All grown up: the Occupy Wall St. movement takes shape

The once-ramshackle, disorganized group of protesters is evolving as it gains traction

Guy Godfree/Maclean's

“The whole world is watching.” Roughly 1,000 protesters were chanting as much on the Brooklyn Bridge this Saturday, after they were kettled by the NYPD (some may recall the technique from the G20 protests in Toronto), and shortly before 700 of them were arrested. They were right. As Jeff Jarvis put it on Twitter, “The beauty of the #occupywallstreet Pied Piper arrest is that the demonstrators’ video cameras outnumbers the cops’ and media’s.”

Two weeks in, the once-amorphous Occupy Wall Street protest in downtown Manhattan has begun to take form. The NYC General Assembly—the activist group central to the protest—finally published a mission statement late Sunday, which reads like a declaration of human rights. Labour unions and college students across New York City are planning walkouts to join the group in a solidarity march this coming Wednesday.

The leaderless colony stationed in Liberty Park Plaza that began on Sept. 17 as a smattering of disenchanted youth without a clear message now has an information booth, a media tent, a makeshift cafeteria and library—and is surrounded by a tent city, where between 200 and 300 people sleep each night, enforcing the “occupation” theme. (The protest can’t occupy Wall Street, which has been barricaded and heavily guarded by police as a security measure since 9/11.) The crowd—while represented widely in the media as white, liberal college kids—is surprisingly diverse, including raging grannies, street kids, union workers, professors, ex-bankers, longtime activists, human rights lawyers, Native American band members and ex-military. Political views span the spectrum, from anarchist to right-wing libertarian—complicating efforts toward any kind of unifying objective or mantra. Across the continent, the motley movement, which began with a call to action by Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, is gaining traction with similar protests planned for Washington, D.C., Chicago and even Toronto.

What that movement actually is, as many news outlets have already noted, is unclear. Last weekend, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times described it as “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater.” Protesters found it condescending, but not altogether inaccurate. NPR initially ignored the protests, citing a lack of newsworthiness. Executive editor for news Dick Meyer explained the decision, saying, “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.” NPR has since aired a story about the protests on the program All Things Considered.

Early Sunday morning, Maclean’s headed downtown to watch the Occupy Wall Street engine come to life. As the sun cast its first rays on the financial district, the cold, damp park looked like little more than a junkyard, filled with shopping carts, blankets, garbage bags, soggy pizza boxes and piles of cardboard signs. Most of the roughly 200 overnighters were still fully wrapped in sleeping bags and under tarps. A man and woman were snuggling on top of an air mattress. An elderly man in combat fatigues, his grey hair tied back by a bandanna, slept with his back against a concrete wall, a German shepherd nestling its head in his lap. Two street kids, no more than teenagers, were perched back-to-back, Bubba and Forrest Gump-style.

At the information booth, a short, mousey girl in her mid-twenties with a heavy New York accent offered a community newspaper—the ironically-named Occupied Wall Street Journal. “Extra, extra: read all about it,” she said, smiling. A headline read: “The revolution begins at home.” On the table lay various activist pamphlets, a Macdonald’s coffee cup, and a well-thumbed copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Behind her, a middle-aged man with greying dreadlocks was thumbing “House of the Rising Sun” on his acoustic guitar. Another flannel-shirted man stumbled through the lyrics, bobbing his head, and his protest sign, to the beat.

Over at the media centre, marked off with caution tape, a collection of young people were perched on the cement benches, glued to Macbooks, spreading the word on various social media networks. @OccupyWallStNYC—just one of a few active Twitter handles inside the encampment—had some 22,000 followers as of Sunday. It appears to be both an outreach tool and a moral compass for the evolving colony, tweeting messages such as “#GeneralAssembly distracted 4 a moment by man climbing tree. Shows the power 1 person has 2 derail a process. We must b alert+respectful!” and “Just got back from great #CommunityRelations mtg with local businesses. We r being good neighbors!” Indeed, the protesters evidently maintain good relations with the nearby Macdonald’s, where the staff have been surprisingly accommodating in letting protesters use the washrooms and electrical outlets.

The group holds two general assemblies daily, one at noon and another at 7 p.m. Everyone is encouraged to share thoughts, make motions or propose ideas. Lately, the GA’s have centred around the creation of working groups to facilitate the needs of the colony. They’ve included groups for food gathering, clean-up, community relations, and so on. Brian Phillips, 25, is an ex-marine turned journalist, and is acting as media relations officer and de facto head of security.

