When Ben Bernanke, America’s head banker, says he understands why people are protesting against banks, there’s two things to say.
One, it’s clear that the Occupy Wall Street protest movement has shaken U.S. politics with greater force than any event since Wisconsin’s upsurge against union-busting and austerity last winter.
And two, watch your back.
In answer to a question about Occupy Wall Street at a congressional hearing, the Federal Reserve chair said: “They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them.”
Bernanke isn’t the only unlikely sympathizer with the Occupy movement, which has spread from the financial district of Manhattan to hundreds of cities, towns, campuses and more around the country.
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, says she approves of “the message to the establishment, whether it’s Wall Street or the political establishment and the rest, that change has to happen.” Barack Obama declared at a press conference, “People are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”
This from the very people who engineered the bailout of Wall Street and made sure it got approved by Congress in 2008. Democrats like Obama and Pelosi are every bit as responsible as the free-market ideologues of the Republican Party for government policies that put the interests of the corporate elite first, while masses of working people bear the brunt of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
So those of us who supported the Occupy movement from the start and helped organize it before it became a talking point for Democratic Party leaders are justly suspicious of the claim that we’re now all on the same side against the bankers.
But we can also recognize that such comments show how Occupy Wall Street and its sister actions around the country have, for once, wrenched the spotlight away from the narrow political “debate” in Washington, and cast it on the concerns and views of ordinary people.
Mainstream media coverage of the Occupy movement has gone from the usual sneering contempt for protests to a grudging recognition of the depth of frustration and anger that is being expressed through the actions. According to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, “[I]n the month before the Occupy Wall Street movement, there were, to our count, 164 mentions of the phrase ‘corporate greed’ in the news…In the month since the Occupy Wall Street movement has been underway, 1,801 mentions of that same phrase, ‘corporate greed,’ in the news.”
Occupy Wall Street has become a lightning rod for the accumulated discontent in so many corners of U.S. society–about unemployment and growing poverty, about the complicity of political leaders in carrying out an attack on working people’s living standards, about a social crisis that is hitting especially hard in minority communities, about the vast and growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the richest country on earth.
The Occupy movement isn’t only reflecting people’s ideas, either. It has tapped into the widespread sentiment that society needs to change–and it’s time to do something about it.
That’s an attitude that can be heard over and over again at Occupy protests: Finally, someone is taking action. Thus, the movement has spread from a core of mainly young activists who began the protests and encampment in New York City to speak for much larger numbers of people and broader layers of society.
The Occupy slogan “We are the 99 percent” gives expression to an elemental sense that there are sides in this struggle, that our side has been silent for too long, and we’re finally finding our collective voice.
In accomplishing this in just a few weeks, the Occupy movement already represents a great step forward in the struggle for a better world. And it offers hope for future steps forward, as more and more people are inspired by what they see–and join the fight.
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THE OCCUPY movement shows how quickly things can change in volatile political times.
The kickoff demonstration came on September 17 in New York, when more than 500 people gathered for a rally and then established the encampment in Zuccotti Park, rechristened Liberty Plaza in honor of Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, with its daily General Assemblies that have continued ever since.
Organizers were disappointed by this initial turnout, but several factors helped Occupy Wall Street broaden its support. One was a September 22 “Day of Outrage” demonstration the day after Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis was executed. Some 2,000 angry protesters marched from Union Square to the Liberty Plaza encampment–thus, establishing the practice that the Occupy movement would become a focal point for many struggles.
Along the same lines, Occupy activists reached out to labor, offering solidarity for local battles such as a strike at the famous Central Park Boathouse restaurant. In turn, major New York City unions recognized the importance of Occupy Wall Street and endorsed it–setting the stage for a labor-led demonstration on October 5 that brought out tens of thousands of people.
Then, on September 24, the New York Police Department did its part, unleashing officers on demonstrators during a peaceful protest from Occupy Wall Street. After this and the mass arrest a week later of demonstrators marching over the Brooklyn Bridge, even more people came to the encampment to show their solidarity against repression.
