Generation Y: Changing the World Since 2008 (4)
New York, USA, September 2011: On September 17, a few thousand demonstrators gather around the Charging Bull statue at Bowling Green, a few blocks south of Wall Street. Their initial plan is to march towards One Chase Manhattan Plaza. But the word is that it has been sealed off by the police. Leaflets are then distributed with instructions to move on to option two, Zuccotti Park, just a few blocks up Broadway. A few hundred demonstrators will stay there overnight, sleeping in cardboards. “Occupy Wall Street” begins.
69-year old Kalle Lasn and 29-year old Micah White, editors of Canadian counterculture magazine Adbusters, came up with the original concept. Their idea was to have a sit-in at the heart of New York City´s financial district, to protest Wall Street´s overwhelming influence over Washington, growing socio-economic inequalities in the US and the absence of any legal repercussions against the CEOs and CFOs who were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.
Three years after the Lehman Brothers´ collapse, the US economy was facing a strong recession, with rising unemployment, foreclosures, evictions and homelessness. The George W. Bush Administration reaction, including the 200 billion-dollar federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the 85 billion-dollar federal rescue agreement for the American International Group, and the 431 billion-dollar general bailout Troubled Asset Relief Program, triggered public outrage.
While millions of Americans were losing their jobs and being evicted from their homes, big financial corporations were bailed out and there weren´t any signs of political or legal accountability. Actually, Wall Street executives were coming out wealthier from the financial crisis, thanks to their million-dollar severance packages.
Occupy Wall Street was a protest largely inspired by the similar initiatives abroad in 2011, most notably at Cairo´s Tahrir Square and Madrid´s Puerta del Sol. On July 13, Lasn and White sent out the initial call to the Adbusters´ mailing list, including the now-iconic poster of a ballerina atop the Charging Bull statue (picture above). “The juxtaposition of the capitalist dynamism of the bull, with the Zen stillness of the ballerina”, as it was described by Lasn (New Yorker, 28.11.2011).
Occupy resonated with the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which powered an intensive online campaign on its behalf. But the planning and execution for September 17 were implemented by a collection of New York community leaders, veteran anarchists, artists and students gathered around the “New York General Assembly”. One of its most active proponents was 50-year old David Graeber, anarchist theorist and Professor at the University of London.
Occupy Wall Street´s first week at Zuccotti Park went largely unnoticed by the media. Activists just stood ground, with new people joining every day. Police had a constant presence, and there were some scuffles and arrests. But full-media coverage came only after September 24, when protesters marched uptown and about 80 of them were arrested. Public attention sparked with video footage showing a police commander pepper-spraying two female protesters.
Occupy Wall Street kept growing. On October 1, about 700 protesters were arrested while trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. On October 5, 15.000 protesters marched through the streets of New York, including union workers and progressive activists who were gradually joining the movement.
Similar occupations irrupted across the US and Canada, with people of diverse ages, professions, and backgrounds. They were the foreclosed, the homeless and the uninsured, university students with poor job prospects and already over-indebted, and their poorly paid or unemployed parents and grandparents. They were activists, anarchists, community leaders, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, celebrities, progressive Democrats and union leaders. By October 9, the movement had spread to 70 major US cities and over 600 communities, from thousands marching in New York and San Francisco, to some small gatherings in towns, rural and suburban areas.
Basing itself in local, horizontal and leaderless General Assemblies, where all decisions and demands are achieved by consensus, Occupy strongly resembled its inspirations abroad. Zuccotti Park, with its self-organized working groups devoted to medical and food supplies, legal, media and security, was the US remake of Tahrir Square and Puerta del Sol. With Web 2.0 and twenty-four hour live streaming, once again, crucial to pass on information, coordinate between encampments, and spreading Occupy´s message to the world.
Occupy Wall Street struck a chord with the North-American psyche. “It expresses the frustrations the American people feel about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” US President Obama himself, declared (Guardian, 08.09.2011). The billionaire bailout for the financial sector, tax breaks for the millionaires and the big corporations, the excessive lobbying in Washington and the million-dollar severance payments for some of the most notorious “men in charge” during the 2008 debacle, vented an immense sense of injustice, frustration, and indignation. Occupy appeared both as a mirror to the dissatisfaction against the current political and economical system, and a strong appeal for an alternative.
But what kind of alternative would it be? According to many in the media, columnists, and politicians, that was Occupy´s “million dollar question”. Skeptics kept asking: “What is their common goal?” and “What are their proposals?”, and the answers they could come up with were eihter None or None whatsoever. But those were the wrong questions.
To understand Occupy, one must not ask: “What Occupy wants?” but “What is Occupy?” And the answer for the latter will be found in its internal dynamics, structure and organization. With its General Assemblies, cooperative methods of work, and the horizontal network structure, Occupy is the political message it wants to deliver, a renewed, more participatory, bottom-up and community-driven political system. In this sense, it comes as a profound critique on the whole capitalist system, understood as a historical, economical and social paradigm which produces, reproduces and aggravates social and economical inequalities. Specific demands within this paradigm – like taxing financial transactions, lowering tuition fees, etc. – would not make any sense, as none would correspond to the systemic level of analysis.
