Visiting Liberty Square (Occupy Wall Street)

I spent the summer going to rallies and demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, and was even in Barcelona during their protest.

Tahrir Square, July 2011

Tahrir Square, July 2011


(Nighttime Protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, July 2011)

I was in New York city to give at talk at NYU on Wednesday, and I wanted to follow up on the impact of this year of protests on the US. So I went to see the folks at Occupywallstreet.org. in Liberty Square (i.e. Tahrir Square). They are inspired by the Egyptian and Spanish protests this past summer. It was hard to walk there from Wall Street because there were police barricades around all the buildings and you had to make detours. The easier way would have been just to go on Broadway. There were probably three hundred people there, some visiting, some camping out (it is not a big square, and was pretty packed). Some say that last Saturday, several thousand people rallied in the vicinity, so the numbers clearly fluctuate enormously.

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I asked them what they wanted, and they admitted that probably everyone there wanted something different. It isn’t an organization. But they said one thing they wanted was a voice, so they could be heard. They wanted to know why the corporations and the top 1% of American income earners are represented in Congress, but they are not. I asked them whether changing all that would not require campaign finance reform, and pointed out that the Supreme Court had made the latter almost impossible by defining giving money to politicians as a form of protected speech. They said, that’s bullshit, man. Money is not speech. They said that anyway first they had to gain a voice, and then they could discuss concrete reforms.

But not everyone there was anti-business. One woman had a sign saying that she liked business and she liked freedom and she wanted to find a way to combine the two. I was told that the square was visited by a man who said he had been worth $120 million, but had been victimized by some sort of shorting scheme. He was angry and bitter, convinced that the game he once played so successfully was ultimately rigged. Has that really changed since 2008?

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They were generally in agreement that the top 1% of income earners had benefited unfairly in the past couple of decades from tax cuts and government favors, and maintained that the rest of Americans– the 99% or almost everyone — had been deeply harmed by corporate corruption and sharp practices of the sort that produced the 2008 downturn. They said many of them had friends who had lost jobs or homes or both.

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At 2 pm they had a general assembly. This meeting is a form of housekeeping for the protesters camping out. The city won’t let them use microphones, so they speaker has to shout. To make sure the message gets across, others repeat each sentence. I heard this practice described on NPR as a bit strange, but they appear not to have known that it is an innovation in response to the prohibition on using a mike. Interestingly, in medieval madrasahs or seminaries in the Muslim world, the same practice was deployed, of groups repeating what the speaker said so that they message reached the back of a large class.

At one point the speaker mentioned that the protesters needed specific goods (they are trying to serve meals in the square). They also have practical problems like where to use the bathroom or shower. I don’t know if there is a reliable way to get them donations or find ways for friendly local small businesses to help them with these issues.

They are eager for people to visit them, join them and support them. Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore have been by, which has helped. But given the largely unprosecuted crimes committed by some financiers on Wall Street and given the way in which millions of Americans have been harmed by the deregulation of finance and by sheer criminality, it is amazing that more such protests, and larger ones, have not been staged.

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Last Saturday the New York police tried to crack down on the protest, though it is hard to see on what grounds, since the right of peaceable assembly is in the US constitution. Notoriously, one officer is alleged to have used pepper spray on a peaceful protester, and it is now emerging that there were more such incidents. See “Why I was maced at the Wall Street Protests.”

The pepper spray and other incidents brought more protesters out, and the way video experiences circulated to create sentiments of sympathy is apparent in this account by Nicki Angelo of the impact watching one such short film on youtube had on her:

The protest movement is explicitly transnational and takes inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia. Unsurprisingly, the Green Movement of Iran, which was crushed in 2009, was represented:

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The protesters are a diverse bunch. There were lots of young people, and while I was there a group of them started playing guitars and singing progressive Beatles’ songs (A Hard Day’s Night, with its lyrics about hard work, and John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)

But an older folk singing duo, Ed and Robin Mahonen, who had composed an anthem in honor of the protests (Let’em Eat Cake) were also there, Ed with his banjo. (Robin’s facebook page is here.

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Now that a massive political movement to elect Barack Obama as a way of fixing the abuses of the Bush era has largely failed, with Obama coddling Wall Street, unwilling to prosecute the crimes of his predecessors, and taking disappointing positions on our civil liberties and on domestic surveillance, it is hard to see where we can go but to the streets. In a two-party system, which is highly undemocratic, those dissatisfied with an incumbent really only have one alternative, which makes people move to the right when they might actually want to move further to the left.

