Daily Archives: October 9, 2011
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
“I’ve been coughing and vomiting, and my head aches from pepper spray. I’ll post videos and photos of why at the link above.
“We intended to hold signs and sing inside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, protesting its promotion of unmanned drones, missiles, and bombs, including its sponsorship by and promotion of weapons corporations. We don’t have any museums promoting health coverage or education or retirement security.
“We had marched from the Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square occupations, taking over the streets of DC. The museum knew we were coming. Some of our group got in and dropped a banner. Hundreds of us did not. Instead, we were greeted at the door with cans of pepper spray.
“There were three sets of entrance doors. I was among the first to open the third set of doors. A guard shook a can of pepper spray in front of me and demanded that we back out. But a dozen feet away at the second set of doors, people were staggering out and collapsing in pain, having been pepper sprayed in the face. I started to go toward them, but began coughing and vomiting. A lot of people were effected, directly or — like me — indirectly by the pepper spray.
“It is not true that we assaulted the police. Nobody was accused of or charged with that. I didn’t hear about it until later from the media. A young woman named Thi Le was told she’d be charged with assaulting a police officer after she was pepper sprayed and handcuffed, but they switched the charge to disorderly conduct and released her a few hours later.
“It is not true that they only pepper sprayed one person. Many people were pepper sprayed.
“It is not true that the crowd dispersed. The guards locked the doors and closed the museum. We had not planned to close the museum but to demonstrate and leave. With the museum closed and one of our own in custody, we held a rally on the steps as more people made their way over from Freedom Plaza to join us. We were there for hours.
“We will be here for as long as it takes.
“Congress comes back to this town on Tuesday.
THE UTTER STUPIDITY OF ATTACKING PROTESTERS
The attacks on peaceful protesters in New York, Washington and elsewhere shows the desperation of authorities, who have been on their knees before the ruling Forces of Greed for so long that they can no longer see the reality of what the concentration of wealth at the top has done to the nation.
Did they see what happened in Egypt — when protesters were violently attacked more people came, the crowds got bigger, and the demands got more solidified until the government fell.
State violence backfired recently in Chile, when a student organizer named Camila Vallejo was attacked by police, journalists were beaten, and the state cracked down with everything it had.
The Guardian reports “Vallejo has been catapulted from anonymous student body president to Latin American folk hero with more than 300,000 Twitter followers. Type her name into Google and there are more than 160,000 results just from the past 24 hours.”
The smart thing for the ruling Forces of Greed to do at this time would be to shut down the wars, impose taxes on corporations and the rich and begin to address the suffering of people who are unemployed and homeless because of the bankster scams. That is the fastest way to shut down the protests. The best way to prolong them, and swell their ranks, is to employ violence against them and resist the demands of the people.
What the people are saying, in over a thousand cities now being occupied, is that you, the ruling Forces of Greed (FOG), have inflicted a lot of pain on we, the people, and our response is to educate the masses with these occupations, our vital first step, in moving toward a time when we can create a bit of democracy in the land. Corporate media have the masses confused, to say the least, with their constant propaganda, so this education step must come first.
But what happens when millions awaken from their deep sleep, turn off their TV, and decide, after learning that these protests are about their biggest concerns, how can I find a job, how can I get my house back, how can I get medical care for my children? Most of the organizers of the movement have a number of probabilities they are considering, and from what we’ve seen, they will make a democratic appeal to the people, asking “What do you want to do, people?,” presenting these agenda items.
One option as the movement spreads, Nicholas Kozloff ponders in the following piece, is a limited general strike, perhaps only over lower Manhattan, but a thing that would strike fear into the hearts of Wall Street banksters and the ruling FOG. —Jack
If the Occupy Wall Street protests included labour strikes, they would have the power to inflict heavy economic losses.
More an observer than an active participant, I have been stopping by the Occupy Wall Street encampment now for a couple of weeks. At first, I viewed the movement as more of a local curiosity, but after attending a galvanising protest last Friday I began to develop a very different impression.
Called in response to police brutality and pepper spraying of protesters a scant few days before, the demonstration was a raucous and energetic affair which stood out against the normally staid and bland activist scene here.
