The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue
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CITY NOTES: Thanks, Banks?

More than a few observers sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protests have criticized the movement for a lacking a traditional organizational structure and a clear agenda. But not doing so may be precisely the gathering’s most salient message.

Down at Zuccotti Park—or “Liberty Square,” as its new inhabitants are calling it—this past Saturday afternoon as the crowd readied itself to head toward the Brooklyn Bridge, I immediately had flashbacks of the 2004 Republican National Convention protests. There was the adrenaline rush of activism, as everyone knew that they had captured world attention; and there was a notable tingle of apprehension, as the activists feared the New York Police Department’s orange mesh nets, pepper spray and sundry array of high-testosterone tactics. There were many undercover cops in the crowd, and I’m certain that I was suspected of being one.

Thinking back to 2004, I tried to recall the aims of the RNC protests. While some folks there may have had visions of shutting down the convention, in my memory the overall goal was to create a spectacle of dissent against the Bush regime.  And that we did, so much so that even the New York Post was impressed by the size of the antiwar protest on the Sunday before the convention began, running a shot of the enormous crowd on its Monday morning cover.  On that day, the collective demand may have been to “stop the war,” but I didn’t meet anybody harboring delusions that such change would happen overnight. The point was simply to make the point that there was vast opposition.

Seven years later, we’re still in Iraq, and now facing an economic quagmire at home. While America’s nonstop wars are included in the multiple-point “Declaration of the Occupation” reached by the “New York City General Assembly at Occupied Liberty Square” on September 29, the big banks and corporate America are the primary targets. The opening statement pits a world based on “cooperation” and “true democracy” versus a current system based on “corruption” and “concentrated economic power.” The Declaration is in many reminiscent of the Students for a Democratic Society’s “Port Huron Statement” of 1962.  Few people remember the specifics of that statement—instead, it’s known for making its call for “participatory democracy” a rallying cry of the New Left.

To most ordinary folks, targeting the banks that caused the crash, got bailed out on the taxpayer dime, and now are not making loans, would seem quite reasonable. But for Mayor Bloomberg, it’s wrong to “vilify” the banks, because “we need them to loan money”; and though the protests loudly claim to be representing the “99 percent,” the mayor—speaking as a member of the other 1 percent—says they are hurting the people making 40-50k.  If anyone is making “incoherent” arguments in this conflict, it’s Bloomberg. By most accounts, the banks are waiting to clear the bad debt off their books before loaning money again—and so whether we praise them or vilify them matters very little.

If the movement were to embrace specific policies—whether the “Buffett Rule” or the ending of the “carried interest deduction” (as Nicholas Kristof actually suggested)—would such positions further the cause of cooperation or of Democratic Party co-optation? Obama and the Democrats have made it abundantly clear that they are not going to bite the Wall Street hands that feed them.  And at the same time Buffett says he’s willing to pay more income tax, he profits handsomely by pumping $5 billion into Bank of America, a leading member of the domestic Axis of Evil.  If I am vilifying, so be it.

Now is clearly not the time to embrace the conventional wisdom of pundits or politicians.  If I may borrow from ’60s parlance again, the “establishment” can always provide easy answers. And rest assured that how to create a more genuinely egalitarian future ain’t even one of their questions. Long live the radical experiments in participatory democracy taking place at Liberty Square.  

OWS, from A-Z

A=arraign; arrears; arrests

Many came to Occupy Wall Street because they are in arrears, only to be arrested, with some even arraigned.

B=Bloomberg; Brookfield Properties; Brooklyn Bridge

Bloomberg and his buddies at Brookfield were dismayed when the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge failed to stop the protests.

C= commune; cops; corporations

While some folks are creating a commune, cops are protecting corporations.

D= democracy, American; democracy, direct

American democracy is controlled by political parties that respond to money, whereas direct democracy is handled by participants answering to each other.

E= exhilaration; existentialism; experience

Joining together with your fellow ninety-nine percenters can be an exhilarating existential experience.

F= freedom of speech; free market

Fuck that free market nonsense, the protesters say, exercising their right to free speech.

G=grip, gripe

Many who gripe about the OWS protests need to get a grip.

H=Hydra; hydrate

Donated supplies continue to hydrate the Hydra.

I=individualism; indivisible

I pledge allegiance to Occupy Wall Street, and to the democracy for which it stands, indivisible, with liberty and justice for the 99%.

J=jackboots; Jacobins

Don’t let the jackboots turn you into Jacobins.

K=Kelly, Ray; kettling

Kelly and his keepers keep on kettling.


At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me echo Che’s statement: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.”  


A question for the banks: “Where’s the money, Money?”

N=Nine; Ninety-Nine

We are the 99 percent; You are the 99 percent—and all of us will gain nothing from 9-9-9 or any other nefarious nostrums.


The lack of meaningful occupations has led many 20-somethings to join the Occupation.

P=Percent, One

Lots of folks in the one percent will gladly tell you that they are part of the middle class.

Q=quest; quixotic

Ending inequality may seem like a quixotic quest, but the fight has to start somewhere.

R=revel; revelation; revolution

Many revel in the revelation that a revolution is upon us.

S= shambles; shame

American democracy is in shambles, and it’s a shame.

T= Tea Party

The Tea Party is astroturf, but OWS is grassroots.

U=usual; usurp

Rather than accept business as usual, OWS usurped national attention.


If there’s one flick that all the protesters seem to like, it’s V for Vendetta.

W=Wall Street

If there’s one place that none of the protesters seem to like, it’s Wall Street.


If there’s one radical figure that nobody on Wall Street likes, it’s Malcolm X.

Y=Yippies; yuppies

When OWS protesters channel the spirit of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, yuppies get nervous.

Z=Zuccotti Park

Though it sounds like an Italian restaurant, Zuccotti Park is actually the site of the New York City Commune.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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