nyc reflections part 1: occupy wall street

I was very happy to spend time at Occupy Wall Street this week. A while back I reported on a comrade's observations; here are mine to add to the picture. I purposely didn't bring a camera, so as not to be a tourist. I just talked to a lot of people and drank in the atmosphere.

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The occupiers are jammed into a tiny square of land, the many tents lined up against each other, a surprising number of people in a very small space. If you enter the square from Broadway, you walk right into The People's Library. It's the perfect entrance: a place of information, ideas, and dialogue, free and open for all. We received a very warm welcome from the librarian, and immediately discovered that he is originally from Winnipeg. (He pointed out another Occupy Librarian from Montreal.) The library is a busy corner, with lots of people combing through tubs of books, either quietly reflecting or chatting about what they find.

Later on, when we had circled back around to the library, I found Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks' masterpiece about the radical abolitionist John Brown, and reshelved it. I was looking for a tub with books on radical politics, but a library guy told me that area gets few browsers, that more people browse classic fiction - so I put it there.

There was a long line snaking through the food tables (which were covered by a canopy), and large amounts of yummy-looking food being served. There was an area with stacked bags of laundry, I assume waiting for a laundry committee to hike them over to a laundromat, along with dozens of brooms and mops. There are a couple of bicycles harnessed to a generator for pedal power, as lower Manhattan in winter can't be the best location for solar power.

On the outer edges of the encampment, individual occupiers, mostly older people, hold up signs for passers-by, a simple but important tactic. It would be easy to forget this is a political and social movement, not a homeless encampment. One person facing the sidewalk was sitting and knitting. Her sign said:
56-year-old grandmother of five
Occupied Wall Street Knitter
Day 34
She had a list of her priorities -
End the War(s)
Abolish the Death Penalty
Tax Equity
- and so on, then: "40+ items knitted and donated in four weeks". The comparisons to Madame Defarge are obvious, as she may be presiding over a revolution, but I don't think she's waiting for a guillotine.

There's an media information booth, but media are everywhere snaking through the crowd, and people are everywhere giving interviews. Schedules of events are posted (that night, there was a march planned in solidarity with Occupy Oakland), and there are regular training sessions for facilitators and observers.

The police presence when we were there was very light and unobtrusive. Mayor Bloomberg continues to try to paint the movement as bad for the City, but at the moment it seems more of a PR war than a head-bashing war - as Bloomberg must realize that head-bashing is quite bad for PR.

At the information table, I was so happy to pick up hard copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal Issue #3 - something to treasure - and the beautifully produced Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.

I stopped at a table announcing "Life Coaching / Empathy / Meditation," where a man and woman are donating their services to any and all. I was asking them questions, but the man, clearly a sweet and gentle soul, asked me, "What drew you to this movement?" I was suddenly all choked up, with tears in my eyes. I managed to say, "My whole life." I told him that I was from New York but I left the US because I couldn't take it anymore. I said, "I'm sorry to sound cynical, but I never thought I'd see this. It gives me such hope and joy." He said it sounded like Occupy Wall Street was a homecoming for me in several ways.

We talked to some members of a community of intentionally homeless people - drifters, squatters, vagabonds, whatever you want to call them - who travel around the country together. They rescue and adopt stray dogs wherever they go. The beautiful, sweet pitbull in the centre of their tents was like a magnet for us.

When we heard a man speaking through the People's Microphone, we went over to listen. It was Carl Mayer, an lawyer and activist involved in third-party politics. (I found this blog post about Mayer's talk, which includes some video.) Mayer said Occupy was the most important and exciting political movement in the US since the 1960s, and linked Occupy to other US reform movements through history. He said he hoped Occupy would become a third political party.

Listening to him, I thought, Occupy ultimately will have to decide if it is reform or revolution. It's all but inevitable that the movement will split along those lines, as part of its natural process. But to me it would be heartbreaking to see the Occupy Movement go the doomed route of third-party politics in the US.

More importantly, though, is that Mayer has ideas to bring to the table, and he came down to Occupy Wall Street to set them out. He was hugely encouraging and appreciative, offering cheers and energy and thanks to all the Occupiers.

We asked an older man in the library area if he knew who the speaker was. He told us Mayer's name... and it turned out this man was from Montreal. He's been living in New York City a long time, but he still misses the sound of French being spoken around him. (Although he came to Montreal by way of Morocco, he sounded pure Brooklyn to me.) He was well versed in Canadian politics; that conversation started when he said, "You guys have got to get rid of Harper! He's a horror."

Mostly what we did at Occupy was talk and listen. There's a beautiful openness of dialogue and conversation. People are talking across generations, political viewpoints and class lines. My friend and comrade Dr J recently wrote about how we can broaden and build the Occupy movement. Visiting the New York City encampment, I recognized the risk that occupying could potentially become an end in itself, a festishized act, rather than a tactic. Linking with other activists who cannot necessarily join the encampment - not only in marches and demonstrations (which are very important) but in assemblies, meetings, and dialogues - is crucial. It's also risky, because the last thing we want to see is this movement co-opted by vaguely reformist liberals. At the moment, that risk seems very small. As the movement grows, the risk will become more real, and how the movement negotiates that risk will chart its path.

But right now, this US is percolating with progressive activism and it shows no signs of abating.

I cannot believe I just typed that. As I said to Occupy life coach, I never thought I'd see this, and it fills me with such hope and joy.

Declaration of the Occupation of New York City:
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

• They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

• They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.

• They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

• They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

• They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.

• They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

• They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

• They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

• They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

• They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.

• They have sold our privacy as a commodity.

• They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

• They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

• They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

• They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.

• They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

• They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.

• They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

• They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

• They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.

• They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.

• They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.

• They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.*

To the people of the world,

We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

* These grievances are not all-inclusive.

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