious, and continued through the rest of the summer.

On September 17, the more than 500 protesters gathered in Bowling Green Park for an impromptu speakout, before marching north to Zuccotti Park, an open, privately owned space on Broadway two blocks north of Wall Street. Initially, protesters couldn't gain access to Wall Street itself because police had blocked off all entrances and subway stops in the area, and officers were denying entry to anyone who was part of the encampment.

In the renamed Liberty Plaza, demonstrators organized a general assembly that has met daily since. The numbers of participants grew slowly but steadily, with about 150 to 300 people sleeping over each night, in spite of police harassment and bad weather, the GAs attracted from 300 to 500 people. Many of the people sleeping out have traveled from other cities to participate, but New Yorkers have been sleeping out as well--and even more have stopped by to show their support or participate in encampment activities.

National and international support for Occupy Wall Street began to grow as well--by the end of the first weekend, several thousand dollars had been donated to the encampment's food fund, and more than a thousand dollars worth of pizza bought from a local pizzeria by supporters, including participants in the occupations of Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Tahrir Square. The food fund has now grown to well over $25,000 and has been converted into a general fund, whose use is being debated among the activists.

Once established in Liberty Plaza, the occupiers led twice-daily marches into Wall Street and the surrounding area. When police barricades were removed from Wall Street on Monday morning to allow people to get to work, the rallies began following a schedule of marching on the opening and closing bells of the New York Stock Exchange, visibly frazzling the nerves of traders going to and from work.

Occupy Wall Street has been visited by prominent progressive writers, artists and celebrities, including Cornel West, Amy Goodman, Michael Moore, Chris Hedges, Lupe Fiasco, Immortal Technique and Roseanne Barr, which brought the encampment additional publicity and support.

Crucially, the demonstrators linked up with a number of struggles and protests taking place New York. The day after Troy Davis was murdered by the criminal injustice system in Georgia, a Day of Outrage March called by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and Amnesty International convened in Union Square to protest of this miscarriage of justice.

More than 1,000 angry people marched more than two miles--overcoming several attempts by police to block them from moving forward--to Liberty Plaza, where Occupy Wall Street participants joined them for a march into the heart of the financial district. Several participants from the Day of Outrage march subsequently stayed to play a role in the GAs, and later Occupy Wall Street marches echoed with chants of "We are all Troy Davis."

Occupy Wall Street has also been developing ties with labor struggles in the New York City area through the efforts of a labor working group. In one action, activists disrupted an auction at the famous Sotheby's auction house, which has locked out its art handlers, represented by Teamsters Local 814 since July 30.

Another solidarity action with Central Park Boathouse restaurant workers was also in the works when the good news was announced that strikers had called off their walkout after successfully securing a contract.

In another link with labor, around 20 members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union at the City University of New York (CUNY), marched into the encampment one night last week with signs reading, "We support you." In turn, people at the occupation mobilized for a protest at this Monday's CUNY Board of Trustees meeting in support of the PSC, which is fighting back against the loss of health care for 1,700 adjuncts.

The day after the Board of Trustees meeting, protesters from the occupation marched in solidarity to join the postal workers unions' day of action to defend jobs.

The attack on the September 24 march in Union Square added new urgency to attempts of activists in other cities to organize their own occupations. Though much smaller, there are occupations or plans to build them in 52 cities, according to the OccupyWallSt.org website.

At Occupy Chicago, an activist named Micah explained how the Arab Spring had taught him "the people do have power, the people can stand up." Taylor, a participant in the action who highlighted "the control banks have over our government" as his motivation for protesting, said the occupation as an educational experience. "I've learned ten times more than I knew before," he said.

WHILE OCCUPY Wall Street has succeeded in drawing attention to the greed and power of Wall Street, the action has also had problems that are clear to many participants.

The most notable is the lack of demands or other messaging to explain the goals of the occupation and protests. This is largely due to an influential group within Occupy Wall Street that sees the occupation as prefiguring a future society-- and that argues against raising any demands because that would only legitimize the existing power structure.

Although it seems to be a minority, so far, this group has been able to block any call for demands or a statement. However, that may change as some activists are pushing for the occupation to issue a statement of demands and/or goals.

Other debates are underway in the GA and its various subcommittees over several questions, but the process of resolving them has been a difficult one since participants in Occupy Wall Street vary tremendously in political tendency and experience, including many who are engaged in radical politics for the first time. In response to some of the difficulties making progress in the GA, some working groups have been set up to find constructive ways to improve the process.

While Occupy Wall Street has shined a spotlight on the inequality in U.S. society and the power held by financial elites, a single action like this won't be enough to win the reforms desired by participants if it fails to link up with other movements. Doing so will require struggles rooted in workplaces, communities and schools--which highlights the need for activists to begin organizing around issues that impact people's daily lives in ways that involve people with families and jobs, who may not be able to participate in an action like Occupy Wall Street.

What happens next for Occupy Wall Street? The possibility of a police eviction continues to loom over the encampment. Earlier this week, police set up a checkpoint on Broadway, just north of Liberty Plaza, and officers are checking all commercial vehicles.

But the fact that the police crackdown in Union Square only succeeded in increasing the size of the encampment may give the cops pause before attempting an eviction. And protesters are determined to maintain the occupation and continue the protest against Wall Street greed and power for as long as they can.

James Illingworth contributed to this article.

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