America’s ‘Millbank moment’

Protests that started at Wall Street have spread, revealing the crisis of representative democracy.

99 per cent
The ’99 per cent’ movement is a statement about under-representation and democracy [GALLO/GETTY]

The Occupation of Wall Street, which has successfully and peacefully resisted an eviction attempt by New York police by sheer weight of numbers, has inspired similar occupations across the United States and across the world.

A demonstration which began with a handful of protesters getting pepper-sprayed on the pavements of Manhattan’s financial district has mushroomed into a national phenomenon, with labour unions rushing to offer solidarity and high-profile supporters lending advice and assistance.

After a year of police violence and savage crackdowns on protest across Europe, the injection of energy from across the Atlantic is more than welcome.

There are good reasons to be watching what’s happening in Lower Manhattan right now. The idea of Wall Street as the heart of a global financial system whose collapse threatens the future of human civilisation is as important as the space itself, and while this is no Tahrir Square – the occupiers are hardly storming the skyscrapers above them – the brash symbolism of the protest is hard to ignore.

At the demonstration on London’s Westminster bridge last weekend, I was handed flyers reading “We are the 99 per cent”. As Britain gears up for a fresh wave of student demonstrations beginning on November 9, the mantra of the Occupy America movement, somewhere between an cry of rage and a threat, has begun to resonate around the world.

What does it mean?

As a slogan, “We are the 99 per cent” is inclusive to the point of inarticulacy. It is neither a demand nor an ideology, simply a statement of numbers. While intended to set the majority of ordinary citizens against the elite “one per cent” who, it is alleged, own and control most of the world’s wealth, the slogan has been criticised for its formlessness: Does it mean: “We are the 99 per cent, and we’re here to take back the money you stole?” Does it mean: ”We are the 99 per cent, and we will be pleased to serve you dinner whilst you confiscate our homes?” Does it simply mean “we are the 99 percent, and we’re screwed?”

It means none of these things: The slogan is a statistic, a simple statement of majority. “We are the 99 per cent,” it says. “Why aren’t we represented?”

At their heart, these protests are about democracy. They are about the crisis of representative democracy taking place across the world, as party politics consistently places the interests of business above the interests of society.


Fault Lines: The top one per cent

This morning may turn out to be the “Millbank moment” for the “Occupy America” movement. When union activists arrived to swell the numbers defending Liberty Plaza, prompting the city authorities to back down from their planned eviction, reports from the occupation were wild with triumphant energy, and the chanting of: “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” is probably still going on right now.

What I saw and heard in Liberty Plaza when I visited was the same shocked excitement I saw in London almost a year ago, when student demonstrators smashed into the headquarters of the party in government at Millbank: It was young people who have spent their entire lives feeling powerless and alienated suddenly realising that, with enough numbers and enough courage, they can be unstoppable, that they can take on the edifices of power and win, at least for a little while.

The difference is that New Yorkers have achieved this without breaking a single window. The scrupulous non-violence of the Occupy America movement leaves the right-wing press unable to tell a simple story about “feral kids kicking off against the cops”: Instead, the images that have been broadcast around the world are of New York police pepper-spraying young women in the face and peaceful protesters being beaten away from Wall Street while chanting the First Amendment in chorus.

On the morning of Friday, October 14, hundreds of thousands watched online as the authorities failed to remove the ordinary, indignant people of the United States from Liberty Plaza. When Americans do symbolic protest, they do it utterly without irony.

In one way or another, we are all standing in the shadow of Wall Street. The dignified defiance of the New York occupation has inspired the world, and may yet provide some relief for the weary fighters on the European front of what looks set to be a long and punishing fight against austerity and state repression.

The question now, for the occupiers and for everyone else is: What will the 99 per cent do next?

Laurie Penny is an author and blogger from London, who writes for New Statesman, The Guardian, and others.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read