Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Took to the Streets and I Was There

Yesterday marked a significant moment for the Occupy Wall Street NYC encampment when for the first time major unions such as the Transit Workers Union and the City of New York teachers’ union openly gave support to the leaderless group, joining a student walk-out from schools across the city.  Yesterday also marked the day I was at the protest myself.

Soon after the protest began Rachel gave us an overview of the happenings at the Occupy Wall Street protest, including the difficulty of pinpointing their aim in protesting and the comparison of this protest to that in Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. As the storyline develops the Occupy Wall Street movement increasingly being characterized as the left’s counter to the Tea Party.The leaderless group continues to camp out in Manhattan’s financial district, and this week gained attention from more mainstream media sources such as CNN and support by celebs such as Susan Sarandon and Dr. Cornel West. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo! and The Shock Doctrine, is dropping by today.  And then there was that time their date Radiohead stood them up. But Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel did show up, and that’s not too shabby at all.  Watch the video and sing along!

 Making headlines over the weekend, a mass arrest occurred when over 700 protestors were arrested when they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.  Demonstrators claim the NYPD directed the march on to the bridge at which point they broke out kettle netting for the mass arrests. A lawsuit is already being filed on behalf of the protestors by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. You can read at least one person’s account of what happened here, or watch actual video footage.

Incredibly troubling is the story of transgender man and grassroots activist Justin Adkins who reported humiliation and abuse at the hands of the NYPD in his open statement after being arrested on the bridge.

My arresting officer found out I was born female when I yelled that information to the legal observer on the bridge. My arresting officer asked what I meant when I told the legal observer that I was “transgender” I told him that I was born female. He asked what “I had down there.” Since it is a rude and embarrassing question to ask someone about their genitals no matter what the situation, I simply told him again “I was born female.”

Maybe the most accurate comparison to Arab Spring is the fact that so much of what’s happening in these protests is recorded on video and freely available online; people are free to at least partially make their own sense of what’s going on, and to judge allegations of police brutality and mistreatment as well as witnessing the commitment of protesters firsthand. Last night, the live video feed was full of grainy scuffles filmed in the dark, with haunting chants and slogans from invisible protesters off-camera. Other video coverage is edited carefully and expertly produced, meant to act as a record of what’s happening in this moment.

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

While the goals of those camping out at Wall Street remain not-totally-specified (and not necessarily universal, since it’s a non-hierarchical leaderless movement), the common thread of economic discontent is drawing sympathy from across the country.  Representing these feelings is the tumblr wearethe99percent, where people are sharing their stories of suffering under the current economic disparities between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us:

We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

Reading the tumblr made me ill.  Learning how many in this country have advanced degrees, significant economic hardship due to family circumstance or health problems and can’t even land any sort of job to make ends meet or cover health care costs was horrifying. Hearing about this as a general concept is one thing, reading personal stories held by their authors is something else.

Criticism of the group’s undefined demands continue as the movement grows to other cities such as Boston, Washington,D.C., and Atlanta.  Activist Jessica Yee criticizes the concept of using the word “occupy” in a protest movement on what is already occupied indigenous land.  In a New York Time’s Op-Ed Nicholas Kristof offered some suggestions for specific demands, something the movement is currently lacking (besides, very reasonably, an end to reported police brutality), namely: 1) impose a financial transactions tax 2) close the loophole allowing the wealthy to pay low taxes and 3) protect big banks from themselves by legislating to limit risky behavior. I can’t say I saw any signs with those specific demands during the march or at the Occupy Wall Street encampment last night.

During the march some chanted, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” in protest of the continued financial support for poor economic decisions of banks too big to fail.  I marched near FIERCE, a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color in NYC”, with their inspiring drummers and motivating chants.

My girlfriend and I marched holding the banner “Feminism is for Lovers” and didn’t experience harassment from the cops during the march from City Hall to the encampment. During the march the NYPD were actually quite cordial, though about an hour after we left Zuccotti Park it seems the NYPD broke out batons and pepper spray as protestors made attempts to cross police barricades and reach Wall Street. Without a clear end in sight to the protests, tension between protestors and the NYPD continue to escalate.

