by Niren Tolsi, Mail & Guardian
The wind is blowing from downtown Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. From Thomas Paine Park, named after the author of Rights of Man,
the clouds moving past the United States Courthouse across the road
create the illusion that its 30-storey tower is falling, keeling over,
as if deaf to the inscription on the New York County Supreme Court next
door that reads: "The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of
But the tower does not crash into the "all-sorts" of demonstrators, the
army veterans, the unemployed and weary-looking occupiers, gathered
below to protest against the American government's military efforts in
places like Afghanistan and spending on the military industrial complex,
and calling for broader economic and political justice.
It is as if the songs floating up from the diminutive figure with
cropped grey hair strumming her guitar on stage have the magical power
of a spider web, combining the ethereal and the steely, to captivate
both building and audience.
Folk singer and activist Joan Baez is leading the gathering in a singalong of her anti-war classic, Where's My Apple Pie, about soldiers returning from the World Wars and Vietnam to unattended post-traumatic stress and rat-infested hospitals.
Towards the end, she tailors the chorus: "We walked and wheeled from the
battlefield, And where's my apple pie, Time to occupy/ It's time to
occupy, my friends."
The audience cheers before joining in with gusto.
The Veterans' Day protest on November 11 was organised by the Occupy
Wall Street movement, Iraqi war veterans and local trade unions. For
many present, there were no slices of the dreamy American pie left. It
had already been devoured by the 1% of bankers, businessmen and the
politicians they fund.
There were hardly any crumbs after a market-driven orgy that still sees
the foreclosure of the 99%'s homes because of the subprime mortgage
crisis. Protesters complained that, despite the 2008 federal government
bailout of Wall Street, there had been no contrition and tempering of
the traders' attempted financial alchemy, or their sex, drugs and
bonuses lifestyles. They said there were no jobs with dignity left after
a cycle of "Reaganomics" since the 1980s and the outsourcing of work to
foreign "free-trade" gulags in the preceding years of globalising
It is this disenchantment that the Occupy Wall Street movement, which
manifested itself physically for the first time in New York's Zuccotti
Park on September 17 this year, is both tapping into and inspiring
activism. Occupations have since sprouted up in cities around the US,
from Oakland on the West Coast to Boston on the East and, despite recent
evictions, the momentum of political discussions, organising and
movement building appears to go on.
For example, the Occupy Your Hood initiative, to introduce direct
democratic practices such as general assemblies into communities to
enable them to gather, air issues and grievances and formulate ways
forward is continuing -- as are the efforts to counter what many
occupiers consider to be a model of democracy that represents only the
interests of the rich. They are planning, for example, to protest
against the National Defence Authorization Act, which was passed by
Congress and approved by the Senate on December 15. The Bill allows the
military to detain terrorism suspects in the US without trial
Tahrir Square in Cairo was the central point for huge democracy
demonstrations in February and November. (Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP)
After the gathering, Marsha Spencer (56), trundles back to the Zuccotti
Park encampment where she is a familiar figure, having spent much of the
past 44 days knitting hats and mittens for the occupiers.
Born and raised in Michigan, Spencer is an unemployed New York-based
seamstress who visited Zuccotti Park soon after the occupation began to
donate some warm clothes. She had returned every day since with her wool
and needles: "I'm doing this for my [five] grandchildren. If something
doesn't change soon, they won't be able to afford college and have
decent lives," she says.
"My [eldest granddaughter] Cassie will be going to college in two years
and her student loans will leave her with debt way over her head and I'm
not certain she will get a job to pay it off. It shouldn't be like
this," says Spencer, who believes the government needs to spend less on
weapons and more on education.
"My father had five children and not a lot of money, but he put us all
through college. You knew there was a job for you when you finished
school -- on the factory assembly line, or wherever. There was a place
for you. A place to work hard and to make an honest living so that you
could buy a house and start a family. That was the American Dream we
were taught and now that's all gone."
One of Spencer's daughters still lives in Michigan where she and her husband juggle three jobs, she says.
Its capital, Detroit, is a stark example of the fall of the American
economic empire. Ironically, it was also the site for the 1980
Republican convention that ushered in the two terms of the Ronald Reagan
administration, to which most left-leaning economists attribute the
spate of financial deregulation and untrammelled capitalism that has led
to the financial meltdown.
Detroit -- nicknamed Motown for its long-established motor industry,
including internationally recognised brands such as Ford and General
Motors, which are synonymous with the Stars and Stripes -- is turning
into a ghost town. This comes after years of retrenchments and recent
state cut-backs on food and clothing assistance programmes.
According to the 2010 American census, a quarter of Detroit's residents
(or one person every 22 minutes) have left the city over the past
decade. The Michigan League for Human Services reported that, with home
foreclosures and spiralling rents, child homelessness increased by 40%
between 2009 and 2010. The Michigan department of education estimated
that 31 000 children were homeless in the 2010-2011 school year, up from
about 7 500 in 2007-2008.
