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First Days | Occupied Stories

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From Tahrir to Occupy


Tahrir Sq, Cairo–I’m an Egyptian living in the US, and after years of not being an activist but working in a poor community and trying to affect one person’s life at a time, I became an Egyptian American activist again during the revolution. Hundreds of people came out in cities across the globe to stand with the Egyptian people, and I work with others in NYC to keep showing up and to stand with them even after Mubarak stepped down.

After Mubarak stepped down a group of us worked on our right to vote from abroad. This really excited me as it would be the first time  I ever cast a ballot in a national election. It became clear that I would need to return to Egypt to get my national ID card and, come on, I wanted to see my country during these changes. I also look forward to visiting my sitter who moved back after the revolution. I planned my trip for early July. After I got my tickets it became clear that the youth would be returning to Tahrir on July 8th, one day before my arrival. I took along a sleeping bag and tent, as I knew my sister was going to be sleeping in Tahrir, and I planned to be right next to her. I spent 10 nights in the Square, only leaving to shower, see family, and sleep (I cannot sleep with all-night discussion outside my tent, so I mostly watched my sister sleep). I met so many wonderful life-long friends there, and because of Twitter and Facebook we stay in close contact and follow each others doing.

Once I returned to New York I started getting tweets  FROM EGYPT about the US Day of Rage, which would later become the OCCUPY  movement. I could not make any of the planning meetings, as I was in the middle of moving to DC, but I made a point of going out to Occupy DC/K Street often, and got as involved as a Mom could be. I brought my children down and even organized a Halloween event for families. I could write a whole another story about the shortcomings of Occupy and Tahrir, and there are many. But I thought is should warm some people’s heart to hear how Occupy and Tahrir  made me feel at home only a few months apart and how I have met some of the most amazing people because of these two movements.

– Anonymous –

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Baptism by Rain-Fire


OCT. 16, 2011 – I arrived in New York City Wednesday morning on a one-way ticket from Chicago. My goal: to join the Occupy Wall Street movement. I came prepared to camp out in the occupied space, Zuccotti Park, also known as Liberty Plaza. I knew it was going to be cold and rainy for at least the first few days I was there. I knew that this would make camping out all the more difficult. And I knew that this would be a fitting and ironic baptism by “fire.”

With the help of fellow protesters, I set up my sleeping area that morning near the perimeter of the park. They provided me with two plastic tarps and recommended I take some cardboard for “cushion.” So I laid down the first tarp, placed a broken-down cardboard box on top of it, laid my sleeping bag on top of that, and then spread the second tarp over the top. At first, I just tucked the ends under the bottom tarp, like a bed sheet, but I realized that this was probably not going to be an effective water barrier from the rain. So I found someone with packing tape and they helped me tape the two tarps together, encompassing my sleeping bag in a waterproof pocket.

Or so I thought.

After a wonderful day of talking to a number of amazing individuals and the two-hour General Assembly in the evening, I was pretty well exhausted by 10pm (especially considering that I had not slept at all the night before). With a full heart, I climbed into my sleeping cell. The ground was hard and I didn’t have much room to move around, but it was surprisingly warm in my little cocoon. I was also embraced by a comforting sense of safety and solidarity with the people around me. In my area, some were already fast asleep, while others chatted from their sleeping bags. In other parts of the park, there were soap-box discussions, committee meetings, a small drum circle, and other activities interspersed between tarp-covered bodies. This calm murmur of human activity was like a spontaneous community lullaby. The intermittent drizzle of raindrops against my tarp was the crisp harmony complementing a soothing melody.

Soon, the rain began to pick up speed and force. I felt myself become the drum against which nature hammered out her emphatic crescendo. A peaceful energy surged through my body. I felt at one with the world. I felt grounded, solid and true. It really would have been the perfect lullaby, if only the tarps had held out. But once my toes sensed frigid rainwater seeping into my sleeping bag, I knew it was over. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep in the park that night. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep at all.

So I spent the rest of the night wandering around the financial district of New York City, umbrella in hand, pausing beneath awnings every so often. I sat in a late-night Mc Donald’s for an hour or so until it closed, then rode the subway around until it opened up again just before sunrise. It struck me that this night of sleepless transience, a temporary and chosen experience for me, was, quite disturbingly, a persistent, involuntary reality for the homeless citizens of this planet. This realization was jolting. This realization was more chilling than the rain. This realization was a humbling welcome to the long, hard fight I came here to join.

