\Wednesday, October 12, 2011
by GEORGE CAFFENTZIS and SILVIA FEDERICI (Sept. 23-24, 2011)
It was a rainy day in New York City. In the morning there was even a flood advisory for parts of Brooklyn where I’m living and I could see the rain coming down in sheets at 11AM. I wondered how the Wall Street occupiers were faring in the downpour. Were they tempted to temporarily abandon the occupation?
I hoped not, since I had traveled down from Maine to NYC to go to the Wall Street Occupation. I wanted to get a sense of the scene and a number of my students in Portland were asking for more information about the Occupation they were reading about on the internet. “Who were the occupiers? What were their demands? Were they having an effect?” they asked. I promised to try to find out answers to the questions.
I arrived at 5PM or so at the site of the occupation, in the midst of a drizzle that sometimes turned into showers (but fortunately never became a downpour) throughout the late afternoon into the evening. The occupation site was at Liberty Street and Broadway, in a park named by the occupiers as “Liberty Square,” in reference to the great squares of the last few months in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece and Spain. It was about three blocks south of Wall Street, surrounded by the grim glass and steel buildings that were made by money to make money.
The daily street march that marked the closing bell at the stock exchange (at 3PM) was just returning to the square. It was lively bunch of less than a hundred carrying many hand-made banners and placards with anti-corporate slogans. Within a few minutes the drummers and a crew gathered on the Broadway side of the square (which was quite busy now that the office workers, brokers and somewhat humbled “masters of the universe”—after the recent fall in the market—were hurrying to their post-work weekend destinations, this being Friday). Chants spanned, for example, from “Don’t be so greedy, Give it to the needy!” to “Debt is Slavery.”
The drizzle continued and I realized that it was a sort of blessing for the rain was a good filter. The occupiers who continued to remain on the square in the midst of the rain were undoubtedly committed enough to be something of the “hard core.” I expected to find some of my comrades (young or old) there. I have done political work since the 1960s in and out of NYC and I normally go to a demonstration or mass meeting to find some. I did not this time. Most of the occupiers were in their early twenties, if I can estimate from appearances. The majority were young white men, but there were many women and black men as well. There were about a hundred to a hundred and fifty people at the square throughout the time I was there (between 5PM and 9PM).
The square was totally surrounded by police in many different guises and with much equipment (some obvious like a portable 30+ foot tower that was surveiling the square’s occupants, some invisible). There were reports of unjustified police arrests and rough handling of occupiers on the day before (and almost a hundred arrests the next day at Union Square), but during the time I was there I saw nothing of it. Of course, there were police agents infiltrating our ranks (since now I too had become an occupier, temporary though my status was), but who can know who was who? I thought that the occupiers had set up a good immune system to resist such creatures. Big decisions were to be made in an open democratic manner at general assemblies and there were committees to run the different functions, from legal, to trash, to outreach, to food, etc. So if someone with a nefarious intent wanted to turn the occupation in a new direction more congenial to the police, then s/he would have to convince a large number of people in the appropriate committee and in the general assembly. No guarantee, of course, but still the best defense.
Since the rain was persistent, there was very little to read. The usual horde of leafleters was not around. The closest I got to a statement expressing the intent of the occupation was a working draft of the “principles of solidarity” that was later presented to the general assembly for discussion.
On September 17, 2011 people from all across the USA and the world came to protest the blatant injustices of our times perpetuated by the economic and political elites. On the 17th we as individuals rose up against political disenfranchisement and social and economic injustice. We spoke out, resisted and successfully occupied Wall Street. Today we proudly remain in Liberty Square constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love. It is from these reclaimed grounds that we say to all Americans and to the world, Enough! How many crisis does it take? We are the 99% and we have moved to reclaim out mortgaged future.
Through a direct democratic process, we have come together as individuals and crafted these principles of solidarity, which are points of unity that include but are not limited to [NB: The Working Group on Principles of Consolidation continues to work through the other proposed principles to be incorporated as soon as possible into this living document]:
*engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;
*exercising personal and collective responsibility;
*recognizing individuals’ inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions;
*empowering one another against all forms of oppression;
*redefining how labor is valued;
*redistributing all wealth for the betterment of the people;
*the sanctity of individual privacy and
*the belief that education is a human right.
We are daring to imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality. We are consolidating the other proposed principles of solidarity, after which demands will follow.
The last sentence of the document is indicative of the situation of the Wall Street Occupation. The occupiers are creating their principles and demands while they occupy, not before. In fact, this document- a grand, but abstract mix of libertarian individual rights doctrine, Marxist labor theory of value, and autonomism that had the feel of a revolutionary tract of the end of the 18th century–is being prepared a week after the occupation began and it is far from having the final approval of the occupiers.
For me the most important institution of the occupation’s self-creative and improvised character was the general assembly. At 7:30 PM the drummers, dancers and chanters left Broadway and gathered in the interior of the square to hold the general assembly. Because there was a police restriction on the use of loud speakers, another mode of amplification was employed: the people’s mike. The speaker would utter a sentence and then self-selected people in the audience loudly echo the sentence to others further away from the speaker, hence the people’s mike. Periodically the speaker would notice a reduction of the volume of the repetition or a decrease in the number of echoers and call for a “mike check.” This would normally inspire more to join the ranks of the echoers.
