Sunday, October 09, 2011

Occupy Wall Street as a global phenomenon

"Stay strong. Stay peaceful. We're all in this together. I am enthralled that there are so many others around the globe in solidarity with us and I want them to also know how incredibly appreciative of their efforts we all are.”

As I was eating a slice of pizza today, provided by donations to Occupy Wall Street, I couldn’t help but notice how different Liberty Plaza looks in comparison to two weeks a go. Numbers started to grow rapidly since Wednesday, when critics and skeptics who dismissed the movement as a bunch of unemployed hippies were silenced by up to 20,000 citizens marching through downtown Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street movement outgrew Liberty Plaza, there are talks of relocation, and today people are marching to Washington Square.

Prior to the past Wednesday’s march I navigated my way through overflowing park, bouncing off people left right and center, occasionally entering someone’s conversation bubble and exiting again as the current takes me away. Some of the exchanges that reached my ears told me about their struggles with health care (in summary, they cannot afford it), other voices told me how amazing it is to see so many people, another conversation had been about a nasty break-up, but I had drifted away before hearing the juicy bits.

“What made you come here today?” I asked a mysterious masked man once I bounced off the tree and came to a halt. “I have a disabled mum, who gets $400 a month to live off.. I don’t think that’s right. There’s something wrong in this country and we want to change that.” I thanked him for the disclosure and continued downstream. As I navigated through ever increasing number of people and incomprehensible hum of various voices, I passed another conversation: “I was told all my life to go to college, work hard and I will make it. Now I’m in debt and don’t have a j…” I am not sure how that conversation concluded.

Once I ceased moving, I noticed an interesting senior African-American wearing a beret covered with badges. He stood alone resting on his walking stick. As I came closer I noticed he had various army medals on his jacket. I asked him the same question: “What made you join OWS?” He looked up at me, exposed a gentle smile and waited for few seconds before answering. I wondered if he was contemplating the stupidity of the question or preparing an answer. Those few seconds have been enough to notice weariness and pain in his eyes. I have seen eyes like that before.

“I am a Vietnam veteran from '69, and have been in anti-war movements ever since. This is the right thing to do,” he softly replied then paused again, as if to let his words settle, forcing patience upon me that many zealous young people don’t have. Which is kind of ironic, since you would think young people have more time.

“We are spending 300 million dollars a day on war, that could go to hospitals and schools. 300 million a day” he repeated just to make sure I had heard him right.

“I was wounded in Vietnam, I have killed three people – I learned quickly then that what we were doing is wrong.”

This time I welcomed a pause he offered.

“After Vietnam protests we disappeared, and now we’re back. You can’t start a movement with a million people, you start like this, and you build up. If this disappears like we did after Vietnam, I fear for the future generations.” His name is Jaime Vazquez, recipient of the Purple Heart, former Jersey City councilman, former Jersey deputy mayor and a former director of the Jersey City Office of Veterans Affairs.

As I left Mr. Vazquez to rest on his walking stick, a question made itself apparent. How is this going to end? What will be the next move? And end it will. People cannot sleep in the park indefinitely, and winter is already announcing itself. Support for the movement is growing daily, there is no end in sight, but one day the crunch time will come. What happens when there are hundred thousand people on the street? Will the government listen then, or will they send in the National Guard? Will a hundred thousand people follow the police instructions and peacefully and patiently march on footpaths in orderly fashion?

I don’t know the answer, and I am sure no one here really knows it either, politicians also can only speculate. Regardless of the outcome, OWS is already a historical movement. One thing that this movement has achieved, unlike any other, is unite all the leftist parties, organisations and unions – that in the past have been polarized by petty differences – into a single voice: “Enough is enough.”

OWS and the White House
Once I reached Foley Square (home to the US district court), there were already tens of thousands of people gathered in the square, while the influx of newcomers continued for some time. “Look around you people, look at the crowd, this is what democracy looks like!” said the voice through huge speakers. “We’re here to say - no more bailouts for Wall Street!! No more tax breaks for the rich!!”

Judging by the cheers and shouts of approval from the crowd, everyone at Foley square knew what this is all about. I am still puzzled by those who claim that they are confused as to what is this protest is about.

“We need bailouts for health care, we need bailouts for education – I say to all working people, lets not allow the Tea Party to be the voice of working people!!” Thousands of people clapped and cheered, almost drowning the speakers next message:

“We’re going to be growing, and we’re not going to stop!”

