Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From Occupy Wall St to Occupy Everywhere

As movement grows so does the repression

Past week has been challenging and invigorating for the Occupy Wall Street movement. On Tuesday morning protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, on Thursday over 30,000 people marched over the Brooklyn Bridge. From New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s attempted death blow, to a resounding “hell no!” This Sunday I was outside Bloomberg’s residence on the Upper East Manhattan (no, not where the poor live) taking photos of demonstrators on one side beating their drums, and police on the other side holding their batons. In between I noticed an older women holding a sign that read: “We didn’t start the class war”

Indeed, it is only “class war” when the majority from the bottom starts complaining, but when the tiny minority (aka 1%) plunders with impunity, it is just free market capitalism. In the country where people are still traumatized by McCarthyism and the Red Scare, it is very easy to discredit anyone seeking social justice by accusing them of being communist. After all, there are many enemies out there, somewhere, constantly scheming against our freedom. Recently the Republican Party presidential nominee Herman Cain said OWS are trying to destroy America! With that kind of rhetoric and corporate media’s representation of OWS, no wonder police have been given green light to shut it down.

So early on Tuesday morning, without warning, Bloomberg sent hundreds of police in riot gear to evict everyone from the park. Suited troops issued a warning to dazed Zuccotti residents to move out. Some quickly picked up their backpacks and moved away, others remained behind to hold the fort and protect their possessions. All those that remained were arrested. Shocked evictees watched in horror as their tents, tarps, and other personal possessions were thrown on a pile only to be moved onto rubbish trucks. Even the people’s library has been dismantled, with most of the books thrown out.

The news of arrests and eviction echoed around the US, but many knew it was just a matter of time before the troops were sent in. It was a calculated attempt to disrupt the movement that has been growing in popularity ever since its inception.

Timing and execution of the New York raid was carefully planed and coordinated.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, nonchalantly told BBC in an interview prior to the raid that she was on a conference call with mayors of 18 US cities with Occupy demonstrations. I bet they were not discussing Thanksgiving plans. We all remember scenes from Oakland clashes where one of the protestors was shot by a police projectile. New York, where it all started, was left for the grand finale.

Hours after the arrests and eviction, New Yorkers woke up to the internet SOS inviting them to descend on Canal St in downtown Manhattan. Once people gathered, emergency general assembly was held, and the consensus was reached to march back to Zuccotti Park. “Lets go home!” some of the marchers screamed.

When the march reached Zuccotti it was already occupied - this time by the police and security from Brookfield Properties, the company that owns the park. I spoke with one of the demonstrators who wondered about their demands. Will they put up tents and hold a general assembly? Other demonstrators were carrying copies of a signed court order, stating that the people will be allowed back into the park. Marching around the park with the legal piece of paper in the air, demonstrators shouted to the police that they are breaking the law. “You don’t have to follow your orders,” someone screamed.

No one from the police agreed to be interviewed.

Once again, the ruling mayor and his sponsors underestimated the movement they initially ignored, then ridiculed, and now are attacking. Murdoch’s New York Post is leading the way, verging on entertainment in its militant hatred for OWS movement. Which is comprised of, just to remind everyone, of American citizens, not strange looking terrorists from foreign lands whose names are hard to pronounce, or godless communists waking up from their Siberian hibernation. Just American citizens who are pointing out that the system is rotten at the very core.

If anything, Bloomberg has done OWS a favour. With winter galloping in and conditions at Zuccotti becoming increasingly difficult, Bloomberg has forced the protesters into other spaces, thus spreading the infection. And has also saved OWS from choosing a possibly humiliating retreat from the park due to harsh winter conditions. This way, instead of capitulation, they have been given resolve to fight a forced eviction while in strategic dispersal.

On Thursday the 17th, a Day of Action was planned to mark a two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall St and respond to the recent repression of the movement. By 7am already over a thousand people gathered. I remember it being very cold, and very difficult videoing with a takeaway coffee, lit cigarette, photo camera hanging off my neck and an umbrella hanging off my arm. I clearly didn’t look like one of the organisers, so I was confused when an older man asked me in which direction will the march proceed. I didn’t know, so I just replied that plan was to shut down Wall St and disrupt the opening of the stock exchange.

OWS activists upset over the eviction and corporate media’s attacks on them, vowed to take it to the man. “Enough of this economy that exploits and divides us – It’s time we put an end to Wall Street’s reign of terror” said an announcement on OWS web site. OWS hoped to confront Wall Street with stories of people who have suffered most, who have been on the frontlines of economic injustice. Taking their stories to the powerful, who are “too big to fail”, who have caused the crises that has left millions in dire circumstances. To send a message to traders that people are watching, that people are gathering outside their doors.

Once the march began, demonstrators were constantly reminded to stay on the footpath, and any attempts to get onto the streets were dealt with quickly by the NYPD. In order to disrupt the traffic on Wall Street and confront those working at the stock exchange, demonstrators split into different groups and proceeded to occupy different intersections. I spent some time at one of the intersections with about 60 or so activists, and just as many (if not more) police officers. Circle was formed and activists started sharing their stories of why they are here. Occasionally someone on the way to the bank would shout, “get a job!” to which someone would reply, “I have a job, I’m a teacher.” I listened to some stories, watched some angry striped suits push their way through, and decided to move on.

As I walked down the street I saw a larger group of demonstrators being pushed onto the footpath by police. I went closer with my camera and all of the sudden a group of policemen threw a guy to the ground right there in front of me. My reflex was to point the lens down at the person being handcuffed and unnecessarily beaten. Whilst trying to get my head around what is happening in front of me I was suddenly thrown back a meter. “Get out of here!!”, one of the policemen shouted as he pushed me. “I am on the sidewalk, I’m not doing anything wrong!”, I foolishly replied. His response was to grab me and shove me so violently that I flew backwards another meter and slammed against the nearby wall. “Get out of here!!” he repeated the second time.

