Happy Belated 2nd Anniversary, Occupy Wall Street
While I was rebuilding my computer and repairing my Internet connection these past few days, and as fall begins, I found myself reflecting on the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse induced by Wall Street and the mortgage industry. I was there for the first three days of Occupy DC at Freedom Plaza in October 2011, and again later that month for a day of Occupy Atlanta in Woodruff Park in the heart of downtown, and I have some fond memories of being part of something much bigger than myself or the sum of my experiences.
There are reasons to celebrate Occupy, as well as the loosely affiliated “We Are The 99%” Movement which is also still ongoing, despite continued economic stagnation and growing debt. The culture of resistance in the US is here, it’s having an effect, and it’s growing slowly but steadily. There are cracks in the pillars of power, they’re starting to get a little bigger, and it’s up to us to pry them the rest of the way open and shine the light on the lies and corruption that have been used to steal our future. I look back over the events of the past two years and feel cautiously optimistic, because I see a movement that is steadily building momentum. As we met at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, on Oct. 6th, 2011 there was a strong sense of suspense in the air. Some said that Americans weren’t feeling enough pain, that we hadn’t reached the tipping point. Similarly, the organizers of Occupy Wall Street acted out of anticipation. They staked out a place in the heart of the monster and held it. At first there were only a few hundred, but by holding that space courageously, more people were inspired to join them. Excitement and wonder were in the air. Could the people really take on Wall Street? Obviously Wall Street thought so because they ordered excessive and constant police protection. They must have seen something brewing because Wall Street firms had donated unprecedented millions to the NYPD over the previous year. It was police aggression towards peaceful protesters that grabbed public attention and sympathy. A few weeks after the start of Occupy Wall Street, an amazing 43 percent of Americans supported Occupy, a figure that remains largely undiminished to this day.
Two years later, the physical encampments are gone, but the Occupy Movement remains. Occupying public space was a tactic, not an end in itself. It was a way to make the issues visible, a place for people to gather, a model for a new way of doing things based on respect, mutual aid and democracy and a metaphor for claiming what has been taken. The ‘public’ is disappearing, not just public space but also public services, research and resources have been privatized, expropriated for the profits of a few. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, there was an expectation that the government would respond appropriately to stabilize the economy and that we simply had to weather the storm. What we saw instead were massive bailouts of the industry that caused the crash and greatly inadequate steps to secure jobs, housing and health care. This turned some already catastrophic financial crises caused by runaway private speculation into an immense source of private gain for the same very financiers responsible for the catastrophe to begin with. Even worse, it made those catastrophes so much more catastrophic than they really needed to be in the first place.
As a result of all this mess, we’re not heading toward greater income equality. We’re not building up the middle class or supporting unionization. We’re not eradicating poverty and hunger. We’re not expanding educational opportunity. We’re not rebuilding infrastructure. Nothing we’re doing looks anything like the society we built from the New Deal through the 1960s. We’re not doing any of the things that would lead to a more stable and just economy. In fact, we’re doing just the opposite, which means the billionaire bailout society will become even more firmly entrenched. This means that if left unchecked, the trends towards greater inequality and suffering will not only continue, it will accelerate as well. But the billionaire bailout society went too far. According to a Stanford study, “animosity toward the financial sector reached its highest level in 40 years in 2010” which probably fueled the Occupy and 99% Movements, and anger remains high. A majority of Americans believe that “not enough was done to prosecute the bankers.”
When drowning in so many crises it is sometimes hard to see above the surface of the water, but the anti-globalization movement and its offspring, the Occupy and “the 99%” Movements, are having an effect. Since 2000, the World Trade Organization has been unable to advance its agenda and 14 free trade agreements have been stopped by public pressure. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and its sister the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership known as TAFTA, are being negotiated in secret as a way to pursue the WTO agenda through the back door. A recent study found that the TPP will reduce wages for the bottom 90 percent of people in the US while significantly increasing the wealth of the top 1 percent. The AFL CIO passed a resolution opposing the TPP and Teamster President James Hoffa wrote, “Workers on both sides of the deal get screwed while corporations rake in record profits. Like low-wage workers in the fast food and retail industries, workers must join together to let Congress know that the TPP is not the right path for the U.S.” A broad coalition of groups have come together to stop the TPP. At the Occupy Wall Street protests recently in New York, the TPP was a top theme. In addition to marches and teach-ins focused on the TPP, the Money Wars street theater group performed its epic battle of Princess Laid-Off and the rebels against the TPP Death Star, Emperor Pipeline and Dark Banker. Actions are taking place this weekend and next week in Washington. If we are successful, this will be a huge victory against transnational corporate power.