Stavroula Harissis

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Farewell (But Not Goodbye!) to Occupy Medford


This story was originally published at The Portland Occupier

The following is an open farewell letter to my local Occupy movement.

An open letter to Occupy Medford:

Before Occupy, I spent countless hours dreaming of being involved in helping to change our country. At times I thought in extremist absolutes about how to make that happen. At other times, my trains of thought were more humble. But in the end, these revolutionary theories were just words and I was coming to realize that unless I did something, anything, that my words were worthless. So I started to look for something locally that I could volunteer for and support. And that’s when Occupy happened.

I initially saw Occupy very differently. Another protest, another cause… another group of well intended people holding cardboard signs at people on their way to work. Of course, I was wrong. Whether it was the tactical beauty of a 24/7 protest or just an energy that had been building in people over the last few years, Occupy spread like fire from New York across the country. Within two months protests and encampments could be found all around the world.

From afar I watched and read news coverage of hundreds of protests, all crying out for change. Up close I participated in local protests, marches, the port shutdown, etc., and knew these events were replaying themselves all over the country. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, with thousands participating and millions sympathizing, I thought our country was in for a drastic and sudden paradigm shift.

As Occupy Medford started, either by luck or ability or both, I found myself becoming a facilitator and an organizer. Suddenly I was running meetings, planning and attending protests, writing press releases, and giving interviews. Simultaneously I had just started a new full time job and was finishing my associates degree. Needless to say, it was a hectic first few months. Of course, I didn’t do any of it by myself. But despite the time crunch and not always knowing what to do or what to say, I loved every minute of it.

But it has barely been six months and Occupy has slowed down. It’s impossible to say exactly why Occupy hasn’t been able to maintain its momentum. I think there were a few factors involved. Occupy lost almost all of its permanent encampments, decreasing visibility and synergy between protesters. Organization and rules for a direct democracy movement became a tiring process for a lot of people. After all, we aren’t used to all having a say and a voice; usually we have the “luxury” of leaving that up to someone else. And there was always the question of goals. Of course the corporate owned media was wrong on this and always detrimental as a whole to the movement. Occupy always did have clearly-stated goals. We just had a lot of them, and it was hard to narrow them down enough to bring focus. But regardless of what happened, it’s very clear that Occupy looks a lot different today than it did just a few short months ago.

As I’m getting ready to move, and having scaled back on my involvement in our local Occupy movement, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on Occupy. What have we accomplished and where does it go from here? And in between old feelings of overwhelming optimism and now some lingering pessimism, I’ve reached a personally satisfying answer for now: Occupy has and will continue to change the world.

To have a meaningful revolution, we need a society that is educated and self-aware and treats its citizens with respect and compassion. Without this kind of revolution, all we are doing is temporarily changing the power structure. I think that working toward fundamental change is exactly what Occupy has helped do. Thousands of older generation activists have been able to get new energy and momentum; thousands of young people have been changed in some way by this movement. By becoming more involved in both Occupy and the dozens of other work groups, campaigns, and social causes affiliated with it, Occupiers are helping to change the world. In this light, Occupy has already won.

Occupy Medford and the people in it have definitely changed me and have given me the direction and the voice I was looking for. It showed me that my generation is capable of mobilizing, of giving of ourselves and recognizing that we can change things, even if only a little bit. As a whole, and as individuals, if we can continue to do that, by occupying, by protesting, by organizing, or by volunteering: then we will change the world.

Thank you Occupy Medford…

Much love,

-Benjamin Playfair-

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Faces of an Occupation


19 September 2011, New York–A group of people, no more than one hundred, had congregated in Zuccotti Park two days before amidst the almost total indifference of people passing by.

No journalists, no television, no microphones—only their voices and faces.

These portraits bear witness to the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. They regard dreamers who believe in an idea.

No one could have imagined that in the space of a few weeks, those involved in Occupy Wall Street would have entered people’s homes all over the world through newspapers and television.

Daniele Corsini, photographer

View a selection of images on our Flickr page, or the full photo series at Corsini’s website.

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A New Place to Call Occupied: A Report from an Occupied Union Square


OCCUPIED UNION SQUARE, NY – Four NYC Parks Enforcement officers stand on the outskirts of the sidewalk as the low rhythm of hand drums blend with a smooth Jazz saxophone. The crowd, about 300 strong, is relaxed and chatting. It feels like the old days again. As I walk amongst the crowd, familiar faces and new smiles greet me and I decide to sit and chat.

