And then they came for us

November 16, 2011

The question now is how people awakened by the Occupy movement will respond.

THEY CAME for Chicago, Oakland, Portland, Atlanta, Denver...and in the opening hours of November 15, New York City's billionaire mayor--the second wealthiest man in the city--deployed his troops to destroy the birthplace of Occupy in Zuccotti Park.

In the secrecy of the dark and with brutal force--symbolic of all that the 99 percent detests about the 1 percent--the forces of the state acted without consent or provocation because they could.

Like thousands of New Yorkers, at 1 a.m. on November 15, I received the text, "URGENT OWS eviction happening now. Hundreds of riot cops." So I bolted out the door, explained to my Egyptian cabbie why I was rushing to Occupy Wall Street, and he drove like a true Cairene, a Dale Earnhardt in a Lincoln Town Car, Brooklyn's de facto taxi fleet, to drop me into the maelstrom just north of where hundreds of riot cops were evicting peaceful protesters from the encampment.

Within minutes, I was sucking down pepper spray and holding the line with dozens of others before a phalanx of New York's storm troopers. There is a certain comaraderie that can develop among strangers under threat of violence, a warmth and trust that the 1 percent will never know. It allows unarmed, peaceful activists, most of whom have never had a police baton smack them before, to summon the bravery and solidarity needed to hold their ground.

Hedge fund managers and media tycoons, who've urged on this crackdown for weeks, will never understand how these attacks that appear to weaken us can act as a social glue that makes total strangers of every race physically and politically stronger and more united than ever.

STRATEGY AND leadership can be crucial in moments like these. It wasn't the time to raise hostile chants against the cops. Instead, a few of us began chanting, "This is a peaceful protest," and sat down to calm and unify our side; politically defang the cops in front of the media who were everywhere; and show a level of discipline that our side is slandered for lacking. It largely worked, we suffered no arrests or beatings while doing it, and it allowed us to lower the temperature in a tense situation.

We held an impromptu people's mic on the sidewalk, the talk-and-echo human microphone brainchild of our movement, while surrounded by cops. There were too few of us to hold the line for long, and many of us with experience argued for a calm and organized retreat to escape certain police beatings and arrest.

Eventually, we all marched together up the middle of Broadway, fiercely angry but resolute that no tactical retreat would be the end of our movement. A few hundred of us marched toward City Hall and up to Foley Square, where thousands of workers marched last month, outside the classical columned courthouse made world famous by Law and Order.

In Foley Square, cops surrounded us again, and we debated what to do. Some argued to keep marching around the city in small groups; my comrades in the International Socialist Organization and I, about 30 of us present, argued to regroup in the morning with greater forces and not expose more of us to arrests in the middle of the night when we could use our energies to grow the resistance in coming days. Some ran off, but most seem to have regrouped a few hours later.

As I write this, hundreds are massing back at Zuccotti Park where National Lawyers Guild attorneys for the 99 percent have won a court order allowing us to take back the square, and I expect to be among thousands Tuesday night at a mass General Assembly to help decide next steps.

It seems that this phase of the Occupy movement has come to a close. It is a real blow to lose our commons, our collective space of debate, democratic expression and resistance. But there could never have been any serious doubt that the forces of the state could retake a square city block from unarmed activists.

The real test is how ordinary people who've been awakened by this movement will respond. New York has one of the greatest concentrations of union labor in the nation, and there was already a plan for mass direct action this Thursday, November 17, with the full support of transit workers, teachers, health care workers and so many others, including students.

Will the attack on Zuccotti Park be another momentary setback that propels Occupy forward? November 17 will certainly be huge and even more militant than originally planned, I suspect.

One thing is certain, the stakes have been raised now. We had just begun to win a few small battles, probably the impetus for cracking down on this phase of the movement. But people who have tasted victory, even small ones--winning heat at a Harlem apartment building, shutting down the Port of Oakland for a night, gathering mass solidarity for Sotheby's and Verizon workers--don't give up so easily.

The powers that be don't get it. This never was simply about holding a physical space. It was about drawing a line between us and them--the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. Whether we retake Zuccotti Square or not, there really is no going back. Isolation and sullen defeat is our past, solidarity and resistance is our future.

In the words of August Spies, one of the Haymarket martyrs who were executed for fighting and striking for the 8-hour day:

[I]f you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement--the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves expect salvation--if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

First published at SherryTalksBack.

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