Occupy Movement Shows National, Local Staying Power
By Joe Durwin On: 10:57PM / Friday November 18, 2011
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — On Sept. 17, 2011, several hundred demonstrators descended on New York City's financial district in what would soon become known worldwide as Occupy Wall Street.
The seeds for the event went back to mid-2011, when the popular magazine Adbusters published a suggestion that citizens set up encampment and "occupy Wall Street for a few months." The call caught the attention of some veteran activists, who began talking about the hybridization of tactics used in the successful Tahir Square protests in Egypt with those developed in Madrid's seminal Puerta del Sol uprising.
Despite drawing thousands of demonstrators to the financial district and the sudden full-scale encampment at Zuccotti Park, local and national media largely ignored the ongoing activist siege, until more than 700 people were arrested while marching on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1.
On Oct. 14, the ongoing demonstration and emerging mini-society at Zucccotti Park faced its first threatened eviction from the City of New York. iBerkshires reported from on location at Zuccotti Park, where Mayor Bloomberg ordered an 11th-hour stand down after thousands of supporters including numerous local unions arrived in force to resist the removal en masse. Over the course of that day demonstrators celebrated their victory and planned for actions as part of the worldwide solidarity day that followed, some sharing their thoughts with this correspondent at what it all meant at the one-month mark.
Just one month later, NYPD returned, in force and without warning at around 1 a.m. this past Tuesday to evict the demonstrators. Tents and tables were dismantled, and about 70 people were arrested when they refused to leave the premises.
John Garb, former host of Talk Berkshires on WBRK radio and now living in New York City, visited Zuccotti Park on Nov. 14, just hours before the unannounced eviction of the two-month encampment.
Garb said that while generally an advocate of progressive politics, he had yet to even visit the site, though he works nearby. "I'm in no way an occupier. I have a job where I work about 60 hours a week," he said of his position representing a major Fortune 500 company in unemployment disputes.
"It was surprising. The degree of order, and the degree of civility inside that little 'town' there was amazing. There were tables set up everywhere with brochures, and of course electronics, and various information available," he said. "The 'library' is the first thing you see. Everywhere you looked there were little signs of a community. Every corner you turned around there was a discussion, and people sitting around in a circle. The communication was very sophisticated.
"It was like a bazaar ... a bazaar for knowledge, for the exchange of information. It could have been what like a university would be like, if it had been hit by a hurricane and had to reopen outside."
Garb admitted he was surprised and impressed with the level of organization he saw there. "It looked like it had been there a long time. Everyone was just sort of sharing the space, and you could see where garbage was being picked up, and there were signs everywhere telling you what was going on, and the daily activities and meetings and marches. There was a sort of self-imposed civility. Maybe I imagined it, but that's what I saw there."
Even without the beacon of the original Zuccotti Park encampment, some say the genie of an ongoing movement is already out of the bottle, with a majority of American cities now having experienced some local manifestation of the Occupy tactic.
On Oct. 15, 2011, close to 1,000 cities worldwide hosted Occupy-oriented demonstrations to protest economic injustice in solidarity. In some foreign cities, most notably Rome, protests turned destructive, with extensive property damage and bloody clashes with police and military in the streets.
Since then, occupations, evictions, injuries and arrests now numbering in the thousands have made headlines throughout the world on almost daily basis. Currently, OccupyTogether.org maintains a listing of more than 500 ongoing Occupy locations, though there are said to be many more not included in this listing.
Several other Berkshire County expatriates have been sending me perspectives and updates from occupations in other cities.
Alexia Pritchard, who has done extensive documentary film shooting at Occupy Boston said the movement there, which includes a space maintained by a group of protesting chaplains, has many religious parallels.
"'What is your position? Why are you doing this? What is the point? Aren't you just causing trouble?' These are the same questions that Christ faced during His ministry. And He often frustrated the questioners by confusing them further, with parables or His own questions," she said. "Then He went back to being a teacher and exemplar, just as much in what He did as what He said. We're following Christ in this way, as are many of the Occupation. The point isn't to demand something, get it, and then go home. The point is to show people the Way to live that gives us life, joy, and allows us to flourish as who we all are: the children of God. And that Way is lived, as Jesus shows us over and over again."
Ted Lee shared his experience of being at Occupy Portland early Sunday morning, when an eviction by local police was initially held off, Lee said, by a nonviolent cooperation by thousands of Portland residents.