Building on this momentum, Occupy Wall Street carried out yet another protest on Wednesday which, remarkably, included many rank and file labour unions. Though the protesters failed to challenge the police on many occasions, the march reportedly drew some 20,000 people, an astonishing and unheard of figure for an anti-corporate demonstration of this type. In light of these remarkable developments, many will now wonder: What’s next?
Judging from Occupy Wall Street’s call to “shut it down”, many protesters already have a fixed idea. To me, “shut it down” conjures up the notion of a general strike, which, if carried out properly in Lower Manhattan, could prove to be very devastating to business as usual in New York and inflict heavy economic losses.
“A general strike would be the perfect escalation for the Occupy Wall Street movement, offering the opportunity to engage workers, students, professionals and retired folks throughout the city (not just lower Manhattan),” notes Mike Locker, the president of Locker Associates, a business and consulting firm working on behalf of many unions.
Locker, who I interviewed in a previous Al Jazeera column dealing with the role of organised labour in future protests, adds that demonstrators “could organise local assemblies to discuss organisation, demands and ongoing activities to build our power (more occupations),” during a general strike. “In the afternoon we could have a super march toward Wall Street from all over the city,” he says.
It’s an intriguing idea to be sure, but how to tactically, politically, and psychologically appeal to New Yorkers in such an unprecedented effort? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, yet as someone who grew up in Lower Manhattan and who has been an off-again, on-again activist over the years, I can hazard some thoughts.
An overlay of the local area
If they were to formally call for a general strike, the protesters would enjoy a number of logistical advantages. Unlike Midtown, which has longer blocks and broader streets, Lower Manhattan is built on a smaller scale and has some windy lanes and warrens. As a result, the police will find it more difficult to control and direct political protest.
In this sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement differs somewhat from anti-war demonstrations aimed at President Bush in April, 2003. Though some of those protests took place around Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, other demonstrations occurred in Midtown where the police were able to set up metal gates and effectively corral activists.
At the time, I recall how some protesters debated whether to conduct direct action down in the Wall Street area, but for whatever reason, the idea never materialised. That is a pity, since New York activists tend to underestimate the actual power they can exert within the New York City milieu.
During the build up to the war in Iraq, organisers carried out huge demonstrations, but in the end the actions failed to derail Bush’s plans. Looked at in hindsight, activists might have been able to cause more disruption with fewer numbers if they had instead concentrated their efforts in the downtown financial area.
Occupy Wall Street differs from the Iraq protests in other significant ways, perhaps most crucially in that the movement has an actual base of operations in Liberty Plaza. In the winter of 2003, activists used to congregate around United Nations Plaza, but the area never took off as a permanent encampment. Perhaps that is not too surprising given the actual geography: Located on the East River, the United Nations is physically and psychologically removed from the busy lives of many New Yorkers. Liberty Plaza, by contrast, is located right in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in all Manhattan.
From a logistical standpoint, the Wall Street area displays all kinds of advantages. Because Manhattan is narrowest at this point, demonstrators can maximise their numbers for optimal effect. In addition, nearly all New York subway lines run through the area, including the 1, 2 and 3 lines, 4, 5, and 6 lines, A, C, and E lines, J, M, and Z lines, as well as the N, R lines. Moreover, the Staten Island ferry disembarks a scant few blocks from the Occupy Wall Street encampment and the entrance to the all important Brooklyn Bridge is located just a stone’s throw away.
The Holland Tunnel, which connects commuters to and from New Jersey, also lies nearby and commercial streets like Broadway run just adjacent to the Occupy Wall Street headquarters. In the event that Mayor Bloomberg adopts a draconian policy toward protesters, local activists won’t have to travel far to make their grievances known, as City Hall is only a mere ten minute walk from the permanent encampment.
Building social and political coalitions in the area
From a multi-class and multi-racial perspective, the area holds out some intriguing possibilities. Though Wall Street itself is a white collar area, many working class folk also frequent downtown or have jobs in the vicinity.
In particular, Chambers and Church streets are heavily black and Latino by day and presumably many of these workers are feeling the economic pinch. Borough of Manhattan Community College, which is directly situated on Chambers Street, makes sense as a key outreach and organising target.
