The wind is blowing from downtown Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. From Thomas Paine Park, named after the author of Rights of Man, the clouds moving past the United States Courthouse across the road create the illusion that its 30-storey tower is falling, keeling over, as if deaf to the inscription on the New York County Supreme Court next door that reads: “The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good governance.”
But the tower does not crash into the “all-sorts” of demonstrators, the army veterans, the unemployed and weary-looking occupiers, gathered below to protest against the American government’s military efforts in places like Afghanistan and spending on the military industrial complex, and calling for broader economic and political justice.
It is as if the songs floating up from the diminutive figure with cropped grey hair strumming her guitar on stage have the magical power of a spider web, combining the ethereal and the steely, to captivate both building and audience.
Folk singer and activist Joan Baez is leading the gathering in a singalong of her anti-war classic, Where’s My Apple Pie, about soldiers returning from the World Wars and Vietnam to unattended post-traumatic stress and rat-infested hospitals.
Towards the end, she tailors the chorus: “We walked and wheeled from the battlefield, And where’s my apple pie, Time to occupy/ It’s time to occupy, my friends.”
The audience cheers before joining in with gusto.
The Veterans’ Day protest on November 11 was organised by the Occupy Wall Street movement, Iraqi war veterans and local trade unions. For many present, there were no slices of the dreamy American pie left. It had already been devoured by the 1% of bankers, businessmen and the politicians they fund.
There were hardly any crumbs after a market-driven orgy that still sees the foreclosure of the 99%’s homes because of the subprime mortgage crisis. Protesters complained that, despite the 2008 federal government bailout of Wall Street, there had been no contrition and tempering of the traders’ attempted financial alchemy, or their sex, drugs and bonuses lifestyles. They said there were no jobs with dignity left after a cycle of “Reaganomics” since the 1980s and the outsourcing of work to foreign “free-trade” gulags in the preceding years of globalising capitalism.
It is this disenchantment that the Occupy Wall Street movement, which manifested itself physically for the first time in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17 this year, is both tapping into and inspiring activism. Occupations have since sprouted up in cities around the US, from Oakland on the West Coast to Boston on the East and, despite recent evictions, the momentum of political discussions, organising and movement building appears to go on.
For example, the Occupy Your Hood initiative, to introduce direct democratic practices such as general assemblies into communities to enable them to gather, air issues and grievances and formulate ways forward is continuing — as are the efforts to counter what many occupiers consider to be a model of democracy that represents only the interests of the rich. They are planning, for example, to protest against the National Defence Authorization Act, which was passed by Congress and approved by the Senate on December 15. The Bill allows the military to detain terrorism suspects in the US without trial indefinitely.
Tahrir Square in Cairo was the central point for huge democracy demonstrations in February and November. (Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP)
After the gathering, Marsha Spencer (56), trundles back to the Zuccotti Park encampment where she is a familiar figure, having spent much of the past 44 days knitting hats and mittens for the occupiers.
Born and raised in Michigan, Spencer is an unemployed New York-based seamstress who visited Zuccotti Park soon after the occupation began to donate some warm clothes. She had returned every day since with her wool and needles: “I’m doing this for my [five] grandchildren. If something doesn’t change soon, they won’t be able to afford college and have decent lives,” she says.
“My [eldest granddaughter] Cassie will be going to college in two years and her student loans will leave her with debt way over her head and I’m not certain she will get a job to pay it off. It shouldn’t be like this,” says Spencer, who believes the government needs to spend less on weapons and more on education.
“My father had five children and not a lot of money, but he put us all through college. You knew there was a job for you when you finished school — on the factory assembly line, or wherever. There was a place for you. A place to work hard and to make an honest living so that you could buy a house and start a family. That was the American Dream we were taught and now that’s all gone.”
One of Spencer’s daughters still lives in Michigan where she and her husband juggle three jobs, she says.
Its capital, Detroit, is a stark example of the fall of the American economic empire. Ironically, it was also the site for the 1980 Republican convention that ushered in the two terms of the Ronald Reagan administration, to which most left-leaning economists attribute the spate of financial deregulation and untrammelled capitalism that has led to the financial meltdown.
Detroit — nicknamed Motown for its long-established motor industry, including internationally recognised brands such as Ford and General Motors, which are synonymous with the Stars and Stripes — is turning into a ghost town. This comes after years of retrenchments and recent state cut-backs on food and clothing assistance programmes.
According to the 2010 American census, a quarter of Detroit’s residents (or one person every 22 minutes) have left the city over the past decade. The Michigan League for Human Services reported that, with home foreclosures and spiralling rents, child homelessness increased by 40% between 2009 and 2010. The Michigan department of education estimated that 31 000 children were homeless in the 2010-2011 school year, up from about 7 500 in 2007-2008.
