Blog on my time spent at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City
I wasn’t sure what to expect on the sunny and gusty afternoon of Wednesday, October 5, 2011, when I left a lunch meeting in the Wall Street area of Lower Manhattan, New York City. I purposely scheduled the get-together there so I could easily move from the restaurant to Zuccotti Park, on Broadway between Liberty and Cedar near Ground Zero, where protesters have been camped out for three weeks. No, they are not actually occupying Wall Street (the city and the police are making sure of that), but they are close enough, right smack in the middle of America’s largest and most powerful financial district. This began this past summer when the anti-capitalist magazine AdBusters put out a call for Americans to occupy Wall Street on September 17th. With people’s rebellions in places like Egypt, Spain, and the American state of Wisconsin still fresh in some folks’ minds, seems it was only a matter of time that protests would begin to spread, like wildfire, throughout America, regardless of who is in the White House at this very moment.
I came because I am in support of the protesters, of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and elsewhere, for two basic reasons. One, I too have been profoundly affected, financially, by The Great Recession, and I grew up in poverty, my single mother and I, so it troubles me to the highest degree to see anyone in America suffering hardships, economic or otherwise. Secondly, I have been a political and community activist and organizer for 27 long years, since I was a teenage student and youth leader, and I’ve worked in all sorts of movements and mini-movements. I’ve organized or participated in more building takeovers, sit-ins, marches, rallies, conferences, benefits, disaster relief efforts, concerts, and political and community interventions and negotiations than I can even recall at this point. This is my life work, to help people to help themselves. Thus any time I see or hear of a critical social cause, if I am able to do so, I am going to jump right in.
It is this spirit I carried into Zuccotti Park. And what an amazing spiritual and political vibe there: People on laptops and hand-held devices typing or texting nonstop. People napping on blankets, sleeping bags, or the grass. People plucking guitar strings, blowing horns, and banging on drums and garbage cans. People having random but passionate conversations here and there about “capitalism,” “democracy,” “President Obama,” or “the police.” People sitting peacefully, in a circle, as they meditate amidst all the compelling, organic, and chaotic magic around them. People serving food to the regular protesters in the community kitchen, while other people are painting demonstration signs on strips of cardboard with captions like “Poor people did not crash the economy” or “Give me back my future.” People borrowing, returning, or thumbing through books from the makeshift lending library. Everyday people, mostly younger, but certainly a number of elders, some of whom, I am sure, have in their activist resumes Civil Rights or anti-Vietnam work, or a fond memory of Woodstock. Most of the people here are White, although there is some people of color present, too. Also very clear that there are straight folks and gay folks, persons with disabilities, and persons who are war veterans, with a few wearing their camouflage-green uniforms.
As I walked slowly through Zuccotti, from the Broadway entrance to the Trinity Place side, I thought it strangely ironic that the park’s northwest corner is across the street from the old World Trade Center site. In fact Zuccotti Park was covered in debris immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and subsequently was used as a staging area for recovery efforts. Kissing the sky high above Zuccotti now is the Freedom Tower, the 105-story edifice with a price tag of about $3 billion and counting, which will finally be opened some time in 2013.
I also thought of the fact that Lower Manhattan had once been the staging area for significant parts of the American slave trade, the importation of Africans, my people, literally creating the concept of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange because, well, the first stocks ever exchanged and the first global economy were enslaved Black people. As proof, not far from the Occupy Wall Street protest is the African Burial Ground, where bones of some of these Africans were discovered several years back. And before the Africans, and the European settlers, slaveholders, and colonizers, were the original owners of this land, the Native Americans. Manhattan as a word is of the Lenape language, and it means “island of many hills.”
Not that any of the above would be known to the average person, or perhaps even the average protester here, but I think it important for those of us who call ourselves Americans, or human beings, or both, to be clear that nothing we do, with a structure or not, is without a context, or is ever disconnected from the history of who we are. We literally walk atop the spirits and the graves of the good and the bad that has led us to these days of protest and occupation.
We the people, that is. Therefore, this infant movement is absolutely correct in stating, loudly, “We are the 99 percent.” We the American people, of diverse backgrounds, while the wealthiest 1 percent in America owns and controls 42 percent of America’s wealth. You see it with the completely-out-of-control unemployment numbers and rapid freefall of America’s middle class, as well as the horrific reality of America’s underclass. You see it with the tax breaks and in-your-face salaries for corporations and their executives. You see it with the soaring crime rates in our communities, those crimes directly tied to financial desperation, especially in ghetto communities. You see it with students either dropping out of college due to tuition hikes and a decrease in student loans, and you see it with students with degrees on various levels that simply cannot find a job, any job. And you see it with the people sitting in court fighting foreclosure on their homes, or battling landpersons to hold onto apartments they rent.
