Occupy Wall Street – A Positive Response to the Crisis

George Gruenthal

On September 17, 2011, a group of about 1,000 mainly white young people took over Zuccotti Park, a block-square private park in the New York financial district. Calling themselves ‘Occupy Wall Street’ (OWS), they stated that they represented the interests of the ‘99%’ against the ‘1%.’ They had support and financing from the liberal Canadian non-profit foundation, ‘Adbusters,’ and called for non-violent protest. For the first days the police, clearly following instructions from the local ruling class, particularly New York’s multi-billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, left them alone. The assumption was that they would make some noise for a short while and then pack up and go home.

But this did not turn out to be the case. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, OWS continued to attract support. This was not only in the form of additional young people coming to hang out, hold discussions and camp in the park, which they renamed Liberty Square. They called demonstrations that struck a chord, including among workers. One of their main slogans has been: ‘Banks Got Bailed Out; We Got Sold Out.’ In one of the early demonstrations on October 1, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge that connects lower Manhattan with the borough of Brooklyn, the cops carried out mass arrests, rounding up about 700 people. On October 5, a demonstration was held in Foley Square, near the courts and the Federal Government building. The police, having barricades set up for maybe a thousand people, found themselves penned in by the many thousands of demonstrators who showed up.

As the weather in New York City started to get colder, and OWS still showed no signs of folding up, the Mayor and the police decided that this exercise in free speech had gone on long enough. They declared that people would no longer be allowed to sleep in the park. On November 15, police raided the park, driving out the demonstrators and making a big show of ‘cleaning’ the park (which OWS with its sanitation team had already done a good job of). They then ringed the whole block with barricades, and only allowed people in through one small gap after police checked that they did not have such ‘dangerous’ items as sleeping bags or other overnight gear. The raid was apparently part of a national attack on OWS in a dozen cities, coordinated by the Federal government, including so-called ‘Homeland Security.’ Two days later, some 30,000 people marched in protest in various parts of New York City. While the police raid basically did prevent the park from being used as an organising centre, it by no means put an end to OWS; rather it pushed them indoors and somewhat changed the form of their political activity.

Before continuing with this narrative, it is important to examine more closely the class and political nature of OWS. In any economic crisis, the working class is the main class affected, but it is not the only one. There are many petty-bourgeois youth, including those with a college degree, who are not able to find jobs, or at most find low-paid jobs in the service industry. In the absence of a strong working class movement, these youth are attracted to a variety of petty-bourgeois outlooks, particularly anarchism. This has been one of the main ideological trends within OWS. It is seen first of all in their refusal to use class terms, simply lumping together the workers, petty-bourgeoisie and all others outside the monopoly capitalist class as the ‘99%,’ while the ‘1%’ or Wall St. is clearly the monopoly capitalists.

Of course, this also does not correctly reflect the line-up of class force, as the 1% is aided by a whole constellation of other forces that hold the mass of working people in line, including management personnel, trade union bureaucrats and the police. This contradiction has come out most clearly with regard to the police. In OWS marches, some demonstrators chanted slogans such as ‘the cops are the 99%,’ which was quickly opposed by others (including this writer), who chanted ‘the cops protect the 1%.’

The anarchists among the OWS also object to ‘demands,’ seeing these as having a limiting effect on their movement. Even a simple call for a massive government programme to provide jobs to alleviate the severe unemployment caused by the crisis was defeated at a ‘General Assembly’ by a ‘block.’ This is a totally anti-democratic procedure that allows as few as 10% of those voting to block a measure that they are strongly opposed to.

OWS also refuses to apply for permits, including sound permits which are required by the police for any event at which amplified sound is used. They have been able to get around this by the effective if somewhat cumbersome procedure of a ‘people’s mike’ in which the words of the speaker are repeated by concentric rings of demonstrators until everyone has heard them.

Despite shortcomings, OWS has had an important effect on the political climate, not only in New York City but throughout the U.S. and even worldwide. In New York City, workers, particularly in the public sector, are under attack. The ruling class, through the city, state and federal governments, has been trying to push the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the workers. There have been layoffs of city workers, particularly in the powerful Transport Workers Union (TWU – bus and subway workers) and of low-paid clerical workers. State workers have been forced to accept furloughs (unpaid days’ off). The Federal government is threatening to close thousands of Post Offices throughout the country, laying off up to 200,000 workers, including closing 34 post offices in New York City with the loss of thousands of jobs. While these attacks have led to rather isolated demonstrations by individual unions, there has not yet been a class-wide fight-back. Although OWS has not been able to turn this situation around, (this is not even their perspective nor would they have a way to carry it out), they have had an effect on the trade union movement. While the union leaderships have been generally reluctant to put forward anything that smacks of political demands, some, such as the TWU, have invited OWS members to speak at their rallies. There they have often taken up political questions and taken militant stands. Other unions have allowed OWS groups to use their halls for meeting places.

In some parts of the country the relation between OWS and the unions has been even closer. The dock workers on the West Coast are represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), historically one of the most militant unions in the country. The ILWU was formed in San Francisco in 1934, when a strike of dock workers and sailors led to one of the most important city-wide general strikes in the U.S. In more recent years, they have held one-day work stoppages around political issues, such as against Apartheid in South Africa, for the freedom of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, on May Day in protest against the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and others. In 2011, they were the subject of a serious attack, when a large grain monopoly, EGT, threatened to use scab labour to load their ships. In the early hours of September 8, some members and sympathisers of the ILWU broke into an EGT terminal and dumped the grain on the ground. On November 2, members of the ILWU, OWS and others shut down the port of Oakland, and on December 12 they shut down ports along the West Coast. In this situation, EGT called on the government for help, and the U.S. Coast Guard threatened to escort a ship into the small town of Longview, Washington, to be loaded with scab grain. ILWU members, OWS and others again mobilised and were prepared to lead tens of thousands of people to blockade the port. In the face of this mobilisation, EGT backed down and signed an agreement recognising the ILWU as their sole supplier of labour power.

To continue our narrative, after the closing of Zuccotti Park as a permanent organising site, OWS largely went indoors for the winter. It spun off almost a hundred ‘working groups,’ many of which are made up largely of people who were not part of the original OWS. On any day in the winter, one was likely to find several of these working groups meeting in the atrium, a ‘public space’ on Wall St.. Some of the groups include a Labour Outreach Committee, consisting largely of leftists in the trade union movement, ‘Occupy the Department of Education,’ which is fighting against the closing of public schools and the privatisation of education through ‘Charter Schools,’ and neighbourhood groups from Occupy Queens to Occupy Harlem.

OWS is also helping to forge a united May Day demonstration in New York City this year. For several years, especially since 2006 with the attempted passage of a bill to criminalise some 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., May Day has been reclaimed largely by immigrant workers and militant trade unionists marching under the banners of the May 1 Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights. This group has marched from Union Square, the traditional site of May Day rallies, to Foley Square. In response to this, for the last two years some unions have called a smaller, separate rally in Foley Square (though even in 2011 they were forced to hold a united concluding rally with the May 1 Coalition). This year, four forces, the May 1 Coalition, the Foley Square group. OWS May Day and other, mainly NGO immigrant groups, have agreed to a united May 1 march from Union Square to Foley Square. It is hoped that this will be one of the largest May Day rallies since 2006. The fact that there will be a united rally is itself a victory that OWS has played a key part in.

The working class and revolutionary movement in the United States still lags behind that of other countries, including that of Western Europe. But the crisis, and the consequent rise of groups like OWS, is having a slow but important effect. It is to be hoped that the politically backward U.S. will catch up with the rest of the world in the not-too-distant future.

New York City, USA

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