War on Wall Street - Macleans.ca

War on Wall Street

A new protest movement, with Canadian ties, is taking shape, and spreading

War On Wall Street

Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

Last Sunday, just before 7 a.m., as the sun cast its first light on Manhattan, cold, damp Zuccotti Park, just south of Ground Zero and north of Wall Street—those twin poles of a shattered American psyche—looked like little more than a junkyard. Shopping carts, blankets, garbage bags, sodden pizza boxes, piles of cardboard protest signs. Most of the two or three hundred anti-Wall Street protesters camping out there were wrapped in sleeping bags and under tarps, the pigeons pecking about their heads. A couple snuggled together on an air mattress. An elderly man in combat fatigues, his grey hair tied back in a bandana, slept against a concrete wall, a German shepherd at his side. Such were the moments of first light, before the makeshift village in Zuccotti Park came to life.

When the people awoke they gathered in groups to discuss ideas: corporate control, securitization, debt and credit, the environment, the Federal Reserve. There was heated debate and a lot of hugging. “I see it as a mathematical improbability to have a growth-based system based on finite resources,” said Tim, a 57-year-old bassist from New Haven, Conn., with long grey dreadlocks. “It’s kind of depressing, to be honest with you. I think the bottom is going to have to fall out of the economy.” When a protester approached asking for rolling papers, Tim promptly produced some from his pocket. “The solution is money,” said Rick DeVoe, 54, an environmental activist from East Hampton, Mass. “If the dollar doesn’t work for us, let’s create something that does.”

Over by the info booth a mousy girl in her 20s handed out a newspaper—The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a deliciously tongue-in-cheek jab at Rupert Murdoch’s business broadsheet. On a nearby table, various pamphlets lay strewn beside a Macdonald’s coffee cup and a well-thumbed copy of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. A white-haired soccer mom on vacation from Tennessee, all smiles and glasses, asked if there was a petition to sign. Volunteers distributed food from the kitchen—concrete benches laden with donated bagels, coffee, juice. At the media centre, marked off with caution tape, youths sat on cement benches glued to MacBooks, spreading the word on various social media networks. @OccupyWallStNYC, one Twitter handle among many here, had some 39,000 followers as of Tuesday.

Two weeks in and the once-amorphous Occupy Wall Street protests in lower Manhattan have begun to take form. (Protesters can’t occupy Wall Street, which has been barricaded and heavily guarded by police as a security measure since 9/11.) Labour unions and college students plan walkouts, slated for Wednesday, in solidarity with the movement, which has spread across the U.S.—to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Washington—as well as to Europe and Japan. Occupy Toronto and Occupy Vancouver protests are slated for Oct. 15. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the NYC General Assembly, the activist group central to the protest, published a mission statement that read like a declaration of human rights. The leaderless colony that began as a group of disenchanted youths with no clear message has built a self-sufficient society, writ small, within the larger one they complain has grown sick and, moreover, had shunted them aside—offering no jobs, no prospects, no hope. The heart of that movement still beats in Zuccotti Park, dubbed Liberty Park by the colonists, an echo of Cairo’s Tahrir, or “Liberation” Square, where anti-Mubarak protesters staged an uprising earlier this year.

This movement differs from the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, or last summer’s G20 protests in Toronto. Occupy Wall Street is not designed to counter a mainstream event—there is no World Trade Organization to oppose, no abstruse meetings of world leaders. Unions and formal NGOs, at least initially, played no organizational role (although Anonymous, a “hacktivist” collective that commits acts of civil protest online, helped promote it). Instead, the movement combines anger over America’s faltering economic prospects, with the captains of the financial sector that protesters believe recklessly gambled with the economy and lost, and widespread disappointment over Barack Obama’s presidency. Some observers compare it to the early Tea Party, calling Occupy Wall Street its leftist echo. Like the Tea Party, unemployment is an important driver here, particularly among the young—in August the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the percentage of employed Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 at only 48.8 per cent.

A strange twist on this American phenomenon is the role Canada has played in fomenting the rebellion. Adbusters, a Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine, was first to promote the protests, agitating for an American Arab Spring. Some of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s most prominent luminaries are either Canadian or have strong ties to Canada. Naomi Klein, author of such seminal texts for the movement as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, tweeted she would join the protest this week. Already in Manhattan is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter and writer who has become a star of the movement, is married to a Canadian, frequently publishes in Adbusters, and last fall taught as a visiting prof at the University of Toronto.

