Understanding Wall Street’s ‘Occupation’

Four activists discuss goals of the 24-hour encampment in New York’s financial district as it gains nationwide momentum.

Occupy Wall Street holds open daily meetings to discuss how to continue its movement, whose purpose may simply be to exist as a space for people tired with the US financial crisis and the government’s handling of it [Reuters]

On September 17th, a relatively small group of people frustrated with the United States’ financial crisis and the government’s response to it camped out at Zuccotti Park in New York City – next to the former site of the World Trade Centre and nearby Wall Street.

One week after New Yorkers started camping out, 80 protesters were arrested and at least four pepper sprayed by police as they marched through New York’s financial district.

After two weeks, thousands of marchers headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge, and 700 were arrested as they walked directly onto the famous span that reaches between New York’s boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The action has become known as ‘Occupy Wall Street’, a trending topic that has gone viral on Twitter, Facebook, and as organisers hope, in the streets.

At the time of this writing, people in about 70 other US cities are taking over, or planning to take over, areas in their nearest financial centres, and camping, marching, and making collective decisions about how to make the best use of their momentum, using Occupy Wall Street’s model as an example. Solidarity actions are have taken place or been planned in the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Bosnia.

But major aspects of Occupy Wall Street remained undefined. The group has not issued any set of demands, and has prided itself in bringing people together over an issue rather than a goal.

Al Jazeera spoke with four activists who are participating in the growing movement to “occupy” more and more of the US, to get some answers about their motivations, decision-making processes, demographics and hopes.

Elliot Tarver (ET), 21, is a doula who has been participating in Occupy Wall Street’s organising process since its first planning meeting in early August, and has been at the demonstration almost daily.

Jesse Alexander Meyerson (JAM), 25, is a New York journalist who is working on Occupy Wall Street’s labour outreach committee.

Mohammed Malik (MM), 29, is the former executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in south Florida and is now unemployed, is organising Occupy Miami, in the state of Florida, which is set to launch on October 15.

Malcolm Sacks (MS), 22, is a New York activist who has been participating in the Zuccotti Park occupation.

AJE: Can you explain, as simply as possible, the purpose of Occupy Wall Street? What statement are you making, and what does it mean to have a protest without a defined goal?

ET: Occupy Wall Street is a growing movement of people who came together for a lot of different reasons – it’s pretty broad and there haven’t been any explicitly stated demands, although implicitly, by being on Wall Street and by taking over the space and all the actions that have been coming out of it, it’s people who are angry about the way that corporations and politics and money controls their lives and controls the way that they live and breath and function in society, and who have some sort of vision for a different world that exists outside of greed, racism, patriarchy, corporate power and political oppression.

MS: It’s an expression of frustration at the feeling that the political process is being run by economic interests and by giant corporations in particular.

MM: When people use the word ‘occupy’ what they mean to say is: Bring the public into a role where they actually advance decision-making, most importantly the decision-making of our economic well-being. The way that the institutions operate in the type of society we live in, is not very conducive to high levels of democratic participation. I think often people feel disconnected. We have these elites in our society that really make us question whether we do indeed live in a democracy, or do we really live in a plutocracy – a country controlled by elites? In this case, the economic elite.

JAM: It should be reasonably clear to anyone who looks at what’s going on at Occupy Wall Street that the goal is ending the corrupting influence of extreme wealth on democratic politics. I don’t really buy that people don’t understand what this is about. Wall Street controls America, and we oppose that.

Just because there aren’t demands for a certain bill to be passed or a certain law to be repealed, that shouldn’t make us believe that it is somehow un-unified or a meaningless gesture. The meaning is clear.

[Occupy Wall Street] is not only a political protest, but it’s also a model society, which I think is the really interesting political protest – that it is itself the demand.

There’ve been meaningful social movements before without a unified, coherent list of demands, and there’ve been movements before in which the demands have taken years to develop – whereas the occupation has lasted 16 days now.