Rubbing my shoulder I wondered what laws did I break. Why was I thrown against the building? Oh that’s right, I was taking a video! Thursday’s police actions were particularly disproportional and unnecessary. It was clear that they wont allow the disruption of Wall Street getting on with its business. It didn’t matter why were the demonstrators there, that they were carrying American flags, and were repeating, “this is a peaceful protest!” I think “get out of here” quote encapsulates the day.

During the morning I witnessed few other arrests and clashes, and ran into trouble for the second time. Again because of my camera. This time I was sent flying by a baton-wielding policemen so pumped that I ended up on the ground.

With the police above me pushing everyone away from arresting officers, one of the demonstrators pulled me out of their way. I don’t recommend being on the ground under the advancing police. Well, just don’t recommend being on the ground under anybody’s feet.

At that stage I was bit upset, just a tiny bit, so all sort of crazy thoughts raced in my head. I pictured people siting in their homes watching the events in Egypt and Syria and shaking their heads in disapproval. Thinking how superior we are in the West to have freedom and democracy. Watching the president speak against the violent repression of peaceful protests and reminding their regimes about freedom of expression and rights to protest.

What is the difference here? Seriously, take the level of violence (in the Middle East police and the army are using real bullets, here rubber bullets, batons and pepper spray) and historical context aside, what is the difference? So you have the freedom to purchase any type of short skirt or flat screen TV you want, you have the freedom to insult the president or use profanities in art, but if you question the system, question the legitimacy of the ruling elite, you will be dealt with. If you video the police, you will be dealt with. If you call for a strike, you will be dealt with. If the authority has no arguments left and the popularity of the protest grows, they will resort to brutal force. Which is why in recent weeks the police was ordered to break up occupations in most US cities.

Regardless of what criticism one might have of the OWS movement, and there are many, the fact remains that the movement was born out of desperation. People want accountability and a justice system that holds corrupt bankers, Wall Street speculators and hedge fund managers responsible for the mess they created. They’re asking for accessible healthcare, affordable education, and not massive tax breaks for gigantic corporations and endless money poured into failed wars. Can I hear an “Amen”!

New York Stock Exchange opening wasn’t disrupted, and the famous bell rang right on time, starting another glorious day of trading. Few mic checks later, most agreed to move on. Some groups went to ride on subways with banners and spread the word, others went back to Zuccotti, few diehards remained running around the local streets.

By the evening everyone regrouped and marched on to Foley Square. Along the way I was surprised to see numerous people hanging signs of support out of their windows, and pedestrians clapping at the procession. I was surprised because the corporate media is doing a real good job discrediting the movement, and unnecessarily large police presence and numerous arrests are giving them endless material. Police over-reactions are implying that the protesters are dangerous, and that all the disruptions and police cordons are protestors fault. The fact that no private property was damaged since the beginning of the Occupy movement, and no one has ever attacked a police officer is irrelevant. We can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

“Obama is a liar!” read a sign held by a thirty-something man wearing a blue shirt and a red tie. Further down the road, “Bloomberg beware, Zuccotti is everywhere!” said the poster in the window of NYU New School that was now “occupied”. As the procession moved pass the NYU’s New School students behind the windows raised fists and held up “Occupied” posters.

Once I arrived to the Foley Square, thousands of people already gathered there. I wondered if all of them are trying to destroy America? Are all of them communists? I didn’t see anyone communist-looking to ask so I just joined the march. Plan was to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, which made me a little bit uncomfortable, since I was once already arrested on it. This time there were around 32,000 people marching, so it seemed foolish to try and arrest so many.

Once the procession reached the bridge everyone started shouting, cheering and pointing to my left. I could swear someone shouted, “bat-signal!” Tired, wet and with pain in my back, I was ready for everything, even seeing Batman himself. I turned around and saw a huge “99%”projected on a Verizon building to the left of the bridge. “Now that’s a bat signal!” someone commented. “Don’t be afraid” it read, then it changed to “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” Crowd exploded in a frenzy of excitement. Reading the projected words I cursed my camera for running out of batteries, and thought of New Zealand.

New Zealand is likely to get John Key for another term, meaning more “business friendly” policies. While here in the US people are exposing the cracks in the system and rebelling against neo-liberal capitalism that has brought misery to so many, New Zealand is preparing for another term with the right. Despite warnings from the likes of professor John Farrar, co-director of the New Zealand Governance Centre at the University of Auckland’s Business School, who said that the government’s privatisation strategies are caught in a time warp and that strategies based on ‘Washington Consensus’ need to be updated, Key is leading NZ down the “business as usual” path.

While the masses demonstrate in this Mecca of capitalism against deregulation, calling for the restructuring of American economy, John Key talks about selling off state assets and cutting public spending. At the time when public services are already struggling and thousands of jobs have been lost, one would expect the government to be more cautious, and not follow the ideologies that might fail as they have in other countries. Who knows, maybe John Key knows better than Professor Farrar, John Stiglitz, Jeffry Sachs and numerous other academics around the world, after all they could secretly be communist!

Last projection I remember seeing on the Verizon building read “Occupy Earth.”

As somebody said, this is a marathon, not a hundred meter race. Protesters’ tents are out of Zuccotti, but the movement isn’t dead, on the contrary. Not here, not in New Zealand, not in Egypt. Today OWS protested outside the Egyptian Consulate in solidarity with Egyptians fighting the military interim government. The similar actions are planed in San Francisco and other towns. I remember a sign held on Canal St last Wednesday, “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come”.

-Emir Hodzic, an Aucklander participating in OWS. All photos by Emir.

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