Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 18 October, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/the-occupy-wall-street-movement/324315.html


NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a factual summary of the Occupy movement, and is correct up to 14 October, 2011. I've been lazy about uploading it. :-(


It’s strange to think that a few lines in an anti-consumerist Canadian magazine sparked off demonstrations in more than 70 cities across America, and several countries across the world. But the protests against corporate lobbying in politics, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the greed that caused the global financial crisis started with an editorial in AdBusters.
In February 2011, staff writer Kono Matsu, calling for a protest along the lines of the Arab Spring, summarised the tactics used in Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstration, and wrote, “If we want to spark a popular uprising in the West – like a million man march on Wall Street – then let’s get organized, let’s strategize, let’s think things through.”
In July, headed by editor Kalle Lasn, the magazine popularised the concept ‘Occupy Wall Street’ on Twitter, and printed a poster, showing a ballerina posing on the iconic Charging Bull on Wall Street. Word spread through other online media.
By September, a group had descended into New York’s bustling financial district, Wall Street, calling themselves the “99 percenters” – a reference to one third of American wealth being concentrated in the hands of 1 percent of its population. As the movement spread to other cities, the demands of the protesters became a little clearer.
So far, the movement has been costliest for the New York Police Department (NYPD), which has doled out $3.2 million in overtime.
Who is Protesting?
While Kalle Lasn is probably the most-interviewed man on the subject of the protests, the movement prides itself on being leaderless, and therefore, truly democratic. Other groups such as the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA) and US Day of Rage, as well as Stop the Machine, have joined the protest, or organised similar demonstrations in other cities.
The people who have assembled to protest don’t fall into any one category – while there are several liberals, socialists and anarchists, there are a fair number of conservatives too. The enthusiastic early protesters were largely young, but now people of all ages have been seen camping out. Reports said people of diverse races, genders and religions had joined in.
Several celebrities – many of whom are richer than the corporate honchos they’re against – have lent their voices to the protest. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine played at both Los Angeles and New York, and the band Radiohead has been – ahem – vocal in its support too. Comedienne Roseanne Barr, filmmaker Michael Moore, actor Alec Baldwin, rapper Kanye West (who attended the protest wearing a $355 Givenchy shirt and $845 Balmain jeans), writers Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein, and commentators Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, as well as several scholars and radio hosts, have spoken in support of the movement.
What are the Protesters’ Demands?
Initially, AdBusters put forward one demand – a Presidential Commission to separate money from politics. But soon, Lasn announced that they were “setting the agenda for the New America.” Among the reasons cited by the demonstrators for the movement is disillusionment with Obama’s governance, especially his inaction against the “financial fraudsters” whom they hold responsible for the economic meltdown.
However, the majority of the protesters are not against Barack Obama, but are calling for more effective controls in regulating the capitalist system. Many want an overhaul of the financial system itself, saying capitalism has failed the country.
The question of an agenda has become complicated now. While some of the protesters want to put down a concrete set of demands, others are in favour of a general protest. There has been online discussion, asking for suggestions to add to the list of grievances. The lack of focus has been criticised in the media, with some reports hinting that the protest is a gimmick. However, a rebuttal was sent, saying the group was against the corruption, criminality and unrestrained political power that Wall Street stood for.
It has been more or less accepted now that Occupy Wall Street is a forum for people to air grievances about various aspects of governance, especially social and economic inequality. Several demands have been voiced by different groups of participants, including one by Lasn that financial transactions should be taxed at 1 percent.
What are the Protesters Doing?
First, the protesters set up camp in a private park, the Zuccotti Park, which was formerly known as Liberty Plaza Park, to start the ‘peaceful occupation’ of Wall Street. Police could not force people off the park, as it is not owned by the government, but by Brookfield Office Properties.
The protesters have since conducted marches, often disrupting traffic and getting arrested. With police outlawing sound amplifiers, the demonstrators came up with the “human microphone” system. Whenever someone makes a speech, the people standing within earshot shout out his or her phrases in a chorus, so that the rest of the assembly can hear what is being said. This is organised by the speaker calling out “Mic check” before beginning his or her address.
The protesters have been organised into ‘committees’, and two ‘general assemblies’ are held every day, for administrative decisions and announcements. Agreement with what is being proposed is signalled by wiggling fingers, an action that has come to be known as ‘twinkling’.
The committees coordinate protest activities including media enquiries, legal recourse, security, food and medical provisions. Using laptops and accessing the internet through wireless routers, certain sections of the protesters have been liaising with the media, and posting updates on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. They have also managed to bring out the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a mouthpiece funded by donations.
Other groups have reportedly been handling cleaning up of the park; however, Brookfield Office Properties has been getting nervous enough about the hygiene situation to call in police to clear out the protesters for a while. But the eviction was postponed.
Supporters in the area have allowed protesters to use their bathrooms too. Apparently, some of the demonstrators have even made use of the facilities at the business establishments they’re mouthing off against. Donors have brought in sleeping bags and blankets for those who camp overnight at the park, where erecting tents is not permitted.
What is the Police Doing?
With a huge crowd to monitor, police officers have resorted to a technique called ‘kettling’. Orange nets are used to separate demonstrators and herd them into smaller group.
One of the officials, Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, has got into trouble after videos of him directing pepper spray at a group of young women, and at a photographer, were posted online. An investigation into the incidents has been launched by the Internal Affairs and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The controversy naturally brought in huge publicity and media coverage for the protest.
Role of Online Media
AdBusters coined a name for the movement by creating the Twitter hash tag #Occupy Wall Street. This was supported by the hackers group Anonymous, which called out to people to “flood lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.”
Meetup and Facebook were used to coordinate copycat protests in other cities, and even countries. Of these, the most high-profile is Occupy LSX, a group that intends to converge at the London Stock Exchange to highlight “unethical behaviour” by banks.
The slogan for the movement, “We are the 99%,” got its name from a Tumblr blog which posted anecdotes from regular Americans hit by the economic slowdown.
While official websites stream live coverage from the protest site, incidents such as the pepper-spraying have caused widespread outrage because they were posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Reactions to Occupy Wall Street
A survey by Time Magazine, conducted on October 13, found that 54 percent of Americans are in favour of the protest, while 23 percent are not. Many in the vicinity of Wall Street have complained about the disruptive activities of the demonstrators.
President Barack Obama remained diplomatic, saying the protest was an expression of “the frustrations the American people feel” after the financial crisis. He defended the non-prosecution of Wall Street executives who may have triggered off the meltdown, saying their activities were not illegal, merely “immoral or inappropriate or reckless.”
Vice President Joe Biden has been more outspoken about what he sees as the futility of the protest. Some Republicans, including 2012 Presidential candidate Herman Cain have been sharp in their criticism of the protesters, saying they have only themselves to blame for losing their jobs, while others, such as his rival Buddy Roemer, have taken the opposite stance.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is among several Democrats who openly support the movement.
Most foreign countries are noncommittal, expressing sympathy with the cause of the protests as well as understanding of the difficult political situation. But China, Iran, Greece, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela have criticised the economic and political system in the US.
The media has been divided in opinion too, with some journalists reiterating that the protest is important, and other dismissing it.


