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The 99% occupy Wall Street

October 5, 2011

The following article was written today by Pham Binh, a participant and chronicler of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in New York. Binh’s account graphically describes the changing composition and broadening social base of the protests. It is republished with his permission. Subheads have been added.

By Pham Binh

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 – The entrapment and arrest of 700 peaceful Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists on the Brooklyn Bridge has created a huge wave of support for their movement. The number of daytime occupants in Liberty Plaza doubled or tripled from 100 the week prior to 200-300 this past Monday and Tuesday. These people are the core who maintain the occupation of the plaza, making it possible for several hundreds and sometimes thousands to hold rallies in the late afternoon and participate in the open mic speakouts and General Assembly meetings in the evening.

The mood of the crowd is defiant and determined. Quite a few people were still unsure of how exactly they had been trapped by the NYPD, but that did not matter.

What mattered was that OWS made front page news in papers around the world along with its official list of grievances, undercutting naysayers who pretended it was a bunch of ignorant jobless kids without a clue as to what they want.

What mattered was that Transit Workers Union Local 100 backed up Friday’s solidarity speeches with action by filing an injunction against the city for ordering their drivers to bus arrested protesters to jail. The drivers cooperated with the orders, but only because armed high-ranking NYPD officers told them to do so. Who can blame the drivers? You never know which one of [the officers] might be the next Anthony Bologna.

Visit by a ‘one-percenter’

On Tuesday, a brave soul named Steve from the 1% came to talk to the people in the park. He claimed to work for a nearby investment firm, and he certainly dressed, spoke, and acted the part. Many of the activists questioned him and tried to debate him, but he gave them mostly suave evasions, which generated a lot of frustration among the crowd of 5-10 that gathered around him.

A white Viet Nam veteran and hospice nurse (I never saw an old woman with a purple heart until today) asked Steve why should Medicare or Social Security be privatized using a voucher system? Why should the elderly and sick be forced to do with less during these hard times? Steve replied that he does not support these moves and believed in a “strong social safety net” (a direct quote).

Next, a middle-aged black guy named Keith Thomas (who later turned out to be a transit worker injured on the job) asked Steve whether or not Wall Street firms had any type of moral obligation to their employees. (Thomas was laid off from a Wall Street firm prior to his job in the transit system.) Steve agreed they have a moral obligation, but added that no entity, whether it was a corporation or government, had obligations that were set in stone.

When I heard this, I could not keep my mouth shut anymore and interjected, “so what about Medicare and Social Security? Those are obligations, right? And you said you supported them.” I pointed out that “too big to fail” banks enjoy a government guarantee that they would get bailed out again as in 2008. Not surprisingly, Steve did not take well to my line of questioning and left shortly there after. The crowd thanked him for having the dialogue, as did I, and we asked him to come again.

I doubt he will.

A people’s movement

In the course of the exchange, a number of things became clear.

First, Wall Street and Corporate America will try to deflect responsibility for what OWS is upset about in the hopes that it falls for the Tea Party mantra that “government is the problem.” When Steve said we should be protesting in Washington, D.C., demonstrators said Wall Street owns the government; some even went so far to say that Wall Street is the government.

Second, OWS has become what can only be described as a people’s movement. When you go into the park, it really is the 99% that you find there. Thomas later told me he felt like this was “just like 1968.” He said it evoked feelings in him he had not felt for a long time.

There is a feeling of empowerment, like justice is on our side, of good will, and of seriousness of purpose in the air there that is very difficult to capture with mere words. Even pictures and video footage, worth many millions of words, cannot convey it.

You have to come to Liberty Park to experience it. And once you experience it, you cannot stop the inner urge you feel to fight and win, against all odds. It is this feeling that is propelling the movement into the most unlikely of places, like Mobile, Alabama.

I am not old enough to remember 1968, but I imagine this is what it was like.

The occupation in the last few days has become much more multiracial than in the first and second weeks. I saw aging Viet Nam veterans (some of them homeless), union workers, high schoolers, journalists from the corporate media, Laura Flanders, Michael Moore, Hispanic and African immigrants, low-wage workers who work nearby, retirees, disabled people, and college students.

The class and racial breakdown of the occupants looks much more like that of a rush hour subway car in midtown Manhattan than an alternative music concert as it did previously.

If you hear otherwise, you are hearing lies.

The only people missing are the the Steves of the city, the 1%. They are asking their friends in the corporate media, “is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal? … Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

Wall Street is worried about what this means.

And they are right to be. We are onto them.

The spirit of the Molly Maguires

The occupy movement is growing roots into all communities among all age groups and races. Everyone is bringing their issue to the table and receiving nothing but 100% support. There is not a progressive cause OWS will not get behind, nor an injustice that it will not try to address in some way.

