What Is Occupy Wall Street All About? One Wobbly’s Perspective

Thursday 8 December 2011, by Krauthamer Diane

What Is Occupy Wall Street All About? One Wobbly’s Perspective

By Diane Krauthamer, Industrial Worker,November 2011, pp. 1, 7.

When a friend of mine invited me to Occupy Wall Street on the morning of Sept. 17, I thought nothing of it. Actually, that’s not true; I honestly thought it was a waste of time. This was an occupation of a public space, which, as far as I could tell, had no clear purpose, no articulated demands, and no seemingly developed strategy. It was to begin on a Saturday morning-a day when Wall Street is typically filled with tourists, not bankers. It was to last “for a few months” and was organized in response to a call put out by Adbusters, a publication/group based out of Canada which is vaguely anti-corporate and seems to run the spectrum from liberal to socialdemocratic. In a piece published on July 13, Adbusters wrote:

“On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices: It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY.”

There didn’t seem to be much more to it than that, and, while I didn’t necessarily oppose the occupation, I didn’t think it was worth my time either. A few days later, I’d heard that the occupation was continuing, and while I thought such persistence was impressive, I maintained my doubts. Most people could not even attend due to work, school or family, and if they did attend, it was only for a short period of time to show their support. Occupy Wall Street seemed like a place for over-privileged youth who did not have many, if any, responsibilities. These were my initial impressions, and cynical as I was, part of me hoped that I would be proven wrong.

One week after it began, on Sept. 24, the occupiers staged a march to Union Square as part of a “Day of Outrage” over the execution of Troy Davis, approximately 35 city blocks north of the encampment located in Zuccotti Park (or “Liberty Square”), which is just one block north of Wall Street. I did not attend this march and didn’t even know it was happening until I received a text message that some Fellow Workers from the New York City General Membership Branch, along with around 70 other people, were arrested. Upon further investigation, I found out that the cops used their full array of brutality tools to repress the march-everything from pepper spray to baton beatings to mass arrests. I’d heard rumors that one Wobbly even received a concussion. Concerned for their safety, I spent the rest of the evening doing jail support from home while others spent the night outside the precincts. We relayed all of the information we received about the arrestees to supporters swiftly through email, social media and phone. Word spread quickly about these violent police tactics, and by 10:00 p.m. that night, the local evening news was broadcasting Youtube videos of peaceful women protestors being trapped inside orange mesh netting and pepper sprayed at point-blank range by burly cops from Staten Island. It had been a while since the cops used such violent tactics against large groups of demonstrators, and, combined with the mass arrests, this certainly sparked the media’s attention.

It was around this point that Occupy Wall Street gained a wider audience outside of New York, both within the IWW and amongst the international radical and progressive community. Maybe it was the violent police repression that caught people’s attention-it certainly caught my attention, and compelled me to be involved with Occupy Wall Street to some extent, even if it was just for legal support. While I would always defend those who are victims of police brutality, I continued to disagree with the overall (lack of) strategy of Occupy Wall Street. My cynicism was questioned by those who were both involved in the protests and those who understood the disillusionment and frustration with the overall inactivity of the “left.” Being in this “left” for more than 10 years, I felt myself grow defensive. Some of us have been working really hard to build sustainable movements for a long, long time, and to have what some people were claiming to be a “revolutionary movement,” sparked by a few hundred angry kids, made me feel that those of us who had been working day and night at destroying capitalism were getting short-changed. Suddenly I felt like our day-to-day movement building on the shop floor just wasn’t enough to spark a popular uprising, but that taking over a public park and posting Youtube videos of cops pepper spraying innocent people was going to do the trick. I certainly agreed with Occupy Wall Street’s simple demand of “democracy not corporatocracy,” but I did not think occupying a public park a block away from Wall Street was an effective means of building a more democratic society.

My perceptions of Occupy Wall Street started to change around the beginning of the third week of the occupation. I was out of town on Saturday, Oct. 1, and as I was sitting down to dinner with my family, I learned that over 700 people were arrested during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. Suddenly, I realized that it was time to swallow my pride and let go of my doubts and criticism for at least one night just to process how many people that was, and how I probably would have been one of them had I been in town that day. I felt helpless and humbled. I still didn’t agree with how the occupiers were fighting and wasn’t even sure what they were fighting for, but I knew that whatever it was they were doing was more than what I was doing, and it was enough to attract the world’s attention.

That weekend, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 voiced support for the occupation, and on Monday, Oct. 3, they announced plans to try to stop the city from forcing bus drivers to transport arrested protesters.

