The protests of #OccupyWallStreet in lower Manhattan are a refreshing break from the kabuki rituals that now pass for American democracy. Finally! Some unscripted reality of sovereign citizens exercising their freedoms of free speech and assembly, defying the tacit rules of the mainstream media and speaking from conviction, not tactical calculation. Like its kindred public protests in Cairo, Madrid and other cities, Occupy Wall Street finally broke through to mass consciousness via a citizen-posted video on YouTube that went viral. It showed the NYPD spraying mace on a peaceful, defenseless young woman confined by the cops in a pen of portable orange fencing.
The protesters have done a fantastic job of self-organizing their little community in Zucotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza). As NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof reported yesterday, “The square is divided into a reception area, a media zone, a medical clinic, a library and a cafeteria. The protesters’ Web site includes links allowing supporters anywhere in the world to go online and order pizzas (vegan preferred) from a local pizzeria that delivers them to the square.” The protest is a stellar model of civic virtue and self-governance, proving once again the instinctive nature of commoning.
Now that the protests are spreading to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, among other cities, we shall see if the political classes can contain the pent-up frustrations and resentments that have been ignored, indeed scorned, for the past three years. (Some Wall Street financial types reportedly drizzled champagne on the protesters from their office building windows.) While corporate profits soar after an unprecedented series of taxpayer bailouts, neither Obama nor Congress have strained themselves to help the millions of people victimized by the banks, oil companies, insurance industry, pharmaceutical industry and their corporate brethren.
The Washington crowd is surely hoping that Occupy Wall Street will remain a sideshow and then fizzle out as cold weather and snow begin. But somehow, I don't think this protest will be the last gasp. There is too much pain, suffering, anger and resentment out there that is not simply going to melt away. Yet the political classes seem determined to ignore the pain, lest it upset their fantasy that the Humpty Dumpty of neoliberal policy can be put together again. After all, a lot of fortunes, privileges and lifestyles depend on propping up this collective illusion.
The battle that is shaping up will be one between the closed political and economic hierarchies of the the Old Order versus the digital networking of the emerging political culture. Ironically, the latter was the force that propelled Obama into the presidency in the first place. But once elected, the ersatz community organizer crossed over to the other side, leaving behind his roots to preside over a Potemkin democracy, one that is curiously devoid of real citizens, actual deliberation and "change you can believe in."
It is telling that most of the conventional citizen advocates (labor unions, NAACP, etc.) have failed to change the public conversation about Wall Street's perfidies, economic inequality, corporate crime, and social need. It took a ragtag group of protesters without institutional affiliations, money or even a clear message or known leaders to bring this message home. It's a relief to learn that citizen leadership can still break through the cultural clutter and make an impact, even if it takes two weeks of patient witness and the courage of one's convictions.
Watching the protests, I couldn't help but recall those fine words by Mario Savio, the unknown student who emerged from a crowd of protesters during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the 1960s. He stood on the hood of a police car, after thoughtfully taking off his shoes first, and memorably declared: “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus -- and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it -- that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all!"
The Zucotti Park protesters call themselves “The New York City General Assembly” and charcterize their enterprise as a “horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system.” They try to achieve as much agreement as possible, and they give priority to the views of under-represented groups. The Assembly freely reports about its meetings on its website, which is greater transparency than many federal agencies. Told by the police that they can't use bullhorns to communicate, they have devised a cooperative system of people repeating the speaker's words to the people behind them. Assent is indicated through shaking one's upturned, open hands.
The protests have a structural and cultural affinity with the Arab Spring protests and the citizen protests in Madrid and Athens. They are not trying to work within the system; they are trying to fundamentally alter a corrupt, dysfunctional system. (No wonder the establish media and political class are so uncomprehending.) Lacking conventional institutional credibility and media access, much the General Assembly's success will depend on how they marshal the powers of digital networks to confront a closed, entropic, opaque and fearful political system that still hasn't figured out how to respond to the lightning-fast mobilizations of public opinion and crowd activity via open platforms.
In that regard, I was pleased to see that the protesters finally got their act together to write and ratify an official statement. Perhaps realizing that it was time to be more explicit in projecting its goals, the General Assembly unanimously passed a “Declaration of Occupation” on Friday evening. Since the statement may or may not get much play through other media, and because it mentions so many themes that this blog has covered in the past, I thought it worth sharing the statement in its entirety.
Here it is:
As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.*
To the people of the world,
We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.
Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.
To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.
Join us and make your voices heard!
*These grievances are not all-inclusive.