New York Mayor Bloomberg’s climb-down was a clear tactical victory for Occupy Wall Street. Although police were on hand to clear protesters from Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, by 7 a.m. on Friday morning there were an estimated 4,000 people ready to assert their right to freedom of assembly.
But the physical courage of the protesters and their swift moves to clean up the square themselves were not the only factor in reversing the attempts to clear the park. Elected City officials who had received many calls from constituents joined the pressure on the owners of the square to withdraw from their clean-up operation. Bloomberg, who failed signally to mobilize sanitation workers to clear snow in NY streets for residents last winter, spent plentifully on NYPD overtime in case Brookfield Properties went ahead.
The New York Times relates this sequence of events: “In a series of somber, back-to-back telephone calls from 6 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, officials including Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, made personal appeals to the chief executive of Brookfield, Richard B. Clark. … ‘It has to be cleaned up,’ the officials recalled Mr. Clark saying. Even as late as 11 p.m., those who had spoken with him remained convinced that Brookfield would insist on carrying out the cleanup a few hours later. But the drumbeat of worried calls and personal pressure began to weigh on Mr. Clark. Shortly before midnight, he drafted an e-mail to Deputy Mayor Caswell F. Holloway saying he did not want to proceed. … City Hall reacted swiftly, ending plans to remove the protesters, but did not inform the public or the protesters for another seven hours.”
Another form of pressure on Brookfield was this story which suddenly appeared in the NY Daily News: “The owners of Zuccotti Park – Occupy Wall Street’s home base – have pocketed nearly $700,000 in government handouts since the 9/11 terror attacks. Brookfield Properties has received at least three six-figure grants meant for small businesses hurt by 9/11, even though it’s an $8 billion company with 2,500 employees, records show.”
So it was a combination of the protesters’ actions and its resonance with the wider public, mediated by elected officials, which achieved the reprieve. This does not mean the occupation is in the clear, however. Bloomberg seemed frustrated by the decision, according to the New York Times. If Brookfield decided to clear the park again, he said, “it will be a little harder, I think, at that point in time to provide police protection, but we have the greatest Police Department in the world and we will do what is necessary.”
That’s not an idle threat. Although in Boston the occupation is continuing, in Seattle, San Diego, and other cities throughout the country police did evict the protesters, using gratuitous physical force even when the protesters were cooperative. And in Denver, CO, the Democratic governor John Hickenlooper ordered state troopers in riot gear to arrest dozens who were occupying a park near to the state Capitol building, after having met with protesters on Thursday and paying lip-service to their rights of free speech and assembly.
None of these evictions stopped major demonstrations in Denver, Pittsburgh, Manhattan, Boston, and throughout the country from going ahead on Saturday as part of a global day of action. Even Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick visited the occupiers in Boston’s Dewey Square before they set out on their march. The Boston Globe reported: “I’m trying to understand,” Patrick said, sipping from a cup of Au Bon Pain coffee. “There’s a range of issues and interests and you can’t get all of them from the media.”
Clearly Democrats are divided on this question. Their use of populist rhetoric and claims of allegiance to constitutional rights are being challenged by a true pluralist movement. The Democratic Party leadership would prefer the protest to be channeled into safe but ineffective marches, rallies and a campaign to re-elect Obama that would leave the status quo intact. In this respect the Democratic leadership mirror Republicans and the Tea Party.
The reaction from bankers themselves is to remind the Democratic Party where their money is coming from. One longtime money manager told the New York Times that “he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns. ‘They need to understand who their constituency is,’ he said.”
Such arrogance is breathtaking, yet in keeping with what Marx observed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Steve Fraser, a professor at Columbia and author of a history of Wall Street, writes in TomDispatch: “Karl Marx described high finance as ‘the Vatican of capitalism,’ its diktat to be obeyed without question. We’ve spent a long generation learning not to mention Marx in polite company, and not to use suspect and nasty phrases like ‘class warfare’ or ‘the reserve army of labor,’ among many others. … Never before, however, has ‘the Vatican of capitalism’ captured quite so perfectly the specific nature of the oligarchy that’s run the country for a generation and has now run it into the ground. Even political consultant and pundit James Carville, no Marxist he, confessed as much during the Clinton years when he said the bond market ‘intimidates everybody’.”
The problem is that many in the Democratic Party leadership believe the bankers’ claims that a strong financial industry is needed in order for the economy to recover. Arguments in the form of political contributions reinforce this ideology. This may be persuasive to politicians, but members of the OWS/We Are the 99 Percent movement are in no doubt about the systemic source of Americans’ problems. By focusing on the political and corrupting reach of Wall Street, they have been able to unite different generations, social groups, and representatives of the people against the plutocrats and bought officials who recycle the state-backed political discourse of financial “free markets.”