This solution to a legal/technical problem, I noticed, had an interesting effect on both speakers and the audience. The speaker was forced to hear what he or she just said and had time to reflect on it while it was being communicated by the echoers. It also forced the speaker to concentrate what s/he had to say, since it would take almost twice as long as usual to say what was to be said. The echoers (here I speak of my experience as one) also were forced to say the words of the speaker and were inevitably forced to think about what was said by another as if, for a moment, they had said it. The displacement effect of the echo is disorienting, but useful in expanding the possibility of discourse to change.
I also was impressed both by the self-criticism that was expressed by the speakers and the ability of the assembly to make important decisions without apparent rancour. The initial part of the general assembly was devoted to a series of speakers who pointed out that though they were proud to have survived a full week in occupying Wall Street in the face of police harassment, the weather (cold nights and a day of rain), mass media blackout and censorship, but that it was important to bring more occupiers to Liberty Square. A number of sober suggestions were made (from contacting labor unions to doing widespread leafleting in the downtown area) and committees were directed to follow up on them. I didn’t detect any overt self-defensiveness among the hard-core in the face of these criticisms.
Then an important decision had to be made of about legal representation. Apparently a decision had been made a few days before to retain a specific private law firm to defend people who were arrested in the course of the occupation. But this decision was challenged by those who argued that organizations like the National Lawyer’s Guild, the Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Constitutional Rights were the organizations that had most experience in defending people against unjust arrest on false charges stemming from demonstrations and not a private law firm. So the debate was directed on this issue and within a remarkably short time a decision was made (that was not blocked) to retract the retainer and invite the NLG, CLU and CCR to come in and be primary attorneys for the Wall Street Occurpiers.
The other major piece of business to be dealt with was the “principles of Solidarity” working document (by now everyone had been standing in the raining for almost two hours!) The document was read and criticized, again without hostility. The most important point of critique was the lack of any statement concerning the environment. The drafters of the document said that they had discussed environmental issues extensively, but they had not yet come to a consensus as to how to express the principles that they agreed on yet, but that the document was a living process that had much to deal with, including environmental issues. The theme was we need to take our time, the struggle is a long one.
By this time, however, I was drenched and had to abandon the occupation with some regret, since I found a place and a gathering of people in the US that finally begin to echo the worldwide grito: “Basta!”
Day 2 (of our visit) Silvia writing now
On Saturday at five we went again to the occupation. This time it was not raining and the square was crowded, earlier in the day there had been a march (non-authorized) to Union Square where the police began harassing people and making arrests, almost 90 by the end, mostly through “kettling.” By five the square itself looked under siege, we counted more than fifty police vehicles, between police cars and paddy wagons, and the tension grew to a maximum around 8 pm when it looked like an attack was imminent and an assembly was held to decide what to do—Shortly after, having no documents on me and feeling that any attack would end in arrests I decided to go, but followed the events in the square livestream once at home.
I wished I had been there. I could not help being greatly impressed by the contrast between the joyous, calm, convivial, atmosphere in the square, people hanging around talking, making music, and the barricade of police cars that until 11pm literally encircled the square and filled all the surrounding streets. By 10pm some of those arrested at Union Square returned to the square, and reported on being pushed like cattle into paddy wagons and being kept there four hours, in the hottest sweatiest climate. But they said spirits were high. One said it was the best experience in his life, because of the flow of love on that paddy wagon and the pride that people felt for having held the square for a whole week, in the hottest piece of real estate in the world. I hear them talking as I type and it fills my heart –truly I want to cry, but of joy this time.
I was greatly impressed that when by 8 it looked like the police was going to attack if not right then later in the evening so many did not think at all about leaving, but encouraged other live stream viewers to come down, join and help held the place. Which worked out. It is ten in the morning now, Sunday morning, and people are reassembling, waking up, having coffee. The square is still lively, though we heard from some lawyers that the owner of the square –Yes, it is owned, it is not a public space—wants to get it back by Monday morning. In this case the fact the square is private property worked apparently to the advantage of the occupiers, as the owner, a business company, apparently decided to let them stay. The fact that NY during the last week was chock full of international media people, because of the Un General Assembly may also have been a factor. In any case this youth is beautiful and my heart goes to them and today I am very upset I have to leave NY and cannot participate in this. This has been the first positive development since Wisconsin, and, however it ends in this particular form, it is already a great victory. That hundreds of people have held this space and carried on a discussion about how to organize their daily reproduction, about the injustices perpetrated by the banks, about the principles we should follow (see George’s report), about how to reach other people in the city is a great achievement. The place itself looks beautiful –there is food, which supporters are also bringing, there is the library, that is calling for more books, there is a carpet of great posters and above all there is an ongoing excited conversation that I know will leave people transformed.
There is talk among those who were arrested and the released (charged with disorderly conduct) about the cops saying on the busses, after the arrests, they were frustrated if not disgusted with the way the were ordered to come down on the marchistas at Union Square.
Anyway it is a great event. We just heard an occupation is going on now also in San Francisco. We’ll keep you posted, but you too can follow it live stream. Go to Global Revolution.