Sunday, November 27, 2011

The 99 Percent Speaks: Observing the Movement for a More Just Society

Thursday, they were enjoying “occu pie.” Their slices appeared to be made with pumpkin or apple but nobody mentioned the ingredients as I watched an Occupy Wall Street live video feed that showed a crowd chowing down at a live Thanksgiving feed in New York City. The multitude was gathered at Zuccotti Park, named Liberty Plaza until 2003, in Lower Manhattan. That’s where the original occupation began on September 17, with many demonstrators camping out round-the-clock in tents to protest the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of Americans while the remaining 99 percent – the rest of humanity – endures varying degrees of hardship.

The Zuccotti inhabitants established a small community of like-minded citizens with a kitchen, a field hospital with volunteer doctors and a library that sheltered thousands of books. All these things disappeared or were destroyed when police evicted the occupiers just after midnight on November 15 on orders from the normally moderate Republican mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Invariably denouncing the occupiers, he has morphed into an enemy of the people. The 33,000-square-foot park within spitting distance of the Stock Exchange now remains the site of lengthy gatherings but no one is allowed to sleep over any more.

The Big Apple occupation followed a suggestion by the Adbusters Foundation (a controversial anti-consumerist organization in Vancouver) that those of us fed up with corruption, corporate greed, high unemployment and economic inequality should launch a public campaign. The initiative, also inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Africa and the Middle East, has since sparked the formation of numerous other occupations around the globe. Almost every country has its own 99 percent.

Occupy Wall Street moment in NYC
In the U.S. and Canada, many local governments unhappy about civil disobedience have authorized crackdowns, leading to injuries. Oakland, situated near San Francisco, has witnessed some of the worst violence: An Iraq war vet in hit in the head by a tear-gas canister there sustained brain damage and is still undergoing rehabilitation to regain his speech; a former Marine had his spleen ruptured by police batons. In Seattle, an 84-year-old activist was pepper-sprayed in the face. A dozen students on the campus of the University of California at Davis got the same treatment, captured by cell-phone cameras to be memorialized on YouTube and worldwide TV news broadcasts.

The New York occupation quickly began to develop its own rules: Everything must be decided by consensus, a democratic albeit rather time-consuming process. But voting is accomplished silently, with wriggling fingers pointing upward to indicate approval; fingers horizontal to convey uncertainty; fingers downward signalling disagreement. When someone yells “mic check,” two words loudly repeated by the assembled group, they are essentially saying “listen up!” Then, each sentence is echoed in what’s known as “the human microphone.” At Zuccotti, this is a clever way to bypass the city’s prohibition of electronic amplification. (Occupations in other locations haven’t necessarily had that restriction yet use the same methods of communication, perhaps in tribute to the inclusive spirit of the protests.) Ubiquitous drum circles irritate some, entertain and exhilarate others.

The lingo that’s proliferated is intriguing: “We are the 99 percent” is the key slogan, a badge of honor for the downtrodden. “MSM” means mainstream media, most of it not to be trusted. The middle-of-the-road networks and most print media are considered almost as bad as right-wing Fox. The MSNBC cable channel, however, leans left. The occupation was initially dismissed by many as a passing phenomenon. A lot of them have initiated their own live-stream coverage, generally accompanied by a related live chat. More than 200 live-streams have popped up across the planet in the past two months. Unseen moderators – “mods” – keep these online discussions from veering into profanity or hate speech, which often comes from provocateurs dubbed ”trolls” who can be blocked by the mods.

NYPD watching OWS movement
People who want to participate must sign up with a user name; on a recent typical afternoon, the 435 viewers on one of the live-stream chats include “picklemaster,” “glowstick,” “ozarkguy” and “pfukadub” (not quite profanity!). The talk primarily consists of angry declarations about big banks and politicians of every stripe. But, after a while, the proceedings tend to become more personalized: pets, favorite foods, health problems, even sexual orientations are periodic topics. Many regular contributors have gotten to know each other – as much as total strangers in different regions who never actually meet can – and a sort of family feeling emerges. We are all in this mess together.

The New York Times has reported that there are more than 400 movement Facebook pages with 2.7 million friends around the planet. From a November 25 article in the newspaper: “YouTube is part of the formidable digital presence that has been created with 1.7 million videos, viewed 73 million times, that are tagged with the keyword ‘occupy.’” Social media clearly rocks the revolution.

Greetings arrive on the chats from foreign lands: the UK, Germany, Spain, Holland, Poland, the Czech Republic. Some send links to their own occupations. After footage of Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein meeting with Occupy Toronto, as she previously had with the Zuccotti folks, the Raging Grannies took the stage dressed in their trademark old-lady chapeaus. As one of them announced the song they were about to perform, a seemingly young admirer called out: “Love your hat, sister!” All this, unfortunately, could barely be heard over some Spanish-language narration and an apparent Arabic hip-hop tune leaking in from another feed. Like protesting itself, live-streams are an inexact science.

The consequences of the occupation movement could be significant. As the jails fill up – in New York alone, 700 marchers were arrested in early October for crossing the Brooklyn Bridge – already strapped cities may be going broke. Estimates are at $13 million and counting. As someone who was involved in civil rights and anti-war activities of the 1960s, I never went to jail until 1977. A journalist, I inadvertently spent two weeks in a New Hampshire National Guard armory on a charge of criminal trespass, after the governor detained 1,414 protestors who had arrived under the umbrella of the Clamshell Alliance. They were trying to occupy the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant construction site. The press was rounded up as well, even though we were there to cover the activists (who called themselves Clams). The state wound up spending $50,000 a day to keep us all incarcerated in four armories.

No Nukes signs at Seabrook protest - 1977
My cramped armory housed 265 Clams who had come to Seabrook in affinity groups, small clusters of people watching each others backs, and carrying plenty of supplies for a prolonged occupation. Consensus was used for every collective decision. They offered no “mic checks” per se, but announcements were constantly being made about where in the room to meet for a discussion about spent fuel rods or an art workshop to decorate the bland walls or how to maintain a vegetarian diet while contending with military-style National Guard meals. Several of them decided to fast. Parody followed, such as this hilariously satirical proclamation I can recall: “Jill of the Cashews Affinity Group wants to announce that she will be overeating for the duration.”

I knew little about nukes at the start but left thoroughly versed in the technology's dangers, and now remember the detention as one of the best experiences of my life. The camaraderie was incredible. Something similar is afoot in today’s occupations. Although criticized for having no specific demands, Occupy Wall Street symbolizes an underlying complaint that’s obvious even if the solution is elusive: Give everyone a fair chance. Prisoners of conscience – borrowing a page from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King – also might help persuade ambivalent or apathetic members of the 99 percent that the cause is noble. My wriggling fingers are pointed upward.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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