“What happens in society when you just leave people alone, is they all start working together for the basic instincts of survival,” he tells Maclean’s. Phillips, dressed in an army jacket and grey bandanna, hitchhiked to New York from Spokane, Washington to participate in the protest. “We’ve had some gangsters steal our food, and a drunk guy cause a disruption, but otherwise things have been peaceful.”

One of Phillips’s priorities is maintaining the peace between cops and protesters. A few days ago, a police officer noticed Phillips’ dog tags and identified himself as an ex-marine too. They shook hands. “At that moment I knew that the brotherhood in the Marine Corps that we created was more powerful than what’s going on right now,” Phillips said. “I knew that he was on our side because we’re all fighting for the same cause. That was really enlightening.”

The east end of the park usually hosts the drum circle, where roughly a dozen people were playing during breakfast. Small groups of people gathered here to engage in lively, civilized debates about topics ranging from the environment to the failing financial system. Volunteers passed out food from the “kitchen”—concrete benches acting as counter tops for donated foods such as cereal, bagels, coffee and orange juice. Behind them, traffic buzzed along Broadway Ave. as men and women in business suits hustled by. A light yellow tourist bus paused at a stoplight and a row of white-haired elderly ladies began snapping photos of the plaza and the street-facing protesters. As the bus pulled away in the direction of Wall Street, one lady grinned widely and extended her fingers into a peace sign.




Browse

All grown up: the Occupy Wall St. movement takes shape

  1. A lefty version of the Tea Party, but with wealthier parents, more philosophy and journalism degrees, and less plumbers cleavage.

    “Eat the Rich” with arugula and no-fat rooibos soy lattes.

    • Wealthier than the Kochs?

    • As a truck driving pal of mine once said after i ordered lunch: “Spinach!? You live a pretty high life boy”.

  2. What is so unclear about this movement? Cam someone please tell me? Read the mission statement…see all the things our government is doing?  We want them to STOP DOING THEM! How much more clear do you need? 

    • Actually, some of it is not that clear, and no alternatives are given.

      eg. You are against Greed. Wow. Great. Our gov’t is ‘doing’ greed, and you want them to stop.

      You see how those of us ‘not in the know’ see this as a tad unclear?

      • Oh yeah, and apparently people who have to wear suits to their jobs are evil.  I think I saw that somewhere.

        This is a very sophisiticated philosophy we’re dealing with here.

      • and hence the beautifulness of it. 

    • IT is the Federal Reserve you should be protesting not Capitalism. Capitalism works just fine without the Federal Reserve.

      • You are absolutely right. The people debating present day “capitalism” vs. socialism are missing the point. A few others in this thread have pointed out that it is not real capitalism. I would add that it is clearly fascism which is more accurately termed corporatism as Mussolini is alleged to have said (regardless of whether he said it, it is an accurate definition for the system as it functions in America).

        A true free market should be the goal of the Occupy Wall Street people not “let’s get more government regulations to protect us from big bad Wall Street!” as a few are saying. Ron Paul is dead on: end the Federal Reserve System.

  3. I am I right in assuming that this is just a bunch of folks who do not like capitalism, protesting it? Dare I call them socialists? What is new or different in the socialist platform that would make this news, or demand that people care?

    If they have a solution, it should be obvious for a reporter to find it. Apparently it isn’t.

    • Portraying capitalism and socialism as opposites is a false dichotomy.  The US, Canada and most countries in the world have a combination of capitalism (Eg: private corporations) and socialism (Eg: publicly-funded education).  The two can and do co-exist.

      • I never portrayed them as unable to co exist.
        Yes, most countries have a mix. There is not a ‘pure capitalist’ society around.

        I was commenting on these folks, and what they believe. They aren’t out there protesting for state run schools. . .

    • Why is it people think the only alternative to capitalism is socialism?

      • I never said that the only alternative to capitalism is socialism. I asked the question. You did see the question marks, did you not? The title of the article alludes to this group having more focus, and being more organized. The body of the story does not fully justify that. I was reading to find out exactly what they want, and what they are about. I didn’t find it. I then speculated and asked the questions.

        If you are part of that group, please enlighten me as to what they are about.