There have been a number of wins recently against top corporations. The Nez Perce tribe and their allies took on General Electric and won a case to stop truckloads of tar sands from crossing their land in Idaho. Exxon was charged for illegally dumping toxic fracking waste in Pennsylvania. And JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon admitted that the bank broke the law. Another important win that is inspiring many in the US took place in Colombia where farmers went on a prolonged strike to win back the right to use their own seeds. The anti-Monsanto and anti-GMO movement is strong here. Thousands of people marched this week in Kauai for a law to protect themselves from pesticides. And, despite an outpouring of money, a vote to label GMO products in Washington State is still holding strong. And stopping the imminent attack on Syria was a win for people everywhere and a loss for the military industrial complex. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin in particular were set to make hundreds of millions from it. We must be vigilant though because the current diplomatic path could be used to justify an attack in the future.
It is important to recognize these wins and to build from them. It is also important to remember that we never know how close we are to achieving significant change. The occupy movement spawned the “idle no more”, workers’ rights and climate change movements. Our eyes are open and we can’t ignore what we now see; we know that it is the plutocratic system, not individual inadequacy that is causing poverty in America. We know that the $1 trillion given by the Federal Reserve to private banks could have created 20 million desperately-needed jobs. We know that the 400 richest people in the US have more wealth than the GDP of entire countries like Canada and Mexico. And we know the names of those who control the wealth and exploit people and the planet for it. We no longer expect “leaders” to create the change we need. We are all leaders and change depends on our actions and ours alone.
The culture of resistance necessary to create the kind of world we want to live in is here. Actions are taking place daily in the US and around the world. You won’t hear about most of them in the mass media. This week alone, more than one hundred women, most of them undocumented, were arrested in Washington, DC to protest the ways that immigration policies harm their families. Dairy workers in New York protested their abusive working conditions. Protesters in Vermont, ages 65 to 94, chained themselves to the entrance of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant to demand its immediate closure and Marylanders protested outside an ‘arms bazaar.’ The Cascadia Forest Defenders scaled the capitol building in Oregon to drop a huge banner to protest clear-cutting.
Resistance is not all protesting, it also includes building alternative systems to meet our basic needs. Many who are active in OWS have been hard at work at this since the physical occupation was shut down. This week the Occupy Money Cooperative announced its launch with a fund raising campaign. They will provide low-cost financial services to the millions of Americans who are unbanked and under-banked and who are preyed upon by banks, check cashing services and payday lenders. It will be an opportunity for all to opt-out of big finance. Just as OWS created the infrastructure that was used to organize Occupy Sandy and continues to provide services to those affected by Superstorm Sandy, occupiers in Colorado responded to the needs of people in the Boulder area who were hit by massive flooding.
Hard work is being done every day to take on entrenched corporate power and create a new world based on principles such as mutual aid, community, equity, solidarity and democracy. It is appropriate to stop and celebrate this work and what has been accomplished so far. Things are changing. Justin Wedes of OWS writes, “Sure, we face an uncertain future, but we embrace the chaos that defines our time. Because, there is no alternative but to challenge the status quo of ever-increasing debt, shrinking job opportunities and disappearing civil rights.” We can’t say what the outcome will be or whether we will live to see the world we hope to create. Can there even be an endpoint? Perhaps the most important piece of social transformation is not a goal but rather is the process of living in a way that is consistent with our values. We live in the culture of resistance which requires constant nurturing to bend the arc of time towards justice.