Saturday, October 22, 2011

OWS History Lesson

This is quite good. I tend to be something of a history nerd anyway, and Graeber's outline of what happened back in the early days -- it seems so long ago now -- and how it became what we see today is illuminating.

A tasty morsel of the kinds of things I like:

On August 2, I showed up at a 7 PM meeting at Bowling Green, that a Greek anarchist friend, who I’d met at a recent activist get together at 16 Beaver Street, had told me was meant to plan some kind of action on Wall Street in mid-September. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the background: that a month before, the Canadian magazine Adbusters had put out the call to “Occupy Wall Street”, but had really just floated the idea on the internet, along with some very compelling graphics, to see if it would take hold; that a local anti-budget cut coalition top-heavy with NGOs, unions, and socialist groups had tried to take possession of the process and called for a “General Assembly” at Bowling Green. The title proved extremely misleading. When I arrived, I found the event had been effectively taken over by a veteran protest group called the Worker’s World Party, most famous for having patched together ANSWER one of the two great anti-war coalitions, back in 2003. They had already set up their banners, megaphones, and were making speeches—after which, someone explained, they were planning on leading the 80-odd assembled people in a march past the Stock Exchange itself.

The usual reaction to this sort of thing is a kind of cynical, bitter resignation. “I wish they at least wouldn’t advertise a ‘General Assembly’ if they’re not actually going to hold one.” Actually, I think I actually said that, or something slightly less polite, to one of the organizers, a disturbingly large man, who immediately remarked, “well, fine. Why don’t you leave?”

But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action. I quickly spotted at least one Wobbly, a young Korean activist I remembered from some Food Not Bomb event, some college students wearing Zapatista paraphernalia, a Spanish couple who’d been involved with the indignados in Madrid… I found my Greek friends, an American I knew from street battles in Quebec during the Summit of the Americas in 2001, now turned labor organizer in Manhattan, a Japanese activist intellectual I’d known for years… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one.”

So we gathered up a few obvious horizontals and formed a circle, and tried to get everyone else to join us. Almost immediately people appeared from the main rally to disrupt it, calling us back with promises that a real democratic forum would soon break out on the podium. We complied. It didn’t happen. My Greek friend made an impassioned speech and was effectively shooed off the stage. There were insults and vituperations. After about an hour of drama, we formed the circle again, and this time, almost everyone abandoned the rally and come over to our side. We created a decision-making process (we would operate by modified consensus) broke out into working groups (outreach, action, facilitation) and then reassembled to allow each group to report its collective decisions, and set up times for new meetings of both the smaller and larger groups. It was difficult to figure out what to do since we only had six weeks, not nearly enough time to plan a major action, let alone bus in the thousands of people that would be required to actually shut down Wall Street—and anyway we couldn’t shut down Wall Street on the appointed day, since September 17, the day Adbusters had been advertising, was a Saturday. We also had no money of any kind.

After the explosive events on Thursday, thanks to the appearance of hizzoner KJ and his hijacking of the General Assembly, things calmed considerably by Friday, though there was still a lot of angst and hostility to work through during the day. By the evening, I was chatting with an oooooolllllllldddd comrade from the long ago, an artist and a constant advocate for social justice, whose works adorn this and many other cities, and whose work -- especially on behalf of United Farm Workers, but including many, many other activities -- is simply brilliant. It was wonderful to see him again.

At one point during the evening's festivities, there was a moment of tension when it was determined that the General Assembly and the time of my old comrade's discussion group were in conflict. This is a constant problem with the local Occupation; there still is no real consideration, and often seems to be no consciousness, of anyone or anything else except one's own specific activity or interest. I find that both fascinating and troubling. Anything that gets in the way of what someone wants NOW is subject to swift and sometimes brutal denunciation.

Well, of course my old comrade took it all in stride. He said to me, "You know we've been through all this before. Many times." I nodded. "And it's best just to take it as it comes, we don't have to make it a fight on the inside."

Sure enough.


Note: word has it that hizzoner KJ went to watch the arrests in the Plaza tonight; he was incognito, sitting in the dark, apart from the hullabaloo across the Plaza. Someone spotted him and gave him a shout out, asked him to come join the demonstration; he declined. Then he was apparently challenged on the issue of the First Amendment rights that were being violated nightly by the continuing arrests of peaceful demonstrators.

At that point, according to reports, he fled, surrounded by police.

There were reports that at Thursday night's arrest drama, some of the officers (or maybe only one officer) were threatening and intimidating some of the witness/supporters of those arrested, apparently basing their attitude on specific things posted on the Facebook page, claiming threats were made toward the mayor.

This is bizarre in the extreme.

But then tonight, reports started coming in of police following demonstrators when they left the Plaza and some being pulled over by police on "suspicion" or being cited for minor infractions like flicking cigarette ash out of their car window.

Of course it could all be coincidence.

Couldn't it?

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