        If not, please let me know what other sorts of alternatives to capitalism people have been floating for quite some time? It will help me to form a better opinion next time.

        • I hear crickets coming from Todd’s direction.

  4. Good luck, but please keep the protests on Wall Street, as from reading your mission statement, most of the mess was made in America.

  5. To the NPR Reporter who wanted soundbites:

    Are Wall Street Barons Builders or Skewers of America
    Are Wall Street Barons Captains or Pirates of Industry
    Oxymoron1:Wall Street Shares
    Oxymoron2: Investing in Wall Street
     

  6. If I was there, I’d have two simple messages:  Prosecute Thieves on Wall Street, and No More Bailouts.

    If these companies take a risk that kills them, they should stay dead.  The bailouts of 2008/9 ended up rewarding companies for behaviour that should have shuttered their doors.  Wall Street learned nothing about overleveraging, purposely creating speculative bubbles, or hiding high-risk investments in complicated financial instruments.  Actually, that’s not true.  Wall Street learned that they can continue doing all of the above, because they’ll get bailed out when the schemes I listed ultimately fail.

  7. Endless bailouts, yet another violation of our rights. Add it to the list of gov’t violations of our rights:They violate the 1st Amendment by placing protesters in cages, banning books like “America Deceived II” and censoring the internet.
    They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns.
    They violate the 4th and 5th Amendment by molesting airline passengers.
    They violate the entire Constitution by starting undeclared wars for foreign countries.
    Impeach Obama, vote for Ron Paul.
    (Last link of Banned Book):
    http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000190526

  8. And the message is….?
    Let’s destroy the economy – that’ll teach ‘em.
    Knuckleheads.

    • or perhaps they already think the economy is destroyed and instead of having the same sith’s build it again (to their liking) they are saying F that.

  9. Yes, agreed.  Written by a baby with no history of the past and no ability to think forward.  Macleans, I thought better of you>  Get a writer that is in touch with the present and can think of the future with a fraction of  a brain>

  10. The lamestreet media has it all inverted again. I am sixteen and I know that Canadians owe the banksters eight hundred billion dollars. I also know that only thirty six billion is accountable for in good and services received by we the people. The rest is fraud by politicians at the highest levels. Prime minister after prime minister may well be guilty of treason for borrowing from private banks when we the people own the Reserve Bank of Canada and we must borrow from ourselves. Banks lend money that does not exist and charge compound interest on air and then still need a very recent bailout of 75 billion on account of the fraud they perpetrate. We spend hundreds of billions on corporate wars that offer incalculable horror and pretend we are bringing democracy to the masses when we exclusively liberate their natural resources. And Jesus wept. Imagine what infrastructure and standard of sustainable existence we would have if we did not have corporate selections pretending to be general elections. Even without the obvious demand that we repay the air loans to the mafia banks with an air cheque it would require a two percent increase in the HST to eliminate poverty in Canada. And our leaders dare speak of austerity when they steal 166 million dollars from hard working Canadian people … a day. Yip the system is rigged, our media is a disgusting distraction, our leadership is bought and our country sold to the highest corporate bidder. The one variable that has changed is that folks now know and the emperor not only has no clothes, our collective contempt for corporate – government kleptocracy knows no bounds. 

    Sean Boolsen – Vorster

  11. It is about time that citizens became more then just consumers and took action against the high jacking of capitalism by the corporate elites.  The pillaging of the public Treasury, with to big to fail, underlines the fact that corporate capitalism is placing capital in fewer and fewer hands.  This will ultimately limit innovation and creativity and will sacrifice  competition. Workers are unable to compete against India and China where workers work for low wages and the cost of production is reduced to the point where we have a difficult time to compete. Subsequently we continue to reduce corporate taxes in a act of futility in the hope that they the corporations might stay and give us a job.  The tax cuts just pay the way for the corporations to leave for low wage/tax environments where workers have little or no rights.

    It is not left or right it is simply people are realizing that capitalism has a limited ability to address the economic woes of the world.  The trickle down model espoused by Milton Friedman has failed  and we seem unable to change this strategy as long as we compete against people in the slave labor camp called China.  Cute backs and the race to the bottom are merely the symptoms that this globalized system will create.  Corporations have no affiliation to anything but profit and have no allegiance to any Country.  In fact Corporate Capitalism works better when workers do not have rights and the citizenry are also controlled by dictators.  We are in for some very interesting times.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *