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Occupy Wall Street uprising could be 'explosive'

Niren Tolsi

Activists in 650 cities have earmarked October 15 as occupation day. Local mobilisation is happening under the broad umbrella of Operation Ubuntu.

Occupy New York’s Wall Street. Occupy Cape Town’s Company Gardens. Occupy mailboxes of senators and congressmen. Occupy your mind —

The millions of unemployed around the world can, finally, find an occupation these days, it seems, as momentum from the camped protest at New York’s Zuccotti Park near Wall Street continues to spread to other cities in the United States and beyond American borders to Australia, the Czech Republic and South Africa.

October 15 has been earmarked as an international day of action and, according to the occupywallstreet.com website, activists in 650 cities worldwide have confirmed participation.

South African organisers said this week that occupations were being planned in Durban and East London’s city halls, the JSE’s Exchange Square in Johannesburg, Cape Town’s Company Gardens and Grahamstown’s High Street.

Local mobilisation is happening under the broad umbrella of a recently formed movement called Operation Ubuntu. Its Facebook contact goes by the pseudonym “Joe Hani”.

Hani told the Mail & Guardian that “no country is more worthy of an uprising against capitalism than South Africa” because of the high unemployment rate, “the second widest class divide in the world” and the “legal robbery of [natural] resources” by corporations like Anglo-American.

Hani said protests would raise the issue of “social ills”, such as South Africa’s high murder rate. If the gripes appear broad, they mirror the still flowering politics of the original protesters in New York.

Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who addressed the New York crowd last Sunday, urged them to guard against a mere “harmless, moral protest”, arguing that “we are allowed to think about alternatives” to capitalism.

Zizek said: “We know what we don’t want. But what do we want? What social organisation can replace capitalism. What type of leaders do we want?”

The Facebook mobilisation appears largely driven by concerned citizens who are white and middle class and have an affinity for the global anticapitalist narrative.

An academic in Durban, who chose to remain anonymous, said: “The protest here is being organised totally arse-backwards.”

The Facebook campaign, the Occupy Durban City Hall page, has 126 people confirmed to attend the protest. It was being run “by white kids who are not ­usually plugged into social activism or to activist networks. I think it will be a massive fizzle-out, but I’m still going.”

Jared Sacks, a leftist activist from the Western Cape also had ­reservations about the Cape Town protests being a “privileged white thing”.

However, he remained optimistic, saying that at a planning meeting in Salt River, “the white Facebook-types” were completely surprised by the activist communities on the ground ­- this may be a good conscientising lesson for the middle class”.

Several social movements claiming to represent the marginalised have yet to join.

Anti-Eviction Campaign Western Cape chairperson Mncedisi Twalo said the movement was still meeting to discuss the protest and “get clarity on its agenda” before the movement could take a collective decision on whether to participate. The shack-dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, held the same position.

But the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement has joined the protest. Chairperson Ayanda Kota said it has “printed 100 T-shirts and has been going into the Grahamstown townships conscientising people about the issues and mobilising them for October 15”.

She said: “We, the poor, suffer whenever companies fix the price of bread or when there are more job losses while chief executives get rich. But our protest is also localised, in the sense that we are protesting about the R19-million that is unaccounted for by the Makana municipality, the R240 000 spent by local government on bogus soccer development clinics and the privatisation of our struggle by the ANC.”

Richard Pithouse, a Rhodes University political scientist, said the Grahamstown occupation protest could stand out as an example to other cities. It had been preceded by months of careful political work involving the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement and the Students for Social Justice. This had culminated in “a negotiated solidarity based on equality” between disillusioned middle-class youth and grassroots communities, which had “explosive political potential”, said Pithouse.

Protest moves from Wall Street to world
New York’s “Occupy Wall Street” protest began with a call to Americans by Canadian anti-consumerist publication Adbusters in mid-July to occupy the area, considered the world’s financial hub and the pre-eminent symbol of capitalism, on September 17.

Initially a few hundred gathered, but the numbers soon began to swell. The Guardian newspaper estimated this week that there were about 15 000 protesters congregated in Zuccotti Park, near the city’s stock exchange.

There have been reports and online footage of tough police action against the demonstrators, including peaceful female protesters being pepper-sprayed and the mass arrests of about 700 people who tried to occupy the city’s landmark Brooklyn Bridge.

Those gathered in New York include ideologically motivated anarchists and other activists, but also teachers, artisans, students and the unemployed. They appear to cut across class, age and race.

Grievances include unhappiness with the global economic system and the perception that while American taxpayers funded the bailout of United States financial institutions after the 2008 economic crisis, they suffered the consequences of the meltdown in the form of unemployment, the loss of homes and pension funds and continued personal debt.

Other grievances highlighted by the protesters include concern about insufficiently transparent government, a corrupt political campaign financing system in need of reform, genetically modified food and factory farming.

Demonstrators have also called for a return to a more utopian, grassroots democracy.

Such democracy is articulated in the day-to-day organisation of the occupation. Protesters meet twice a day at a general assembly where all decisions—from running the pop-up communal kitchen that feeds protesters to deciding when to stage a march—are debated and voted on.

According to reports in the New York Times and the Guardian, among other publications, the atmosphere is peaceful and festive. Expressions of solidarity with the occupiers have come from across the world.

The protesters are being fed by supplies donated from sympathetic organisations and individuals, including markets, farmers, individuals at home and restaurants.

People around the US and the world have called on restaurants in the Wall Street area to support the occupation and have ordered take-aways for delivery to the protesters.

From this tiny germ, says the protesters’ website, occupywallstreet.com, the occupation has spread to 650 cities across the world.


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