During the march, demands ranged from an end to fracking to forgiveness of student loans. The hacker-activist group Anonymous is even threatening to shut down the NYSE in solidarity with the movement. Now that the movement is gaining some  mainstream members beyond the ragtag band of activists who began the occupation three weeks ago (some estimates put the number of marchers last night at 15,000 people), will the Occupy Wall Street movement galvanize real change impacting the economic disparities in the country they are protesting? Will the incoming reports of police violence demand the attention of people who would otherwise have ignored it?  Video coverage is making it harder and harder to ignore or disbelieve; The Awl says things will only get “more contentious,” noting that “this kind of tension always precedes a greater conflict.” It’s possible that with the influx of support by the unions some pressure may be placed on the Democratic party to recognize their demands (such as they are), not unlike how GOP candidates are finding it necessary to pay at least some lip service to the Tea Party. It’s becoming more and more clear that Occupy Wall Street really does mean to stay. What’s still not clear is whether anyone in power is willing to try to understand what they want and give it to them — or, barring that, what they’re willing to do to make them leave.


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Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 79 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. 0

    The main demands of the protests should be re-instating the Glass-Stegall act and limiting pay of all CEOs and executives in the financial industry. Without the bailouts most of them would be on the streets instead of collectively making hundreds of billions of dollars.

  2. 0

    I don’t get the point of this whole thing. If you are going to protest at least have a clear idea of what you want, which doesn’t say much because a lot of the people in this movement have a whole lot to say about absolutely nothing.

    • 0

      I’m kind of torn. On the one hand, I think it’s a positive change that people in my age group and general socioeconomic bracket are starting to counter the trend of passive acceptance of structural inequity, as detailed in this article: http://jadatnilla.posterous.com/alternet-8-reasons-young-americans-dont-fight

      On the other hand, I agree with you that this isn’t a serious movement in that there really aren’t demands. I think it’s more important symbolically than pragmatically.

      (That being said, I have a kind of skeptical reaction to the movement in general, because it, on the whole, seems to be an expression of the anger of educated young people of middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds. I mean, I think people should be angry about student loan debt and unemployment, but we– and I’m included in this “we”– shouldn’t forget our privilege either. But I think expressions of dissatisfaction/refusal to be complacent are always good.)

      • 0

        Thank you for sharing the link to that article. It was very enlightening. I definitely remember having my questioning nature stamped out of me in school. Every time I raised a concern about anything, I was told that it was just the way it was and I had better sit quietly and not worry about it. My own mother told me it was better to be invisible than to be disliked/different. Because of that advice, I said maybe 10 words in 4 years of high school and had absolutely no friends because no one knew anything about me. It took me a long, long time to recover from that and become a functioning human being who is not terrified of sharing her thoughts because someone, somewhere might disagree.

    • 0

      But does anyone really NOT know what the main message behind this whole protest is? That Wall Street is the root of corruption and political power in the U.S. (through extreme capitalism and bribing of political parties/institutions), which basically has completely fucked up our financial structure and ruined things for everyone else?

      They have a lot to say because it is this crony capitalism and corruption that has caused a string of related problems that they, yes, whine and bitch about (unforgiven debt, foreclosed homes, loss of jobs, etc). They don’t have specific demands because it’s difficult to figure out a solution to an ongoing issue as serious as this, and it certainly won’t be the main political parties, both of which are controlled financially by Wall Street.

      • 0

        I’m always a bit confused about people being real upset about capitalism; do they mean they’d prefer socialism or communism or are they trying to say they want stricter regulations on capitalism that is currently practiced? Obviously not everyone wants the same thing, but I hardly think all these capitalism hating folks suddenly want to become communists? Maybe some of them do, I don’t know. I think it would be good to make some distinction in the protest.

        My grandfather says everyone just gets free market indigestion once and a while, but I haven’t quite worked that one out either.

    • 0

      it’s true there are a diversity of stories and experiences that have a number of factors, but i think they less to with one individual experience and more to do with being one more example of a much larger trend. obviously the economy will always experience ups, downs, job loss, etc., but there comes a point where the trend becomes too much of the common experience, and the government whose duty it is to protect its citizens instead takes measures that put a greater burden and strain on the lesser privileged and generally benefit a small elite. to categorize them solely as slackers and bad decision-makers is to also ignore the systems and patterns that create such circumstances.

    • 0

      what’s funny about this, penney, is do you think that the guys with millions of dollars who scammed the american people and get away with giant tax breaks by paying off the government are making BETTER choices than students who open credit cards? really? like, if everyone made better choices, NEITHER side would be upset. Some people can afford to be idiots, and some can’t. Ideally we’d all be smart about what choices we make. But nobody is. And some people die because of it, and some people actually get rich and live forever because of it. That’s why it’s fucking unfair.