Union members from New York City’s largest municipal workers union, DC37, held a rally at OWS on Monday, as did the Teamsters who have been locked out by 1% auction dealer Sotheby’s for months. There were quite a few members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) there as well (their headquarters is two blocks away).

All of the middle-aged union members I saw were grinning from ear to ear, cheered by the defiant and militant spirit that was once the calling card of the American labor movement. Speaking of which, I ran into a young man at the Monday occupation who said he was a descendant of the Molly Maguires. I never expected to hear that name at a protest in this day and age (they were framed and executed in the 1870s using the same methods the state of Georgia used to kill Troy Davis because they sought to organize Irish immigrant workers in Pennsylvania’s coal fields).

This young man, Mark Purcell, traveled from central Pennsylvania to OWS and said he planned to get involved in whatever occupation happens in Philadelphia. Mark told me he realized the system was totally corrupt when he worked at an Allentown warehouse as a temporary worker. He said the companies took advantage of undocumented immigrants since they have no legal rights or protections. The minute he complained about working conditions, the company he worked for told him to talk to the temp agency that was technically his employer, and the temp agency fired him. He was pissed that companies outsource labor to these agencies and use that to dodge responsibility for working conditions. “It’s bullshit,” he said.

Amen.

The spirit of the Molly Maguires lives on at OWS. On October 5, National Nurses United, 1199SEIU, SEIU Local 32BJ, the New York AFL-CIO, UFT, Communications Workers, Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, the NY Central Labor Council are all mobilizing to rally and march to join OWS. And they have permits.

In addition to the alphabet soup of unions mobilizing, student activists are organizing walkouts from Hunter College, the New School (where professors issued a statement supporting their students’ walkout), and even New York University. Even the children of the 1% support OWS.

The last time the unions mobilized was back in May, when the UFT brought out over 10,000 during its contract negotiations with Mayor Bloomberg. The proceedings were tightly controlled and the messages carefully managed from above by union leaders.

This time, things will be different. The turnout will surprise everyone, and the message will not be handed down to the city’s workers and students from on high. “Students and labor can shut the city down,” we shouted at Friday’s rallies against police brutality.

Perhaps we were prescient.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and The Indypendent. All of his writings on Occupy Wall Street and other topics can be found at http://www.planetanarchy.net/.

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6 Comments
  1. A Marxist analysis of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations:

    Reflections on the Occupy Wall Street Phenomenon: What it Represents, Its Prospects, Its Deficiencies

    http://wp.me/pgGDG-K4

    THE LEFT IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE LEFT!

    • Ross, you forgot to add a sectarian analysis… Here Pham Binh gets the spirit exactly right, and you have missed the boat.

      I am all for a Marxist analysis of the movement and the situation it came from, sensitive to its strong and weak points and making constructive suggestions.

      But you visit once, write it off, visit once more when it has grown and change your position a bit, but there is no flavor in your huge article of what it is like to engage as part of this movement and try to introduce Marxist analysis to it, rather than just apply Marxist concepts out of books to analyze the movement from afar.

      Your conclusion comes straight out of the Platypus phrase book: “The historical recognition of the extent to which the conditions necessary to foment social revolution have disappeared over the course of the last century is vital to any emancipatory political project in the present.” WHAT ABOUT EGYPT, TUNISIA?! Sure, they were not socialist revolutions leading to worker’s power (although strikes played a key role and there was revolutionary socialist input in Egypt, and the process continues). But they were certainly “social revolution.” And the conditions for such have also been seen in Bolivia, the Philippines, Syria, etc.

      Your next sentence: “It indicates to us that there is much work that remains to be done, in order to sow the seeds of social consciousness that might lead to a more sustained opposition to the capitalist social order.” is literally true, but given the huge visible increase in this consciousness the emphasis seems all wrong, as if to justify the Platypus abstention from all real struggles and its line that today academic sectarian criticism of the left is what is needed.

      If we are to re-form the left to make revolutionary Marxist concepts relevant to a working class again it must be from a constructive engagement in real movements like OWS, not from a bunch of academics combining the worst disdain of movements of Adorno with the worst sectarianism of the ICL/Sparts.

  2. Thanks for publishing this. I have been very disappointed with the Marxist left’s response to Occupy Wall Street.

    The far left has been talking about creating vanguards since 1917. Well, here it is.

  3. The sects and grouplets could learn something from this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=KOMRom8DLvY

    As I have said before, OWS mobilized more workers and oppressed people in a month than the entire “Leninist” left has put together in three decades. The occupy movement *is* the vanguard.

  4. Angel Formoso permalink

    The Occupy Movement is not the docile parliamentarian communist who wallows himself in personal aggrandizement and egotistic speeches. The Occupy Movement is a movement who pokes the question, “If nobody is going to move, who is going to move?…etc, etc..Tagalog translation reads, “Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino ang kikilos?” More power to the Occupy Movement of USA, Canada and the rest…

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