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Occupation of Wall Street

The dawn of a new American uprising, or a formulaic reaction bound to fizzle out?

The belly of the beast, the finance capital of the world’s richest country, is experiencing some uncomfortable rumble. Wall Street (the equivalent of London’s City) has been directly targeted by protesters as the focus of their anger. On 17th of this month around a thousand protesters marched towards Wall Street and the stock exchange in order to occupy it; seeing it blocked by the police they marched around the area and finally settled down in a park nearby, originally called the Liberty Plaza, now called Zuccotti Park. The occupation has now entered a third successive day with participants numbering around 5000 during the day, and hundreds pitching tents at night.

The call for occupation was made by the hactivist group Anonymous in alliance with the culture jammers, Adbusters, as early as July this year. This call-out turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy with even the Department of Homeland Security sending out a warning bulletin on September 2nd to businesses on Wall Street. So, although the initial call-out was for 20,000 people to take Wall Street, it is pleasantly surprising to see it become reality at all. It shows how much animus there is among the vast majority of the people (the working class poor and middle-income groups), and how desperately they need someone – anyone – to provide an avenue for them to take action.

To give a sense of the composition of the crowd, a report by the California Independent Voter Network notes, “There are students, professionals, workers, and unemployed among them. In the crowd, one can find disillusioned Democrats, Ron Paul Republicans, third party and Independent political activists, anarchists and members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous, among others.” Protesters describe themselves as being mostly under 30 years of age, over-educated and underemployed or jobless.

There are many interesting aspects to this protest – and instructive for those protesting here in the UK. For example, the occupiers have been and intend to be peaceful, although according to the state police department the protesters have no permit to either hold demonstrations or have spontaneous marches in the area – which they have been doing blatantly so far. As a result of their actions, the police have barricaded Wall Street, shutting it down to all traffic except VIPs and the people who work there. This could already be claimed as a victory for the protesters.

Moreover, the occupiers have no leaders. The camp, reportedly inspired by Tahrir Square, is organized entirely non-hierarchically. Since the occupiers say they intend to remain there for months, they are thinking tactically and already sorting out working groups to manage all the requirements. Again, inspired by the Spanish people’s assemblies, the protesters are holding daily ‘general assemblies’ to discuss and decide political questions, what changes they would like to see, and generally envision a better future for all. People, apparently from all over the world, are donating money for food to be sent to the protesters. Food Not Bombs have also donated food.

Despite all this, the police seem to be quite off-hand in their approach towards the campers.

According to news reports streaming in, most people who are not part of the protest completely sympathize with it, and seem to acknowledge that things need to change. It seems to be seeping into public consciousness that this battle is for the long haul.

Conflicting picture
So, what are their demands? So far, the focus is severely anti-banks and anti-corporates. They seem to want the US to be – to sum up the protesters’ sentiment – ‘restored to the people’. For instance, Adbusters’ slogan is “Democracy Not Corporatocracy”, and to be rid of “the financial Gomorrah of America”, symbolized by Wall Street.

More specifically, they are demanding a presidential commission to be set up to initiate the end of corporate financial influence on American politics (such as through large donations to hand-picked candidates who will then do the corporates’ bidding). The demand is understandable since recently the US Supreme Court declared corporates to be ‘people’ (!) and thus granting them the haloed first amendment rights (of which campaign finance forms one), although it is not clear why the protesters think that the President would do such a thing and undermine his/her own advantage. Unfortunately, these democratic protests, not just in the US but also everywhere else, tend to share this naïve quality of making sharp distinctions between business interests and political interests – distinctions that are fast disappearing.

To illustrate, a group called US Day of Rage has set up a website by the same name and is calling for such occupations and people’s assemblies to be set up in many cities across the country. There appear to be plans to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington DC on October 6 of this year. This website lists its objectives as “free and fair elections”, thus proliferating the idea that if only mega-corporations were removed from the picture, politicians would not become corrupt, and power would be handed back to the people. They say, “Free and fair elections produce the kind of stewardship our nation desperately needs, because they ensure that citizens can influence their destiny, and make genuine contributions to society.”

On the other hand, another website called Occupy Wall Street (whether this is the official group behind the protest or not is unclear) has broader, overtly anarchist tones, even as it seems to support electoral reform. It makes statements such as: “If you agree that state and corporation are merely two sides of the same oppressive power structure, if you realize how media distorts things to preserve it, how it pits the people against the people to remain in power, then you might be one of us.” and, “We call for workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically.”

Only time will tell which of the above two tendencies can capture popular imagination and become dominant in the near future. Also, at this point it is a matter of speculation if the protesters manage to get large numbers of people angry enough to, say, storm Wall Street, or just degenerate into a tourist curio (much like our parliament square campers) who have the feel-good factor of ‘protest’ but offer no means of self-empowerment or solutions to changing the present state of things.

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