“Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” has announced that “A new uncompromising movement against NYPD’s notorious Stop & Frisk program began yesterday [Friday] as hundreds of demonstrators marched from the Harlem State Office Building to Harlem’s 28th precinct. At the station, Cornel West, author and Princeton professor, Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Rev. Stephen Phelps, interim senior minister of Riverside Church, and dozens of others were arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. Among those arrested and protesting was a large contingent from downtown’s Occupy Wall Street.”
This extension of the OWS protest is an important step in broadening the campaign. An “Occupy Harlem” protest is due to start next week, and if successful will not only challenge the unconstitutional police harassment experienced by African-American and Latino youth in New York, but also involve these youth with OWS’s struggle against bank control of the political system. This would be a huge breakthrough for the movement.
OWS’s direct action tactics have also re-energized the unions, not at the leadership level, which is still oriented to the Democratic leadership, but at the more militant base. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that on Friday “dozens of Occupy Wall Street protesters joined the picket line outside Sotheby’s, the Manhattan auction house, where 42 unionized art handlers have been locked out in a labor dispute since July 29. ‘Walking around in a circle outside that building is not an easy job,’ said Jason Ide, the 30-year-old president of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the handlers and commercial movers. ‘When they show up, our guys feel a real kick because they care’.”
The reason the protests resonate with so many different social groups is because of the long-term deterioration in people’s living standards which is now accompanied by an acceleration of job layoffs and increased poverty since the bank crash of 2008. This is grudgingly verified by Businessweek, “Income and wealth inequality in America have been growing for decades with little public outcry. The catalyst for the [OWS] movement now is that during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, there is a perception that Wall Street and the wealthy were taken care of while average folks suffer. That isn’t a fringe view. … One of the critics of the Wall Street demonstrations cited a survey showing that three-quarters of the protesters favored higher taxes on the rich. In major U.S. media polls – by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News and Bloomberg News/ Washington Post – two-thirds of the public agree.”
This is very different from the Tea Party whose support from conservative whites stemmed from blaming government for their loss of privilege. The televised search for a Republican presidential candidate reveals the Tea Party’s shrinking base by its increasing extremism and denial of human empathy for the sick, gay soldiers, and unemployed. The vicious demonization of OWS by Tea Party spokespeople like Glenn Beck reflects the fact that their support relied on a monopoly of a populist rhetorical space.
The mass support for the Occupy protests is not going to fade away, since a much greater banking crisis is on the horizon. Bank failures in Europe and the euro’s convulsions threaten to hit Wall Street hard, and in defiance of regulatory bodies Bank of America has moved some of its toxic exposure to the European debt crisis from its subsidiary Merrill Lynch to the main Bank of America account where they are insured by the FDIC and ultimately become the liability of the taxpayer.
At the same time, the government is paralyzed by the rightward ideological push of the Republican Tea Partiers, which Obama’s administration has implicitly accepted by setting up the bipartisan “Gang of Six” to agree on a $1.5 trillion reduction in the federal budget which will further contract the economy leading to further job losses, and dismantle the social safety net. This in turn will draw many more into support for the OWS movement’s confrontation of the political system.
The historical moment we are in is a different one from the period of resistance to union-busting laws in Wisconsin, which was the precursor to the OWS movement, even though only a few months have passed since then. At that time, the Tea Party Republicans appeared ascendant by using their control of the state legislature to steamroller through their agenda. The union leaders led the reaction against them which focused on reversing state laws, although this was extended by the occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison.
Democratic legislators and the graduate students’ union in Wisconsin led the occupation from the beginning, and it was this occupation of public space that became the focus for large demonstrations of support. The occupiers organized themselves with the same kind of horizontal democracy as OWS, although the mass movement still considered Wisconsin Democrats its leadership. The defection of 14 state senators to Illinois was a form of direct action within the political system that denied governor Walker a quorum on his anti-union budget bill, and gave validation to mass actions in Madison and around the state.
However, the union-led movement had difficulty connecting with other struggles in Wisconsin against bank foreclosures and other social issues because of their focus on restoring collective bargaining. Despite these limitations, in a state divided between Democratic-voting cities and mainly Republican rural areas and Milwaukee suburbs, Wisconsin Democrats showed energy and commitment to an election recall campaign which succeeded in reducing Walker’s senate majority to one, and are set on recalling Walker himself next year. The success of the “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” movement is now rebounding back on Wisconsin and “Occupy” protests are springing up around the state and taking up social issues on a much broader front.
This will become a problem for the Democratic party leadership nationally, since they are heavily indebted to Wall Street, but on the other hand must respond to the mass movement (particularly at the local level). The divisions which will inevitably manifest themselves within the party open up opportunities to replace corporate Democrats with progressives who support the aims of OWC, which would be a parallel expression of the occupation movement.