Moreover, my own question to the protester about how you could get around a Supreme Court that is in the back pocket of the rich and which has defined the buying of our politicians by the 1 percent as “protected free speech” does not have an easy answer. Maybe we should make opposition to this interpretation a litmus test for confirmation, the way the Right has in a coded way tried to get Roe V. Wade overturned over time.

But likely you’d have to go outside the Establishment system to get this change, and non-violent mass protest may be the only way to make our dissatisfaction with our Corporatocracy known effectively.

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31 Responses

  1. Very nice report, professor! Too many “professionals” have refused to attend or report on this great gathering because, they claim, “not enough people are there!” Even progs have scorned it! Kudos to you for showing up! I’ll be at the October 6 gathering in DC with my sleeping bag along with thousands of others. The movement is growing! http://October2011.org

  2. Hi,

    Saw your comment on dollar bills.

    I lave in Australia and our system is interesting. All prices are in cents we have no pennies and all bills are rounded to the nearest nickel. We have no dollar bills and have one dollar and two dollar pieces. All our “paper” money is color coded and made from plastic. It goes through the wash with no wear. Higher denominations are also sized larger so blind people can function more easily. You see, we have no hang-ups on the “value” of our currency … we know its been devalued over the years and accept that.

    We also produce more currency for export than any other country in the world.

    As to the screwed up US democracy, from here it looks completely broken and on its way down hill. I spend much time apologizing for my American “half”. I can’t imagine what its like to be an American traveling the Middle East. I can’t imagine what people there think of Americans.

    Now, if only the Aussies could beat the “All-Blacks” in rugby at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Yeah, when hell freezes over. Tonight is Samoa against south Africa … Samoa is the underdog based on its population, but the Samoans are monsters and could spoil it for the Springboks. Time will tell.

    • “We also produce more currency for export than any other country in the world.”

      Maybe because Aussies offer bigger bribes to other countries treasury officials link to theage.com.au.

      They probably learnt from the Aussie Wheat Board who did the sanction busting deals with Saddam Hussein to buy Aussie wheat – link to en.wikipedia.org

      Springboks beat Samoa 13:5

  3. Americans have been made more than merely docile by our consumption-oriented, entertainment-oriented, individual-over-collective-oriented culture.

    Until we all got poor, people only thought about “me, me, me” and “buy, buy, buy” and not about “us, us, us.”

    OK. so, consumerism. Consumerism without political involvement.

    Now there is massive unemployment, underemployment, no jobs for new graduates or much of anyone else, and THE PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE A FEELING FOR ORGANIZING.

    The Wall Street Event is nice, but SO SMALL! How will Americans “take back” the constitution, the government, etc.? HOW WILL LIBERAL/PROGRESSIVE ANGER overcome the ANGER-FROM-FRUSTRATED-PRIVILEGE which we see in the Tea Party?

  4. Dear Juan (if I may!):

    Thanks so much for the post and your continued work analyzing so many of the major issues that we collectively face.

    I would suggest that if the “message” of this movement is diffuse it is because over the past ten (and really, past thirty) years, we have been made into a country that is unrecognizable from the one I knew as a young boy in the late 60s and early 70s.

    Who could ever imagine such a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy? Who could imagine that we’d dispute the science of environmental disaster? Who could imagine that everything that brought about Nixon’s resignation would be rendered legal? Who could imagine torture being embraced? Who could imagine the effective destruction of many of our most cherished freedoms? Who could imagine the complete corporate lock on all three major branches of government? Who could imagine an electorate so without virtue that it publicly boos gay servicemen, and cheers, like some Roman mob, executions and those left to die for lack of medical care? Who, in other words, could imagine such regression in so many areas of our society? Humans generally progress, no?

    The seeming lack of cohesion in what is desired by the protestors is in part, I feel, a response to the modern conservative strategy, whereby the policies are so mean, so stupid, so wrong on all fronts, that it renders any opponent of right wing ideology effectively paralyzed by the sheer amount of venom (like a spider) it injects into the body politic. One does not even know where to start.

    But that, I fear, is alas the whole point.

    • “Who could ever imagine such a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy?”