The now infamous yellow Occupy Wall Street banner, designed to replicate caution tape hangs high and proud over a group of occupiers. Pillows, blankets, brothers and sisters converge under its framework. Telling stories of the long winter, countless hours spent laying the groundwork for what is set to be a monumental spring, our humble beginnings in lower Manhattan and how much farther we must travel on our journey. Food donations have already begun pouring in only reinforcing that feeling of nostalgia. The spirit of the Occupy Movement that seemed all but lost not long ago has burst back to life since the six-month anniversary and subsequent raid. It feels like coming home.

In speaking with some friends I learn that OWS has once again found ourselves a loophole. We are quite resourceful for “dirty hippies”.  Our latest occupation, now in day three,  is allowed to stay for some very interesting reasons. Union Square Park is patrolled by Park Rangers or Parks Enforcement Officers during hours of operation. This means the police have no jurisdiction over the park unless Park Rangers call them in to handle a situation AFTER the park closes at midnight. Ironically, the exterior of the park, where we have set up camp, is mandated to remain open 24 hours as a major subway station is located in the square. However, the NYPD can’t enforce anything other than open flame/noise violations or the congregation of more than 25 people having a single conversation (thank you NDAA ) because the Park Rangers go off duty at midnight. It’s almost poetic justice. As I continue to scan the perimeter I see a few “white shirts” and the occasional patrol officer but as before they remain removed. No barricades or wrist band clad monsters lurking, not a single mainstream media source in sight.

As the evening continued rather than the numbers dwindling, the crowd seemed to have increased, spreading itself out along the south side of the square, mindful to remain in small groups to protect the occupation. We played sports, sang, danced—spring training in full effect. Sidewalk chalk turned the once gray paving stones of Union Square into a canvas reminiscent of just a few days earlier in our “starter home” as remnants of the once sprawling OWS Library are set up on a staircase.  Six months and two evictions later it seems we have a new place to call Occupied.

A relatively uneventful evening progressed at the new home of Occupy Wall Street and I decided it was time for me to depart. I had to work very early but promised friends, old and new, I would be back tomorrow.  My faith in Occupy and my brothers and sisters continues to be renewed with each action I attend. As I sat down on the subway for my short trip back to Brooklyn a smile comes across my face.  I take a huge bite from my fresh boston crème donut, courtesy of The Peoples Kitchen and hum to myself, “this occupation is not leaving!”

-Nicole Pace-

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Occupy Tucson Continues to Occupy Public Land


Editor’s note: The accuracy of this story and the credibility of the author has been challenged by multiple people involved with Occupy Tucson. After you read the story, make sure to also read the comments.

 

It has been a long strenuous battle for Occupy Tucson with the City of Tucson to establish a hub on public land in order to practice freedom of speech and assembly. What started off as a series of ticket writing sessions and named ticket time stacked up to over eight hundred tickets in a matter of three months, became an unquestionable win from a group of people that held strong to their rights and belief that one person can make a difference.

Occupy Tucson began as a handful of people (Sky Napier, Michael Migliore, Jon McLane, Craig Barber) developing a Facebook page and picking a place to host the first Occupy Tucson General Assembly. There were two General Assembly meetings, hosting over three hundred people combined, to decide to commence a twenty four hour on-going occupation (encampment) on Oct. 15th, 2011 at Armory Park. The first day at Armory Park there were over twelve hundred people that participated in the occupation. That evening the Chief of Police Villasenor went to Armory Park and let everyone in attendance know that they would be arrested if they were in the park after 10:30pm. Several left upon receiving that news. But, there were fifty individuals that decided to continue the encampment, and lined up to be arrested and released with a $1,000 citation.

On Oct. 28th, 2011 Occupy Tucson established 2 other occupation sites; Veinte De Agosto Park, and Joel Valdez Library Grounds. The encampment continued at Armory Park until Nov. 4th 2011, when the Tucson Police Department told Occupy Tucson that anyone or anything found in Armory or Library park would be arrested and detained. Upon receiving that news Occupy Tucson had Armory Park completely cleared and cleaned within two hours. The twenty four hour encampment continued, even under stressful situations, and continued to feed people by the thousands all while educating the community on the flaws in our system.

Occupy encampments were being shut down all over the United States, and Occupy Tucson was one of the only ones standing. Then came Dec. 21st, 2011, the day that T.P.D. finally said, “Anything or anyone found in any park after dark will be arrested.” The one-time working group of Occupy Tucson Occupy Public Land (OPL) saw the writing on the wall that this would happen, and even had a good line on Dec. 21st being the date. So, luckily for Occupy Tucson there was a back-up plan. OPL applied for a park permit on Dec. 9th, and researched the sidewalk laws as a back-up to that. OPL knew the permit would not go through in time so they set-up on the sidewalk outside of Veinte de Agosto Park on Dec. 15th, and were uninterrupted when the park was raided.

