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Docu-py Wall Street

Bennett Baumer Mar 30

Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America
By Writers for the 99%
OR Books, 2011

This Changes Everything
Edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of YES! Magazine
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011

Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America
Content by the Occupy! Gazette
Verso, 2011

 

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is at a crossroads. It used to live in plazas and parks and gave voice to rambling general assemblies about the troubling triumvirate of race, class and gender. Now, OWS is more diffuse. A series of insta-books have been published to make sense of this transformation. The Arab Spring bloomed into the indignados of the European summer and then what might be termed an American Fall. In July, the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters put out a call to “bring a tent” to protest Wall Street. In September, instead of taking Wall Street, a small band of activists did set up camp in a nondescript public-private park named after a real estate company chairman. No one noticed.

I went to Zuccotti Park on Oct. 14 at 5:30 a.m. A throng of thousands ringed the park in a show of force to prevent the City from clearing the plaza under the pretext of unsanitary conditions. A mic check then echoed, “We received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park and they are postponing the cleaning.” Billionaire Mayor Bloomberg blinked and we won.

A great retelling of the scene appears in Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, replete with social media anecdotes and chants of “We are the 99%” — now familiar associations with the Occupy movement.

“Something happened in September 2011 so unexpected that no politician or pundit saw it coming,” reads the introduction to This Changes Everything. Prior to Occupy, the Tea Party crashed Democratic elected officials’ town hall meetings and turned them into “town hell meetings” with asinine rage to keep the government’s hands off of Medicare. Budget deficits were the new bogeyman. Banks nearly collapsed global capitalism and were rewarded with bailouts while we — and we did not even know who “we” were yet — were told to tighten our belts. And then it happened. The American Left reared its head and breathed new life. We learned we were the 99%. And we were powerful.

Populist Awakening

Many essays use words like “awakened” to describe what happened. Americans have opened up about their personal struggles on wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, eliciting sympathy and, more importantly, solidarity. Thus far, OWS’s biggest influence has been on the national dialogue about gross inequality. It has successfully framed economic struggle in brief but eloquent phraseology, nay, mathematics — the 99% versus the 1%.

The literary journal N+1 and Verso books published a compilation of essays, tweets and texts (Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America) from their excellent Occupy! Gazette series. Highlights include Žižek’s excoriation “Don’t Fall in Love With Yourselves,” which starts: “We are all losers, but the true losers are down there on Wall Street.” The Occupy! Gazette’s strong point is artwork but N+1 has not published another edition since mid-December.

Another Occupy: Scenes from Occupied America hit is Rebecca Solnit’s essay on violence, anarchism and diversity of tactics. “The euphemism for violence is ‘diversity of tactics’…But diversity does not mean that anything goes,” Solnit writes. Violence’s role in Occupy’s narrative cannot be overstated — it drove the media into a frenzy while “white shirts” suddenly entered our lexicon and Americans became familiar with pepper spray. Nathan Schneider’s piece on diversity of tactics in This Changes Everything explores why traditional forms of civil disobedience aren’t well suited to Occupy. Schneider writes, “While those in the civil rights movement could sit in the wrong part of a segregated bus, the occupiers at Liberty Plaza can’t exactly flout campaign finance laws, or laws regarding the regulation of banks.”

Pizza box protest signs about student debt and being laid off were ubiquitous in Zuccotti, but the white middle-class’ Great Recession was already an unbearable depression for African-Americans and Latinos throughout the country.

Each book features powerful stories of people of color getting involved to make OWS’s declaration of beliefs more representative. For example, the People of Color working group here in New York led to organizing efforts in Harlem and the Bronx.

Without their valuable organizing work, the movement would not be as strong.

Future of Occupy

There is little discussion on Occupy’s future in these books. Last fall, occupy had encampments in many places, but police are moving to close the movement’s remaining redoubts, including the occupation in New Haven, Conn.

Holding ground as a long-term tactic is most likely over, and Occupy needs a 2.0. Many occupiers spent the winter taking over foreclosed homes, staging actions against banks and participating in occupations in their own neighborhoods. And it is now time for community organizing groups to step in and carry the load through the elections this fall.

But whether these efforts will lead to the same level of notoriety that Occupy reached last fall remains to be seen.

There is certainly reason to worry about Occupy. Noted left intellectuals, including Chris Hedges and David Graeber, are grappling with the friction between police confrontations and the need to be strategic, while others worry that slight economic improvements will cause middle-class support for Occupy to atrophy.

Occupy is making good on its promise of an American Spring. Unions and community groups are sponsoring a series of workshops training activists in direct action, titled “Spring training for the 99%.” However, I wish Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, had examined Occupy as a brand in her essay in This Changes Everything.With the movement’s increasing popularity, Occupy is becoming an attitude and a brand as much as it is a movement — hopefully this broad banner will continue to galvanize action against corporate abuses.