Visiting the occupiers of Wall Street

Occupying Wall Street

We—my wife Liza Featherstone and son Ivan Henwood and I—paid a visit to the Occupy Wall Street protest yesterday afternoon. Here’s an illustrated report. I also did a segment for my radio show. Audio for that is at the bottom of this entry.

The big media have largely ignored the OWS protest (though if you’re part of a certain kind of network on Facebook, you can’t miss it). Called first by Adbusters with only the most minimal agenda, it’s taking on a life of its own, as people trickle in from all over. And I do mean minimal—the agenda is supposed to evolve spontaneously. When I talked with one of the organizers last week, she told me that they merely hoped “to build the new inside the shell of the old,” and though that sounds seductively wonderful, I’m not sure how robust such an approach can really be.

Or, to quote the event’s Facebook page, named in the now-ubiquitous hashtag fashion (#OCCUPYWALLSTREET):

we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future

I don’t think that has Lloyd Blankfein trembling in his shoes. Not that I know what could make him tremble, aside from a few quarterly losses for Goldman.

When we got to Wall Street, a band of what appeared to be several hundred were conducting the “closing bell” march, joining in the traditional observation of the end of the trading day on the New York Stock Exchange. The dominant chant was: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Here’s glimpse of what it looked like, from the corner where George Washington was inaugurated for the first time.

It’s not often you see a quote from Ronald Reagan at an event like this, but the politics of the participants looked like a mixed bag, a topic I’ll return to.

This being New York, a healthy contingent of cops was on the scene.

At the corner of Wall and Broadway, things dispersed some, with some of the crowd (including us) heading towards the base camp, Zuccotti Park at the corner of Broadway and Liberty, not far from the “Freedom Tower” (under construction). Here’s what the park looked like from the Broadway side.

Within, one quickly encountered familiar iconography, e.g., this U.S. flag with corporate logos in place of the stars (photo by Ivan Henwood).

Posters promoting the event, exhibiting that Adbusters style that’s a reminder that Judith Butler was so right to say that you have to inhabit what you parody.

The crowd was a mix of locals and migrants. I chatted with people who’d come from Missouri and Maine to express frustration and show solidarity. (They’re on the audio segment.) The woman from Maine was unemployed for a year and willing to stay as long as anyone else is there—through January, if that’s what it takes. But I also talked with locals from Brooklyn and Queens. Onlookers and passers-by were neutral to friendly—there were no jeers except some aimed for a lone and odious anti-Semite.

A celebrity local: the original pie-wielding Yippie Aron “Pieman” Kay.

Principles were being worked on in standard “consensus” fashion, which apparently means writing comments on pages taped to a wall. (The type is readable if you click on the pix to enlarge them.)

“Vauge” indeed.

Signs were being made constantly.

I asked the guy who made the “utopian experiments” sign what he had in mind. (The interview is on the audio segment.) He said he wanted to see a rebirth of 1960s-style “intentional communities,” though more entrepreneurial this time, capable of supporting themselves through green business and cyberschemes. Aside from this apostle of green entrepreneuriship, I overheard others talking about how Wall Street stifled small business—as if small business didn’t pay worse and support more right-wing politicians than big business. It was a very mixed bag ideologically. It seems like the latest iteration of American populism, which hates Wall Street and internationalization but loves small business and the local. Of course, livestreaming the proceedings on the web (see here) depends on a huge technical infrastructure, but no one thinks about that at these events.

I was skeptical of this at first, and I still am. There’s no agenda at all. It’s mostly about process—meaning consensus. There’s no organization to speak of. But maybe people will just keep trickling in and it will grow and persist and something good could come of it. Word is that some buses will be coming in from Wisconsin soon. At some point, though, I fear the NYPD will stop putting up with a semi-permanent occupation of a small park. I hope not. But if you’re listening to this, and are in a position to head to lower Manhattan, check it out. Zuccotti Park, at the corner of Broadway and Liberty St.

Give the NYPD something to watch.

Here’s the report on the event from my radio show. For the full show, click here. This is just a six-minute excerpt.

Occupy Wall Street: audio report

All photos by Doug Henwood except the corporate logo flag, by Ivan Henwood.

27 Comments on “Visiting the occupiers of Wall Street

  1. Hopefully the outspoken petite-bourgeoisie aesthetes will run out of laptop batteries and printer ink, thereby losing the ability to post drivel about “good manners”, “individuals” and “revolutionary culture”.

    Or, as one “comment” by someone clearly as mind-boggled as me says, “we should have intention?”

