Sept 26

It has been an electric year for global change — the Arab Spring, the European Summer, the Israeli Summer and now — what shall we call it? The American Fall? The occupation of Wall Street began on September 17, and is expected to continue for weeks to come. According to Adbusters, who launched the action, 5,000 descended on September 17th, with three hundred camping out. It’s ten days later, and the numbers are growing in “Liberty Square,” where the protesters have camped out, as are solidarity actions in the financial districts of other cities.

#OccupyWallStreet is becoming a living laboratory for direct democracy. The cry is “we are the 99 per cent” — a reference to the fact that 1 per cent of the population of the U.S. is holding the vast amount of wealth. The gap between rich and poor is staggering, and cannot be sustained. It’s time we stopped letting the hopes and dreams, bellies and ecologies of the planet be controlled by a crazed gang of Wall Street gamblers obsessed with profit, fuelled by greed and caught in a myopic world view that can’t see beyond the next quarter, let alone seven generations. As artist-activist Noah Fischer, wearing an Abe Lincoln Penny mask emblazoned with the words “In Gold We Trust,” told me on Day 6, “it is the fall of the empire of greed.”

Abe Lincoln Penny mask: "In Gold We Trust"

On the ninth night of the encampment, it was moving to receive a message from Noam Chomsky, read out to the general assembly via the “people’s mic” — a technique in which the whole group repeats the words of a speaker, enabling everyone to hear. Imagine each of these lines read, and then chanted:

“Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street — financial institutions generally — has caused severe damage to the people of the United States (and the world). That has set in motion a vicious cycle that has concentrated immense wealth, and with it political power, in a tiny sector of the population, a fraction of 1 per cent, while the rest increasingly become what is sometimes called “a precariat” — seeking to survive in a precarious existence. They also carry out these ugly activities with almost complete impunity — not only too big to fail, but also too big to jail. The courageous and honourable protests underway in Wall Street should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.”

Other influential thinkers have been weighing in, including Professor Cornell West, who said, “you see what’s going on in Wall Street right now with the civil disobedience — this is the legacy of Martin King at work. That kind of King-like activity is necessary to wake the country up. This could be our last chance for democratic renewal.” While documentarian Michael Moore remarked, “This is the very first attempt, since the crash of ’08, to take a real stand. And it’s been powerful. And I gotta believe that even though it may only number in the hundreds right now, this is gonna grow — not only on Wall Street, but in communities all over America.”

And indeed, it is growing, especially in the info sphere, which is just as important as the numbers on the ground. As with the Arab Spring, the occupation has been all over Facebook and Twitter: a reported over 2 million Twitter hits so far. The revolution will not be televised — it will be tweeted.

As always in these situations, it takes a fair bit of discernment to really figure out what’s going on. Both the mainstream media and the various parties involved with the action tend to see things through their own specific filters. Forget any accurate head count — the mainstream media tends to under-estimate while the activists will over-estimate. But more importantly, you need to dig around to find the depth of the protest. During the people’s occupation in Greece, all I heard about initially through the mainstream news were stories of clashes between cops and protesters. Fortunately, a Greek Facebook friend shared news of the participatory democracy that was taking place, and a whole new lens on the actions was revealed to me. Alas, the fact of the matter is that when the police do step over the line, as they did this Saturday during a march from the encampment to Union Square, the whole world watches. The police reacted with mace and excessive force to the unauthorized march through lower Manhattan. Over 80 people were arrested and an iconic YouTube video of young women being maced, and sobbing as a result, has gone viral.

A young black man named Hero, who had just been released from jail after being arrested at the September 24th march, shared his experience with me, “Someone pushed a little red button and the police turned into adrenaline packed zombies. I found myself in the middle, I saw my friend go down, and when I tried to help her a cop punched me in the face, then dragged me over the barrier and threw me to the ground and told me to stop resisting arrest, as I lay there. It was a crazy experience. But I’m here today, and I’m blessed. And I’m back, stronger than ever.”

Perhaps as a result of the excessive use of force, and the fact that the occupation is not going away, the mainstream media have finally started to cover the story. I hope they spend enough time at the encampment to get below the surface.

Of course, we all have our filters, so let me be transparent, and let you in on my filter these days — it’s the love filter. What’s love got to do with occupying Wall Street? In my books, everything. I see the love when people come together to create a world that works for everyone, and that is at the real heart of these seasons of change. A new understanding of power is being realized around this earth, a power that is very different than the power-over models of the top-down hierarchies that are currently running the show. This new understanding of power comes from the bottom up. It is the horizontal power, the shared power, of the people. What else is that, if not love?

In this short video, which I shot on the first day of the encampment, I talk to a man wearing a mask of a Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dime (artist-activist Noah Fischer) about love, brotherhood and the parallels between the 1929 stock market crash and the current economic situation. He responds that this is what happens when people let greed run rampant and think only of themselves. He calls for a transition from a consumption-driven culture of “I” to one of “us.” He reminds us that we’re all connected, and together we can find a way to solve these problems.

In a later interview at Liberty Square, on Day 9, Noah explained, “I’m here because I think that the future of our country looks really hopeless right now. That’s true in my life — for example, I have a lot of student loans, and a lot of aspirations, but the kind of jobs that are available, and the kind of funding for the arts — ’cause I’m an artist — makes it really impossible for me to ever pay back my student loans. I’m also aware of the larger picture: I’m in a country where millions of people are unemployed, and millions of people don’t have health care. I think right now there is a real sense in the spirit of Americans of hopelessness. A lot of people are actually losing their houses and losing their jobs. It doesn’t feel good to be an American right now. That’s why I’m here — to be part of something new, to be part of the seeds of change.”

When I asked Hero why he was here, he said, “My family has been the epitome of the struggle — foreclosure, unemployment, tuition costs, my mother struggling to feed me and my sister — so I wanted to come out and empathize with these people and stand in solidarity.”

The many converging crises we are facing, from the economic to the ecological, are forcing us to re-imagine everything. Business as usual is clearly not working. The occupation of Wall Street is just beginning, but it is already sending a powerful message, a challenge to the old world order. And now, the #occupy meme is spreading to cities all over the world. Another world, a just and compassionate world, is possible and we need to keep working hard to discover just what that looks like. We have a long ways to go, but here at Liberty Square the people are putting themselves on the line to create that new world right here, right now.

More photos are available on Velcrow Ripper’s Occupy Wall Street Flickr set.