This experience, as brief as it is thus far, holds important lessons.
For one thing, while the movement’s slogan “We are the 99 percent” wonderfully expresses the determination to confront the tiny minority that monopolizes wealth and power in this society, it’s also crystal clear that the 99 percent aren’t all on the same side.
There’s the police, for example. With attacks on Occupy encampments in Boston and Atlanta on Monday night, as in New York City over the past weeks, the “boys in blue” showed which side they’re on–and it’s not the 99 percent.
Through their actions, the police are providing a fast education to anyone who believes they can be appealed to–for example, the groups of activists who escaped being trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 and chanted, “Join us, you’re one of us.”
In reality, though most individual cops come from working-class backgrounds, the role of the police as an institution in capitalist society “puts them directly at odds with the aspirations and needs of the rest of the class,” as Amy Muldoon wrote for SocialistWorker.org. Their job is not to “protect and serve” everyone in society, but the same ruling minority that the Occupy movement is challenging.
Even among those who have mobilized for the Occupy protests, there are political divisions that must not be ignored.
For example, right-wing libertarians who support Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul have turned up at Occupy encampments, especially in the South. They are critical of the same financial institutions that the Occupy Wall Street struggle has focused on–but their objections come from the right. Paul supporters want to eliminate regulations on the financial elite–which would allow the 1 percent to grow even richer.
Paul and his supporters are viciously anti-immigrant, and their opposition to “big government” stops when it comes to the state imposing restrictions on women’s right to choose abortion. In 2004, Paul was the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution commemorating the Civil Rights Act of 1964–because he believes businesses should be able to discriminate.
To consider such bigotry part of our fight would make a mockery of the commitment to equality and democracy at the heart of the Occupy struggle–and it would drive a wedge between the movement and many of the people who have the most to contribute to it: immigrants, African Americans and those fighting the right’s reactionary agenda, to name a few.
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SO THE Occupy movement doesn’t represent all of the “99 percent.” But it certainly does give voice to a large majority of people in society–both their grievances and the hope for an alternative to the status quo.
The politicization of protesters and their determination to take a stand is tangible at the occupations, where both people new to activism and those with experience in other movements are part of the organizing.
But importantly, these same features can be felt beyond the encampments. In Portland, Ore., for example–the site of one of the largest Occupy movements outside of New York City–one SW contributor says her workplace, in a building that overlooks the encampment, is constantly abuzz with discussions about the struggle. Each march past the building, she says, brings her coworkers to the windows to find out what’s happening–along with hours of political discussions afterward.
This is being repeated in different ways around the country. Occupy Wall Street was launched by a core of activists, many of them already committed socialists, anarchists or radicals of various kinds. But much larger numbers of people now identify with the movement, even if they have little connection with the actual activities of the occupations, perhaps because of job or family responsibilities.
What’s more, the national attention being paid to the Occupy movement is infusing existing struggles with a new sense of relevancy and confidence. People committed to many different movements are being inspired by the success of the Occupy activists in making their voices heard–and are sure to follow suit themselves.
Of course, this intense interest and support is precisely why leaders of the Democratic Party are suddenly trying to cast themselves as sympathizers with the struggle against Wall Street greed.
Our question is simple: Where were Democrats like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi when the Wall Street bankers looted the economy? The answer: They were part of the problem, from the deregulation of the financial system accomplished chiefly during the presidency of Democrat Bill Clinton, to the failure of the Obama administration over the past two years to hold the bankers and hedge fund operators responsible for the disaster they caused.
The Democrats care about Occupy Wall Street if it can help them corral votes for the next election. But the limits of their sympathies are clear–especially from the actions of Democratic mayors like Boston’s Thomas Menino, who sicced the police on Occupy protesters.