There has been some respite: according to the US Bureau of Labour
Statistics, the unemployment rate in Detroit dipped slightly between
October and November, from 10.6% to 9.8%. But critics say the statistics
are unreliable because they do not incorporate part-time workers
looking for full-time jobs or those who have given up job hunting
altogether. They suggest "under-employment" is probably double the
official unemployment figure.
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (second from left) visits
Mohamed Bouazizi (right), the protester who set himself alight during a
demonstration against unemployment. Bouazizi, a vegetable seller,
ignited nationwide protests that forced Ben Ali to flee the country.
(Tunisian Presidency, Reuters)
It is this increasingly uncertain future, the prospect of McJobs and a
dislocation from the American Dream, that appears to be galvanising
students and twentysomethings, many burdened by university education
debt, into activism through Occupy Wall Street, often for the first
On a Monday evening in East Harlem, the movement's arts and culture and
outreach working groups are in discussion with the Movimento por
Justicio El Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio).
The area is populated mainly by Latino migrant workers, from Mexico in
particular, but it has become increasingly gentrified. The group has
been organising to stop residents being priced out of the homes they
rent and the evictions that have accompanied the middle-class incursion.
They have been doing this for years, taking direct action such as
occupying local councillors' offices and refusing to move from apartment
blocks scheduled for redevelopment.
The discussion "to get to know each other" is lively and empathetic but
also exposes the (admittedly diminishing) callowness of the Occupy Wall
Street activists, who range from web designers to Columbia University
An enthusiastic hipster in skinny jeans asks how Occupy Wall Street can
help the struggle in the barrios: "Do you need volunteers to help hand
out flyers to get the message out to more communities?"
"The question is not about handing out flyers, it's about finances to
support building committees. We would love for there to be more
organisation by those living in their own hoods, but that can't be our
focus. This is our community, this is where we live and this is our
focal point right now" is the simple response.
The two movements have exchanged fraternal messages, and follow-up meetings and action are scheduled.
Occupy Wall Street has been criticised for being driven by the white
middle class and their increasing fear of becoming an underclass. It is
something that the most activists -- ranging from unemployed
construction workers to academics -- who spoke to the Mail & Guardian
were painfully aware of and were constantly attempting to rectify. In
working groups, general assemblies and normal conversation there were
questions about how to attract those marginalised from the economic
mainstream, whether African-American, Hispanic or the lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender communities.
At the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square in the city's financial
district, Shane Aspinall, a 25-year-old African-American, says he has
been living there because "it's time black people take back the
initiative to reclaim their history and rewrite it together with our
present and hopefully better futures."
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which manifested itself physically
for the first time in New York's Zuccotti Park, is both tapping into and
inspiring activism. (Getty Images, AFP)
Aspinall, who believes that the historical economic and social
discrimination against African-American communities in the US must
change, says: "At the moment, this [occupation] is the only alternative
we have. The Republicans and the Democrats don't represent us …
[President Barack] Obama will always have that history of being the
first black president of the US but you've seen his record.
"I recognise there are structural problems in Washington with political
lobby groups and the influence of business and his hands are tied. But,
if not him, who? Us, that's who."
Aspinall says the Occupy Wall Street outreach programmes to Boston's
ghettos are vital to reinvigorate civic interest in social self-help.
It sounds as if Obama's "Yes, we can!" 2008 election rallying cry is
finding a voice outside mainstream politics. It is being articulated
even in those institutions that produce the 1%. At Harvard University,
an occupation of the famous Harvard Yard started on the day the M&G
was in town. The university stopped journalists and anyone without an
official Harvard identity document from entering, including, absurdly, a
group of schoolchildren on a tour the next day.
Amanda Haziz-Ginsberg, a 22-year-old divinity student, says that their
protest is against a university "that ideologically and materially
perpetuates a certain kind of world by constantly producing a
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has been attributed to being started
by the Canadian-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. In early June
this year, it sent out an internet meme that "America needs its own
Tahrir Square" and later released an image of a barefoot ballerina on
the charging bull statue found on Wall Street. The image, Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn told the New Yorker,
was an appropriate image because of "the juxtaposition of the
capitalist dynamism of the bull with the Zen stillness of the
This was followed by another meme, "What is our one demand? Occupy Wall
Street. Bring Tent", and a tactical briefing email sent out on July 13.
It went viral and drew reactions ranging from organisational discussions
to people registering sites such as www.occupywallst.org.
A gathering in August saw Adbusters readers, mainly anarchist
types, hook up with activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts,
which had already staged a three-week occupation, called Bloombergville,
on the steps of New York's City Hall to protest against mayor Michael
Bloomberg's austerity measures because of the federal debt crisis.
