Some people are calling it the “American Tahrir Square,” which might surprise those who have managed to make it through the weekend and into the beginning of the work week without even hearing about the protests on Wall Street. If you didn’t know about them, it’s not surprising; they’ve been covered by very few mainstream media outlets, especially on TV. The facts are, basically, these: beginning on Saturday, protesters “took over” Wall Street, marching through the financial district with signs and blocking much of the traffic through the area. They haven’t left since. Numbers peaked around 5,000 on Saturday, and have settled at about 200 for those who appear to be in it for the long haul. Many are sleeping as well as working and organizing out of nearby Zucotti Park. They plan to stay for as long as is necessary.
To accomplish what? That’s more complicated. For the most part, the broad thrust of the protester’s goals seem pretty clear: to protest the ways in which politics and money have become unrepentant bedfellows, and to demand that at least some of the power that’s disproportionately held by corporations be put back in the hands of the people. This is the specific unrest of the underemployed and overeducated, people who locate ‘the problem’ as being with capitalism, not necessarily a government that isn’t allowing capitalism to work its magic. In that sense it’s a far cry from Tea Party ideology, although the sense of helpless rage finally finding form feels familiar. From the Wall Street Journal:
“There is plan to basically stay here until we can build enough people to bring a strong message,” said Joel Atkinson, 21, of Columbus, Oh. Referring to the spring’s mass uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo that eventually unseated President Hosni Mubarak, he added: “We’re trying to model this after the uprising in Egypt.” Members of the group banged drums and carried signs that read ‘Yes to Equality, No to Austerity,’ and ‘No such thing as ‘too big to fail”.
So far five people have been arrested; many, though not all, of the arrests seem to be about the Guy Fawkes masks (a reference to Anonymous) that are popular with protesters. Apparently it’s illegal for “two or more individuals to wear masks” in New York. One man was arrested for jumping over a police barrier and resisting arrest; one woman, Andrea Osborne, was arrested for reasons that bystanders can’t explain.
The protests are generally agreed to be non-hierarchical and ‘leaderless,’ but they originate from OccupyWallStreet, whose mission statement reads:
On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.
Right now the site’s subheader is “The resistance continues at Liberty Plaza, with free pizza ;)”. As of today, they are accepting donations.
There are some differences between the current Wall Street protest and Arab Spring. For instance, the fact that “police, though out in large numbers, have remained low-key.” Or the fact that, rather than broadcasting their efforts worldwide with grainy cell phone video or trying to communicate through a state firewall, there’s a table set up in the square with laptops, next to the stations of peanut butter and scavenged food. Or the fact that they can walk away from this protest at any time without fearing repercussion for participating in it. Or the fact that none of these protesters are dead because of risking their lives by courting brutal assassination from a violent regime. Or maybe most importantly, while the protests in Tahrir Square had an extremely specific and urget goal — to successfully demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak — the protest of Wall Street has a goal that is, at best, nebulous, and at worst nonexistent. The only mention of goals on OccupyWallStreet’s site are “restoring democracy” and “using nonviolence to achieve our ends.” It takes some digging to figure out more specifically what those ends are. The most concrete aim that seems to be floating around the internet is the desire to ‘take over’ Wall Street until President Obama establishes a commission on “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” It’s sourced to the original AdBusters call for a “Day of Rage” style protest. “In other words, an end to “corporate cronyism.” That seems like a different thing, one that the creation of a commission will not necessarily accomplish, but maybe that’s not the point.
There’s actually something like a commission already being established — the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Eileen Myles has helpfully written a little about. It’s not precisely in charge of keeping money and government separate, but it is a recognition of the fact that the way the government (“the system”) is dealing with money isn’t helping anyone, and someone needs to keep an eye on it because no one is now. Part of its purview is overseeing the behavior of banks, which seems like it would be a primary concern for people protesting Wall Street. Its creation was advised on by Elizabeth Warren, whose significant body of work on poverty, bankruptcy, and how the average citizen is failed by “the financial system” seems like it would make her fairly expert. You can read the latest on what they’ve been doing here.
It’s unlikely that any commission the Obama administration could create will be better able to respond to what the protester’s demands seem to be than what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau already is. It seems equally unlikely that “corporate cronyism” will end in the next few weeks or months, regardless of what any 200 people do. If they stick to their guns, the Zucotti Park protesters may be there forever. But that might be okay, because unlike the Tahrir Square protesters, they’re being supplied with free pizza.
They spent Saturday and Sunday night in the small square, feasting on donated peanut butter, salads and cheese. On Sunday night, supporters of the protesters ordered the group pizza—so much pizza that the nearby pizza shop announced it would have to stay open until 1 a.m. just to fulfill orders. On Monday morning the group marched down Wall Street proper, beating drums and blowing whistles, and broadcasting a live stream of the whole thing on their website.