At that point I answered my own question. It is premature, and almost irrelevant, to ask what the ending is going to be. Presently we need to take notice of the development, growth and evolution of the movement. Organisational methods, horizontal democracy exercised through general assemblies (or peoples' council), use of technology, and protest’s broad appeal. Numerous observers were surprised by the growth of the movement and unification it achieved..

It isn’t news for these people that the financial institutions have abused their power and caused a lot of hardship for many. They know that the federal government gave interest-free loans to big banks. They know that their tax dollars went to those big banks, while they are struggling to pay the bills and mortgages under heavy interests to those same banks. They know that the richest pay least tax, and reinvest their profits back into lobbying for lower taxes and other legal perks. Basically people gathered here are disappointed with their government, disillusioned with the system that allows big money deciding the political discourse, frustrated that no one is held accountable.

Obama knows the elections are coming, and he needs to raise a lot of money. I doubt that the money will come from the savings of these disappointed people who believed in him, who believed in change. Democrats’ failure to bring about reforms and accountability into the finance sector, have disillusioned many of his supporters. Obama will need to look into the coffers of his wealthy donors again, while at the same time keeping an eye on these people here. His people. People who are carrying signs that read: “Yes we can – but we didn’t.”

Obama finally came out and recognized the OWS as a force to be reckoned with. “I think people are frustrated,” he informs of the fact as if though it just dawn on him. “The protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama explains. People of this world rejoice, the president thinks you’re frustrated!

At the same time republicans are scorning OWS for inciting a “class war,” or as Herman Cain unashamedly spewed out; don’t blame Wall Street, if you’re not rich it is your own fault. Cain is a multi millionaire who built his fortune making pizza, and thinks OWS has been orchestrated by Obama (same Obama that protesters are unhappy with). So it seems that Obama’s PR machine might still use this popular movement to present him as an only alternative standing in the way of big business taking over the White House.

How much is enough?
For a very long time those from the margins of society have waited to be heard. For a very long time the poor and struggling have waited to be empowered and regain a sense of dignity. Now they are being heard, joined by the disappearing middle class who also want to be heard. When you are in the Liberty Plaza you are standing next to the unemployed, students, construction workers, university professors, nurses, artists, musicians, and war veterans. You are one of the people. Not as a Marxist (as many right wingers love to attribute any form of collectivism and calls for fairness and accountability to Marxism, with their fingers forming the sign of a cross and making hissing sounds while doing so), but rather literally as one of the people, one of the 99 percent.

While the people are quoting the constitution, calling for justice, those in the minority are sitting in their towers (in downtown Manhattan financial district you are literally surrounded by towering concrete structures) discussing cost cuts and layoffs. To them the nation state, flag, constitution, the people, is all of secondary importance in comparison to the one true object of admiration. Money.

How rich do you have to be? How many planes and boats do you have to own? People that are struggling to pay the bills, losing their jobs and homes, are simply asking why did their tax dollars go into the banks that are charging them so much interest, and whose bosses have kept their private planes and boats?

What’s wrong with being super rich, you might ask? What’s wrong in wanting to own huge crewed boats that you visit once a year, and a couple of private jets to freely fly around without having to mix with common people? What’s wrong with owning an army that your friends can hire out? According to evolutionary psychology there is nothing wrong with you. You’re just instinctually selfish and acting out your animalistic drive for dominance.

Unfortunately, majority of the population cannot afford discussing theories on human nature anymore. When you realize that in the race to the top only few remain, and millions share your place, you might just start asking questions. When the majority realizes the causes of inequalities, unfairness and oppression, they just might act.

Who the f*** are you protecting?
Once the people demonstrated their numbers in front of the US District Court, we all descended back to the Liberty Plaza, where Michael Moore was already present. He had some messages of support, believing in what demonstrators are doing and so on. I am not sure if he had finished using the people mic when calls to “March on Wall Street!” came from somewhere at the back. Calls for another unannounced march created bit of a commotion, but soon there were hundreds of people already on their way. Once people reached the Wall Street, they were greeted by dozens of police officers behind the barricades. Access to Wall Street has been blocked.

“Who are you protecting!” frustrated with the blockade people screamed out. “We are the 99 percent - and so are you!!” they erupted while pointing at the police.

