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An innocent Black man put to death despite a wave of international protests. A Texas governor who has executed hundreds of people including the innocent. A Democratic president presides over weak economic growth whose benefits have gone exclusively to corporations and the rich. And young anarchist-minded activists marching in the streets against it all.
For a second I thought it was the year 2000 again when Texecutioner George W. Bush Jr. put Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham) to death during his presidential campaign, anger at Bill Clinton’s betrayals and inaction fed the campaign of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and tens of thousands marched against the policies of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank.
But no, this is 2011, and times have changed.
Today, the IMF’s massive cuts in social programs are hitting Europe, not just the Third World. The rate at which people in the U.S. are executed has fallen steeply over the last decade, although the prison population continues to swell. The Obama administration is putting Social Security cuts on the table in negotiations with Republicans who wish they could abolish the federal government (except the Pentagon and Congress, of course). Jobs these days are few and far between, whereas in the late 90s they were cheap and plentiful (emphasis on cheap).
This is the context for the relatively small but spirited group of activists who have taken it upon themselves to “occupy Wall Street” over the last week. They are inspired by the Arab Spring and determined to recreate Tahrir Square here in America by staying near Wall Street (most of the time they are in a park on Broadway and Liberty Street) until their demands are met. Their demands range from the concrete (bailing out debt-ridden students and homeowners) to the abstract (abolishing capitalism and authority).
Their initial march on September 17 had roughly 1,000 people; now, the full-time occupants are about 100 strong, mostly although not exclusively white college-aged students or unemployed. A CUNY professor and 60s veteran named Jackie involved with the organizing told me on Thursday that their ranks swell in the evening when people get off of work and the protesters have their general assembly where anyone can speak and where decisions are made by consensus (meaning unanimous agreement).
The cops have forbidden the use of loudspeakers and bullhorns so the crowd repeats word for word whatever the person who has the “floor” says. When speeches aren’t being given, there are usually people drumming, blogging, tweeting, and talking to people walking by. They have a power generator to power their smart phones and laptops and can communicate to the world despite a media black out. They’ve raised thousands of dollars online and can probably sustain the protest for months since the only thing they need money for is food.
On Tuesday at 5pm, a young Black woman led chants against the execution of Troy Davis (RIP), the latest innocent Black man to be put to death by the state of Georgia. There isn’t a progressive cause the protesters don’t support. This is in the spirit of their claim to represent the 99% of the population that is being exploited and oppressed by the other 1% (Wall Street, CEOs, etc.).
On Thursday around noon, I listened as the crowd cheered a report from Jackie about how she and others in their labor solidarity working group continually interrupted an auction with pro-union statements at Sotheby’s, which has locked out its union workers for the better part of two months. Jackie explained how the company’s CEOs gave themselves 125% pay raises and the crowd repeated her every sentence, word for word, phrase for phrase. After her speech, the next speaker announced a solidarity action with protesters in Iran.
Where this protest will go is difficult to say. They are beginning to hold daily teach-ins to educate themselves politically. Unlike some elements of the 90s-era anti-globalization movement, they have made nonviolence central to their actions. Despite this commitment, at times the police have been aggressive and arrested some of them. On the whole, it seems the cops are trying to wait them out rather than clear the park by swinging batons.
The biggest challenge is that they have not been able to mobilize larger numbers of people. Their diffuse demands give them no concrete, specific, immediate, and tangible goal to fight for that rally large numbers of people. In Egypt, the demand that emerged was simple – Mubarak must go. Any half-measure, such as early elections and promises to step down, enraged the crowds and caused the organizers to redouble their efforts.
In this case, the objects of protest are less tangible: the global financial system, too big to fail banks, hedge funds, the political system. The solutions are myriad: end the Fed, vote for Ron Paul, abolish capitalism, end corporate personhood, establish a presidential commission to end the stranglehold of big business over politics.
What’s important is that they are in motion against the system. As one participant named Ben told me, “we have no leaders, this is direct democracy.” The sooner they (or we, more correctly) develop clearer concrete aims, the better off we’ll be.
Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, CounterPunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found atwww.planetanarchy.net