Solidarity on the streets

November 17, 2011

Jason Farbman and Alan Maass look ahead to Occupy's national day of action.

TENS OF thousands of people will take to the streets in New York City and many hundreds more will demonstrate in cities around the U.S. as part of a November 17 national day of action called by Occupy Wall Street in solidarity with numerous unions and community organizations.

The day of action comes two months after Occupy Wall Street was born with a protest in the heart of the financial district and the establishment of an encampment in Zuccotti Park, immediately renamed Freedom Plaza by the protesters.

In the ensuing two months, the Occupy movement has spread across the country--and fundamentally shaken up politics in the U.S. The struggle has cast a spotlight on greed and inequality, as well as the corruption of the political system. The movement has given voice to the discontent among working people in the U.S. usually ignored in the media--and given confidence to many thousands of people that they can take action.

But the day of action will take place in the wake of a systematic crackdown against the Occupy movement. In city after city, political leaders--many of them liberal Democrats claiming to sympathize with the 99 percent--have ordered police to break up Occupy encampments.

Occupy Wall Street protesters marching back to Liberty Plaza the day after after the camp's eviction
Occupy Wall Street protesters marching back to Liberty Plaza the day after after the camp's eviction (David Shankbone)

Those assaults culminated this week with the NYPD's military-style raid on Zuccotti Park in the early-morning hours of November 15. Organized in secrecy for weeks in advance, the raid involved hundreds of police in riot gear who ringed the park at 1 a.m., arrested anyone who defied their orders to leave, and then methodically trashed anything occupiers left behind, including the "People's Library."

New York's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear the park before, in the middle of October. But an overnight mobilization led by the AFL-CIO and major unions, among other organizations got hundreds of people down to the park before the cops were able to move in. Bloomberg blinked, and the city retreated from a confrontation that would have involved many hundreds of arrests.

That's why the November 15 assault was planned in secret and executed with such speed--so Occupy supporters wouldn't be able to get to the park to defend it. But even if the cops remain in control of Zuccotti Park, we have a chance with the day of action on the 17th to send a message that the Occupy movement will not be silenced--and to restore momentum to our side.

THE ACTIONS PLANNED for New York City on the 17th show the remarkable scope and energy of the Occupy movement after just two months of existence.

Hundreds of people in every part of the city have been planning and building for weeks. In addition to students, community groups and activist organizations, labor has been a part of the mobilizing from the start. Unions supporting the call for a day of action include Transport Workers Union Local 100, the United Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers and many more.

For those looking to plug in somewhere, here is some of what is expected for the day--and you can check @nyciso on Twitter throughout the day for updates.

At 7 a.m., thousands are expected to gather on Wall Street for a "Reclaim the Block Party." Before the ringing of the bell that begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange, protesters will confront the financial elite head on. Stories will be traded instead of stocks, as Wall Street comes face to face with some of the people they've immiserated.

Next comes Occupy the Subways. At 3 p.m., there will be coordinated actions starting in all of New York's five boroughs. Meet-ups are planned at seven subway hubs--Fordham Road and 3rd Ave/138th in the Bronx; Broadway Junction and Borough Hall in Brooklyn; Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue and Jamaica Center Parsons Archer in Queens; 125th Street and Union Square in Manhattan; and St. George/Staten Island Ferry in Staten Island.

From there, Occupy supporters will get on trains bound for Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. The "people's microphone will be used during the trips to speak out once again about the issues our movement is fighting for, and to build broader support for the fight.

At the same time, students participating in a citywide walkout from classes will gather at Union Square. After hearing from several campuses, they will take the streets and march the nearly two miles to Foley Square.

Just after the students plan to begin marching, high school teachers, parents and students will amass downtown at Tweed Hall, where the New York City Department of Education is located. After a rally, they will march--led by a Children's Brigade, reminiscent of the one in Oakland during the November 2 general strike--to what, by then, will certainly be an overflowing Foley Square.

As the culmination of the day of action, the rally at Foley Square, scheduled to start at 5 p.m., will show off a massive cross-section of New York City. The demonstration was initially planned as a two-month celebration of Occupy Wall Street, with a discussion of what comes next. Now it will become an expression of collective disgust at the underhanded and illegal tactics of Bloomberg and the NYPD in attacking our encampment.

From here, organizers are planning a march that will first encircle City Hall, and then head to the Brooklyn Bridge for a march across the famous span. The demonstration is designed to draw attention particularly to the need for jobs--for example, the need for union labor in projects to repair the country's infrastructure.

On October 1, New York police arrested more than 700 peaceful demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge. But instead of intimidating the movement, this calculated provocation only drew more sympathy for the movement--and more people into activism.

THE PARTICIPATION of organized labor in New York's day of action is an important development and the latest example of solidarity between the new Occupy protest movement and the city's unions.

From early on, Occupy activists in the Labor Outreach Committee sought to make connections with New York's labor movement, taking steps to build several ongoing union battles, including a lockout of Teamster art handlers at the famed Sotheby's auction house and a strike at the Central Park Boathouse restaurant.

In return, unions provided help to the encampment in its early stages, and local labor leaders began to visit Zuccotti Park to express their support. One of them was John Samuelson, president of TWU Local 100, which represents subway and bus workers and was one of the first major labor bodies to endorse Occupy. In a television interview, Samuelson talked about why labor and Occupy activists have a common cause in challenging the political and economic power of 1 percent:

I believe to a large extent, the protesters on Wall Street are singing the same song, and fighting the same battle, that our union has fought for the last 18 months...These protests, for one thing, have brought attention to the disparity of wealth in the United States that's developed over the past few decades. I think one of the great benefits that organized labor entering into this fight will bring is an ability to articulate that message...on behalf of working families, whether they are in unions or not in unions.

Labor was instrumental in organizing one of first big early Occupy protests, bringing some 10,000 people from Foley Square down to Zuccotti Park encampment. Then came Bloomberg's first attempt to evict Occupy Wall Street from the plaza. The first e-mails warning of the threat came from unions, calling on their members and supporters to get down to Zuccotti first thing in the morning--only to be followed up with another message to "get there now!" The big mobilization, in which unions played an instrumental part, saved the encampment from the fate it suffered on November 15.

The unions joined many other voices in condemning the new attack on the Occupy encampment. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement:

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been committed to peaceful, nonviolent action from its inception. And it will keep spreading no matter what elected officials tell police to do. But that doesn't mean these raids are acceptable. In fact, they are inexcusable...The AFL-CIO will do everything in our power to make sure the free speech rights of these peaceful protesters are protected.

The powerful 1199SEIU health care workers union combined its condemnation of the police raid with a call for its 360,000 members--along with "our co-workers, family members, friends and neighbors" to come out to the 5 p.m. Foley Square rally. George Gresham, the president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement:

Occupy Wall Street has energized the entire country on behalf of working people to save our jobs, our homes, our communities, our Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. This is our fight, too. We health care workers are also the 99 percent.

See you on Thursday at Foley Square. Your children and grandchildren will be proud you were there.

Union support for left-wing activism on this scale has been almost unheard of for decades. The resources and political support that unions have given the Occupy movement in New York and across the U.S. highlights the potential to rebuild a fighting labor movement and organize the tens of millions of unorganized workers facing a relentless squeeze from employers.

To be sure, these same union leaders may be more hesitant to take militant action when it comes to confronting employers. And while it is important that unions have condemned the police raids ordered largely by Democratic officeholders, organized labor has a long and sorry record of handing financial and material support to Democratic Party candidates who, once in office, only betray their union supporters.

But the official participation of organized labor in the struggles of the Occupy movement is opening up new opportunities for rank-and-file union members to organize around both political and workplace issues. This can help build crucial networks of activists inside the unions and outside of them--people who can mobilize in support of each other's struggles.

In the face of the crackdown unleashed against Occupy camps, our movement has to rely on its great strength--the way it has given confidence to people in every part of the 99 percent to raise their voices and organize. Occupy's connections to the working class, including the organized component of it, are a vital source of energy and activism--and of power, when it comes to challenging repression.

The numbers on the street at Foley Square will be an indication of our potential power. A mass march back to Zuccotti Park could challenge the city's takeover of the plaza and reestablish an encampment--something favored by many activists.

But even if the movement isn't ready for such an action now, the struggle will continue. We need to make sure that we end the November 17 protests more organized than when we started, bringing the Occupy movement into workplaces and neighborhoods, and linking activists more closely with the unions.

Already, Occupy Wall Street and its counterparts around the U.S. have been hubs for protest actions, large and small. The big mobilization on November 17 should give us new momentum to step up those fights.

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