RECLAIMING PUBLIC SPACE
Occupy Wall Street’s successful efforts to occupy public space have enabled it to win a place in the social imagination, and a position in the public discourse too often dominated by media stories about celebrities.
By successfully reclaiming Zuccotti Park, a “privately owned public space” it renamed Liberty Park, OWS is using this space as it was intended under New York City’s zoning laws. As Brooklyn College sociologist Greg Smithsimon, my co-author in a study of conflicts over control of public space in NYC, points out, Brookfield Office Properties “gave it to the public in exchange for very profitable zoning con-cessions. [Their] building is more profitable because they gave the people that public space.”
But in a common pattern among real estate developers, Brookfield has tried to regain control of this space by imposing arbitrary rules. As William Whyte observed, “Many buildings’ managements have been operating with a [narrow] concept of access. They shoo away entertainers and people who distribute leaflets or give speeches....[But the owner] has not been given license to allow only those public activities he happens to approve of.”
It is vital that OWS be able to occupy this particular space – within the Financial District, in close proximity to Wall Street. In doing so, the movement is insisting that Wall Street itself is public space – that protesters have as much right to walk past the Stock Exchange as any banker or broker.
In doing so, they have helped us reimagine what the space can be – our own public commons, our own Tahrir Square. Comrades from Cairo wrote an open letter of support to those in the OWS movement, in which they spoke to the possibilities of transforming space and by extension social relations: “Discover new ways to use these spaces, discover new ways to hold on to them and never give them up again. Resist fiercely when you are under attack, but otherwise take pleasure in what you are doing, let it be easy, fun even. We are all watching one another now, and from Cairo we want to say that we are in solidarity with you, and we love you all for what you are doing.”
Social movements must always assert their right to public space. From Liberty Park to People’s Park to the community gardens of the Lower East Side, movements find inspiration in a place to meet, organize, share stories, break isolation, dance, plan, build mutual aid, and create a bit of care and civil society in an otherwise tough, alienating world.
SOMETHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Medgar Evers College
Occupy Wall Street is the newest thing on the US political scene...but not as new as it might seem.
As an activist in and observer of the Free South Africa movement during the 1980s, I can see poignant similarities in the strategies and tactics of the young people in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Demonstrations demanding action now, mass arrests that galvanized support for the cause, moral outrage at global capitalism run amok – it feels familiar.
Twenty-seven years ago Black South Africans were denied all political and economic rights, and many were killed when they raised their voices in protest against that demonic system. Inspired by their example, we found our own ways to put our bodies on the line for change.
These tactics of direct action and mass struggle are tried and tested. They were used by the civil rights movement and others before: the tents of the “Occupy” movement are in the spirit of the tent city created by the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in 1968, an effort launched by Dr. Martin Luther King before his death.
Now, through the lens of legacy and struggle, we see the children and grandchildren of those who sat in, marched, demonstrated, fasted and got arrested coming forward to demand economic justice for the 99%. There is plenty of creativity in the Occupy Wall Street movement – but there is continuity as well.
Beginning with a cadre of mainly young people, this new movement has mushroomed into an international phenomenon that is “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Between a third and half of Americans, across racial, ethnic, religious, and income lines, are in support of the Wall Street protests, with their righteous anger at economic inequality.
If you don’t appreciate the past, sometimes you stumble as you step into the future. So I was troubled when John Lewis came to speak at Occupy Atlanta and at first was turned away. John Lewis is not just a Congressman – he is a man with a rich history of courage and struggle, who helped lead a movement that changed this country forever and who endured arrests and beatings so that our people could win basic human rights.
But a movement does not have to be perfect to be important. John Lewis was invited back to Occupy Atlanta the following day, and hopefully something was learned. Can the collective leadership of Occupy Wall Street be more diverse? Yes. Can the goals and objectives of the movement become clearer? Sure enough, but you can only marvel and jump for joy as we witness these courageous, sharp, intelligent and morally committed youth provide critical insight on some of the most practical problems and struggles facing this nation today. Let us all remember Frederick Doug-lass, who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Today, in the Occupy Wall Street movement, we see that a luta continua – the struggle continues.
