Walking down Broadway from City Hall Park in New York City’s financial district you notice a profound increase in police presence within just a few blocks, from four or five officers interspersed around camera wielding tourists near St. Paul’s churchyard, to a half dozen paddy wagons, twenty or more rolled up police nets and a maze of metal barricades ostensibly intended to direct pedestrian traffic at the corner of Liberty Street. This Saturday morning, like the three weeks before it, saw hundreds of anti-corporate public space occupiers demanding protection from a rapacious economic system controlled by the millionaires who work hundreds of feet above them. The dystopic postcard of our current economic reality could only be completed by the ring of 140 police officers, public service employees themselves, issued by the department at the reported tab of $2 million in additional costs–to protect the banks from their unhappy victims.
Like millions of people in dozens of other countries, the protesters have taken to occupying the public space to challenge a failing and unjust system, in this case the most repeated theme is the corporate corruption of public decision-making and its now abundantly clear detrimental effects. The protest-city organized in the growing Occupy Wall Street encampment is a direct assertion of a constitutional right to assembly. The live-in protesters are driven by hundreds of different but inter-related causes, and at heart defined by a devotion to the general assembly democratic process. They have self-governed everything from general political platforms to media outreach, sanitation and dinner. Even in the decentralized and sometimes raucous planning meetings before the occupation began on Sept 17, anti-corporatism and democratic involvement were the two sustaining themes.
Unsurprisingly, the movement which has tried so hard to become smarter, more open-minded and more effective as it has grown, has instead become a source of easy fear-mongering for corporate-sponsored politicos like Eric Cantor, who recently told the crowd at the right-wing Value Voters Summit that he was “increasingly concerned about growing mobs occupying wall street.”
At it’s heart though, the #OccupyWallStreet movement, and the dozens of inter-related occupations, are exactly the opposite of a mob. More mobbish, although in a different way, might be Cantor’s hand in stalling the US economy while betting against US treasury bonds.
The crowd at Liberty Plaza on the other hand is the work of crowd democracy, not mob rule. The Adbusters media push and the Anonymous logistical help could only give a movement with no clear goals a call to action and a promise of support.
As the occupation went from days to weeks, and the arrests numbered in the hundreds, even more people arrived, and numerous challenges became evident to many of the group’s members. Among these have been the need for a clear message, the need for self-government, the need for food and sanitation, the need for media attention, the need for legal observers, the need for local activist and union support. In the face of these growing challenges, the growing protest-city didn’t denigrate to the rage and mindless action Cantor would have us imagine in a mob.
Instead, they addressed their movement’s needs, challenges and solutions in general assemblies while coordinating their specific action through smaller democratic working groups.
Through both their consistent self-made media through now dozens of twitter and facebook accounts they kept the attention of their core movement followers while both they and their followers lambasted the lack of main stream media coverage. When Twitter, a social networking website, blocked related tags from trending, it only further spurred activity in Zuccotti Plaza and the protesters created a livestream online video channel as the 24 hour network of the occupation. The first week of media attention consisted mostly of blogs, individual journalists, leftist outlets and alternative publications, but as the numerous independent bloggers, and a now coordinated media teams persevered past the first seven days of inclement weather and dozens of arrests, the local media and then the national media began to pay attention.
Much of the movement’s success at proliferating itself as its own news-source should also be attributed to the dozens of supporters who showed up with their smart phones and digital cameras to distribute the media that corporate outlets wouldn’t provide. The media team huddled around the laptops in the center of Zuccotti Park do not control this independent group of people nor has there been an imposed hierarchy in the social network accounts that coordinated recent occupation actions. The media team from the main #occupywallstreet blog would openly, sometimes standing on one of the stone benches in the center of the park, ask for pictures and video from anyone who had been to the day’s protests, rallies, drum circles and arrests. With no need for leadership, instead the crowd-dispersal of media is an open source implementation of democratic ideals.
But the anti-mob crowd democracy at Liberty Plaza has made headway on much more than getting media attention. Legal observers from the National Legal Guild help ensure their rights are being protected when they march, camp or are arrested en masse, as happened on October 1st on the Brooklyn Bridge. A sanitation working group, including a rain committee, all democratic, keep the park clean and the electronic equipment dry. Both a budget and a kitchen have been coordinated in a democratic fashion to feed the protest city’s growing numbers. There’s an Occupied Wall Street Journal being circulated in the park. Plans are constantly unfolding for coordinating with other related marches, be their local or at one of the other occupations around the United States. Art and music has been coordinated both internally and externally as new talent comes and is and added to the daily marches and occasional jam sessions. In short, as the challenges to the occupy wall street movement have grown, they have not degraded their movement to the brute violence, mental degeneration and hierarchical centralization of “the mob.”
Besides upholding core democratic principles these sorts of open source movements, which are keen to newer voices and better ideas, while shunning the need for leadership, have shown themselves to be effective. The park is clean. There’s a first aid station. The many messages of group’s participants are now connected into a vision of a trampled 99 percent. They have also forged creative new alliances, calling out more seasoned activists, hinting at the possibility of once more building a broader economic, social and justice movement — a broad left.
It was through self-generated outreach, by the the open source supporters across the country and world, that the movement was able to increase its numbers, logistical coordination (tarps, media, pizza, journalists, live streaming video) and increasing middle class and union support. This past week dozens of major unions including the Transit Workers Union, numerous Teamster Locals, the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY and the Service Employees International Union pledged their solidarity with the occupation movement, culminating Wednesday Oct 5, in one of the most diverse rallies marches the city has seen in decades.
There was a strange, almost historic moment on Wednesday evening as the last marchers from Foley Square crowded into the thousands now gathered around Zuccotti Plaza, renamed Liberty Plaza by its occupiers. The anti-war, anti-corporate counter-culture movement stood strong surrounded by hundreds of families, burly construction workers in hardhats, public service employees, local peace activists and dozens of smaller unions. Even the corporate media showed up to collect sound bites.
Among the crowd in the park were union construction workers like Phil, in his early 30’s, who actually worked earlier in the day on the current construction project where the World Trade Center site had once stood. Three decades earlier construction workers numbering in the hundreds, during the Hard Had Riot, came down from the original World Trade Center site to violently attack anti-war protesters, a brutal display of the the factionalism that would long prevent the building of a broad-left movement in America.
Now, Phil and I smoked cigarettes together at the end of the rally as he told me about how much more he pays in taxes than the bankers in those buildings. We shared cigarettes with a group of pierced, tattooed occupiers who were eating hallal lamb and rice while an extended family, here with the transit workers, rifled through different protest signs they wanted to take home.
“My mortgage, his unemployment, his debt. Forget retiring. We’re all in the same sh-t now,” said Phil. “So we better get used to it.”