Occupy Tucson and Occupy Public Land continued to reside on the sidewalk outside of Veinte de Agosto Park for the next month and a half, until Feb. 2nd, 2012 when Occupy Tucson set-up tents and a full operating encampment on the sidewalk outside of De Anza Park. Occupy Tucson has held the longest ongoing encampment in the nation, and now is in a position that they can continue to deliver their message without the fear of having their rights violated.

Jon McLane

*On Feb. 5th, 2012 Occupy Public Land began working with #OccupyPhoenix in developing a strategy to recreate a twenty four hour encampment in the valley. The template has been created in Tucson, and the Phoenix Metro area is full of cities that have a lot of public land that can be occupied.

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First Night in Liberty Plaza


When I arrived at Liberty Plaza last night, a little lost, trying to find my way around the Occupy Wall Street camp, the first thing I did was find the line for dinner. I was hungry. I had worked 13 hours that day, and needed to eat. I had heard that brilliant local chefs have volunteered to cook these fantastic meals for the protesters at the communal kitchen, so I lined up behind a guy who looked almost exactly like me: lost, a backback loaded up, a peaceful, accepting look on his face. And as we turned the corner, edging forward, we got our paper plates loaded with rice and lentils, soup bowls loaded up with a brilliant spicy stew, bread pudding, and apple sauce. All donated by supporters.

Our supporters.

Eating, sitting on a curb in the park, I got to talking with the guy next to me; “Its my first night here. Where do you throw trash?” “You sleeping here?” “Yes,” I said, admitting I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag, not knowing how things were.

“Welcome brother.” A handshake. We kept eating. Everyone’s eyes said the same thing, “welcome brother,” not in a creepy cultish way but in that way people who have gathered together to change things say it with their eyes. Walking around the camp, my next step was to see if they had at least a pillow for me to use; at a distribution center for donated clothes and blankets, they handed me a fleece, rolled it up, and said, “This could make a good pillow, don’t you think?” It did, and it would.

I walked around, I joined in the people’s assembly discussions about representation; I browsed in the provisional library, set up in plastic bins–in which The Beat Reader and Noam Chomsky were marked as REFERENCE. Reference indeed–next to Whitman, as well. In a spontaneously gathered group on the steps, I sang Bob Dylan in a crowd with a famous singer who showed up to help out; more folk music flowed from his guitar. Everybody, it seems, had a guitar.

I found a shining granite bench to sleep on; I was getting tired, and almost all the ground-space was taken up by people camped in tents or under tarps. The wind was blowing. It was getting colder, but I needed sleep; so I set up my “pillow,” put on an extra layer under my jacket, put my gloves on, put my hood up, and curled up on the bench.

Nearly asleep, back turned on the “path” between other sleepers and protesters, I suddenly felt a blanket being placed over me. I looked up, gave a thumbs up and thanks, and she said, “Keep warm dude.” That thick donated blanket would keep me warm through the windy, 45 degree night. I’d awake in the morning to donated bagels, a cup of coffee, friendly directions to the subway, so I could get to work on time.

My night at the protest glows in my memory, sustains me; we were all cooperating; we were all, remarkably. generously supported by each other, and by all the unseen anonymous supporters who gave us food, blankets, books, time. A thousand strings of support seemed to stretch out from every moment I occupied the park. I think of my fellow protesters down there tonight, as it gets colder–as “family night” goes forward (kids are invited tonight to the camp).

As the sign says: no protest, this occupation is an affirmation of all that we can do for each other, an affirmation of the way things can be. You see somebody sleeping without a blanket; you find them one. You put it on them. You keep them warm. That’s how you occupy privatized public space, take it back.

When I return to do another night there, I’ll bring books, food, and some pillows for the next person who needs one.

– Spurgeon Thompson

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The Birth of Occupy Birmingham


BIRMINGHAM, AL – On September 17th, 2011, a large group of about 100 protestors marched from UAB across southside to Five Points and back. They were led by William Anderson, UAB student and organizer, in opposition to Alabama’s anti-immigration bill HB56.  One among them held a sign saying “Occupy Birmingham.”  As they passed through Five Points they noticed a single person standing there holding a sign and wearing a “Guy Fawkes” mask, an image popularized by Alan Moore’s character from the story V for Vendetta, and taken up by the ‘anonymous’ hacker culture.  Later that day more would join this masked mystery-man on this first day of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a daylight ‘occupation’ that would continue and eventually manifest in the 24/7 encampment at 20th and 5th avenue north in the financial district.

