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To Fight the Unpredictable Effects of Climate Change, We Need an Unpredictable Movement

New York City.

In April 1990 I helped organize the Earth Day Wall Street Action. More than 1,500 activists from the United States and Canada traveled to New York on the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day with the goal of halting the New York Stock Exchange for a day. We got close, with hundreds of protesters and cops clashing in front of the exchange doors. We wanted to expose corporations wrapping themselves in the façade of environmentalism and identify them as criminals responsible for scorched-earth business practices.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return, and on  Monday, September 22, I ventured down to the financial district for the Flood Wall Street Direct Action. The following are impressions of what happened today, not the back story to the organizing. And they are more tactical than strategic observations.

Foremost, the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectation. Many thought a thousand people or less would show up. By the time the march left Battery Park in Southern Manhattan the count was 2,500. There seemed to be a lack of coordination on the part of direct action organizers, while the NYPD took a surprisingly hands-off approach. It still lined the streets with interlocking metal barricades, so the protest only made it as far as Broadway, around the iconic bull sculpture, before settling in for the day. Activists trickled in all day and the consensus was 3,000 people took over the streets at the peak.

However, there was no organized system like a spokescouncil or general assembly to encourage them to stay put and decide the next steps. Nor were there resources like food, blankets, and water to enable a large enough number of people to hunker down, which would make the cops hesitant to arrest them all.

There was a large media presence, including many mainstream media outlets. Flood Wall Street drew in more participants thanks to the Sunday march that drew an estimated three hundred thousand. The march was timed to influence the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. The international nature of the summit and the media pack helped limit the NYPD’s notorious aggression.

There was a world of creative art, but not much affinity group organizing. Some artists were hired to coordinate the art. Paying them to produce quality art was part of the media and image strategy for the Sunday march. That’s perfectly fine. Movements should pay people for their labor, although there has to be limits to avoid professionalizing. This was the most money-rich protest I have ever seen. There were three Jumbotrons on the Sunday route, and one organizer said they usually cost $10,000 a pop. Art making was also central to Flood Wall Street. I would speculate focus on visual symbols led the art to be overdeveloped and may have compounded the underdevelopment of strategic organizing for the direct action. The Monday protest was fun. There were huge banners, parachutes, giant balls of carbon, bands, costumes, and performers. But the strategy was little more than a mass sit down in the streets.

The NYPD strategy was to outlast the protesters, and it worked. Cops were blasé about activists disassembling metal barriers. They would not rush to fight them, like they always used to. Often they didn’t notice because there were so few cops on the lines. They would come over after ten minutes or so, retrieve the metal sections and reassemble them. All day long there were scattered gaps in the barricade line, enabling a free flow of people in and out of the area. Thus, there was no kettling, which is highly unusual for a mass direct action.

The cops had red lines, but otherwise were willing to cede more physical and tactical ground than normal. They let the crowd have Broadway around the bull for nearly four hours. Around 3:45 p.m., before the Stock Exchange closing bell, everyone marched up to Wall St. They tried to push east to the Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, where the George Washington Statue is located. There were only a few police at the first line of barricades. A little organization and the protesters could have easily pushed through. Getting through the second line and into Wall Street would have been much tougher, but not impossible.

I watched as protesters momentarily breached the barricade, cops grabbed one guy, and pulled him through. Normally that’s the moment when cops pile on and injure the protester. Instead, they just tossed him into the crowd on the sidewalk. No arrest and no beat down.

As the shoving matched intensified, the NYPD white shirts deployed their fists and a few blasts of a chemical irritant, probably pepper spray. It’s easy to tell how much of a threat the NYPD considers a protest by how many commanders, who wear the white shirts, it deploys. At the Wall Street barricade I counted nearly twenty white shirts at one point. They are notorious for pounding on people with their bare fists; they don’t need any surplus military gear to punish and intimidate. For a few seconds, during the height of shoving, two white shirts slammed their fists on the hands of protesters to loosen their grip on the metal barricades. Seconds later chemical spray wafted through the air, instantly forcing the protesters back. It had an unusual floral smell.

The combination of police waiting out activists and the lack of organization and support meant by 6:30 p.m. about 75 percent of people in the streets had drifted away. I did so as well at this time. Less than an hour later at a close-by bar, where many Flood Wall Street organizers had decamped, I got word arrests were happening. There was apparently a decision to engage in orchestrated civil disobedience. I told numerous people at the bar the arrests were happening, but most everyone already seemed to know and they did not seem overly concerned about returning right away. One well-respected organizer was not pleased that many of the main Flood Wall Street organizers left the streets to go to the bar.

During the whole day multiple squadrons of fifty to a hundred burly cops, whose mission is to squelch protesters quickly, were stationed at different points a block or so away from the action. There was not the overwhelming force of past protests with thousands of cops. One activist told me he heard two cops talking in the bathroom at a restaurant. They said 90 percent of cops were at the U.N. I talked to one community affairs cop who claimed they were taking a “calmer” approach. He said it was more effective compared to aggressive policing that is the norm, but it seemed like he was parroting the official line. He acknowledged this strategy was determined from on high.

Why was the NYPD so hands off? I haven’t seen anything like it in 25 years of protest in New York. There are the factors like the U.N. Climate Summit, the heavy media presence, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street, and space created by the large parade on Sunday. (Calling that event a protest is inaccurate.) Post-Ferguson many police departments probably realize over-reaction can backfire. The NYPD learned that with the Union Square pepper spray incident in September 2011that catalyzed city-wide support for the Zuccotti Park occupation, and then the Brooklyn Bridge arrests a week later that turned the movement into a nationwide phenomenon.

Additionally, there are New York City specific factors like the cops who killed Eric Garner in July on Staten Island and Mayor Bill de Blasio rehiring Bill Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton, of course, instituted the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing in the nineties in New York that de Blasio opposed in his surprise election victory last year. Bratton favors “Broken Windows” policing. It’s a smaller net than stop and frisk, but it’s still racially biased in practice without being based on any evidence that arresting pan handlers, graffiti artists, and turnstile jumpers reduces violent crime. Taking a light hand against Flood Wall Street enables de Blasio to score points with the public and media, while insulating his administration from criticism that it’s making only cosmetic changes to biased policing policies. To be fair, de Blasio may even be serious about curbing the NYPD’s penchant for violence.

Since the burden is on the NYPD to prove it has reformed its heavy-handed ways, the light police response should be seen as what it is: a one-off event. Additionally, while there was a more enthusiastic spirit at the end of the direct action today among veteran activists, there is a consistently lower level of organization over the last fifteen years of direct actions since Seattle.

One activist, Laurie Arbiter, summed up the feeling of many activists why actions like Flood Wall Street are on the frontlines of the climate justice fight. “It was unpredictable,” she said, unlike the Sunday march that felt scripted to many. “Climate change is unpredictable as well.” In other words, while marches are important and necessary, mass organized political chaos in the streets is more likely to destabilize the status quo, bringing forth a new social equilibrium.

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. It’s almost the same exact amount of time since James Hanson warned Congress in 1988 that there was near certain proof that carbon dioxide emissions were the prime culprit in global warming. The Monday action was only the first phase of what will have to be an ever-more powerful movement to flood Wall Street once and for all.

Arun Gupta contributes to outlets including Al Jazeera America, Vice, The Progressive, The Guardian, and In These Times.

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Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).

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