“TWU Local 100 supports the protesters on Wall Street and takes great offense that the mayor and NYPD have ordered operators to transport citizens who were exercising their constitutional right to protest-and shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place,” TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen told the New York Daily News. This was a pivotal moment-a point when labor began to play a major role in Occupy Wall Street by refusing to cooperate with the state, and a point in which Occupy Wall Street became a threat to the city’s abuse of power. Throughout that week, many influential unions and labor groups in New York followed suit. It was great to hear that labor finally supported a movement that was putting into action what they had previously put into words and into symbolic rallies.

In the past, the labor movement has staged countless rallies with names such as “Showdown on Wall Street” and had been voicing the exact same messages that Occupy Wall Street has been voicing, so why did it take the labor movement more than two weeks to publicly endorse Occupy Wall Street? They certainly knew it was happening-news of the protests and the mass arrests were making the front page of every major paper in New York City on nearly a daily basis and being broadcast throughout other cities as well. There were also certainly committed labor activists already involved in the ground work and they were committed to Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. Did the labor bureaucrats not see any strong political motive to endorse a movement that would likely give them nothing back in return? Did they have the same criticisms and doubts that I had? Or did it just take some extra time for everyone to get on the same page? Who knows. This delayed endorsement from a bulk of the labor movement apparently wasn’t that noticeable. When the support came through it was appreciated, and it brought about a massive 20,000-plus person community/labor march on Oct. 5, which received widespread international media coverage. A friend of mine who had been involved in setting up and maintaining the encampment at Zuccotti Park since the beginning of the occupation told me that the march brought a tremendous growth in participation. The occupiers were very enthused about this, even though this meant that the park was now completely packed from one end to the next.

In fact, it was sometime between the second and third week of Occupy Wall Street that this movement really started spreading like wildfire, with autonomous actions and encampments in 1,582 cities (as of Oct. 19) throughout every continent in the entire planet, including Antarctica. Millions of people who identified with the simple message expressed by Occupy Wall Street-that it is time to stand together and fight back against the top tiers of society who own a majority of the wealth-were inspired by what started as a few hundred protestors camping out in a small park in lower Manhattan. Now the message, encapsulated in what has become the unofficial slogan of “we are the 99 percent,” has finally captured the world’s attention and invigorated a sense of plurality that effectively includes just about everyone who is not a multimillionaire-an indirect strength.

Such messaging, which arose spontaneously out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, proved indirectly effective in amassing the movement’s strength and popular appeal. A friend of mine recently pointed out that almost everyone is being screwed by the recent, radical concentration of wealth and power-the middle class, students, those whose pensions are invested in the stock market (as most teachers’ and civil servants’ are), the unemployed, the rabble, the youth, those affected by cultural anomie-and they are all part of this 99 percent. This, she said, “encapsulates the dramatic wealth transfer that has been happening since the 1970s, but also the diversity of struggles at hand... all of which point to the fact that people are disgusted with the fact that they cannot get any of their projects realized, because they cannot meaningfully participate in economic and political institutions.”

The problem with defining class as an economic body of people who are not the 1 percent of Americans who own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth is that it detracts from an understanding of the power relationships that define the difference between the working class and the employing class. Class is not determined by economic level; if it were, then upperlevel management, police officers and business owners are in the same class of “99 percenters” as Starbucks baristas and public school teachers.

In other words, the strength of Occupy Wall Street’s plurality may also be its weakness. Still, because this movement is an evolving organism that seems to morph into whatever those involved make it to be means that building it into a movement with firm class consciousness is a strong possibility. Maybe this is already happening insofar as action precedes consciousness and the occupiers are already acting in their class interests as an organized grouping within the working class.

Maybe the occupiers’ collective experience of protest, of being beaten and arrested by the police on a seemingly regular basis can firm up their perspective and give them a more solid understanding that, yes, the police are also in the 99 percent, but, no, as police officers they don’t share our class interest.

As the movement continues to spread globally, there is no telling what will happen next. Maybe this will just be a passing trend that loses momentum as the cold winter months hit, or as soon as the movement is co-opted by the Democrats, or maybe this is the popular uprising that we have all been waiting for. Hopefully if it’s the latter, this will be a powerful lesson which millions of people bring back to the workplace and larger society-one which teaches the world the strength and beauty of plurality and direct democracy, but also the necessity of class consciousness.

- Tom Levy and Marianne LeNabat contributed to this piece. (Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author, and not of the Industrial Worker or the IWW.