In his essays, which tend to the apocalyptic—“We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity,” he writes in an Adbusters piece making the rounds among protesters—Hedges frequently cites Canadians, including Klein and John Ralston Saul, the vice-regal consort to governor general Adrienne Clarkson until her term expired in 2005. He argues Occupy Wall Street could only have begun in Canada, telling Maclean’s: “Canada is not as far gone as we are. If I write a book called the Empire of Illusion—which I have—I can be on the CBC nationally. That will never, ever, ever happen in the U.S.”

Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate, is one of many fire-and-brimstone voices animating the protests. He peppers his essays with urgent calls for self-sufficient communities—far enough away from the chaos of broken urban centres to remain safe, with easy access to farmland—to “weather the coming crisis.” The Liberty Plaza tent village is a prototype of just this brand of post-apocalyptic self-reliance. That strain of thought, with its preoccupation with urban gardening and other forms of radical self-sufficiency, is a hallmark of the movement. “Apocalyptic scenarios are sounding far more realistic,” says Janet Conway, Canada Research Chair in social justice at Brock University, adding of the Liberty Plaza protesters: “They realize this is their best bet to rebuild any kind of livable community and environment and also think seriously about survival. They have their own medical clinic, cafeteria, library, regular popular assemblies. They’re figuring out what they need and how to do it.”

The Adbusters rhetoric, too, can sound occasionally apocalyptic—even Biblical. “Alright you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals,” begins the blog post that first proposed an occupation, later referring to Wall Street as the “Gomorrah of America” and calling upon 20,000 people to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, [and] peaceful barricades.” Kalle Lasn, Adbusters’ founder, had long sought methods for sparking an anti-consumerist “cultural revolution” in North America. The Arab Spring looked like an appealing model. So did Spain’s acampadas movement, which, beginning in the spring, saw groups angry with government spending cuts erect tent cities in Barcelona, Madrid and elsewhere.

Lasn and his circle latched on to similar frustrations with Wall Street to galvanize protest here, and used social-networking techniques pioneered in the Middle East to communicate urgency. “We felt America was ready for a Tahrir moment—that people were losing their jobs, their houses,” says Lasn, who was born in Estonia and spent his childhood in a post-Second World War refugee camp. “We kept saying, ‘Well, why should we let the Tea Party have all the fun? And what would it take for us lefties to have that sort of passion, that sort of grassroots organization?’ ” Lasn’s brainstorming group hammered out a modern-day rallying cry—a hashtag, #occupywallstreet—allowing legions of Twitter users to search for and monitor the discussion.

As conceived by Lasn, who has not travelled to Manhattan and has maintained a behind-the-scenes role in the movement, that discussion and the Liberty Plaza assembly should settle upon a single doable measure—one demand to help solve the current crisis. “Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum,” the Adbusters call-to-arms argues, adding that the best candidate in this case is a demand that “Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” In an interview, Lasn also suggests the adoption of a Robin Hood-style tax—dues on financial transactions designed to minimize speculation.

Yet the protesters in Manhattan appear less sure of what they want—indecision that’s almost systemic. Radically democratic and anti-hierarchical, they operate on a basis of strict consensus. That can lead to some surreal conventions. In the park’s general assemblies, any person can block a motion by simply crossing their arms in an X shape above their head. The protesters communicate via “human microphones”: when one seeks the floor, he or she will shout, “Mike check!” Those nearby reply “Mike check!” before immediately surrounding the speaker and repeating their message in unison, effectively acting as a human loudspeaker. “Mike check!” someone shouted when Maclean’s asked for an interview. “Does anybody here who was arrested want to talk to the press?” The crowd repeated him.

That crowd—represented widely in the media as white, liberal college kids—is surprisingly diverse, from raging grannies to street kids, union workers, professors, ex-bankers, human rights lawyers, military vets. Brian Phillips, a 25-year-old ex-Marine-turned-journalist, is both the occupation’s PR man and its de facto head of security. “We’ve had some gangsters steal our food and a drunk guy cause a disruption—otherwise things have been peaceful,” says Phillips, dressed in an army jacket and grey bandana. So far, Liberty Plaza has remained largely non-violent, though there have been hundreds of arrests—especially on Saturday, when thousands marched toward the Brooklyn Bridge, where, protesters say, police trapped them in a kettling tactic reminiscent of one used in Toronto last summer during the G20.

Could the Occupy movement become violent in just the way those G20 protests devolved into Black Bloc mischief and property destruction? “I hope not, because then they’re finished,” says Hedges. “That’s just what the power elite wants. Everybody who’s organizing in that park is working overtime to make sure it doesn’t happen.” Hedges argues it’s the movement’s very weakness for indecision that may save it from a knee-jerk descent into agent provocateur chaos. “Everything is formed by consensus, which is very cumbersome and time consuming—but it works. I can tell you they would not find a home within Liberty Plaza.”


