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Contested Ground: 9/11, Occupy Wall Street and the Future of America

Issue 266

9/11 and Occupy Wall Street took place within a block of each other at the center of American Empire. Their legacies couldn’t be more different, nor the futures they point to.

John Tarleton Sep 15

Ten years ago this month Occupy Wall Street burst to life in Zuccotti Park, a small patch of open space in the heart of New York’s financial district. During the daytime, the area bustled with office workers and tourists as well as the protesters.

Late at night on the park’s northwest end, when the camp was mostly quiet and the surrounding area desolate, you could look across Trinity Place and feel the floodlit presence of the World Trade Center site where the rust-colored skeletons of partially completed skyscrapers reached toward the sky, again.

Some observers noted the juxtaposition of Zuccotti and Ground Zero and the historic events that took place a decade apart within a stone’s throw of each other. Was it a mere coincidence? Or, was there a deeper reason these two otherwise radically different events unfolded in such close proximity to each other?

A quick journey through history suggests there is. And how we respond to the history that has been made on this contested ground has everything to do with what kind of future we will make for ourselves, and perhaps in the long run, whether we will have any future at all.

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From the first moment a Dutch caravel approached the mouth of the Hudson River in September 1609, New York was destined to be the center of a commercial empire.

The Muhheakantuck (“the river that flows both ways”), as it was known to the Lenape Indians, was the 17th century equivalent of a super-highway into the interior of the continent. New York Harbor was a spacious, deep-water port that offered shelter for seagoing vessels crisscrossing the North Atlantic.

A fur-trading post was established. New Amsterdam, a European-style town, emerged at the tip of Manahatta, an island dotted with hills and streams and spring-fed ponds that would be leveled and remade over the next four centuries.

“Enslaved Africans were put to work building the fort, mill and new stone houses,” writes historian Christopher Moore. “They cleared land for farms and shore areas for docks. Former Native American trails were broadened (Broad Way) to accommodate horse drawn wagons. Operating and working in the colony’s sawmills, the enslaved laborers provided lumber for shipbuilding and export back to Europe.”

It was African laborers who built the wall to keep out Native American tribes in the area that would lend its name to the street that has become synonymous with American capitalism.

In the early 1990s, a six-acre African burial ground was discovered 30 feet beneath the earth near the corner of Broadway and Chambers. It contained the skeletal remains of as many as 20,000 individuals who had been interred there from the mid-1630s to 1795. The remains of 419 Africans were later interred at the African Burial Ground Memorial site at 290 Broadway.

New Amsterdam was run by the Dutch West India Company. Desperate for settlers who would try to make a life in their desolate colonial outpost, the company welcomed a melting pot of peoples from the far corners of Europe, helping lay the groundwork for whiteness to emerge as a new pan-European identity.

How we respond to the history that has been made on this contested ground has everything to do with what kind of future we will make for ourselves, and perhaps in the long run, whether we will have any future at all.

Several decades after its founding, New Amsterdam fell to the English in a superpower skirmish of that era. The victors would accelerate the colonial project and renamed their new possession after the king’s brother, the Duke of York.

New York would continue growing throughout the colonial era and during the early American republic. After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, New York City became the entrepot for agricultural products from the Great Lakes region even as its merchants and manufacturers profited handsomely from trade ties with the slave South. From 1800 to 1850, the population of the great metropolis multiplied from 60,000 to 590,000 and then to 3.4 million by 1900.

As the United States ascended as a global power in the 20th century, New York ascended too, becoming a central node in global capitalism as well as a global center of media, arts and international diplomacy.

In the early 1970s, the Twin Towers rose near the tip of Lower Manhattan. The twin behemoths dominated the New York skyline. They were symbols of late 20th century America’s unrivaled economic power and wealth. It was The End of History, and the United States had prevailed. Left unstated was that U.S. global dominance had been purchased in part with the blood of millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America who had been killed by U.S. bombs, U.S.-engineered proxy wars and U.S.-backed terror regimes, including one installed in Chile on September 11, 1973.

In the Middle East, the United States repeatedly made a Faustian bargain with Islamists who would target secular leftwing movements that threatened Western control of the Middle East and its vast oil reserves.

Then one clear blue September morning, the Towers were felled by jet airplanes hijacked by individuals wielding $3 box cutters as weapons. The dust from the collapsing Twin Towers had barely settled before America’s leaders were issuing blood-curdling calls for a new crusade to remake the Middle East in our image.

The 9/11 attacks were so extreme that it prompted many people to ask for the first time, “Why do they hate us?” The retort from politicians and the media was swift: “They hate us because of our freedom.” Soon after, the U.S. government plunged into multi-trillion dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and gave birth to a massive surveillance state in the name of “homeland security.”

The disastrous decisions made by bipartisan elites after 9/11 were compounded by their presiding over the 2008 financial crash and then bailing out the Wall Street bankers who wrecked the economy and millions of peoples’ lives.

In the third year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Occupy Wall Street erupted and inspired hundreds of like-minded protest camps in cities and towns across the country. The movement didn’t make precise policy demands. However, it did correctly diagnose a rigged system dominated by the 1% and offered a competing vision of a world based on mutual care and shared abundance.

That vision would be snuffed out for a time by the police raids that shut down Occupy encampments across the country, including the one at Zuccotti Park. Still, the choice embodied by the 9/11 and Occupy anniversaries remains the same: continue down the dystopian path of permanent war, racism and ecological collapse. Or, break with 400 years of a system based on extracted wealth hoarded by the few and turn instead toward building a world of, by and for the many. We’ve only seen that world in glimpses, but it’s always been within our reach.

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