Realistically, if the protesters want to maximise their impact they would be wise to keep to the Wall Street area and stay out of Tribeca and Soho, neighbourhoods which are overrun by tourists. Both districts serve as the party grounds for stockbrokers and the affluent but do not offer any tempting or tangible political targets. Nevertheless, if Occupy Wall Street continues to grow, then setting up information points in other key and strategic areas of Lower Manhattan might make sense, say in Washington Square, Union Square and Tompkins Square Park.
Whether they recognise it or not, the protesters have another political advantage in that organised labour has a distinct presence in their area. Indeed, the headquarters of 32 BJ of the Service Employees International Union or SEIU is located nearby, and getting the union’s support could prove crucial in the days ahead. The union, which represents doormen, security guards and maintenance workers, plays a significant role in the Wall Street area. “Practically all buildings in the vicinity of the demonstrations,” notes Locker, “are 32BJ buildings.”
Right across the street from Liberty Plaza is Ground Zero, and every day construction workers make their way to the site. If the demonstrators haven’t thought of it already, they should consider setting up a dialogue with the workers, who operate in an area of vital economic importance for the city. What would be the response from such workers to a general strike? That is anyone’s guess, but history does not suggest that construction workers would be so amenable to radical entreaties.
Indeed, as this interesting article from Dissent magazine points out, nationalistic New York construction workers took great relish in physically attacking anti-war students on Wall Street in May, 1970. The disturbances, which came to be known as the “hard hat riot”, underscored the profound cultural gap separating the counter culture from the working proletariat of that era.
Today, notes Dissent, the construction workers still “keep their distance” from proteStreet. Nevertheless, times may be changing. At Liberty Plaza, the protesters and construction workers have been engaged in a “careful dance”. The workers, notes the article, “practice studious inattention. They look, but don’t look”.
But how realistic is a general strike?
Judging from what I have seen thus far, it is students and young people, and not organised labour, which are more willing to engage in militant tactics. It is they who seem to be driving the protests, and labour is participating, albeit in a rather non-committal and lacklustre way.
To be sure, during Wednesday’s protests certain labour contingents were visible. But when the police tried to cage protesters behind steel rails on Chambers Street, it was young people, and not labour, which ignored the entreaties of the authorities and briefly toppled barricades.
Whether other New Yorkers, let alone labour, are willing to engage in more direct and confrontational political tactics such as a general strike remains to be seen. Judging from my own observations over the years, I have my doubts. Fundamentally, the protesters may find that the biggest obstacle to obtaining a greater following is the city’s unstated psychological code.
Ask many Americans what they think about New Yorkers, and they may reply that we are unfriendly. I would say it’s not so much that, however, as a go-it-alone type attitude and a tendency to mind one’s own business, which in turn makes collective action more of an uphill climb.
Assuming, then, that Occupy Wall Street did put out a call for a general strike – and it remains to be seen what the protesters would specifically hope to achieve through such action – how would the public react? The problem is that we are essentially in uncharted waters here. As a general rule, labour has shied away from using the radical weapon of a general strike, and the most historic instance in which such tactics were employed – in Seattle in 1919 – had ambiguous results.
The lessons of Seattle
In that case, 65,000 local labourers walked off the job for four days in solidarity with shipyard workers who had opposed wage cuts. During the strike, labour demonstrated that it could effectively govern within local communities by serving food, supplying hospitals and keeping order in the streets.
Unfortunately, the walkout collapsed amid pressure from the mayor, federal troops and an unsupportive American Federation of Labor. Not only did the shipyard workers fail to achieve wage increases, but union-busting and red-baiting were quick to follow. In the long term, however, the strike inspired generations of workers who strived to build a more socially progressive order.
Needless to say, of course, 1919 was a vastly different era from today and labour was much more radical and willing to engage in provocative tactics. Nevertheless, Locker is upbeat. A general strike in New York, he says, “could spark a nationwide strike and bring the movement to a whole new level”.
In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see. One thing is for sure: If Occupy Wall Street is going to put out any call, it had better do so soon. With the weather already turning cold, the political energy could soon dissipate and, along with it, any chance to spark a more combative political response to entrenched corporate power.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.