On October 15, 2011, Occupy went global. In more than 900 cities, 80 countries, around the five continents, tens of thousands demonstrated against the current socio-economical and political system. The organizers of this global demonstration published on their web site, “United in one voice, we will let politicians, and the financial elites they serve, know it is up to us, the people, to decide our future.”
In New York, thousands of Occupiers marched between the city´s financial district and Time Square, banging drums and chanting “We got sold out, banks got bailed out.” Big crowds came up in other North American cities, including Washington, Toronto, Denver, Orlando, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.
In London, thousands gathered around St. Paul´s Cathedral. Hundreds settled in, erecting 70 tents and setting up a kitchen, a media centre and toilets. It was the beginning of Occupy London, UK´s answer to Occupy Wall Street, which would produce a set of specific political proposals, including an end to David Cameron´s public spending cuts, an end to tax havens and tax avoidance and an appeal for more control over corporate lobbying. The fiscal austerity packages following the European sovereignty debt crises, and the dangerous liaisons between the financial and the political elites, were the main targets in London and across the other main European cities.
In Rome, the October 15 protests turned violent, with a smaller group breaking away from the main demonstration, setting cars on fire, and smashing bank machines and shop windows. In Madrid, tens of thousands filled Puerta Del Sol Square. Thousands also marched in Lisbon and Porto, in Portugal, and Athens and Thessaloniki, in Greece.
In Hong Kong, a few hundred protested in the heart of the financial district. In Tokyo, 100 demonstrated with a specific anti-nuclear tone, subsequent to the recent Fukushima nuclear accident. In Seoul, 200 rallied near the City Hall. In Sidney, 600 demonstrated, setting up a camp outside Australia´s central bank. There were also thousands in the streets of the main cities of Mexico, Peru and Chile.
October 15 was the reflection of a sense of worldwide socio-economic anxiety. It resulted from anger and frustration targeted to an undefined entity, somewhere in between the corporate, financial, and political elite. It came, particularly, from Generation Y´s angst, unable to find their place and a sense of justice within the current world system. Venting their frustrations, through web 2.0 networking, encampments at central squares, city marches, May 1968-like chants and popular assemblies, the new generation of activists came to the streets in the name of a new political system, more participatory, just and truly democratic.
The period between October and early November 2011 was the pinnacle of Occupy Wall Street. In the beginning of November, Occupytogether.org was listing 2.447 Occupy “meet-ups”. But towards mid-November, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Portland, Oakland, more and more encampments were cracked down by the police. In a coordinated effort led by city mayors across the country, protesters were evicted from central squares and parks, and some were arrested. Zuccotti Park was cleared on November 15, signaling the end of the most emblematic phase of the movement.
In the meantime, Occupy had succeeded in shifting the national debate, from the national debt and the economic deficit, to the most poignant problems that millions of North-Americans were facing, including home evictions, unemployment, homelessness and lack of access to affordable education and health care. At a time when the US was facing two wars abroad, the political priorities became the necessity for more and better jobs, a fairer distribution of income, less profiting for banks and speculators, better regulation of the banking practices, particularly the ones related to mortgages, students loans, and credit cards and more control over financial lobbying.
On January 24, 2012, Obama´s State of the Union speech explicitly echoed Occupy´s main themes, focusing on economic fairness and on the demand that the wealthiest Americans paid a fairer share of taxes. The US President spoke against the corporations who “remove jobs from this country” and demanded “no bailouts, no handouts, no copouts.” Commentators agreed that the tone of his speech was a direct result of Occupy´s resonant success.
Since then, Occupy still lives on. Even if encampments are no more the driving force behind the movement, it remains as a prolific activist group across the US, drafting political proposals, organizing events, meetings, and other actions at the local level, frequently in coordination with human rights´ groups, community activists and labor unions. Campaigns on behalf of the over-indebted university students, protests against cuts to federal and state education funding, solidarity initiatives for the homeless and interventions to block home foreclosures, bank auctions and family evictions are now among Occupy´s most notorious activities.
“The unemployment rate, household debt, student debt, the lack of prospects for people graduating from college, foreclosures – these are real issues in real people´s lives”, said Jonathan Sucker, a New York activist (Financial Times, 07.12.2011). “[Occupying] the park was very important in terms of its symbolism, but we´re not content to remain a symbolic defiance. We want to change the way things are run in this country and taking on the banks is an important step.”
Thus, it seems that the second phase of Occupy will be more politically acute. As the election season picks up, it will gradually face an existential dilemma, as it has to decide between staying close to its anarchist roots and moving to the political mainstream. The latter could mean trying their hand at local and national politics, maybe even recruiting candidates and mobilizing sympathizers to the polls, thus becoming a “Tea Party” of the Left. Maybe it can even find some middle ground. Definite answers remain elusive, but they should be arriving in the coming months. And who knows if Occupy´s biggest impact in the US political landscape isn´t still ahead?
NEXT: Concluding Remarks.