I was taking photos of the blockade and continuous influx of more and more police. As I thought to myself, “Jeez, the cavalry has arrived” (literally police on horseback), all of a sudden the police charged from behind the barricades. Batons swinging, pepper spray flowing, people screaming, utter bewilderment. Part of me wasn’t surprised by the police reaction, yet I was perplexed by what I had seen. Those closest to the barricades were thrown to the ground, while their colleagues with batons pushed and beat other citizens back. As I was taking photos of what was happening, I felt a determined baton against my stomach convincing me to step back. With a quiet ‘ouch’ I complied obediently.

Crowed booed and shouted repeating assertions, “Shame – shame…!” While camera flashes illuminated the arrests, people helplessly watched on. “Who the f*** are you protecting?!” yelling ensued during the baton and mace combos. Indeed, who is being protected from peaceful protestors, who patiently walk along footpaths and continuously announce that this is a peaceful protest?

The following day I found out from a credible source that works on Wall Street, that while this was happening there was a big cocktail party held in the financial district. I kid you not. No one could get in or out without an ID proving you work there. Life is full of interesting coincidences.

As I was changing the settings on my camera, someone next to me pointed at the window above. A lone figure stood by the window of BNY Mellon building on Wall Street looking down at us. Even after some from the crowd booed and laughed, the figure didn’t move. Sure, he could be a nicest guy, with adorable children and a cat called Fluffy. Just because he was wearing a tie and standing in the window of a bank, while people below were being clubbed, doesn’t mean that people wanted him prostrated on a sacrificial table. It was just one of those moments that encapsulates the overall feeling in that instant. Very Orwellian I thought as I looked up. The ominous shadow standing by the window in the tower, smell of pepper spray in the air, and people relocating their bodies away from batons.

My attention quickly returned to the street level when I received another shove. Luckily, things calmed down a bit after 5 people were arrested and the police pushed demonstrators away from Wall Street. I kind of expected someone to say “Nothing to see here people, move right along.” I guess police only say that in the movies.

OWS goes global
While reports are coming in that there are global solidarity demonstrations planed, including New Zealand, it becomes evident that disillusionment with neo-liberal capitalism isn’t an American only disease. The global economic crises infected everyone from New York, to Athens, to Auckland. As John Key himself said, New Zealand is not immune to the economic slowdown. “It is a time of global uncertainty,” John informs us. Cutting business taxes and overhauling regulations to reduce costs to business and consumers, National assures us, is the way to crank up the economy.

I think New Zealanders need to decide if return to “business as usual” is in their interest. If the new surveillance law is a good idea, if rising costs of education is in their interest, if excessive food prices in a farming country is acceptable. Just some of the questions that maybe people should contemplate during half time. While New Zealand differs to US in a lot of ways (and in my opinion some of those differences should be celebrated i.e. we can have an agnostic PM and a transgender MP, poor can still access healthcare, NZ police aren’t as militant as say NYPD, and so on), now is the time to examine our own economic policies and think about the road ahead. Now is the time to take note of cracks appearing on Wall St, and think about if we’re backing a right horse - is neoliberal capitalism a platform that will really benefit all New Zealanders?

On 15th of October similar occupations and protests are going to take place all over the world. From Bosnia to Canada, from Australia to – yes you guessed it – New Zealand.

When I spoke to Patrick Bruner, who is OWS outreach facilitator, and told him I am from New Zealand, and that people of NZ are following what is happening here with interest, he wanted to send this message: "Stay strong. Stay peaceful. We're all in this together. I am enthralled that there are so many others around the globe in solidarity with us and I want them to also know how incredibly appreciative of their efforts we all are.”

Believing in righteousness of their cause, and realizing that the world is watching, OWS knows that what they achieve here is going to ripple across the globe. They know that some of the world’s most powerful are here on Wall St, they know that those responsible for the global economic crises are here on Wall St (recent evidence links Wall St with the Greek debt crisis. According to former financial regulators, Goldman Sachs made a dozen derivative deals with Greece, writing its debt off its balance sheet for years). They want the world to watch, and the world should. We are all in this together. We have to remind ourselves what some people had figured out centuries ago, “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” (Plato).

-Emir Hodzic. Emir is from Aotearoa and rolls with the Unite Union. He is currently in Manhattan participating in Occupy Wall Street.

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