"We did not hold the park all of the next day — we were evicted. But it wasn't and it isn't entirely about the park. The park made us visible — it created a constituency — it created a 99 percent. The movement grew up in that night, and I with it. I celebrate that long night of holding the park because in that moment of victory we learned a feeling. We learned what we will need to feel in order to prevail… What we witnessed and felt this morning was the very moment of victory that we will feel when the world starts healing."
On an economic level, the economic offshoot "Move Your Money" movement has begun to show a more tangible result from these sweeping trends. In the four weeks leading up to the planned Banked Transfer Day on Nov. 5, 650,000 Americans transferred a total of more than $4.5 billion from national banks to a credit union or other small local bank, according to a survey by the Credit Union National Association.
The siphoning of funds out of these major financial institutions continues at an estimated rate of about 20,000 accounts per day, those these numbers have been disputed by the American Bankers Association, and definitive statistics will not be available to the public until February.
Berkshire Activists to Occupy Town Hall Around the Clock
In more rural areas, such as the Berkshires, the Occupy movement has taken on new shapes, reflective of their own local demographics and issues.
Occupy Berkshires, which began in early October, has held weekly standouts in downtown Great Barrington, joined forces with longtime Pittsfield demonstrators in the Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice in their Park Square standouts, and rallied in force in Lenox to protest the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed plan for partial cleanup of the southern Housatonic River.
This weekend, participants in the local movement will hold their first 24-hour Occupation, intending to camp in front of the Great Barrington Town Hall from noon Saturday to Sunday afternoon. Organizers alerted the Board of Selectman of their intention at its Monday meeting, followed by a meeting with the town manager, police and fire officials on Tuesday to agree upon details for the overnight event.
Occupy Berkshires will hold a general assembly meeting, open meetings with its various work groups, and host guest speakers. Organizers invite anyone interested to bring tents, blankets, food, and so forth and join in the effort, or simply drop in to discuss issues and hear the perspectives of other area residents.
With upheavals, evictions, and new branches appearing all the time, the future direction and impact of this movement nationally is difficult to predict. What can be safely said, looking back over just two months, is that the meme that arose when those first protesters took up their encampment at Zuccotti Park became a global event faster than any imagined, and the word Occupy seems likely to remain prominent in the news headlines for some time to come.
Gleaning the Meaning of Occupy Wall Street
By Joe Durwin On: 05:11PM / Tuesday October 18, 2011
Editor's Note: Contributor Joe Durwin spent the weekend in New York City with Occupy Wall Street. Here is his take on what on the OWS movement.
NEW YORK — The questions on the minds of New York City civilians I spoke to Saturday mirrored those of many in the nation following the Occupy Wall Street movement's apparent victory over Zuccotti Park.
They are similar to the questions that much of America has asked since the occupation began last month, but were given a greater gravity as the occupiers demonstrated their staying power and prepared to stand in solidarity with more than 1,000 cities worldwide the following day.
What do they want? What are their demands? When will it end?
These are complicated questions, with many possible answers.
I quickly realized upon settling in at Zuccotti Park — Liberty Square to the occupation movement — that trying to solidify answers to this, or indeed, "cover" or represent my gleanings of what the occupiers were feeling or saying in any traditional journalistic sense was extremely difficult. What follows is a result of many hours of informal chats, innocent questioning, and constant eavesdropping as I spent the day with them at this pivotal turning point in their occupation.
So, what do they want? One possible answer is: A Lot.
The laundry list of things individual participants tout as priorities to them are nearly as diverse as the occupation supporters themselves. Better banking regulation, tax reform, campaign finance reform, wage increases, unemployment, the healthcare system, outsourcing, military spending, environmental concerns ... the list goes on indefinitely. It is difficult to think of any political or economic issue that has been on anyone's radar in the last few years that I didn't hear mentioned at some point in my day spent at Liberty Square.
As people kept reminding me, though, one of the things that distinguishes this from any other mass demonstration movement is that there isn't a true party platform. There isn't a set agenda or list of formal demands.
Some of the occupiers are concerned about this, worried that the effort cannot be taken seriously or produce any concrete changes until it does produce some kind of "99 Theses," to borrow one woman's clever reference to Martin Luther's "95 Theses," the document which sparked the Protestant Reformation.
Others contend that it is precisely the movement's slippery, hard-to-pinpoint structure and purpose that has made it so successful. "All we're saying for sure is that the current situation of injustices, inequalities, and corruption, and really all of that ... in this country is simply not acceptable," a college student named Ann says, "and people are going to start Occupying everywhere in this whole country until it changes. It's going to be a nuisance ... it's going to be an inconvenience. Deal with it."
"We're the real majority," her friend adds, "and we're just going to swarm and stick like sore thumbs everywhere until America's ours and its government is ours and then we need to make sure we never lose control of it again."
Another young man touts the inclusive nature of the "99 percent" strategy in a rant to some curious visitors.
"If you have a problem with Occupy Wall Street, come change it. If you think it's too this or that, show up and add your voice, your perspective. The Occupation isn't an agenda protest, it isn't a platform, it isn't left wing or right wing. It's an attempt to restore participatory government and participatory society. If you think there is something that needs to be addressed, why not step up and address it, now that the whole world really is watching, too ... here or in a city near you. If you think it's too silly, come make it serious. That's the thing - we know we're not representing the whole 99 percent - not yet. We're calling ourselves that so you'll know that you're all invited."
I asked a lot of people if they foresaw an end date for the New York occupation.
"Who says it's going to end?" Said one young man, as we both moved quickly to get our ponchos on as a brief torrential downpour begins. "Eight hundred people have been arrested, we're still here. A month has gone by, we're still here. The mayor of New York tried to evict us, we're still here."
He points up at the heavy shower falling on us. "And when it snows, we'll still be here."
"I think it's one of the obstacles," said Donald, an older gentleman who said he was a veteran of protest actions going back to the '60s, "that people think it will end. That the Powers That Be think it will go away, that they don't realize yet this time it's different. Nothing will change until they realize this time it's not going to blow over."
These sentiments are mimicked in the weekly community newspaper circulated through the park, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. "It will not stop until the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into massive debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops ... ."
While the reaction of many casual passers-by around Liberty Square on Friday was one of vague confusion, and sometimes open resentment, some New Yorkers not directly involved in the movement seem to appreciate the logic of their approach.
Sherry, an attorney in Manhattan, described herself as an "interested spectator" who had been coming down to the park occasionally on her lunch break. While she understood why some in the city were agitated by the demonstrators, and that the behavior of a few had been "over the line," she seemed generally positive about their approach to what she called "a problem we all see, but have no clue what to do with."
"These people never claimed to have all the answers ... they know that it's not necessarily going to be up to them specifically to craft the solutions or rewrite the laws," she said of the perceived lack of agenda. "They don't need to do it all themselves, and they know it. The longer they stay here, the more it inspires and shames the rest of us into doing more about these things."
"They have an appeal right now that no political party has going for it," said Thomas, a "communications expert" in town from Chicago on business who came by to check it out. "They don't have a platform to pick apart, or a recognizable leadership to scrutinize for personal flaws and scandals."
Most of the demonstrators to whom I repeated Thomas' point seemed to agree. They said that while there were certainly people who stood out as having natural leadership skills, just as there were occasional "bad apples," most of the order implicit was arrived at by consensus. Most felt this made them stronger, and contributed to the sense of solidarity that seems to be spreading like wildfire, as the demonstrators against economic injustice spilled into what amounts to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, worldwide over the course of Saturday for the coordinated Oct. 15 effort.
It all begins to sound less like hyperbole now, as tens of thousands joined the New York movement as it went on the march Sunday, filling Times Square in the evening, defying a small army of NYPD, and expanding the scope of action with an eye toward beginning long-term occupation at Washington Square. Hundreds more have been arrested in more than 100 U.S. cities in recent days, and in states like Massachusetts, governors have taken it upon themselves to go down and see and hear these scenes of discontent. Despite continued downplay from many major media outlets, the scale and tenor of this movement can no longer be ignored, and for some the uncertainty around these core questions about what they want and demand, and when it will end, has become ominous.
The answer, as I was hearing it, is they have no demands, there is no one agenda, no piece of legislation they can be coopted or appeased on. Their grievances are almost as diverse as America. Their platform, as they depict it, is the platform of Everyman. What they're saying now is "Look around. It isn't going to end."
The message that's emerging, with a cautiously growing voice, is that they really do mean it, they haven't come to protest but to Occupy, and it's not just about Wall Street anymore. They mean for what they call the 99 percent to occupy America, and actually decide its future together.
After the events of the past two days, it's all starting to sound a little less crazy.