War on Wall Street

  1. This Maclean report on the Occupy Wall Street movement is very week.  It does not capture even teh basic ideas of the movement correctly.  The report says, 

    “Instead, the movement combines anger over America’s faltering economic prospects, with the captains of the financial sector that protesters believe recklessly gambled with the economy and lost, and widespread disappointment over Barack Obama’s presidency.”That made it really sound like the Tea Party.  It is not.  The Tea Party is a right wing political movement while the Occupy Wall Street movement is a social movement to oppose the corrupt connections between the political machine and the rich (1%).  As such, both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of that charge.  Of course, the Republicans are worse.  

    Reportedly according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, the top 1 percent of Americans own more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent only have 7 percent of the wealth.  

    How did it happen?  Simple: the cozy and corrupt relationship between the rich and the political machine allowed it to happen.  

    • Of course they don’t capture the basic ideas, they don’t even know what happened at the G20: “Could the Occupy movement become violent in just the way those G20
      protests devolved into Black Bloc mischief and property destruction?” – that whole incident involved a handful of people and lasted about an hour, it was then used as an excuse for a mass crackdown and the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. McLeans can’t even do basic research. It’s not journalism anymore. 

  2. animal farm has never been so relavent


    • I’m afraid old slogans aren’t going to cover this.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • LOL must be, or you wouldn’t worry about it so.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • LOL he says as he recites old slogans and beliefs about anyone that disagrees with him.

  4. “When a protester approached asking for rolling papers, Tim promptly produced some from his pocket.”

    How subtle, Macleans.

    Helpful also to point out brand names on coffee cups and laptops, as if it really matters.

    Are the writers looking for a nice pat on the head from their corporate overlords?

    • This comment was deleted.

      • Actually since the cutbacks we almost never get head pats for the rolling-paper references any more. 

  5. “The Liberty Plaza tent village is a prototype of just this brand of post-apocalyptic self-reliance. That strain of thought, with its preoccupation with urban gardening and other forms of radical self-sufficiency, is a hallmark of the movement.”

    Postrel ~ One Best Way:

    The characteristic values of reactionaries are continuity, rootedness, and geographically defined community. They are generally anti-cosmopolitan, anti-technology, anti-commercial, anti-specialization, and anti-mobility. They draw on a powerful romantic tradition that gives their politics a poetic, emotional appeal, especially to people with literary sensibilities. With some exceptions, they oppose not only the future but the present and the recent past, the industrial as well as the postindustrial era. 

    The reactionary vision is one of peasant virtues, of the imagined harmonies and, above all, the imagined predictability of traditional life. It idealizes life without movement: In the reactionary ideal, people know and keep their places, geographically as well as socially, and tradition is undisturbed by ambition or invention. “The central concept of wisdom is permanence,” wrote E. F. Schumacher, the environmentalist guru, in Small Is Beautiful.

    Although they represent a minority position, reactionary ideas have tremendous cultural vitality. Reactionaries speak directly to the most salient aspects of contemporary life: technological change, commercial fluidity, biological transformation, changing social roles, cultural mixing, international trade, and instant communication. 

    They see these changes as critically important, and, as the old National Review motto had it, they are determined to “stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!'” Merely by acknowledging the dynamism of contemporary life, reactionaries win points for insight. And in the eyes of more conventional thinkers, denouncing change makes them seem wise.

    By personal history or political background, many reactionaries are classified as leftists. Whether cultural critics or environmentalists, however, that label fits them awkwardly. Their tradition-bound views of the good life make them true conservatives.

  6. Rudderless protest in response to rudderless leadership. “Yes We Can”??? The USA is running on fumes. Obama is in hiding. Take your protest to the Whitehouse and demand that the fraud get to work or resign. Stop interfering with people trying to get work done on Wall Street. Shame and stupidity. You lefties only have yourselves to blame for electing a fraud.

    • It’s happening all over the world. Blaming Obama isn’t going to solve it.

      • It’s a fine day in hell when hard woking people have to apologize or take marching orders from lazyassed slackers that are too dimwitted and undermotivated to even have a point beyond making pithy tweets. Your text missives will not liberate you..

        Come on, spit it out; you want something for free. Nothing is free losers. Grow up for change and face up to the fact that if you want it you have to earn it.

        Go home you useless poli-sci and gen-lit students. Viva La Revolution Comrade Pot Doper.

        A few hundred aggressive panhandlers and vagrants. Make sure to leave the plaza the way you found it.

        “If you aren’t a socialist by the time you’re 18, you don’t have a heart. If you aren’t a capitalist by the time you’re 25, you don’t have a brain.”