Why this very week of the mass Occupy Wall Street protest my office has been inundated with calls, emails, and social network messages from people, everyday people, searching for work, or an apartment they can afford. One woman, a 74-year-old Brooklyn resident, is on the ledge, about to be evicted, but can only spare $800-$850 per month for rent. Her monthly social security check is $931. So she will have just $80-$130 per month to cover things like groceries, public transportation, and her prescription drugs. In the richest nation on earth it is completely inhuman and obscene that there are so many people suffering, surviving, barely, day-to-day, as images of wealth, power, and privilege are routinely thrown in our faces via our mass media culture.
So Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and throughout America is for those of us who feel our voices and misery have been ignored. It is for those of us who believed, way down in our guts, that Barack Obama, the 2008 presidential candidate, was the change, finally, America had been waiting for. But I knew even then that that was not the case, that the best Mr. Obama could possibly be was a symbol of what was possible, but that real change only happens from the bottom up, from the people, never from the top down. That was the case with slavery and the abolitionist movement. That was the case for women and the feminist movement. That has been the case for the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender community, and the gay rights movement. And that was certainly the case for Black folks and the Civil Rights Movement.
So it must be the case, now. And that is precisely why this people’s “revolution” has multiplied. If you visit www.occupytogether.org, you see meet-up and actions on many levels presently happening in nearly 500 American cities. If you visit http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/... you get personal testimonies from everyday people describing how tough their lives are during these times. Some mainstream media tried to ignore, distort, or even mock this movement initially, but no more. Not when celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Russell Simmons have come aboard to support, and not when 700 protesters were arrested attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge the other day. And not when you are dealing with a generation of young people so tech-savvy they are very clear that they are the media themselves, fully stocked with video cameras, informational websites, and even their own newspaper, “The Occupied Wall Street Journal.” This is a movement everyone, and you need to get a late pass if you are missing what is happening here. For this is historic.
At least labor unions in cities like New York and Boston get it. What made October 5th so special is that workers were present in a massive way for the first time. Some 20,000 protesters showed up, many of them belonging to my city’s largest labor unions, led by their union presidents. At Foley Square, a stone’s throw from the Manhattan exit of the Brooklyn Bridge, and where the long-running tv drama “Law & Order” was often filmed, nurses, teachers, and other organized labor folks swarmed to a rally and march in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. What was most memorable is the fact that one union leader after another admitted they were simply following the lead of “these young leaders.” Unions definitely remain important in New York City politics, as evidenced by the assembly line of elected officials who showed up hoping to get the obligatory photo opportunity and microphone moment. But, to me, if we are to have a truly progressive, multicultural movement in America, it Is going to demand a different kind of coalition for these times, one led by a new configuration of progressive voices, and not overwhelmed by union leaders, not overwhelmed by politicians, not overwhelmed by religious leaders, and certainly not overwhelmed by the funding of corporations or foundations (I duly noted what leaders and organizations were not in attendance because of who clearly funds their work). That old guard coalition has been happening since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and it has run its course and we must let it die a natural death. While I was certainly glad and honored to be at this union-led rally (my own mother was a long-time member of 1199SEIU in Jersey City, where I was born and raised), my heart and mind were with the people in the crowd, and back at Zuccotti Park. Later for power or ego trips, photo opps, or who can and cannot speak at a rally. This is about the people, like that 74-year-old woman my team and I are desperately trying to find an apartment she can afford. And not for nothing, we’ve got to support the leaders, visible or not, who are actually the voices for the people and have their pulse on the veins of the people.
For when we in leadership positions, whether we call ourselves leaders or not, and begin to think in those terms, and not in terms of our careers or our prestige or our individual or organizational agendas, then and only then do we begin to do what the Tea Party begat in 2009: a natural-birth movement led by the people, then nurtured into a full-fledged political dynamo. Part of that nurturing—and the unions made this abundantly real just by their sheer numbers—has to be the inclusion of people of color into the Occupy Wall Street movement. Until yesterday, at least in New York City, the scene was, again, mostly White sisters and brothers (yes, we all are sisters and brothers, no question). Well-meaning, yes, but good intentions do not mean you are truly progressive. Can’t continue to say “We are the 99 percent” but there is not a consistent and daily picture of the rainbow coalition of America from city to city. Can’t continue to say “We are the 99 percent” and your leaderless leadership (which is untrue, because someone is clearly calling the shots here, at least some of the time) is mostly White males, and not inclusive as it could be of women, of people of color, of gay sisters and brothers, and of other marginalized people as equal partners in the leadership, visible or not. Can’t continue to say “We are the 99 percent” and not understand the importance of history, of our shared history of protest, of movements, and how it is going to take younger people and older people, and new activists and seasoned activists like myself, to make this into the powerful movement it can truly be, not just for a few weeks, or a few months, but for the next several years, and as needed.