A week after the launching of the OWS, the first scheduled meeting of Occupy Birmingham had attracted over 20 folks, so it was decided by consensus to hold the next general assembly at Brother Bryan park, and there the method of decision-making by general assembly was worked out.  A website, facebook page, and twitter account had been created, and with the use of flyers these communication methods served to grow the movement, which had it’s first large turnout at Railroad Park on October sixth.  The statement from Occupy Wall Street was read to and repeated back by the crowd through the use of the “mic check” popularized by the GA’s of Liberty (Zuccotti) Park in New York City.

On October 15th the largest gathering yet for Occupy Birmingham marched from RR park to Five Points, with an estimated 350 protestors.  Since then, many general assemblies have been held, as well as education sessions designed to explain the movement and relevant issues, including, among other issues, the 2008 economic collapse, the Birmingham sewer debt financial scandal which has led to the county declaring bankruptcy, and the anti-immigrant legislation HB56.  Actions against these problems include National Bank Transfer Day, when billions of dollars were transferred to local credit unions, withdrawn from the big bailed out banks who, with the bought-out political establishment, caused the crash of 2008, but no arrests of these individuals have been made.  Yet.

Since November 7th there has been a full time 24/7 presence in front of Regions bank and Wells Fargo, and the encampment has adapted with the weather, to work within building permits, inventing the ‘nonstructure’, a palette/carboard/tarp sleeping accommodation for those who stand for the most elemental statement, ‘this is our public space.’  Visitors are encouraged to show their support in person, as coming out of doors is the first step to real social change.

-Walter Simon-

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In Defense of Occupy Wall Street