That’s the real attitude of the Democratic Party toward the Occupy struggle–not the empathetic statements of Barack Obama at a press conference, but the orders of Democratic mayors to clear the streets and parks.
Many participants in Occupy struggles recognize this–but there is an organizational weakness to the movement that gives a greater opening to such forces.
In many of the Occupy encampments, including New York City, the core activists involved in the day-to-day organizing are critical of Democrats for being complicit in a system that has given overwhelming wealth and power to the 1 percent. But the commitment of many to a particular strategy of refusing to formulate concrete demands–on the grounds that this would either limit the appeal of the Occupy actions or legitimize economic and political structures they oppose–actually opens a door to the Democrats.
If our movement doesn’t articulate its own demands, others will have the opportunity to fill them in for us. The basic elements of what the Occupy struggle stands for are clear and supported by the vast majority of people involved–tax Wall Street and the rich; regulate corporate power; use taxpayers’ money to create jobs and meet social needs, not bail out the banks or fund wars; defend workers’ right to form unions; and so on.
Such demands need to be championed forthrightly. As Doug Singsen wrote for this website, “We can be a model of cooperation and empowerment” and still be specific and explicit about what we want.
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SO WHAT comes next? The Occupy movement has shone a spotlight on the greed and corruption of the Wall Street elite–and more generally on the inequalities and institutionalized injustices of U.S. society. We need to keep dramatizing those issues for the millions of people who are now watching the protests closely.
Part of the commitment to continue this effort will now mean preparing for the threat of further police repression. So far, crackdowns like the one that took place in Boston or the assaults in New York City have been the exception. The authorities, aware of the popularity of the protests, have avoided a frontal attack in many cases.
But they will continue looking for opportunities to gain the upper hand. Occupy activists need to be aware of this threat, with an understanding that large numbers and even wider support have always been the best defense against repression for any movement.
In most occupations, proposals to reach out to other struggles have been met with enthusiastic support, at least from the majority of participants.
This is because the connections between the different fights are so obvious. Anyone who is angry about the bailout of the Wall Street bankers will know who is paying the price–workers in both the private and public sector, those with jobs and without. The brutal police tactics used against protesters are just a taste of what happens day in and day out in the Black community–which shows why the Occupy movement must be anti-racist.
By the same token, it’s important for every movement and struggle to recognize that Occupy Wall Street has changed the political climate and opened up a space for bolder action. There are willing and able allies to be found at the Occupy encampments–for the struggle against war and against racism, for a sustainable environment and for LGBT equality, and many more issues besides.
In particular, Occupy Wall Street has created tremendous new possibilities in the labor movement. Union members can go beyond being sympathizers with the struggle and organize their coworkers to take part in protests. It is also crucial for Occupy activists to reach out to labor and offer their solidarity, especially in providing support for the upsurge of union battles around the country.
Many people involved in the Occupy struggle have been inspired to describe this as “our Tahrir Square” or “our movement of the squares,” like in Greece. This is true to an extent–Occupy Wall Street and the similar actions it inspired are providing a place for people fed up with business as usual to come together and take a stand.
But we also need to know what the Occupy movement is not–yet. Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution was not just an occupation, but a mass mobilization that was the culmination of years of organizing, including militant working class struggles. Likewise, in Greece, the movement of the squares came after a string of general strikes and a youth-led rebellion against police brutality not long before that.
Occupy Wall Street has electrified many thousands of people and is bringing together the forces that can be part of struggles on another scale, as in Greece or Egypt. But whether those forces develop depends a lot on what activists do now.
It’s time to step up the struggle. In every city and town, there are teachers who are under attack, foreclosures mounting, instances of police violence. The Occupy movement can be a part of responding.
We want to build the occupations and defend them against police attack. And we also want to build a political space that goes beyond the occupations–a new resistance that brings the spirit of the Occupy movement to workplaces, campuses and communities throughout society.
This article was originally published in the SocialistWorker