New York City – Wednesday, October 5 constituted the largest mass action so far in support of the Occupy Wall Street activists who have established a base camp in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. The evening march, which counted as many as 10,000-20,000 participants, included many new supporters and a large number of union workers from National Nurses United, the Transport Workers Union, Services Workers International Union, the Teamsters as well as the city’s teachers’ and public service employees’ unions, among others.
The march from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park, the base camp of Occupy Wall Street, was calm, energetic and pervaded by optimism. Some people even brought their children. The mood was tense, but not hostile, for much of the evening. However, after 100-200 demonstrators attempted to cross police barricades leading to Wall Street itself, police clashed with them around 8:00 PM (EST), resulting in the arrest of about two dozen demonstrators. Groups of demonstrators did manage to make it onto Wall Street (even within sight of the Deustche Bank Building at 60 Wall Street) before the New York Police Department (NYPD) rapidly sealed off even more areas of the Financial District and Zuccotti Park. NYPD officers used pepper spray and batons to beat back people by Zuccotti Park. NYPD police buses backed up along Wall Street to enter the Financial District, but the police cordon prevented people on the other side of the barriers from seeing what was transpiring in the Financial District.
As of this writing, Occupy Wall Street remains in Zuccotti Park and its members – there is no central leadership – have resolved to undertake another march soon. They have also reiterated that the NYPD is part of “the 99 percent of Americans” with whom they wish to unite against “the 1 percent” that dominates political and business life in this country.
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So, despite the violence at the end, day 19 of Occupy Wall Street was largely defined by an optimistic mood, as union workers and activists came together to shout, “This is our street!”
Given the route city officials “allowed” the demonstrators to use in their evening march (one sidewalk and a fraction of street space), this was partly a dig at the way the authorities penned in the march as it progressed. But it was at its core, as one activist from Wisconsin told me, an appeal to those watching to say “Enough!” and come forward to build “a platform for fighting back.”
There is no agreement among Occupy Wall Street members over what these policies – their “demands” – will yet look like. The demonstrators have been derided in some media and political circles for not having such “demands,” but – as today made abundantly clear – Occupy Wall Street is not about to become a “left-wing version” of the Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street is about being heard. It is about finding a way to be heard over the sound of money and legislation changing hands in US government through such creatures as SuperPAC and ALEC. As another chant went, “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out!”
Harry Waisbren is a Wisconsinite who moved to New York looking for work. He was one of the last people I interviewed before spending the rest of my night trying to find routes around the police barricades to Wall Street itself, but I want to discuss his thoughts first because, by the end of the evening, his words helped me click together what Occupy Wall Street is, what it has the potential to be.
Harry worked the New York City end of solidarity efforts with the people who occupied the Madison statehouse to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s austerity budget and anti-union agenda. “At first they covered it like it was just a bunch of dirty hippies,” he said.
Wearing a “Cheesehead” hat, he said, “New York is having its own Madison moment now.” With Madison activists looking to reoccupy the statehouse this month, Harry believes that the events of the past three weeks will have “reciprocal inspiration” back in his home state.
He also admitted that while he is a Democrat, he is a progressive first. Tonight, he said, is not about elections and candidates: “this is bigger than politicians – it is about the movement.” Others have echoed a similar sentiment as people jump to conclusions that union support equals Democratic compatibility. Writing in The Washington Post, James Downie hits the nail on the head:
“Democratic support for Wall Street was one of the major motivations behind Occupy Wall Street in the first place. When you read the heartbreaking “We are the 99 percent” Tumblr and you listen to the protesters, you don’t hear frustration with Republicans. The frustration is with Washington.”
Other Occupy Wall Street activists I spoke to reiterated that the movement is not a specific campaign, but rather, a forum to jump-start engagement with people on the sidelines. In a phone interview with Jackie DiSalvo, a City University of New York professor and point person for Occupy Wall Street’s labor outreach working group, she said:
“I get the feeling that they see this bringing the unions together and a high level of militancy than they’ve seen in many years. What might come out of it are some very positive things for the labor movement. And they’re really up against the wall. They appreciate that someone is fighting back.”
But, she added:
“An awful lot of people have gotten involved in these committees, and they aren’t interested in following someone else’s leadership. I don’t think they would trade off their autonomy. The unions have their agenda, but I think they have a compatible agenda because they’re talking about uniting the 99% against the 1%. I think there will be some tricky strategic questions. Unions have different obligations to their members.”
The union members I spoke to – both active and retired – at the rally represented a cross section of the challenges faced by them and their families today. Steve, a 65-year-old Teamsters retiree from New Jersey, told me that he, a retiree, has to help his daughter make ends meet because she cannot find a job teaching grade school in Portland, Oregon due to the financial crisis.
What he wanted to know was, “Who gives industry permission to shut down and move to Mexico?” But he doesn’t blame foreign workers for America’s economic problems, as many voters and pundits do. Steve says he blames the politicians and managers who take jobs outside of the US to cut their operating costs because it hurts both American and foreign workers.
“They’re looking to make us accountable,” he says in reference to the demands of conservatives to scale back union power, “so they ought to be too!”
All of the union members I spoke to agreed that this event gave them hope that the demonstrations would redirect the “anger of the 99 percent” to creating an alternative voice to contest the narrative of the 1 percent.
“I’m here for the jobless, for the foreclosed,” shouted Arthur Brown of the Local 802 musicians’ union, as he played a drum he’d brought with him to the demonstrations. “We employ the politicians,” he told me as we walked toward another drummer in the crowd. “After today, they have to listen to us. They can no longer deny that our voices are there and must be heard.”
Adding their voices were religious leaders. At least a dozen pastors marched as a group, as did members of the Union Theological Seminary and the intensely activist Judson Memorial Church.
Nathaniel, a lankly, bearded Christian community minister from Judson, spoke to me in between his marching and singing songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” with a circle of other pastors. “This really represents out faith in action,” he said:
“Although they may not subscribe to our faith, it’s very beautiful that here, in defiance of this empire of wealth, you have people living according to radical Christian principles … working for those who are dominated and standing up to the people dominating them.”
Nonviolent protests beyond Manhattan have helped inspire the movement here today. The actions taken in Wisconsin against Scoot Walker’s agenda loom large, but so, too, do the actions of the Egyptian people. “Arab Spring, European Summer and American Fall,” read one big banner at Zuccotti Park.
Jesse A. Myerson, a freelance journalist who now does labor and media outreach for Occupy Wall Street, was the first person I spoke with from the movement, and after spending today among the protesters, I believe I better understand what he told me in an interview that was conducted partly in Zuccotti Park and partly along the way to Foley Square as the crowds swelled and union speakers bellowed into microphones to be heard.
Extremely passionate about his work (it runs in the family – his mother and father came out to the demonstrations with signs and union badges), Jesse has written and spoken extensively in the past few weeks on what freedom increasingly means to him.
“True freedom does not come from consumer variety, but from a deep devotion to hearing all people’s voices,” Myerson said. “The times when I find myself most free are in communities like this one.”
Or, as he put it on his blog, freedom is not having 75 choices of bleach. Freedom is what the West saw happen in Tahrir, and the Left took notice, he said. He, as an international reporter, also took notice.
“We are creating a [nonviolent] crisis that the leaders of the elite will have to respond to,” he said. And as for right-wing denigration of their work? “I’m encouraged. As these occupations grow all over the country, the media will have to be more critical.”
As the demonstrators shouted on Broadway while the NYPD moved to bludgeon, mace and cuff them, “The whole world is watching!” With solidarity demonstrations (and arrests) in at least 75 American cities and worldwide, the whole world is indeed watching this small Lower Manhattan park.