There has been some respite: according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate in Detroit dipped slightly between October and November, from 10.6% to 9.8%. But critics say the statistics are unreliable because they do not incorporate part-time workers looking for full-time jobs or those who have given up job hunting altogether. They suggest “under-employment” is probably double the official unemployment figure.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (second from left) visits Mohamed Bouazizi (right), the protester who set himself alight during a demonstration against unemployment. Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, ignited nationwide protests that forced Ben Ali to flee the country. (Tunisian Presidency, Reuters)
It is this increasingly uncertain future, the prospect of McJobs and a dislocation from the American Dream, that appears to be galvanising students and twentysomethings, many burdened by university education debt, into activism through Occupy Wall Street, often for the first time.
On a Monday evening in East Harlem, the movement’s arts and culture and outreach working groups are in discussion with the Movimento por Justicio El Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio).
The area is populated mainly by Latino migrant workers, from Mexico in particular, but it has become increasingly gentrified. The group has been organising to stop residents being priced out of the homes they rent and the evictions that have accompanied the middle-class incursion. They have been doing this for years, taking direct action such as occupying local councillors’ offices and refusing to move from apartment blocks scheduled for redevelopment.
The discussion “to get to know each other” is lively and empathetic but also exposes the (admittedly diminishing) callowness of the Occupy Wall Street activists, who range from web designers to Columbia University students.
An enthusiastic hipster in skinny jeans asks how Occupy Wall Street can help the struggle in the barrios: “Do you need volunteers to help hand out flyers to get the message out to more communities?”
“The question is not about handing out flyers, it’s about finances to support building committees. We would love for there to be more organisation by those living in their own hoods, but that can’t be our focus. This is our community, this is where we live and this is our focal point right now” is the simple response.
The two movements have exchanged fraternal messages, and follow-up meetings and action are scheduled.
Occupy Wall Street has been criticised for being driven by the white middle class and their increasing fear of becoming an underclass. It is something that the most activists — ranging from unemployed construction workers to academics — who spoke to the Mail & Guardian were painfully aware of and were constantly attempting to rectify. In working groups, general assemblies and normal conversation there were questions about how to attract those marginalised from the economic mainstream, whether African-American, Hispanic or the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
At the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square in the city’s financial district, Shane Aspinall, a 25-year-old African-American, says he has been living there because “it’s time black people take back the initiative to reclaim their history and rewrite it together with our present and hopefully better futures.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which manifested itself physically for the first time in New York’s Zuccotti Park, is both tapping into and inspiring activism. (Getty Images, AFP)
Aspinall, who believes that the historical economic and social discrimination against African-American communities in the US must change, says: “At the moment, this [occupation] is the only alternative we have. The Republicans and the Democrats don’t represent us — [President Barack] Obama will always have that history of being the first black president of the US but you’ve seen his record.
“I recognise there are structural problems in Washington with political lobby groups and the influence of business and his hands are tied. But, if not him, who? Us, that’s who.”
Aspinall says the Occupy Wall Street outreach programmes to Boston’s ghettos are vital to reinvigorate civic interest in social self-help.
It sounds as if Obama’s “Yes, we can!” 2008 election rallying cry is finding a voice outside mainstream politics. It is being articulated even in those institutions that produce the 1%. At Harvard University, an occupation of the famous Harvard Yard started on the day the M&G was in town. The university stopped journalists and anyone without an official Harvard identity document from entering, including, absurdly, a group of schoolchildren on a tour the next day.
Amanda Haziz-Ginsberg, a 22-year-old divinity student, says that their protest is against a university “that ideologically and materially perpetuates a certain kind of world by constantly producing a neo-liberal agenda”.
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has been attributed to being started by the Canadian-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. In early June this year, it sent out an internet meme that “America needs its own Tahrir Square” and later released an image of a barefoot ballerina on the charging bull statue found on Wall Street. The image, Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn told the New Yorker, was an appropriate image because of “the juxtaposition of the capitalist dynamism of the bull with the Zen stillness of the ballerina”.
This was followed by another meme, “What is our one demand? Occupy Wall Street. Bring Tent”, and a tactical briefing email sent out on July 13. It went viral and drew reactions ranging from organisational discussions to people registering sites such as www.occupywallst.org.
A gathering in August saw Adbusters readers, mainly anarchist types, hook up with activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, which had already staged a three-week occupation, called Bloombergville, on the steps of New York’s City Hall to protest against mayor Michael Bloomberg’s austerity measures because of the federal debt crisis.
There appeared to have been confusion and a group broke away from that gathering to hold their own meeting, facilitated by David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist based at the University of London.
The seeds of the September 17 occupation were planted and, with it, a new approach to direct democracy based on anarchism — a horizontal, consensus-based process through which every decision by the community is voted on at a general assembly, after the minutia of issues have been thrashed out at working groups. Anyone can participate and it takes a single objection to an issue to send it back to the working group.
At the time of going to press, the Occupy Wall Street movement had 136 working groups and counting, including the demands working group, trying to identify the movement’s demands, the immigrant workers’ justice group and the sanitation working group, which dealt with the issue of toilets in Zuccotti Park, before the eviction.
One of those involved in both Bloombergville and the organisation of Wall Street is a precocious 17-year-old Long Island high-school student and revolutionary, Lucas Vazquez. When we meet at the Atrium, at 60 Wall Street, another public space commandeered by the Wall Street movement to hold working group meetings, Vazquez is looking tired.
He admits to being on his feet non-stop, teaching facilitation of working groups to newcomers — there is a simple code of hand signals that guides meetings and tests the temperature on issues — facilitating working group meetings and still managing to attend school.
“There has been a lot of hostility towards social movements in this country but I believe, with Occupy Wall Street, this is already changing.”
He adds that, because of the movement, words such as “neoliberal” and “inequality” have been forced into the mainstream media and the public discourse.
“There is a deeper sense of class consciousness in the US now, which was never there before.”
Vazquez, a voracious reader who was born in Argentina, says he is inspired by the success of “horizontalism” in grassroots organisations and co-ops in that country. “I believe this is an alternative to the model of democracy we have now, where we vote every four years and the government in Washington only looks after the interests of the 1%, who fund their election campaigns and then determine policy on everything from the Keystone pipeline [proposed to transport oil from Canada to the US and heavily criticised by environmentalists] to our position on Israel.
“The difference between the possible success of what is happening now and what happened previously in the 1960s and 1970s is the internet,” says Vazquez. Working groups can discuss and thrash out issues on Listserv and share Google documents for fine-tuning without having to gather in the same space all the time.
But regular meetings still go on. These also reflect the frustrating, often static elements of consensus-based democracy. The M&G has witnessed discussions over a single word in a demand, going in circles, being excised, only to be returned at another meeting a week later. The Demands Working Group has yet to formalise a single demand — three months since September 17.
Tahrir Square in Cairo — the central point for huge democracy demonstrations. (Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP)
Time magazine has made “the protestor” its personality of 2011.
It certainly has been a year that has demanded that our collective imaginations be stretched. What was thought impossible is possible; what the mainstream Western media considered a backward, anti-democratic belt of Arab countries — populated by people who “are not genetically predisposed to democracy”, as one “expert” on the right-wing Fox News channel described the protesters of the Arab Spring — have, indeed, fermented and spread the “Ebola virus” of new ways to change their world.
From the Tunisian uprising inspired by the self-immolation of vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to Egypt’s Tahrir Square where a new struggle against the military council has begun; from the belly of the capitalist beast at Occupy Wall Street to the youthful Los Indignados (The Outraged), who occupied Madrid’s Puerta de Sol Plaza earlier this year to protest against the deepening eurozone crisis and the government’s austerity measures. And even to Ficksburg, South Africa, where, after the horrific images of police murdering protester Andries Tatane, a nation was compelled to reconsider its government and its approach to dealing with the almost daily community protests.
State repression has meant that the flare-ups of daily community protests in South Africa, simplistically called service-delivery protests by the media, remain fractured from each other. They have yet to coalesce into a broader social movement or something to resemble the anti-apartheid struggle’s United Democratic Front.
Radicalism has also been hijacked by mainstream politics and transmuted into pseudo-revolutionary populism by the likes of suspended ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who has, among other things, called for the nationalisation of mines and marched for the “poor” to be “emancipated economically” so that they “can live in Sandton [the most expensive property in Africa] too.”
It is contradictory messaging that deepens the nouveau riche bling tendencies that have dominated South African popular culture and politics since 1994.
Although the ANC still maintains a hold on the majority of the population’s political nostalgia, this undermines the true radicalism and organisational work being done at grassroots level among communities by activists operating outside mainstream politics – as does the middle class’s depiction of disgruntled communities’ protests as the action of faceless, non-human black hordes. It is something less apparent in the earnestness of Occupy Wall Street.
Both these perspectives are stumbling blocks to economic freedom, with the government becoming increasing paternalistic between the ritual of marking a ballot every five years.
The question for South Africa is: How do we imagine ourselves at a time when protest and revolution are acting like a mind-expanding drug in the rest of the world?
Niren Tolsi is a senior reporter for the Mail & Guardian
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.