      Kevin Phillips, for one. He has written half a dozen books on the subject, beginning with “The Politics of Rich and Poor.”

      • Thanks for the tip Jim. But I was thinking of the 60s and 70s (Phillips is a more contemporary author) – my parents lived through the Great Depression and WWII and they certainly had their influence on me. We thought these questions – torture, basic issues of economic justice with a view to averting totalitarianism, etc. – were settled to a substantial degree – the more fool us!

        • Anybody who lived through the Reagan years and didn’t notice that things were being changed wasn’t awake.

    • Don’t see a reply for DR BLC so I’ll post it to my original post.

      I agree in no small part with this, but the scale could not have been foreseen. To say that is a vaticinium ex eventu. Much of what happened – torture, abdication of constitutional freedoms, spring in no small part from 9/11. Similarly, I don’t see how we could have imagined to what extent the public would have been so complaint in the face of all of this. It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but as an ancient historian, I always tell my students, you have to divest yourself of any notion that what happened in 50 BC could have been foreseen in 59 BC.

  5. Great report, hopefully giving more oxygen to an important protest. But why put it this way: “Notoriously, one officer is alleged to have used pepper spray on a peaceful protester”? Are we waiting for a court verdict? The white shirt, Bologna, who sprayed the women was filmed every which way. Is there a whiff of legal procedure about the accusation that requires suspended judgment? If so, does that mean we should consider all of the actions of the object of the protest to be “alleged,” waiting, waiting, waiting for yet another duly constituted authority to pronounce a verdict? Or, perhaps, in the face of wholesale criminality ranging from the executive suites to cops using mace you, outraged, felt obliged to toss in some suggestion of restrained judgment to rein in yourself? Is the problem we face that we really know what they’re doing?

    • Indeed. We do not need wishy washy lawyer speak here. We are not in a bogus “justic system” courtroom. We are in the reality-based world. Bologna DID gratuitously and maliciously pepper spray peaceful protesters. He did so with a grin on his face (probably laughed about it later with his thug cop buddies around the coffee pot back at the precinct later).

      He did it. There’ is no “alleged” to it. He did it. And it wasn’t just one cop. There were plenty of other cops brutally handling peaceful protesters and anyone with the gall to actually have cameras out filming the Gestapo tactics.

      Land of the free my ass.

  6. Oh my word what excellent placards! We need the same thing here in the City of London. Something tells me the poor things might have a problem getting to work after the next bailout.
    The crowds will clear, as if by magic, if they start jumping.

  7. Thanks for visiting Liberty Square, Dr. Cole, and then giving us almost more coverage of what is going on than any of the mainstream media has done since the protests began – with the possible exception of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

    The linked, first-person, article in your report, “Why I Was Maced At The Wall Street Protests,” is outstanding, as well, and worth reading. For one thing, it is the only piece I’ve read that identified NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna as the perpetrator of the unprovoked macing of peaceful protestors who were penned inside a corral set up by other officers.

    Beyond the specifics, this fledgling movement – if that is what it is – won’t have any impact until the cause is taken up by middle class adults, senior citizens and the clergy. Once the group in Liberty Square is joined by soccer moms with their kids, middle managers with their families, and people approaching retirement, the media will continue to ignore the story. Thinking back to Viet Nam, it wasn’t until the ranks of protests were swelled by these people that the anti-war voice was heard and reported on by newspapers and television.

  8. Great coverage, Juan. Earlier this week, I had to push my way through the cordons to get to the dentist. It seemed like the cops far outnumbered the protestors. And it all seemed kind of futile and hopeless…

  9. Great posting and my heart and soul is with the protesters on Wall Street. I myself cannot attend (they would not really want me) as I am NOT into passive resistance. I am NOT inclined to simply sit there and take it if some Gestapo thug (aka, a “cop”) came along and pepper sprayed me. I am NOT inclined to simply go with the flow if such a thug tried to toss me to the ground, pin my head to the concrete, and tried to slap zip ties on my wrists.

    They don’t want me there. I believe in AT LEAST proportionate response, with a leaning towards disproportionate response. But I’m military. “Kinetic” response is in my blood.

  10. And the Wall Street protest have barely been whispered about in the US MSM.

    Hope you go visit some peaceful Palestinian protest. The MSM sure avoids covering those.