And you can’t continue to say “We are the 99 percent” if, eventually, there is no real agenda for the people other than a lashing out about Wall Street, about the need for jobs, or to end all wars, and on and on. Where influential Tea Party backers were both brilliant and strategic is that they saw this spontaneous thing happening and they got behind it and blew wind into the sails. So much so that there are now Tea Party political candidates within the Republican Party. And certainly Republican presidential nominee contenders who feel compelled to respond to the Tea Party national agenda.
(And, to be fair to my White sisters and brothers, Black folks and Latino folks in America in particular, two of the most in-need communities, economically, need to get off our collective behinds and fully join and co-lead the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the saying goes, either you are a part of the solution or you are a part of the problem….)
That is what we on the left, we so-called progressives or liberals or whatever we call ourselves, must do. Drive the national conversations on issues of the day in a new direction. And not as a reaction to Republicans, or the Tea Party, or right-wing conservatives, but because we understand, as a people who know change is in our hands, truly, that movements only last if you are proactive, and have a vision for what needs to happen, even while maintaining a very loose and democratic leadership structure where different voices are heard and honored.
I thought of this and more as we 20,000 strong marched down Broadway to Zuccotti Park. It was organized and disorganized, it was fast and it was slow, and it was empowering and it was frustrating. And I loved every second of the march, of the people spilling into the park, of the sense of love and peace everywhere, of the heightened intensity of the drummers, at once whipping the crowds into a frenzy, and by the same token those drums a call, spiritually, for protection of these fearless protesters. And God knows that protection was needed, because as day shook loose its clothes and became night, more New York police, on horses, on motorcycles, on foot, and in the wagons, were dispatched to the area. A security guard at a local building even told me that some plainclothes officers had come in a few times this week to go to the highest floor possible, to do surveillance on the protesters. As Russell Simmons called them, these are mostly “sweet kids.” They are participating in civil disobedience, one of the grand traditions of world democracy, as taught by giants like Gandhi and Dr. King, two figures those in power love to quote when convenient. But that does not matter when the power structure of any country, be it Egypt or America, feels threatened. Or embarrassed. So when about 1000 of these protesters decided, at nightfall, to march down Broadway, to literally occupy Wall Street, they were met with the full force of the New York Police Department. About 30 were arrested and rumors immediately shot through the protest, like the stink of fresh urine on a side street wall, that a number of protesters had been beaten or maced by the police. Even a local tv crew was maced, it was said. (See http://occupywallst.org/ for more details) No matter, even more police barricades were brought out, even more police showed up, and before you knew it we were contained, like pigs in a pen, to a one-block radius on Broadway, right in front of the park. Warning sent loud and clear: you can protest, but the moment you dare to journey beyond these boundaries, we are going to stop you and arrest you.
One of my favorite chants of the movement is “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like." But when we beat and mace our young people for exercising their democratic rights to speak their minds and to assemble peacefully, what message are we sending to them, to ourselves, and to the world? And how are we any different, then, than Bull Connor, that infamous police chief of Birmingham Alabama, as he water-hosed and unleashed vicious barking dogs on young people during the Civil Rights era? Or leaders in foreign countries who attack their protesters for demanding democratic reform as we are doing here in the streets of America? And was it not New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself, a few weeks back in a radio interview, who said there would be unrest, soon, in America, if we did not get Americans jobs? Word for word, Mr. Bloomberg stated "We have a lot of kids graduating college can't find jobs. That's what happened in Cairo. That's what happened in Madrid. You don't want those kinds of riots here."
Neither do I, Mr. Bloomberg. But, like the protesters, what I do want to see, in our nation, is economic opportunities and justice for all Americans, not just for the privileged few. And I am clear that you cannot tease people about the unlimited possibilities of America then when they decide they want to have it, tell them no, we were not being serious. Where this movement goes from here is anyone’s guess. Maybe it is simply suppose to be a space where the disillusioned and disgusted can finally make their voices heard. Or maybe it will be the progressive, multicultural movement I want to see, that I feel America so badly needs, in this 21st century. No matter what happens, no matter where this goes, it is so evident, more than ever and as was said during the Civil Rights Movement, that the leadership we’ve been waiting for is us….
Kevin Powell is a nationally acclaimed political activist, public speaker, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. The author or editor of 10 books, Kevin’s 11th, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published January 2012 by lulu.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell