An NYPD officer looks with scrutiny at the photographer taking his picture
during the Occupy Wall Street protests, 09/24/11. (photo: Peter Harris)
Before you read on, watch this: a video from the base camp of the #OccupyWallStreet protest that is now in its seventh day. It's called "Nobody Can Predict the Moment of Revolution." (The video was produced by Martyna Starosta and her friend Iva.)
These are the faces of a wannabe revolution, more than a protest but not yet quite a major Movement. The spirit is infectious, perhaps because of the sincerity of the participants and their obvious commitment to their ideals.
Occupy Wall Street is more than a protest; it is as much an exercise in building a leaderless, bottom-up resistance community with a more democratic approach to challenging the system where everyone is encouraged to have a say.
But saying that also leads to a conflict between my emotional identification with the kids that have rallied in this small park/public space on Liberty Street to exercise some liberty, with a despairing analysis that wishes this enterprise well but harbors deep doubts about its staying power and impact.
This privately-owned park, devastated by debris on 9/11 and then rebuilt by a real estate magnate who named it after himself, is also a place that is under 24-hour surveillance from a hostile New York City Police Department which has put up a fence on one side of the park, brought down a spy tower from Times Square to track the participants from on high, and sprinkled infiltrators into the crowd.
By the time I left, late on Saturday afternoon, the police had arrested 70 people who had joined a march that went from Wall Street to Union Square, New York's traditional gathering place for political rallies for nearly l00 years.
In many ways this is a 2011-style protest modeled after Tahrir Square in Cairo. It is non-violent, organized around what's called a "General Assembly" where the community meets daily to debate its political direction and discuss how it sees itself. There are no formal leaders or spokespeople, no written-down political agenda and no shared demands. They focus on using social media. Twitter is their megaphone.
They have no sound system. When participants want to make an announcement, they yell "Mic Check," which is repeated by the whole crowd. They also repeat the announcement a few words at a time so everyone can hear it.
This bottom-up anarchist sensibility and ideology conflicts with the mass mobilizations of old where an organization issues a call and a coalition of groups carries it out.
I ran into some of yesterday's movement leaders: Leslie Cagan, who ran United for Peace and Justice and organized the massive anti-Iraq War protests and marches in New York and Washington before and after. She was as intrigued as I was about this gathering of the committed. She found the focus a bit vague, but seemed willing to give it a chance to grow and learn by making its own mistakes.
Other 60s activists like Aron Kay, known as the "pie man" for all the famous and infamous people he pied in the face to protest their crimes and misdemeanors -- including Andy Warhol for dining with the Shah of Iran -- was also showing his solidarity by turning up and squatting in the park.
Lower Manhattan on a Saturday is usually a Mosque-less Mecca for tourists visiting Ground Zero, a crime scene if there ever was one. It is a symbol of a national failure to defend this country as well.
It's also the place where the 911 Truth Movement shares its findings weekly with visitors about what "really happened."
Just a few blocks away is another crime scene: Wall Street, which symbolizes an ongoing economic failure. In this past week, access has been limited, and in this free country of ours protestors could not parade in front of the NY Stock Exchange, another privately-run financial institution. That led Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog to opine, "I'm beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the US."
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