In 1949 it was inconceivable that by 1968, black folks would have the right to vote… As late as December of 2010, there wasn’t a single American pundit or expert on the Middle East predicting that by January 25th, (Egypt’s) Tahrir Square would be teeming with people and that not very many weeks later, Hosni Mubarak would have been ousted.

AJE: The target seems clear: Wall Street and the most powerful and wealthy Americans who made decisions that caused or furthered the economic crisis. Who is participating?

MS: In general, the whole freak-out about the economic crisis, in the US at least, is kind of a response to the economic crisis finally hitting white people. I think this is a reflection of that. People of colour in the US have been kind of in a state of crisis for the past few hundred years, in terms of unemployment and lack of political representation and lack of state support for economic troubles. It finally feels like a crisis for the majority, including middle class and working class white folks, which is why we’re seeing white people at the front, and taking over, these protests.

ET: While the overall demographics of the group started out mostly as white, middle class and grad students, overall the demographics have gotten much more diverse. But while that has changed, the people who feel empowered and who have been conditioned their whole lives to feel confident, to feel comfortable, stepping up to a group and speaking to hundreds of people, are going to be more people from privileged positions – white men in particular – and I think that’s something that needs to be addressed in a huge ways.

AJE: How does the group decide to move forward with anything specific? What is the groups decision-making process?

ET: The way it’s set up is that there are general assemblies twice a day. Anyone can make a proposal, an announcement, or their point, and things are decided through consensus … rather than it just being an elected group of leaders who get to decide things together in their closed little bubble.

A big task is translating ourselves and making it more accessible to people who don’t really understand what it means to make decisions horizontally – which means that there’s no single leader or single people who have control and tell everyone what to do.

MS: I disagree. I’m hesitant to say that it’s non-hierarchical, that there’s no leadership, because I do really think that there’s a core of people – the media and press team – who are doing a lot of the organising and shaping the public image. Me and some other folks have encountered resistance on their [the leadership’s] part to incorporate other ideas into the work and to think critically about what’s going on.

We tried to talk to one of the media folks about the problem of there not being people of colour, and the problem of people of colour not necessarily feeling comfortable participating, and there was resistance on their part to acknowledge that. They deflect criticisms by saying, ‘if anybody want’s to get involved they can get involved. If they want to be represented, they just come and they can do it too.’ I think it’s denying the real power dynamics that are at play now. I’m not sure if that’s a way for the leadership to deflect responsibility, or if they really don’t think that they’re excercising power in the movement.

AJE: On October 5, numerous unions and non-profit organisations are planning to march in support of Occupy Wall Street. New York’s transport worker’s union alone represents 38,000 workers. What is that about, and why is it significant?

ET: I think it’ll be really big in terms of getting people out – people who are probably the most affected by a lot of the austerity measures that we’re responding to.  I think it has potential to change the demographics – to bring out more working people and more people of colour.

JAM: I think that the labour unions and other groups geared towards advancing the needs of the voiceless, the impoverished, etc. recognise that this Occupy Wall Street movement that’s popping up all over the country and all over the world, really has people excited in a way that people haven’t been excited about other responses to the crisis.

In the most callous, cynicle way, you suspect that what big institutions want to do is come in, co-op the movement, advance its agenda and attribute it to the bodies on the ground. But in my most generous mood, what I would say is that [unions would] help this movement grow and expand and succeed and create a widespread social movement because they recognise that we’re after the same thing: we’re after the underclass and the dismantling of the dominance that the wealthy class has over politics.

AJE: Moving forward, what can we expect from Occupy Wall Street?

MS: Someone was quoted yesterday saying, “we’re going to stay here as long as we can”. But does that mean that as soon as they’re told “you can’t stay”, everyone will be gone? You can’t really tell what direction this thing is trying to move in, it’s just seeking to exist. I’m skeptical of where it might go, but I’m supportive because I think it’s clear that the existence of it, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, is meaningful.

ET: Right now it’s growing everyday and an end does not seem close.

Follow Jesse Strauss on Twitter: @AJEsseStrauss

Source: Al Jazeera


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