    • 0

      Penney, obviously we can agree that a symptom of the problem is that people have borrowed money they cannot afford to pay back.

      that is only one part of it, however. yes- banks did everything they could to lend money to americans with shitty credit ratings who couldn’t afford their payments because they stood to make money either way, whether the mortgagees paid or defaulted. still, the millions of americans who borrowed money they could never pay back weren’t enough.

      so banks started to create arcane instruments like CDOs which they could sell to each other in a totally false market. then banks started trading bets on the likelihood that CDOs would default. trading bets, unlike most forms of trading in the market, had nothing to do with the amount of money invested in the bank or on the amount of money available to the bank.

      when the housing market collapsed and everybody started to default on the mortgages they should never have been given in the first place, all of these bets made by traders and banks collapsed too and it made a trillion-dollar hole in the us economy. and all that money has to be repaid before society can move on.

      so if i lived in america, i’d be pretty pissed that the trillion-dollar loss is being paid for by people who aren’t responsible for the loss of the money. and i’d be pissed that irresponsible practices from the banks exposed the banks, the investors, and the economy to an absolutely unacceptable level of risk.

  3. 0

    someone needs to step forward soon and give this movement a face and some political power. the tea party folks have their talking heads, you know? but who really wants to do that when almost everyone that has stood up for the rights of the people has been assassinated. yes, i’m that chick…miz it’s not a conspiracy if it’s true.
    now i feel like i’m rambling. haha.

  4. 0

    Thomas Jefferson once said:
    “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies . . . If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] . . . will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered . . . The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.” — Thomas Jefferson — The Debate Over The Recharter Of The Bank Bill, (1809)

  5. 0

    I think my girlfriend best summarized my feelings on the Occupy movements. She said, “These things have been happening to Black folks for years and years and no one has been marching in the streets. I feel like this movement is a bunch of white men who woke up and realized they no longer had a safety net either.”

    Now, before anyone jumps on me, both she and I know that there are plenty of diverse voices and motivations in this crowd. Still, it’s hard not to wonder why now?

    • 0

      I agree with your girlfriend, the ground shook underneath the white middle class and the whole movement so far has been a bit insensitive to the fact that people (particularly POC) have been living such lives for years.

      Also I think the term ‘occupy’ was thoughtlessly used, I think they should have ought to have thought about the history of the word and it’s connections to colonization/occupation.

    • 0

      very true. earlier this week though, a “people of color occupy wall street” group was launched saying these exact same things. I also think it was clever for OWS to structure itself as a non-hierarchical and leaderless movement. this allows for more inclusion and more voices to be heard. they are definitely trying to include voices of people from various backgrounds and they are certainly not oblivious to the dynamics of power and privilege within OWS.

  6. 0

    My friend yesterday told me he was participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest in our city. I said, “Oh, what are you protesting?” He said, “Wall Street’s greed.” Oh, well, gee, that sounds like it’s sure to work!

    Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but this is the best movement liberals can muster? “Let’s protest 20 different things, but without any specific policies or legislation we’d like to see introduced that can fix any problems.” Why did the Tea Party galvanize conservatives so well? They picked one, maybe two key issues that were connected: The government is taking too much of our money (taxes) and the government is being too intrusive/growing too large. It’s a simple call to action too: reject any legislation or policies that expand government or raise taxes. They avoided social issues completely and left foreign policy alone. What’s the call to action for Occupy Wall Street? “Stop being greedy, you bankers that help fuel our economy and are completely necessary for the survival of this country.” Good one. If you’re protesting the mere presence global warming, wars, and corporate greed, you fail as a movement.

  7. 0

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this because my face book has been blowing up with invites to go Occupy Wall Street. I live in Portland. Oregon. I live far from Wall Street and anyone who cares about my financial woes. So why go protest? Its raining. I’d have to get on the bus. But, mostly, I couldn’t figure out what we would be occupying. Our world trade building doesn’t even have an elevator.

    Then, I thought about it. The Hippies didn’t have any real leadership; unless you want to count Ken Kesey or maybe Hunter S. Thompson. They didn’t know what they were doing. They pulled it all out of their asses. All they knew was that they were not happy with the status quo. Look what came of it. So, if a couple of hippies can do what they did on drugs, what can we do?

  8. 0

    I think that we’ve been taught to think that political movements need to be single-issue, and need to have a sound-bite that can sum it all up, but I LIKE that this movement is thinking about a host of issues that are all interconnected, and asking for something grand-a new vision of the society we want to live in. The problems are big and complicated: an extraordinarily elite class running the financial industries and corporations have too much power over our economy, our politicians, and our media, and they brought about a recession and yet continue to be rich and taxed at a low rate, and their business practices continue to be unregulated, while the rest of us are being asked to pay for it-and the resulting real suffering just does not make it to the news that often. I am incredibly thankful that people are at least standing up and saying that that is not acceptable; solutions will come next.