NEW YORK – For some reason I haven’t written anything about Occupy Wall Street or any of its offshoots. I am an enthusiastic supporter and advocate; I would not presume to call myself an activist. The activists are the heroes who have been down there day after day, giving up material comforts, preserving the struggle and refusing to let it die. Spending the day down there a few weeks ago was an amazing experience. I have not been back since, although I plan to go a week from Tuesday. If any of you live within reasonable distance of an Occupy protest, please stop by to show solidarity with the protesters. It’s a movement worth supporting.
None of the shrill criticisms of Occupy Wall Street deserve a serious response or even make any sense. I’ve heard that the protesters lack any clear demands and also that their demands are Utopian and pie-in-the-sky. I’ve heard that they’re hippies and they like drums which, by some chain of logic, discredits their economic message. I’ve heard that the movement is anarchic and inchoate and also that it’s an organ of Obama or the Democratic establishment. The Occupy movement is driving the right crazy because a message of economic justice for the 99% is virtually impossible to attack without openly advocating for the interests of the super-rich. The protests have been overwhelmingly non-violent and public polling has shown a surprising level of support (Occupy is twice as popular as the Tea Party).
What are their demands? The movement is not even six weeks old. Right now it’s about adding numbers, raising awareness, spreading geographically, changing the conversation, and so on. Besides, a movement of economic justice will necessarily have a broad range of demands, because there are a lot of injustices! The driving force behind this, however, is unmistakable: the hyper-concentration of economic and political power, which has become the central fact of American society. The game is rigged for the powerful, against the population, and you would have to have blinders on not to see it.
The American people have always taken pride in living in the land of equal opportunity. Granted, this is in many ways wishful thinking, but from the 1940s to the 1970s we really did witness an economy that worked for just about everyone. In these decades the U.S. experienced the greatest and most widely shared economic prosperity in recorded history, with legitimately egalitarian growth (workers at the bottom of the income ladder actually saw gains that proportionally exceeded those made by people at the top). Workers made enough money to purchase the products they were producing. We had established a decent social safety net with Social Security, New Deal welfare programs, and eventually Medicare and Medicaid. Sensible regulations governed the financial system and we had no major financial crises. There was still a vibrant manufacturing base and we had not yet seen the financialization and hollowing out of the economy that would take place in the following decades. Labor unions played an important role in both the economic and political domains. Executives made 30 or 40 times what workers made; hardly ideal from a social democratic point of view but a far cry from the 300-400 to 1 ratios of today.
Then everything changed. In the mid-1970s, Big Business decided to go on the offensive and flex its muscle in the political arena like never before. Their first victory was to kill an important piece of legislation establishing an Office of Consumer Representation. This had passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, unions were strongly behind it, and the population favored it by a 2-1 margin. Business mobilized, lobbied with unprecedented vigor, and President Ford vetoed it. This shocked the political world and sent a message that a new era was dawning. Emboldened, the business lobby became more and more engaged and starting defeating labor on issue after issue, with this change in the zeitgeist cemented by the election of Reagan in 1980.
All bets were now off. Reagan got into office and made it clear that his administration intended to essentially ignore labor laws. He slashed taxes for the wealthy. He demonized the poor and welfare recipients. The financial services industry exploded as a percentage of GDP. Deregulation evolved into a kind of religion. Capital became more mobile than ever before and job security became an anachronistic concept. Celebrity executives like Jack Welch seemed to take pleasure in laying people off and glorified the idea of trimming their companies down.
In the Clinton years, the New Deal welfare regime was gutted, free-trade agreements were enacted against the wishes of populations, and two disastrous pieces of deregulatory legislation were passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by Clinton. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the 66-year-old Glass-Steagall Act mandating the separation of commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies, and ushered in the era of these too-big-to-fail monstrosities. The Commodities, Futures, and Modernization Act deregulated the derivatives market. These two pieces of legislation played a crucial role in creating the conditions that led to the 2008 crisis.
We know all about the Bush years. The 2001 vote to once again slash taxes on the wealthy was a defining moment in American politics. It forced every legislator to state unambiguously if he or she stood with the many or the few. It passed, of course, culminating 25 years of government and business working tirelessly, with a laser-like focus, to make the rich richer. The Bush tax cuts were the crowning achievement.The housing bubble kept inflating throughout the decade, and finally burst, destroying the American economy and much of its (illusory) wealth in the process.
What we have seen, then, since the 1970s, is a relentless collaborative effort on the part of political and business elites to redistribute more and more wealth to the top. The top 400 Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 155 million. The top 1% make over 20% of the income and control almost 40% of the wealth, numbers not seen since the 1920s. We live in a society in which billionaires who manage hedge-funds are paying lower taxes than firefighters. Something has gone profoundly wrong.
Occupy Wall Street has already scored a very important victory, namely, changing the entire political conversation. Just a couple months ago – in the face of all economic sense – all we heard about was deficits and debt and austerity. The game was played on the right’s turf. Now, unquestionably due to the protest movement, politicians and establishment media have been forced to talk about income inequality, joblessness, and other subjects that are oh-so-boring to them.
In societies with highly concentrated wealth and power, and an economically devastated population, real change can only be affected with the power of numbers. It’s the one edge that the people hold over the elites, which is why the latter have such contempt for the democratic culture. Occupy Wall Street has provided an invaluable service by making elites uncomfortable and letting them know that we will not quietly accept our descent into kleptocracy. The ultimate goal for the movement should be to attract allies from all across the political spectrum. This is the ultimate fear of America’s plutocrats, of course: the possibility that the proles will get sick of arguing with each other about abortion and finally stand together under the banner of shared economic interest. As Matt Taibbi – whose writings on OWS have been fantastic – said recently, the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers should be natural allies on most of the material issues facing this country. I emphasize “should” because I think Taibbi is quite a bit more sanguine than me about the possibility of a genuine alliance between left and right members of the 99%. The members of the Tea Party are so credulous, so misinformed, so resentful, that I’m afraid there’s no hope for them. Fortunately, however, the Tea Party constitutes a very small percentage of the country and popular support for it continues to be minimal. Occupy Wall Street can command broad support even without touching the Tea Party faction of the country. Here’s hoping it will.

 

Justin Doolittle

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The Occupation of Los Angeles


Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at  Vegas Seven.

Los Angeles, CA–What were we supposed to do, march on the Hollywood sign?

With no great metaphor for what’s plaguing our nation readily available, somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 protesters, depending on which news source you prefer, assembled on Saturday, Oct. 1, at Pershing Square in Los Angeles (not exactly a brand-name landmark) and marched a mile or so to City Hall. This was part of the nationwide wave of Occupy Wall Street Protests, except we had no place like Wall Street to occupy. Our City Hall building is a lovely beaux arts/classical mash-up on Spring Street, right across from the equally magnificent Los Angeles Times building, whose denizens, not surprisingly, took little notice of what was going on under their noses.

Grand as it is, City Hall is a symbol of, well, nothing much, though it did stand in for The Daily Planetheadquarters in the old Superman series. In Los Angeles, the office of the weak mayor and inept City Council is usually among the least interesting places to be on any given day.