  11. Thanks! – especially for the photos showing a wide range of protester’s signs. We’ve lost any hope of redress through the electoral or legal systems, and we have no chance to communicate through the corporate media. What’s left is for us to find a new way to talk to each other directly.

    The protesters seem to be doing everything right. They’re talking rather than breaking things, they’re rejecting the idea of “one demand”, their presence is ongoing rather than temporary, and it’s spreading to other cities. I can’t wait for it to come to my city.

  12. Thanks for this report! Excellent photos. I appreciate you passing along information – no way the current media will report much on it. It has to be done individually, by blog, tweet and face, I guess – just like they do it in the third world.

    I don’t personally put any stock in “demonstrations” as a tool for social change anymore. They got media attention in the 1960s, but news coverage is different now. Only gatherings of right wingnuts, no matter how miniscule, get on the teevie. Lefties? You got coverage in 1968. Your time is over.

    On the other hand, if the armies of unemployed people, who have little else to do, were to gather daily, say around the local news media offices every day from 11am to 2pm, perhaps there might be a chance that SOMEONE might notice…

  13. Reporter Cole,

    Thanks for this excellent reporting, and for drawing parallels.

    Now for your next assignment: attend and report on the Keystone Pipeline protest planned for November 6. The proposed pipeline is another case of corporate/governmental collusion in the service of personal enrichment and environmental destruction:

    According to ThinkProgress Green,

    “…public hearings on federal approval for a proposed tar sands pipeline are being run by a contractor for the pipeline company itself.”

    link to thinkprogress.org

    Corruption is so pervasive in our country that people should be taking to the streets. As you say, what alternative does a concerned citizen in the lower 99% have?

  14. Dr. Cole, this is a great piece of journalism. Your photographs put us in the middle of the protest, the protesters, and the confluence of constituencies.

  15. I work in lower Manhattan and happened to visit the square myself at lunchtime today; I too wanted to see what, specifically, the demonstrators were after. As in your report, the individuals I spoke with were candid in saying different folks were motivated by different issues. Beneath it all, however, there seemed to be a deep unhappiness with this nation’s lopsided distribution of wealth and political representation, and an aching sense that it wasn’t always so. I’m not about to quit my job and start sleeping in a blue plastic tarp. But I share their concerns and am grateful this ragtag group of kids–I was referred to there as “the older generation”!–is sticking with it, night after night. Odds are, I be back tomorrow to make some kind of donation, as you suggested.
    P.S. Sorry I missed your appearance at NYU. Informed Comment and the NYRB help keep me sane in a crazy world.

  16. I think this is great. As a nation we often forget or forgo our right to protest. It is what has been the source of some of the most influential changes in our nation. Fight the good fight my friends.

  17. Join me and over 6000 others who will be occupying freedom Plaza in Washington DC beginning October 6th and to last indefinitely.

    link to october2011.org

    We call on people of conscience and courage—all who seek peace, economic justice, human rights and a healthy environment—to join together in Washington, D.C., beginning on Oct. 6, 2011, in nonviolent resistance similar to the Arab Spring and the Midwest awakening.

    A concert, rally and protest will kick off a powerful and sustained nonviolent resistance to the corporate criminals that dominate our government.

    Forty-seven years ago, Mario Savio, an activist student at Berkeley, said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

    Those words have an even greater urgency today. We face ongoing wars and massive socio-economic and environmental destruction perpetrated by a corporate empire which is oppressing, occupying and exploiting the world. We are on a fast track to making the planet unlivable while the middle class and poor people of our country are undergoing the most wrenching and profound economic crisis in 80 years.

  18. 20 years ago my great fear was that the tradition of working-class activism would be broken, that the movement that rose from neglected mines and factories and despised immigrants after the Civil War until it made possible the New Deal would no longer be handed down from parent to child. For once it was lost and forgotten, we would have to start all over from scratch, and the first time it required a lot of bloodshed. The National Guard was called out an average of twice a year between the Civil War and WW2 to crush labor protests.

    Well, it happened. We lost everything. Without a workers’ movement to define social and economic justice, it’s not enough for people to get angry and take to the streets. They haven’t formed a consensus as to what America’s future should be like. Just like the angry protestors of the 1870s, we are having to define the enemy and its nature, and then define the weapons we will build to defeat it. This will take years, too long for America to be saved as we know it. The capitalists of the Gilded Age were making more money in America than they could elsewhere, so when they eventually wrecked the country they had to negotiate with the workers to rebuild it. Now the capitalists are making the last big killings on their way out the door to new host bodies overseas. They won’t negotiate; they will kill and tyrannize us until they’re ready to pull the plug on America.