OCCUPY WALL STREET AND POLITICS
As in other countries around the world, in the United States 2011 has been a time of discontent. From the Madison Spring to Occupy Wall Street, enraged union members, students, unemployed workers and others have taken to the streets in protest against the concentration of wealth and political power that has afflicted their country. The Wall Street occupation has been followed by similar protests in more than 110 communities in the US, often met by arrests and other forms of police violence. But the polls show wide support for the demonstrators’ demand that the huge inequalities of our society be remedied.
Still, as one observer has noted, so far this is a movement of inventive tactics and almost no strategy. As winter approaches, it is not yet clear where it will go.
So far, correctly I believe, the protesters have resisted fashioning a set of specific demands in fear of cooptation by politicians. Indeed, a recent Occupy Wall Street document proclaims that this is a “post-political” movement. Of course, there is no chance that a movement of such resonance will be able to avoid “politics,” even if they want to steer clear of electoral traps. And this movement does need to articulate a direction that goes beyond protest and resistance.
By direction I mean not a menu of specific programs or demands, but a path that effectively indicates what a better life for the 99%, whom they wish to reach, would consist in. For example, the movement says it wants a society of “participatory democracy.” What does this mean for people who support the movement but are tied down by long hours on the job or caring for family members at home? If the Occupy movement wants jobs, what kind does it envision? And since sections of labor have joined and endorsed the protests, what should the relationship be with unions and other progressive organizations?
These are strategic questions, the answers to which might bear on whether the protests evolve into a movement that has a longer life. On the other hand, if the protesters disdain popular education, and are reluctant to think beyond resistance and non-electoral politics, it may prove to be a glorious but short-lived event in our recent history.
Baruch College (emerita)
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is shifting the dominant political narrative, revealing far broader support for its class-conscious politics than for the agenda of the right wing and the Tea Party. This success stems largely from OWS’s focus on the top 1% who, it asserts, control politics and the economy at the expense of the working and middle class.
The movement’s ability to position itself as the voice of the majority has been bolstered by its alliance with the trade union movement. This bond between labor and militant activists who take to the streets, occupy public spaces and are willing to risk arrest for their cause is unprecedented in my lifetime. It contrasts strongly with the split between the social movements of the 1960s and the unions, when most unions were culturally and politically conservative, and movement activists were often hostile toward unions or even the working class.
When some of us initiated a Labor Support/Outreach Working Group within OWS, I didn’t expect this overwhelmingly positive response. Certainly we were helped by the example of Wisconsin, where the labor movement occupied the State Capitol to protest Gov. Walker’s attack on public-worker unions. Hundreds of unionists defied Walker’s efforts to kick them out.
Here in New York, we can be proud that the PSC was the first to back OWS, when union delegates went from their September meeting to Liberty Plaza and Barbara Bowen spoke. The national AFL-CIO and many other unions have now voiced support for Occupy Wall Street. Local unions have been supplying food, meeting space, copying and other resources. The unions have shown real solidarity, supporting a movement that they do not control.
The occupation’s survival owes much to organized labor. When eviction was threatened, a number of unions asked their members to come stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the occupiers. Unions also deluged the mayor with e-mails and phone calls opposing this use of police.
Unions in turn have been energized by their connection to Occupy Wall Street, which has helped labor protests become both bigger and bolder. OWS’s activism has expressed a politics of solidarity against a common enemy, extending support to Verizon workers, Teamsters locked out at Sotheby’s, postal workers, and more.
In drawing labor into this kind of joint action, OWS is facilitating the development out of separate unions of a real labor movement. The OWS Labor Working Group now brings together people from more than 30 unions, and one of its main goals has become promotion of mutual support among the unions themselves. If this takes hold, it might begin to reverse labor’s long decline.