        • I don’t think you’re aware of who these people are.  These are people who are tired of the top 1% having it easier and easier, for example getting even more tax breaks etc.. while the middle class, bear a very high burden.  This is a movement that will grow, the world should work for the masses, not the top 1% and not the bottom 1% it should work for the 98% in between.  I’m not a socialist, not at all.. but there is blatantly something wrong with the way governments, and corporations are operating

          • This comment was deleted.

          • And therein lies the problem. Those with the gold make rules that allow them to steal more gold from the rest of us.

            This from a 48-year-old, gainfully employed individual with a sense of history (and a DCP/RRSP “retirement” plan that is increasingly making a trip to Rama seem like the better retirement “investment”).

            The parallels with, say, the Great Depression and other economic collapses are rather obvious and stem largely from one thing: too much wealth in the hands of too few, and governments controlled by these same people to ensure it stays that way.

            The protesters may not have the answers, but they know the source of the problems – and that history repeats if people don’t learn from the past.

            With the increasing polarization of politics, esp to the south of us, another collapse could easily lead to assasinations of business leaders/pols and/or civil war.

            So, SCS… time to take your head out of your butt and take an honest look at the world around you. That protest may (so far) be rather amorphous and unfocussed, but unlike the rest of us at least they are doing something.

        • Again you’re hiding in old slogans, and not paying attention to what’s happening in present day reality.

          There are 25 million Americans out of work…that we know about.  Many more are unemployed but have been dropped off the rolls and aren’t counted anymore.

          Hundreds of millions more are unemployed around the world.

          Most of them are formerly middle-class now fallen on hard times.

          And there is no work available.

          They call themselves the 99% for a reason.

          The world economy has not only changed, it’s crashing.

          As long as that continues, you’ll see massive protests like the ones occurring everywhere around the planet.

          So cease with the old nonsense of ‘welfare queens and pot smokers and commies’  and find out about these things before using your bumper sticker philosophy.

          And cease misquoting a remark from the 1700’s that had nothing to do with capitalists and socialists.

          And since you lot don’t want to pay your taxes, you can give up on the ‘they want everything for free’ as well.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • No moron, it wasn’t.

            The phrase originated with Francois Guisot (1787-1874): “Not to be a
            republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is
            proof of want of head.”

            It refers to France being a monarchy or a republic.

            Gosh, free education in the knowledge age….whyever would we want that eh?

          • @ @google-19372fa2b4e855522c63779a2167f692:disqus 
            Smith Candy Smith

            I have a life thanks….only I’m living mine in the 21st century, not the 1950’s

    • What about the righties who deregulated the financial sector  and screwed it up.. The only thing they are working hard at is being corrupt.

  7. You people complain about corporate greed and how much Wall Street benefits themselves. Well guess what? Everybody, whether you like it or not has benefited from corporations. If it wasn’t so you probably wouldn’t be commenting on this with your nice mac or driving to your job in that car. People like the ones in Wall Street, people with business minds are the ones that make this world go around. They are the people doing things in the world to make it better. These people have built companies from scratch that give jobs and great products to the people. 

    If you wanna be rich go do something. Get a good career. STOP complaining about the people who DID and ARE doing things in the world. Remember that if it wasn’t for people that think this way we’d all be stuck in the 19th century just like North Korea.

    Where there isn’t prospects of success there is no motivation. Thats how you protesters see our society. However you are wrong as there is nothing but endless possibilities. You just have to take advantage of them. 

    Nothing is free.

    • Ahhh the old ‘Wall St supports Main St’ slogan.

      Except they’re not.

      Wall St supports Wall St, and they don’t give a rat’s patoot about you.

      The ‘Mr Monopoly’ guy on the box was from the long-ago era of the Industrial Age….rich people don’t put up factories anymore dude….haven’t in ages.

      No, nothing is free. Pay your taxes.

      • We are in the Information Age. This is the time in which having information is key. Such as a good education. The problem is that the majority of the people won’t bother with education and instead complain about how unfortunate their lives are compared to the rich. Last time I checked people dont usually become rich out of the blue. It takes a lot of stress and sacrifice to get there.

        The problem is everyone wants to be rich and powerful. But like I said, you have to take the opportunities and execute them to your advantage. 

        Everyone wants a hand out. 

        • Yes, we are in the Information Age…or the Knowledge Age….and people need a good education.

          It would be nice if everybody could get one eh?

          People don’t want a ‘hand out’, they want access.

          • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

  8. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • If Wall St is paying you they really need to try a more subtle approach.  They have alienated enough people, they can’t afford to turn off more.

  9. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

  10. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

  11. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • This comment was deleted.

  12. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

  13. This all sounds Greek to me.