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American Spring

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Iowa OWS movement activists have established a model that other states and cities might profitably examine and emulate


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Americans who lift their heads above the miasma of mediated unreality, commercial glitz, celebrity glamor, reality television, bloody police dramas, and war propaganda, a massive disinformation campaign designed to distract and pacify, gaze out upon an America with a crumbling infrastructure. They behold an economic landscape devastated by wholesale financial fraud and political corruption that has caused millions of American families to be evicted from their homes and many millions more robbed of their savings, a nation in which the super-rich get richer still at the expense of everyone else, a nation with a very uncertain future.

The most hopeful response to the financial elite's controlled demolition of the American dream has come from those with the most to gain and little to lose, idealistic and technically savvy young people. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is primarily their creation, and that should not surprise. It is, after all, their bright futures that have been stolen. Millions of young college students and recent graduates have seen their student loan debt balloon while job opportunities have vanished along with any hope that the wealthy criminals of the financial services industry who caused the collapse or the politicians they own will be held accountable. After 10 years of war, a massive bail-out of Wall Street, and the worst recession since the Great Depression, Washington has run out of money. As the pro-Israel lobby's frantic efforts to foment war with Iran increase, the Obama administration is finally winding down the ill-conceived, immoral, counter-productive, and unsuccessful but hideously destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military is reducing troop levels, not hiring new recruits. Unable to find work, many young Americans have time on their hands and nothing better to do than throw themselves into an effort re-invent the system that is failing them.

Students facilitated the first Occupy movement gathering in Iowa on the state Capitol grounds on October 9, 2011

In a word, OWS was - and is - brilliant. It has reinvigorated a flagging antiwar movement, rekindled interest in progressive ideas and ideals, and encouraged many older Americans who were on the verge of giving up. OWS is an inspirational popular response to police and national security state bureaucracy, excesses, and criminality that exploded with such violence during the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. Illegal wars launched on the basis of phony intelligence findings are hardly new; President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy pulled that off in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. But who would ever have dreamed that any American president could and would officially and publicly authorize torture? America's first general and president, George Washington, said of any American who might treat British prisoners as captured Americans were treated by the British during the Revolutionary War, "by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace, and ruin to themselves and their country." Though President Obama quickly and officially reversed Bush administration torture policies by requiring all interrogations to follow the supposedly non-coercive methods of the Army Field Manual (AFM), human rights experts have pointed out that loopholes in the AFM allow torture to continue. The moral damage to the nation, the terrible stain on our honor, has seemed permanent, indelible. At such a dark moment, OWS broke like a new dawn to become the biggest news story of 2011.

On a conceptual level, with its emphasis on nonviolent protest, direct democracy, and direct action in support of economic justice, honest government, accountability, and an end to oppression, exploitation, and war, OWS has shown itself to be everything that official Washington and Wall Street are not. Though corporate media outlets were slow to recognize the importance, authenticity, and vigor of the new popular movement, once they did the national security apparatus quickly began to coordinate efforts by municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies around the nation to stifle OWS dissent.

In several cities including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, unnecessary violence has characterized law enforcement reactions to OWS encampments and activities. New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, who was filmed pepper spraying, without provocation, a group of women standing in a police pen near Union Square on September 24, set the nasty tone.

CounterPunch author Pam Martens reported on October 10 that, "If you're a Wall Street behemoth, there are endless opportunities to privatize profits and socialize losses beyond collecting trillions of dollars in bailouts from taxpayers. One of the ingenious methods that has remained below the public's radar was started by the Rudy Giuliani administration in New York City in 1998. It's called the Paid Detail Unit and it allows the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street corporations, including those repeatedly charged with crimes, to order up a flank of New York's finest with the ease of dialing the deli for a pastrami on rye.

"The corporations pay an average of $37 an hour (no medical, no pension benefit, no overtime pay) for a member of the NYPD, with gun, handcuffs and the ability to arrest. The officer is indemnified by the taxpayer, not the corporation.

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"New York City gets a 10 percent administrative fee on top of the $37 per hour paid to the police. The City's 2011 budget called for $1,184,000 in Paid Detail fees, meaning private corporations were paying wages of $11.8 million to police participating in the Paid Detail Unit. The program has more than doubled in revenue to the city since 2002."

The taxpayer pays for each officer's training, his uniform, his gun, and will pick up the legal tab for lawsuits resulting from official acts by police personnel following the illegal instructions of their corporate masters. Lawsuits have already sprung up from the program, according to Martens. Bologna has been sued by OWS protesters.

Oakland police shot Scott Olsen, 24, in the head with a tear gas canister on October 25. Olsen, a member of Veterans For Peace, was peacefully protesting when he was shot. The former Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq was hospitalized with a concussion and head trauma.

In Seattle, police pepper-sprayed 84-year-old Dorly Rainey, a 19-year-old pregnant woman, and a priest involved in nonviolent protest on November 15.

"Cops shoved their bicycles into the crowd. ... If it had not been for my hero [Iraq War veteran Caleb Walez] I would have been down on the ground and trampled," Rainey told reporters.

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Both the Oakland and New York police departments are under investigation, Oakland PD for excessive use of force and NYPD for a stop and search policy that disproportionately targets Blacks and Latinos. During a mid-November interview, Oakland mayor Jean Quan told the BBC that the crackdown on OWS was a coordinated effort involving the mayors of other major cities.

"I was recently on a conference call with 18 cities across the country who had the same situation where what had started as a political movement and a political encampment ended up being an encampment no longer in control by the people who started them," said Ms. Quan.

In an article posted on the World Socialist Website, Andre Damon reported on November 17 that a, "spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Mayors told Mother Jones magazine Wednesday that the call Ms. Quan mentioned was one of numerous conference calls--which included mayors and top police brass--that focused on discussing "efforts cities have made to accommodate the demonstrators and maintain public health and safety," a statement that the real Mother Jones, labor activist and organizer Mary Harris, would have dismissed as ludicrous.

Nationwide, OWS arrests number well over 6,000 according to published reports, but given that the co-ordinated campaign against OWS involves copious amounts of disinformation and propaganda, all corporate media reports about OWS are best viewed with skeptical eye.

Author and journalist Chris Hedges limned the national security state's strategy to contain, disrupt, and marginalize insurgencies and popular movements such as OWS in a February 13 Truthdig article.

"Physically eradicate the insurgents' logistical base of operations to disrupt communication and organization. Dry up financial and material support. Create rival organizations to discredit and purge the rebel leadership. Infiltrate the movement to foster internal divisions and rivalries. Provoke the movement - or front groups acting in the name of the movement - to carry out actions such as vandalism and physical confrontations with the police that alienate the wider populace from the insurgency. Invent atrocities and repugnant acts supposedly carried out by the movement and plant these stories in the media. Finally, offer up a political alternative," wrote Hedges.

OWS is a popular nonviolent movement, one which has much, much more in common with the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than with the violent tactics of Tupamaros of Uruguay, the Irish Republican Army, or the Weather Underground, but some in government are determined to destroy it and are using many of the same tools they would employ were OWS a terrorist insurgency. That mistake may prove profoundly detrimental to what remains of civil liberties in the USA.

Some municipal law enforcement agencies have avoided violence in dealing with OWS citizen activists. Iowa, a state with a long history of progressive politics and one that has perhaps the strongest antiwar movement in the nation, responded to OWS in ways that other states and cities might profitably examine. After Republican governor Terry Branstad refused to extend a permit for an Occupy Des Moines encampment on the state Capitol grounds, on October 9, Iowa State Patrol officers arrested more than 30 Occupiers who refused to leave. Days later, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie stepped in and offered Occupy Des Moines (ODM) a city park on the opposite side of the Capitol complex.

"One of the original purposes of parks was for people to gather. We want you to feel like you can gather," Cownie told ODM Occupiers on October 14. "I want my police force out chasing the bad guys and arresting criminals."

The mayor's administration and the Des Moines Police Department (DMPD) worked cooperatively with ODM for months, allowing the encampment to exist, inspecting the park regularly, talking with neighborhood residents, and respecting the rights of the Occupiers.

During November and December, as their plans for direct action during the weeks before the Iowa Caucuses advanced, Des Moines Catholic Workers and other experienced local peace and social justice activists worked with ODM Occupiers to conduct several nonviolence training sessions.

Kathleen McQuillen of the American Friends Service Committee in Des Moines, and Frank Cordaro of the Des Moines Catholic Worker facilitated a three-hour nonviolence training workshop at the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting House on December 4.

"What we've got going for us is that we have collectively said to each other and to the world that, "We're going to be nonviolent. For this day, for this action, this group is going to be nonviolent.' That empowers us," Cordaro told activists during a small group session at Friends House.

Frank Cordaro (right) leads a small group discussion at Friends House in Des Moines on December 4

"This is entry-level civil disobedience, there's minimal risk. I'm not saying that it's insignificant, but it's not that serious. If we were taking on serious risk, we'd do a lot more than three hours training," said the former priest. Cordaro's anti-nuclear weapons and antiwar activism in the USA and in Europe spans decades and began long before he left the priesthood in 2003 after 18 years.

From their encampment at Stewart Square Park and rented space in a building in Des Moines' East Village, ODM Occupiers, along with Catholic Workers, representatives of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and members of several local churches and peace and justice organizations mounted a vigorous campaign of nonviolent direct action that involved several marches to banks and protests at both Democratic Party and Republican Party campaign events and candidate campaign headquarters during the run up to the Iowa Caucuses. The Occupy the Iowa Caucuses coalition developed and maintained communications and cooperation with several municipal law enforcement agencies in the Des Moines area, attracted over a hundred OWS movement activists from across the nation, conducted nonviolent direct actions, and staged a Peoples Caucus that attracted hundreds of activists, interested onlookers, and media personnel from around the world.

Between October 9 to January 3, police made more than 100 Occupy-related arrests, and DMPD costs alone in regular and overtime pay for officers monitoring dozens of Occupy actions amounted to more than $75,000. But the Iowa Occupiers training in and commitment to Jesusonian/Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence proved remarkably successful. No violent confrontations between municipal police officers and occupiers occurred - not even one. Police officers respected the rights of Occupy activists, and Occupy activists cooperated peacefully with police.

That's a model that all Americans can be proud of. It's an accomplishment that other cities and states might well examine and seek to emulate as spring approaches.

The OWS movement is evolving, and the continuing commitment to nonviolence is essential to its success.

Nonviolence, peaceful evolution rather than violent revolution, is what democracy looks like - when Americans work together for the common good during a crisis.


Michael Gillespie writes regularly for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. A 1999 graduate of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Iowa State University, he was inducted a member of Kappa Tau Alpha, the national (more...)
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The Occupy movement needs a better strategy.Grante... by E. J. N. on Saturday, Feb 18, 2012 at 6:07:57 PM
OWS is going to be what the people make it. I h... by Michael Dewey on Sunday, Feb 19, 2012 at 3:42:27 AM