Solid Ground at Occupy Wall Street

On Saturday, Sept 24, over 100 participants in an “Occupy Wall Street” march in New York City were arrested in an explosion of police brutality that has catapulted this nonviolent public square movement to global attention. Swiftly, organizers blasted videos online documenting the NYPD’s unhinged force while securing arrestee legal support and political re-groupment to maintain “Liberty Plaza,” a people’s camp that has been permanently nestled a brick’s throw from Wall Street since last Saturday, Sept 17th. In the aftermath, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly is being urged to resign in disgrace.

These graphic images echo NYPD aggression from only two nights earlier, when a crowd of thousands claimed the streets of lower Manhattan on Sept 22, one day after Troy Davis’ execution. Called “A Day of Outrage” by the NYC Campaign to End the Death Penalty, what began as a Union Square vigil mourning his death became a full-scale disavowal of the US government and justice system. Thousands of people of all colors shot through the streets, without permit, ceasing traffic, dodging police vehicles, from Union Square into the West Village, then down across Broadway to join a mass rally at Liberty Plaza.

An unintended outcome of this state repression is the remarkably vast public support for these interlinking community efforts at social change. Amy Goodman, Michael Moore, Lupe Fiasco, Tom Morello, Manu Chao, Anonymous, Wikileaks, the Yes Men, and more praise the “Occupy Wall Street” public square movement that is being modeled after past and present tent cities in Cairo, Madison, Athens, and Madrid. The experiment is now being replicated like a fever in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Madison, Toronto, London, Sydney, Stuttgart, Tokyo, Milan, Amsterdam, Algiers, Tel Aviv, Portland, Chicago, Phoenix, Montreal, Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle, and Orlando.

And yet, for those who may have only encountered the aspirations of Liberty Plaza and Co. from a computer screen, this dazzling picture can remain a bit time-lagged, grainy, and all-too-flat. At worst, it might even appear to be chaotically doomed, a political liability. As a result, the big secret is that the political event of the year is catching New York City’s hundreds of broad left groups by complete surprise. Since early August, activists of varying stripes held weekly outdoor general assemblies leading up to heed counter-culture mag Adbusters’ call to “Occupy Wall Street.” But now, because this kind of protest—one where people stay put in a public space to build power—isn’t in many groups’ repertoire, a pivotal movement may be passing them by.

An on-the-ground view of Liberty Plaza clearly affirms why many more should actively support this project’s growing significance. Soon after thousands peacefully set up camp in Zucotti Square (since re-named Liberty Plaza) at the corner of Broadway and Liberty on Sept 17, the assembly’s various workgroups coordinated food, clean-up, bedding, student/labor networking, media/online and community outreach, legal support, childcare, arts/culture/festivities, and more. The on-site OccupyWallSt.org broadcasts daily statements that address the square’s purpose, goals, and concerns, which much media coverage chooses to ignore. All group decisions are made in the assemblies, with constant attention to historically under-represented voices, ongoing political education, and yes, good vibes.

For many people contributing to this project, experiences from over the last several years have proven invaluable, including the December 2008 New School occupation; February 2009 NYU occupation; March 4 and October 7, 2010 national days to defend public education; February 2010 Wisconsin capitol occupation; early May actions in NYC and Albany against Cuomo’s budget; and June 2011 Bloombergville encampment against Bloomberg’s budget. To be sure, at times discussions in Liberty Plaza are a bit uneven because of different knowledge and experience levels, but this collective radicalizing process can become exponential with consistent undogmatic support. Young and old leaders alike are pointing the way to a unique new form of social action that requires everyone to rethink familiar organizing modes.

During the early 2011 Egyptian Spring, the following phrase gave direction to mass mobilization: ”the road to factory occupations lies through Tahrir Square.” This city and country’s own road to vibrant job actions, grassroots community control, opposition to legal lynching, and all other kinds of mechanized violence may lie through these Liberty Squares now blossoming everywhere. Egypt’s lessons acutely demonstrate that liberated squares must become liberated workplaces, neighborhoods, and eventually cities. This is exactly Liberty Plaza’s aim—not to be a self-contained, pre-figurative mini-society, but a decisive tipping point in the belly of the economic beast that can collaborate with this widening network to transform global society altogether.

In 2008, David Harvey likewise asserted that our “Right to the City” is “far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.” Unsurprisingly, copies of this essay floated around the first Liberty Plaza assemblies, and continue to be shared at its free library. Harvey’s big-sighted emphasis on mapping the hot-spots for urban change is reflected in the public squares movement’s attention to not only workplaces and schools, but to these democratized hubs where diverse community sections can envision and act together in plain sight.

Political discussions constantly engage the square, like Serbian student leader Ivan Marovic coming to share how youth movements helped overthrew Milosevic, and the CUNY STRIKE study circle poring through Joe Burns’ Reviving the Strike. Alongside principles and ideologies, street tactics and strategies flow in and out of regular conversation. Here’s how we can use the police blockades of Wall Street to benefit our own efforts at shutting down financial operations. These are the city government and business pressure points. This is how we link arms or move quickly to avoid arrest or kettling. This striking union needs our support, that student coalition welcomes us to help demand a free CUNY.

Mostafa Omar’s now-famous story on what the Egyptian revolution street-level view looked like is instructive for how “Occupy Wall Street” can ultimately deal with a bullish state:

“I listened online to an amazing tape of a radio communication between the police headquarters in Alexandria and commanders in the field, trying to deal with the flood of angry protesters. In the tape, police officers are begging headquarters for reinforcements to deal with what they described as massive and dangerous crowds of 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 people, closing in on them everywhere in the city.

But the headquarters was helpless because all of the officers in the field--literally all of them--were asking for reinforcements. The headquarters advised officers and units to retreat to the precincts, and the officers responded: "Sir, protesters are burning the precincts."

The tape ends dramatically with the commander at headquarters asking a subordinate for an explanation for the police defeats. The officer simply told him: ‘Sir, it is over. The people are in the saddle.’"

The first night on occupied Wall Street, in which thousands of fiercely elated participants inaugurated this new public space of community power, hints at the kinds of action that can put people in the saddle. The tremendous roar of “Justice for // JUSTICE FOR ... Troy Davis // TROY DAVIS!” that for one near-insurrectionary night seized lower Manhattan hints at why people are propelled to take the reins. This anger and excitement will indeed continue after Saturday’s unnecessarily volatile march. With this Monday’s protest at Baruch College against the CUNY Trustees’ refusal to fund teachers’ healthcare or roll back the $1500 in tuition hikes, then October 5th’s student walkouts across CUNY, then all the actions we have ahead both inside and outside of Liberty Plaza, the city’s prelude to a revolution may not seem so unexpectedly out of reach.

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET – THE MARCH TO UNION SQUARE from Rhodes Pictures on Vimeo.

Conor is a coordinator with the Adjunct Project, and a member of the CUNY STRIKE study circle. He can be reached at conortomasreed@gmail.com.