  9. 0

    I find this all very exciting. I wish Detroit would join in on this, lord knows 90% of the city is unemployed with nothing better to do…

    To sum it all up, for far too long the bourgeoisie has turned a blind eye to our plight and simply said, “Well, let them eat cake…” But I think we all know what happened to Miss Antoinette.

  10. 0

    What I find interesting is that people still cannot grasp why people are out there. That the state of the country has become so bad that there is no 1 issue. There are hundreds if not, thousands.
    I myself encompass 3. I have been malemployed (making less at 29 than I did at 18), the air quality of my current city (Atlanta) is worse than LA, and although married I am not considered “married” in most of America. I could keep going on- Having a completely useless BA degree, can’t afford bank fee’s, etc.
    I could go to wall street every day for at least a month and protest a different (and extremely relevant) personal issue that wall street/corporations/politicians are responsible for! And I’m not a whiner. I just want to use my college degree that I worked hard for, I want to travel and always be married, and I want to make more than I did at 19!

  11. 0

    I think that this is a very important conversation to be having, especially as Occupy Wall St. moves across the country and the world. Are there demands? Are they attainable? Who sets the demands? I’ve had a really hard time answering these questions, and getting answers from people who are participating in NYC. I am participating in Occupy Salt Lake City, living in our little tent city, and I’ve learned a few things that might bring some clarity to some concerns. Before I do that, I’m a Marxist-Leninist- I find the most frustrating parts of (at least OUR) Occupy are 1) the lack of systemic analysis, 2) this idea that our movement is “leaderless.” Ok, so when the police come and ask us “who’s in charge?” we get to tell them that there isn’t anyone “in charge,” but really there are LEADERS. As a communist, part of my being involved is my desire to teach, mentor, and offer suggestions so that all involved can become “leaders.” If nothing else, people here in SLC are learning how to organize. How to discuss things in a group, how to convince people of a position, and how to articulate views and opinions. 3) I worry that without principles our movement will continue to marginalize populations. For example, we’re occupying a park that has a rich history of drug dealers and is literally home to many homeless folks. The park HAD a strict no-tent policy until we showed up. I talked with a man last night who slept on newspaper. If this OccupySLC does nothing else, I hope it allows for a permanent “tent city,” and opening up a serious discussion on the impoverishment of people of color and women. Classism/racism have no place in ANY Occupy city.

    Before our occupation began (which was yesterday) we had a full week of organizing meetings during which we discussed “demands and goals.” To be honest, I feel like we do have central demands and that they are in line with Occupy Wall St. They’re not on our website, and not around our camp, but we discuss them daily. Are these universal of all Occupy cities? Of course not, because “the movement” as a whole is organic and young but maturing. Let me offer this http://www.goldstockbull.com/articles/7-demands-from-occupy-wall-street/ as a good primer for Occupy’s “demands.” Again, it’s nothing official, but it’s a start.

    The WHO is really exciting and absolutely clear- last night we had our first General Assembly. We discussed a time to rally and march for today, where to go, and what our focus was to be. Who decided our focus? Well, many people offered suggestions and then we all voted and it was decided by vote. At least here in Salt Lake City, we’re democratic. It’s a beautiful system, and exciting to see people who have been at organizing meetings for the past week but haven’t stood out to speak now doing so. These are giants leaps forward for these individuals! They’re comfortable enough to speak out, and they’re listened to! Whether or not their motions carry, they did it! After his motion carried last night, a young man whispered to me how dignified he felt. Hearing and feeling that from him alone was worth my marching in the rain, and sleeping in the cold.

    Are our demands attainable? Well, whatever they are, they haven’t been discussed or asked for in this forum, on this scale before. The longer I am in solidarity, the more positive I am that clear, principled demands will be decided on. This a raw people’s movement- it’s not without very concerning problems, but it will continue and it will mature.

    On a side note- we have all discussed how little we care for either the republicans or the democrats, so fuck any party or individual who wants to hijack us.

  12. 0

    I’m attending Occupy Vancouver next weekend.
    I have my own reservations about the protest as well, but overall I think it’s incredibly symbolic, if nothing else.
    I can’t wait to talk to people and see why they’re there and what they believe in. Should be interesting.

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