    Yet we will still need the movement, and we will still need to rebuild a society as ruined as Mubarak’s Egypt.

    The workers are what made it possible for FDR to be a progressive; their network of unions, radical parties, and leftist media played the bad cop, he played the good cop who told his rich pals that he couldn’t hold those crazy proles back if he didn’t get some cooperation. Obama doesn’t have that, and neither has any Democratic president since LBJ. It was never about the opinion of the people, it was about the leverage of those people who were willing to go beyond their personal vote to disrupt the usurpations of their enemies and force negotiations. Once liberals thought voting was enough, they were doomed.

    • My recollection was that the student protests (sex, drugs & rocknroll) of the 1960s/70s were important factors in splitting working people off from “the left” and from street protesting in general.

      The culture war split labor away from the left, and much of it went to fake populists like Ronald Reagan (gee, isn’t he folksy?), who then used their support and votes to serve the monied class.

      Are the Wall Street protestors desperate, out of work, working-class people – or are they just lazy students, with a sense of entitlement, cutting class? It’s important just who is being represented, and what they want to accomplish.

  19. Want to join the chorus of thanks for this report!

    What a sad comment on the state of corporate media. One man with a camera and the ability to ask thoughtful questions puts all their reporting to shame.

  20. Some of my observations on the “then” of the 1960’s and the “now” of 2010’s.

    The 1960s protests were widespread, both within the US and across the world, the causes varied but they drew inspiration from one another.

    The 1960’s protests were student centred; most older people were too busy working. In 1965 US unemployment was 4.5% and incomes were rising. It was similar in most of the Western world. Many of today’s young seem to lack imagination, hence they can’t imagine what’s lacking. They’re immersed in the vicarious audio-visual imaginings of others. Video’s on iPads are the new opiate of the people.

    In the US the protests had two powerful intersecting issues; initially Civil Rights and soon after the Vietnam War.
    In Prague the intellectual elite were trying to overthrow the Communist state.
    In Paris the younger generation were trying to establish an Anarchist state.
    In Germany the younger generation wanted to know and speak about the Nazi state.
    In Britain protests were small, local and centred around disparate issues – nuclear disarmament, anti Vietnam, university fees & representation.
    In Australia protests were about Aboriginal Rights and the Vietnam War.

    As Juan discovered today’s protesters don’t have a clear idea of what they want, except its not what the other guy wants (keep that thought in mind).

    Then there were leaders & song writers like MLK, Malcolm X, Seeger, Dylan, Lennon & Buffy (Sainte-Marie). Today there is who – Sarah Palin & Lady Gaga (tho’ her duet with Bennet is good) ;)

    Now there are a myriad of structured activist groups, most led by MBA graduates who speak many words for few ideas. Each has its own non-unique narrow cause, they fight one another and compete for our ears, eyes & money.

    Some people have commented that things started to go wrong in the ’80’s. That’s true with respect the widening of income distribution and the rise & rise of the Financial Industry; but in social terms the tide turned towards nihilistic individualism in the ’70’s. This was most forcefully expressed in the punk rock music of the 70’s – which many ’60’s activists (self included) chose to ignore.

  21. “Now that a massive political movement to elect Barack Obama as a way of fixing the abuses of the Bush era has largely failed,”

    While I greatly appreciate Dr. Cole’s writing about these protests, I am perplexed whenever anyone expresses this sentiment. For cryin’ out loud, what campaign were people watching in 2008 that they thought this would happen?

    Any president, no matter what he promises beforehand, can only effect but so much “change” if he doesn’t have willing partners, and Obama does not have many of those, even within his own party, which is home to influences from all across the ideological spectrum. Add to that a stultifying bureaucracy that always wants to maintain the status quo, and the fixing Dr. Cole is talking about is something that will take generations.

    We had been laying the groundwork for the abuses of the Bush era for long before Bush was elected. It’s taken a good thirty years, at least, for this country to drift into where we are now, and it’s going to take a good thirty more to pull ourselves out, if that’s even possible.

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