There appeared to have been confusion and a group broke away from that
gathering to hold their own meeting, facilitated by David Graeber, an
anthropologist and anarchist based at the University of London.
The seeds of the September 17 occupation were planted and, with it, a
new approach to direct democracy based on anarchism -- a horizontal,
consensus-based process through which every decision by the community is
voted on at a general assembly, after the minutia of issues have been
thrashed out at working groups. Anyone can participate and it takes a
single objection to an issue to send it back to the working group.
At the time of going to press, the Occupy Wall Street movement had 136
working groups and counting, including the demands working group, trying
to identify the movement's demands, the immigrant workers' justice
group and the sanitation working group, which dealt with the issue of
toilets in Zuccotti Park, before the eviction.
One of those involved in both Bloombergville and the organisation of
Wall Street is a precocious 17-year-old Long Island high-school student
and revolutionary, Lucas Vazquez. When we meet at the Atrium, at 60 Wall
Street, another public space commandeered by the Wall Street movement
to hold working group meetings, Vazquez is looking tired.
He admits to being on his feet non-stop, teaching facilitation of
working groups to newcomers -- there is a simple code of hand signals
that guides meetings and tests the temperature on issues -- facilitating
working group meetings and still managing to attend school.
"There has been a lot of hostility towards social movements in this
country but I believe, with Occupy Wall Street, this is already
He adds that, because of the movement, words such as "neoliberal" and
"inequality" have been forced into the mainstream media and the public
"There is a deeper sense of class consciousness in the US now, which was never there before."
Vazquez, a voracious reader who was born in Argentina, says he is
inspired by the success of "horizontalism" in grassroots organisations
and co-ops in that country. "I believe this is an alternative to the
model of democracy we have now, where we vote every four years and the
government in Washington only looks after the interests of the 1%, who
fund their election campaigns and then determine policy on everything
from the Keystone pipeline [proposed to transport oil from Canada to the
US and heavily criticised by environmentalists] to our position on
"The difference between the possible success of what is happening now
and what happened previously in the 1960s and 1970s is the internet,"
says Vazquez. Working groups can discuss and thrash out issues on
Listserv and share Google documents for fine-tuning without having to
gather in the same space all the time.
But regular meetings still go on. These also reflect the frustrating, often static elements of consensus-based democracy. The M&G
has witnessed discussions over a single word in a demand, going in
circles, being excised, only to be returned at another meeting a week
later. The Demands Working Group has yet to formalise a single demand --
three months since September 17.
Tahrir Square in Cairo -- the central point for huge democracy demonstrations. (Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP)
Time magazine has made "the protestor" its personality of 2011.
It certainly has been a year that has demanded that our collective
imaginations be stretched. What was thought impossible is possible; what
the mainstream Western media considered a backward, anti-democratic
belt of Arab countries -- populated by people who "are not genetically
predisposed to democracy", as one "expert" on the right-wing Fox News
channel described the protesters of the Arab Spring -- have, indeed,
fermented and spread the "Ebola virus" of new ways to change their
From the Tunisian uprising inspired by the self-immolation of vendor
Mohamed Bouazizi to Egypt's Tahrir Square where a new struggle against
the military council has begun; from the belly of the capitalist beast
at Occupy Wall Street to the youthful Los Indignados (The Outraged), who
occupied Madrid's Puerta de Sol Plaza earlier this year to protest
against the deepening eurozone crisis and the government's austerity
measures. And even to Ficksburg, South Africa, where, after the horrific
images of police murdering protester Andries Tatane, a nation was
compelled to reconsider its government and its approach to dealing with
the almost daily community protests.
State repression has meant that the flare-ups of daily community
protests in South Africa, simplistically called service-delivery
protests by the media, remain fractured from each other. They have yet
to coalesce into a broader social movement or something to resemble the
anti-apartheid struggle's United Democratic Front.
Radicalism has also been hijacked by mainstream politics and transmuted
into pseudo-revolutionary populism by the likes of suspended ANC Youth
League president Julius Malema, who has, among other things, called for
the nationalisation of mines and marched for the "poor" to be
"emancipated economically" so that they "can live in Sandton [the most
expensive property in Africa] too."
It is contradictory messaging that deepens the nouveau riche bling
tendencies that have dominated South African popular culture and
politics since 1994.
Although the ANC still maintains a hold on the majority of the
population's political nostalgia, this undermines the true radicalism
and organisational work being done at grassroots level among communities
by activists operating outside mainstream politics - as does the middle
class's depiction of disgruntled communities' protests as the action of
faceless, non-human black hordes. It is something less apparent in the
earnestness of Occupy Wall Street.
Both these perspectives are stumbling blocks to economic freedom, with
the government becoming increasing paternalistic between the ritual of
marking a ballot every five years.
The question for South Africa is: How do we imagine ourselves at a time
when protest and revolution are acting like a mind-expanding drug in
the rest of the world?