New York minutes: Observations and aims in Occupy Wall Street

| October 13, 2011

There is a growing contention over what Occupy Wall Street is all about, "its core message" as the news media says. Advice is coming from every quarter about this, some good, some well meaning if naive, and some with a pronounced agenda. So perhaps it would be good to look at things a bit more sweepingly. What is happening here? What is the message?

First, let's start with matters of space, what does it tell us? The encampment is set up on a plaza called Zuccotti Park [renamed Liberty Square]. This is a park that 10 years ago stood directly in front of the charred remnants of what was the World Trade Center. It was site of a horror that quickly morphed into a chauvinist shrine for U.S. military adventures, first in Afghanistan then Iraq.

The park also sits in the heart of the financial district: the Federal Reserve, Dow Jones, a multitude of banks and corporations dealing in financial instruments, are all headquartered here. These are places where, to paraphrase Marx, trades and decisions are made that generate staggering amounts of wealth at one pole and staggering misery and pauperization at the other.

It is in this way that this occupation finds itself at the intersection of empire and capital. In a way both calculated and accidental, this demonstration has literally settled on "ground zero" of where the United States finds itself in the world today. In this regard, and others, it is perfectly sensible then that this occupation has raised the spectre of America's Tahir Square.

How it was able to get a foothold is worth inspection. Zuccotti Park is a private park, open to the public 24 hours a day. In New York the trade-off to rapacious real estate development have been concessions in the form of public plazas -- mandated by municipal code. It is a paradox, free space staked out amid the clamour for private property. This has consequences. Had this been a city park, the crush of rules and regulations would have allowed the mayor and the police much more latitude to legally assault this project -- to "Kill it before it grows," to invoke Bob Marley. But they were not immediately able to do this. Of course what will eventually happen is a question for the days ahead.

Which helps in understanding the role of the NYPD, a force who have served as the binary opposite of these actions. Since the occupation began in mid September, the NYPD has been omnipresent. This is a police force that has established a sophisticated doctrine for dealing with dissent. There is a prohibitive process of getting permits to demonstrate, no amplified sound is allowed without permits, the police have layers of forces they deploy, foot cops, scooter cops, Community Affairs officers, and TARU [Technical Assistance Research Units] who systematically videotape demonstrators, and of course the ubiquitous metal barricades. To express yourself in New York -- in contrast to the much proclaimed freedom of expression of America -- one needs mind very discrete rules. To violate them (or even not) can get you pepper sprayed, arrested, and beaten. All of this has happened to the Occupy Wall Street folks, including the outrageous spectacle of 700-plus people trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge and systematically arrested.

Which gets to the other, decisive, element in play here -- the souls at the heart of this movement. My first time setting foot on the Square, I was immediately struck by how for the first time since 9/11/2001 the place seems to have real life about it. At any given moment the Square is filled with hundreds and thousands of people. One immediately feels the vibrancy when stepping onto the square, it is one of an emerging movement and culture of resistance. There is talking, debating, drumming, chanting, speechmaking. This is a young crowd, mainly white and middle class but also with a pronounced element of peoples from different cultures. The vibe is serious, spirited and disciplined.

During a recent rally in Washington Square Park I watched the OWS advance forces prepare for the afternoon rally. The folks doing set up were working cooperatively, some had just met, some had known each other for several weeks running -- they were women and men and they were sharing the hard work, with good deal of respect and equality, of sustaining a project that include living outside that is so physically demanding. One woman told me that she lives in Brooklyn, so occupies via commute, other people come some days and not others, others still are living there around the clock. They tell me they have sleeping bags that can sustain subzero temperatures, and are preparing for the harshness of a New York winter.

This gets at something paradoxical. This demonstration has used cutting edge technology -- the internet, Twitter -- as a life line to make it presence known on its own terms. Yet there is so much that is analog, that rests on direct human effort. On the street the demonstrators broadcast their message orally, with the crowd repeating what a speaker says, so all can hear. They do this to circumvent the limits put on permitted sound equipment. The signage is largely handmade, as are the drums manual devices, and finally there are the people themselves.

Which brings us back to the "message." Exactly why this action has captured the imagination of those straining for a better world is it has dared to call out the thing as a whole, a monstrous system of capitalism that seems rapaciously intent on expropriating any kind of profit and benefit it can from the world's peoples and resources. In this, it has hit the contradiction square on its head.

There is also the exhilarating aspect of the power of taking the initiative. As Chris Hedges writing in "The Occupied Wall Street, Issue #2" noted, "We are not pleading with the Congress for electoral reform. We know electoral politics is a farce. We have found another way to be heard and exercise power."

Of course, where you go with this is problematic. Some of the framing I saw among demonstrators was that there is something needs to be fixed -- there is something fixable -- which any honest examination would suggest is not possible. If Wall Street is raking it in, even amid economic crisis, then capitalism is working just fine -- that's the problem and is a problem in front of us. That said one of my favourite signs I've seen, "I Love Humanity, Let's Figure This Shit Out Together." I think that captures well what Occupy Wall Street is wrestling with.

Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist. He is a contributor to truthout.org, History News Network, rabble.ca and other publications. He is based in New York City. His writings can be found by clicking here.

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