That’s changed, for now, thanks to the angry (but typically congenial) Angelenos now camping out on its lawns. These days, it’s a better photo op than Hollywood Boulevard, the Capitol Records building, or the truncated sign that once advertised the ill-fated Hollywoodland development.

Coincidently, and weirdly, the Occupy Los Angeles movement started the same weekend as the Pacific Standard Time exhibit opened at the Getty Center and other museums and galleries across the city. The exhibit is an ambitious attempt to stake Los Angeles’ rightful claim to a leading place in the postwar U.S. art boom. Whether it’s because New York owns the means of cultural dissemination (for now) or because Los Angeles is too inchoate of an idea to keep its own history, our local legacy in the arts is too often shorthanded into a single word: Hollywood. “Hey,” PST seems to be saying, “Don’t forget Baldessari, Hockney, Ruscha, Eames and all the modernist architects who made hay here, not to mention Andy Warhol, who got his big break at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962!” Where but L.A. would take soup cans seriously?

But for a change, Hollywood, which may be the last union shop in the country, a place where my girlfriend can make a living wage costuming a TV talent show, isn’t the symbol of our present ills: Wall Street is. Sunday’s march here began as a show of solidarity with the brave folks in New York facing down pepper-spraying and net-wielding police to protest the corporations and politicians hastening our demise. (This just in: Like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals, they’re in it together). And like the protesters in Manhattan and across the nation, the L.A. marchers called themselves “the 99 percent”—in other words, everyone except the wealthiest one percent for whom the system’s been rigged.

• • •

Despite all the action, it was in many ways, as Randy Newman sang, “another sunny day.” For me, it began with running into local legend, and old friend, Vaginal Cream Davis, at a greasy spoon diner on the Silver Lake/Echo Park border—ground zero for the eastside creative class, or, if you prefer, Brooklyn Heights expats.

I hadn’t seen Davis in years, since we both worked at the LA Weekly back when a journalist and a 6-foot-6, cross-dressing performance artist could still find work in this town. Davis has since moved to Berlin, where the public votes for the arts with its tax dollars. I’ve joined the new economy, where I spend my savings to ply the trade I once got paid to do.

Davis was carb-loading before taking a leading role in the Trespass Parade a celebration of art and activism that was part of Pacific Standard Time’s opening ceremonies. It began at L.A. Mart and wound up Broadway before finishing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a new director, New York’s Jeffrey Deitch, is earnestly scrambling to fathom this stubbornly unfathomable city. New York is easy by contrast—wealth is the primary cultural currency. Here, it’s something more elusive—imagination, charisma, beauty, style, science … the future. After all, L.A. happily gave birth to both The Hangoverand Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We have the Emmys and the Nobel Prize factory, CalTech.

Davis handed me a route map for the parade, but I had a prior engagement to visit the East Hollywood studio of a friend picked as one of the up-and-coming artists to be featured on a citywide art map duringPacific Standard Time’s opening weekend. After that, I decided to ride my bike down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.

As I rode across the city—Hollywood through Koreatown, Historic Filipinotown, skirting the southern fringe of Angelino Heights, through the Second Street Tunnel, and then downtown to City Hall, the city unfurled as it really is: a dream factory, perhaps, but not made of tinsel. These neighborhoods have little to do with Hollywood. They’re working-class, scrappy and filled with people who came here for the better life America promised to the world, and in many cases, for the better life Los Angeles promised to America. And despite these hard times, it wasn’t all in tatters. Fruit still fell from the trees, the sun shined as generously as ever, and the clusters of strip malls, bodegas, modest restaurants, grand art-deco apartment buildings and overstuffed, one-bedroom garden villas climbing up hillsides stubbornly held their ground. For the day at least.

I started thinking about the tenuousness of this present, already dissolving into a rickety future, and wondered how much more it can take. I thought about the differences between old-world, hierarchical New York and sprawling, horizontal Los Angeles. For the past decades, New York—as symbolized by Wall Street, which itself is just a symbol—has been in the taking business. Siphoning money out of workaday streets like the ones I was peddling over, and sucking it up into the executive suites of Wall Street skyscrapers.

That destructive process went into overdrive in the mid-1980s. I lived in New York then, among the future masters of the universe, many of whom I went to school with, and even then they could never really explain what it was they actually did. There were no real words for it, so they invented complicated ones like LBOs, derivatives, subprime mortgages and debt trading. What they meant was simple enough: scheming, bilking. Riding through L.A. toward Pershing Square, I couldn’t help but think these are the last gasps of the wobbly Wall Street paradigm.