  2. Demands:

    They released a list of demands to vote on, and I gotta say they bring up some legitimate debates at very least. As a young adult, I look around and see that selfishness and manipulation are becoming the defining characteristics of the history in which I live. Not only is it legal, but it is rewarded, and applauded. I think the zeitgeist that they tap into is refusal of the culture of greed, it is reawakening the holistic and compassionate approach to the world. I for one am very glad it is happening and hope to see it mature.

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  10. Doug,

    I subscribe to the LBO, I`m a fellow Brooklynite, and I often trust and agree with your analysis of current events. Thank you for all your work. But I think you are missing some key facets regards to the occupy wall street movement.

    I don`t think it`s accurate to say that we are lacking an agenda and that there is no organization (though not clear if you are saying we are not organized, or we are not a cohesive group). There is in fact a diverse agenda and such a sense of common goals that individuals are taking the initiative to carry out whatever needs to be done. We need your critical eye more than ever before. But I also hope you can simultaneously subscribe to what Arun Gupta has called for in her open letter on the occupation: for the left to let go of it`s self destructive cynical and despairing tendency.

    If we were an organization with clear demands, our demands would be ignored and our organization would be defunded and crushed. Granted, there is some kookiness to the occupation, but that is what we need to expect with an inclusive movement. Sorts of all kinds are involved. And we are not just about process. We are also about having a tactical strategy which allows us to have feet on the ground and to be on the offensive. And that has worked. Saturday`s march was a success because it brought much needed attention to our struggle in the media black out. It was a powerful learning experience for the people who participated.

    And I believe that if the NYPD were to forcefully evict us from the park, that there would quickly be 10 times as many occupiers soon arriving to take it back as we saw at other occupations throughout the world in the past year.

  11. James, I said I’m skeptical but fervently hope it leads somewhere. I’m not going to be “cynical” about it at all. There is some loopy shit circulating around the occupation – the stuff on the Federal Reserve in the manifesto-in-formation is crypto-nazi nonsense, and about 40 years out of date, for example. But it’s got some potential and the last thing I want to do is get in the way of that. A sharper message – these parasites have all the money and we need to take it from them – might help.

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  18. One simple demand that I think any serious opponent of finance capitalism should support is: nationalize the banks. The American people should concentrate their energies on creating the political and constitutional change needed to make this possible. Occupy wall street protestors should coalesce around this demand, and address it to their fellow citizens. It is as fundamental to America’s second revolution as “no taxation without representation ” was to its first.

  19. Eugene Debs made similar demands at the turn of the last century in his campaign for president, a campaign that attracted millions of Americans to his socialist party and that was only stopped by the economic boom attendant on WW1. If you don’t fight you lose!

  20. Sorry one more comment (can’t talk to you in person, am an ocean away). When there is no other way out the future will be invented.

  21. Ok, i’m late to this party. Henwood is completely correct that the lack of an articulate ideology and concrete political/social projects around which to organize will ultimately undo this movement (I don’t say that happily and am impressed with the perseverance so far). I know Henwood doesn’t say that specifically, but the implication is certainly there. But these continuing claims that the lack of organization and ideology is a good thing could not be further from the truth (as certain factions of Egyptian society are currently discovering). Some friends who had us over to dinner echoed this malarkey recently. It would be nice to see the emergence of Lenin’s old “democratic centralism” practice and ending of “consensus” which would be very helpful in rooting out the ” federal reserve” fascists, among others. The problem isn’t that a central bank exists, the problem is that it is completely independent of any democratic control. Otherwise the “1%” (and I have issues with that as well) will just wait it out and people will go home and start looking for work paying ever lower wages and offering ever fewer benefits. Even Joseph Stiglitz stuff would be superior to this and actually lead somewhere. The problem is severe as well, cuz the more failures that pile up the more disheartening will the consequences be for any future political movement that has at least some marginal notion of redistributive programs. And in that event, things will get ugly indeed.

  22. You know, the left actually exists and actually makes demands for the socialization of credit and essential industries-perfectly reasonable demands that received at least lip service, if not in the USA-in comparable democracies-, in the fifties, sixties and seventies. If these demands can no longer get a hearing things may already have become ugly. In any event, what we believe in is the capacity of the people to press demands that clearly represent a solution. If the political class is unable to respond constructively then what do they imagine the people will do after they have done this. Is the American ruling class prepared to suspend civil liberties entirely? My intuition is that there is not one of them capable of independent thought or fellow- feeling or both. Alternatively the movement will lapse for a lack of clarity about demands and then you’re right Bill Hayek’s destination will have been reached-one nation of serfs with liberty and justice constitutionally guarranteed for all their masters.

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