Anatomy of a Victory: Occupy Wall Street Wins a Big One

Mayor Bloomberg’s Wednesday night visit to Liberty Plaza Park, during which he delivered news (on behalf of his girlfriend’s corporation) that the park would be cleaned Friday morning, made me very nervous. I found myself with a lay-over in Charlotte early Thursday morning and took the opportunity to pen a quick blog post to express my concerns. Boarding my next flight, I tweeted the following: “Okay, internets. About to take off for Seatac. No one do or say anything interesting for several hours, yes? Yes.”

The internets declined.

Over the next 20-or-so hours, there precipitated one of the most impressive single days of organizing I can recall or even imagine, and by 6 AM the next day, when the cleaning was set to begin, the Wall Street occupiers and our allies around the world had won. It’s worth looking into what made that happen, if for no other reason than to derive best practices for like operations in the future.

  1. Public appeals to Bloomberg/Brookfield

It is no secret that Occupy Wall Street has captured the public’s imagination and the media’s attention. A Time Magazine poll released Thursday showed that Occupy Wall Street’s favorability ratings are massive (54% approve, not as many disapprove as approve strongly). So it was with great confidence that organizations and individuals around the country mobilized the occupation’s public defense against Bloomberg/Brookfield’s injunction.

Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario who has made multiple visits to Liberty Plaza Park, publicly offered to pay for the clean-up of the park in order to avoid confrontation. Emergency appeals and/or petitions went out from the AFL-CIO, Beyond May 12, CODEPINK, Bold Progressives, Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn to the millions of members they are collectively able reach. 14 New York City council-members issued a call to Bloomberg and the NYPD to respect the first amendment and leave the occupiers alone.

Writers in support of the occupiers started a website, signatories ranging from Lemony Snicket to Salman Rusdie, who tweeted, “I condemn both Mayor and cops. A crime against liberty.” The autonomous Occupy Wall Street Legal Working Group wrote an impassioned open letter to Brookfield leadership, accusing the latter of “threatening fundamental constitutional rights” and using a regard for cleanliness as merely a pretext.

  1. Volunteers to get arrested defending the occupation

Apart from emergency mobilization efforts going out from labor leaders to their members (among them, the Communication Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, and 1199/SEIU, all early supporters of Occupy Wall Street), urging the rank-and-file to head down to the park and link arms in the event of police invasion, the New York Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild sent brigades of legal observers. (One member of the NLG got run over by an NYPD motorcycle, beaten and arrested – nice.)

In Russell Simmons’ offer to pay for the clean-up, he implied that he too was willing to be arrested for the cause, writing “I don't wanna go to jail but I will be there ready!” Simmons showed up at the park for a training about the proper, non-violent procedure to follow in case of arrest. RT’s Lucy Kafanov reported that, on site at Liberty Plaza Park, a speaker instructed the group to “raise your hand if you really want to be arrested,” which was greeted by a flurry of skyward limbs.

It would seem that layer upon layer of people were willing to risk arrest in order to protect the encampment, and they were cheered on by supporters around the country and around the world, the British journalist Laurie Penny, who has visited Liberty Plaza Park, writing,

We know what they really mean when they say 'Liberty Plaza is full of rubbish.' The trash they want to sweep out of their nice clean financial districts are the ordinary people of your country – the 99%. They are tired of seeing you on their way to work in the mornings, cluttering up the pavements with your uncomfortable little placards about grinding unemployment, a broken healthcare system and a feral business sector holding the party system to ransom. They are tired of seeing old women asking for medical attention, little children asking for education, young adults asking for work. They want those people tidied away. The question is: are you going to let them tidy you away?

  1. Efforts to deprive Bloomberg/Brookfield of its pretext for seizure

Russell Simmons’ offer to fund the clean-up effort was unnecessary, it turns out, because the occupiers took it upon themselves to take care of that endeavor. Having solicited the donation of tons of cleaning supplies, the effort lasted for hours and involved hundreds of volunteers. Radio Dispatch’s Josh Knefel tweeted, “Pep talk for tomorrow, then back to cleaning. This is the cleanest damn park in America.”

Brian Williams and Mara Schiavocampo of NBC Nightly News devoted coverage to the clean-up effort. Footage showed that the adults here were the self-organized occupiers, who took pains to maintain the sanitary integrity of what is, let us not forget, their living space, while the Bloomberg/Brookfield side reacted to the protest by throwing a tantrum.

So what is the take-away? Why did these things work? The answer is simple democratic theory, expressed pristinely by Frederick Douglass at Canandaigua, NY in 1857.

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

When one of the greatest living novelists, who lived underground for many years under the threat of lethal violence suborned by a totalitarian theocrat, condemns you as acting against liberty, you take note. When your plans involve arresting scores of American workers, arms linked in non-violent defiance, you take note. When your optics will be the commission of mass violence in order to clean up an already clean park, you take note. The NYPD, in possession as it is of guns and clubs, can take the park whenever it wants, but not without its leaders suffering massive political consequences. And that’s the point.

As of right now, public officials are vastly more intimidated by the power of Wall Street than by the power of the people, and so they do the bidding of the former group, rather than the latter. That is what takes what is theoretically a democracy (demos meaning “people”) and transforms it into a plutocracy, a society whose policies are driven by wealth.

The über-goal of Occupy Wall Street is to empower people to intimidate government officials even more than the ownership class does. If that can be achieved, then the movement will succeed merely by surviving. Wall Street, after all, hasn’t got a list of demands that it makes one protest at a time; it exerts constant, unyielding pressure on the engines of power and arranges to continue to bully policymakers in perpetuity. If the Occupy movement expands and persists, it can conceivably arrange to bully policymakers even more fiercely. That would result in the achievement of real democracy, and all of the policy goals that implies.

Power is taking note. Just in the last day, Bloomberg ran away from protesters who hounded him at his classy eatery of choice, and Treasure Secretary Tim Geithner, whom bankers consider “our man in Washingtonpromised major Wall Street action. They’re becoming afraid of the might of a united democratic populace.

What we must do now is move to a state of affairs in which that is the permanent situation.