TIMELINE

February 2, 2011
Magazine AdBusters calls for a protest against Wall Street.
July 13, 2011
AdBusters coins the phrase ‘Occupy Wall Street’ by creating a hash tag on Twitter, and refers to Wall Street as “the financial Gomorrah of America.”
August 30, 2011
‘Hacktivist’ group Anonymous posts a video, calling people to join the movement.
September 17, 2011
About 1000 protesters march into Wall Street, and set up camp at Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York’s financial district.
September 19, 2011
7 arrested by the NYPD for various violations.
September 20, 2011
5 arrested for violating a law banning masks at public gatherings.
September 23, 2011
Movement spreads to Chicago; Occupy Chicago protesters protest at Federal Reserve Bank.
September 24, 2011
80 arrested for obstructing traffic during a march.
September 26, 2011
Videos of policeman Anthony Bologna using pepper spray and cops using orange nets to control crowds are posted online.
September 30, 2011
More than 1000 people protest against the police action outside NYPD headquarters. The movement spreads to Boston, as several hundred Occupy Boston campaigners move into Dewey Park.
October 1, 2011
Over 700 arrested in Brooklyn for blocking traffic on the bridge, and carried off in 10 buses by police. Movement spreads to Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas and Maine.
October 2, 2011
All but 20 of the protesters released.
October 3, 2011
Drivers of the City Bus program sue the NYPD for forcing them to ferry detained protesters.
October 5, 2011
15,000 marchers join the Occupy movement. Scuffles erupt, and police use pepper spray. 28 arrested.
October 6, 2011
Occupy movement spreads to Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Portland, Tampa, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Jersey City. Anti-war demonstrators protest at Washington.
October 8, 2011
Occupy DC launched at McPherson Square. Protesters arrested in Seattle and California.
October 9, 2011
Movement spreads to Cincinnati, where 28 people are slapped with $105 citations for staying at a park illegally. Protesters call for global demonstrations on October 15 in cities in 80 countries.
October 11, 2011
Labour unions participate in the ‘Occupy Wall Street Millionaires March’ through the posh Upper East Side of New York, where influential politicians and corporate moguls including Tea Party financier David Koch, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon live.
October 12, 2010
Kalle Lasn celebrates the leaderlessness of the movement, and says it has led to a “national conversation”.
October 14, 2011
Police begin to clear out people from Zuccotti Park so that it can be cleaned. Finally, eviction is postponed. Protesters claim victory, though 14 are arrested in New York, and 23 in Denver.

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