• • •

I’ve always been impressed with Los Angeles’ empathy. After the 9/11 attacks, a friend and I took a large sheet down to the local supermarket and started writing messages of solidarity with New Yorkers on it. In a few hours, the sheet was filled with hundreds of L.A. love letters to New York. Another friend flew the banner back East and put it up in Union Square. I think we Angelenos sometimes feel like we’re out here on our own, for better or worse, and we want the rest of the country to know, despite your incessant cheap shots at our expense, that we’re thinking of you, and often fondly. After all, most of usare you. We just walked a little farther into the horizon.

But it wasn’t only solidarity with the resistance leaders in New York that motived folks to come to City Hall. Unemployment in Los Angles is around 13 percent, compared with New York’s 9 percent. People here, like everywhere these days (there are 160 Occupy cities at this writing, and they are as disparate as Santa Barbara and Binghamton, N.Y.), don’t see a way out of the mess we’re in unless the Kabuki theater of American politics changes significantly. And as much as the lazy observer would like to pigeonhole the movement as some radical fringe, plenty of L.A.’s occupiers didn’t fill the bill.

• • •

I parked my bike, walked south along Spring Street, and met Mark, an elderly gent with an Irish brogue that’s survived his 50 years in America. A former special-education teacher (“I tried regular education, but I’m not that tough,” he jokes), Mark took the bus from Santa Monica to join in the demonstration. “I think it’s good that lots of people came here,” he told me, smiling as he looked around. “People are taking back the country. I think people are very aware that they’re being ripped off. We have to wake up to the truth that everybody on this planet is brother and sister, and the competition with each other we’ve been seduced into is the illusion.”

A few yards away, Samantha, 29, and Rosa, 30, were standing together on the sidewalk holding signs. Samantha’s sign informed passers-by that she has a master’s degree, has been unemployed for two years and can’t pay off her student loan. Rosa’s sign said she was a struggling student, and that education should not be a luxury. They both came in from Fullerton, a middle-class suburb in Orange County, and had covered their faces with bandanas.

“Why the bandanas?” I asked.

“This is about the cause, not about us,” Samantha said.

“Maybe if I cover up my face,” Rosa said, “people will relate more. We’re just everybody. Also, I get sunburned.”

I got the sense the two were mostly concerned their families might recognize them on TV.

Samantha has been looking for work as a teacher at the community college level since getting her master’s degree two years ago. She told me there are thousands of applicants for every job she goes for, and that rather than fill those positions with experienced or highly trained applicants, community colleges facing budget cuts are hiring low-paid interns.

Rosa has also been trying to find work for two years. “I apply for jobs all day and get no callbacks,” she said. Her mother came to California after the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake that killed 5,000 people and left 250,000 homeless; she was looking for a better life. Forty years later, Rosa’s still looking for it.

“I’ve done everything to become a productive member of society, but I keep getting rejected,” she told me. “I just want a job.”

A few minutes later, I met a gainfully employed 32-year-old boy-next-door named Tom Pharo. Tom moved here five years ago from South Jersey and works 40 hours a week at a supermarket, “just to be broke.” “Corporations don’t want to pay us, and they’re making millions,” he said. “We’re sick of the rich getting richer and everyone else getting squashed.” He looked around at the marchers, the signs, the theater of protest. “We have to do this to have the freedom our founding fathers guaranteed us.”

Tom grew up around New York. He says that while he has common cause with Occupy Wall Street, he’s glad to be out of that city’s shadow. “It feels like a more loving community here. I felt that as soon as I got here. New York is just a money drain.” A few yards from Tom, I met Clea, a single mother whose house is being foreclosed on while she faces a 50 percent salary cut at her job as a social worker. She told me she was just looking for a reason to believe.

“I have a 10-year-old. I can’t just curl up and die, but I don’t have a lot of optimism. There has to be some energy from somewhere. When I see others doing this, it gives me something. It resonates with me.”

After a few hours, I peddled up César Chavez Avenue toward my home in Echo Park. I felt lighter and stronger despite hours of sun and little to drink. For the first time in a while, a bit of hope pushed me along. People were out doing things, protesting, parading, carrying signs and, yes, cross-dressing. Later that night, there were PST art openings and events to go to, but I found myself back down on the steps of City Hall, soaking in the assembly as a bright quarter moon hung over the Times building. I wasn’t all that concerned with what people had to say about Los Angeles’ place in the art world. After all, we know who we are. We’re the 99 percent.

– Joe Donnelly –

Photo by Ted Soqui

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