The U.S. has never seen society mobilize on this scale before. For the moment, however, the Occupy Wall Street movement has little to offer beyond catchy slogans and the power of a shared passion.
“This is not a protest,” said Charles Holsopple. “We’re celebrating the awakening of consciousness and compassion and a greater understanding of the need to share our planet’s resources and of the suffering of seven billion people.” Charles suggests we sit and talk, handing out some of the coffee that is provided for free in the camp. Around 30 tents have been pitched on the concrete of Washington’s Freedom Plaza at the junction of Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street, and protestors boast banners proclaiming “We Are The 99 Percent” and “Stop the Machine! Create a New World!” The machine is “corporatism and militarism,” and the new world is “one in which people’s needs will be more important than corporate profits.” The leaflets and banners are the work of the October 2011 Movement, Washington’s counterpart to Occupy Wall Street in New York.
Charles, a tall, slender man with gray hair and the face of a jolly prophet, is shunning the rhetoric of the leaflets and is thinking globally: “99 percent plus 1 is 100 percent. Or, in other words, we are seven million and we are all part of a single whole.” Unemployed, he traveled from Tampa, Florida. He does not mention what he did before he was made redundant: “My job is to help the starving planet.” To this end, he set up the Global Shelter Project, a web portal where he blogs to advise people on how to take control of squandered resources, if only to gain an understanding and a sense of compassion.
Fariah Kaye is a political science student at the University of Maryland and a member of Codepink, an organization of “women for peace.” She said, “We want to curb the influence of lobbyists, to stop feeding large corporations and the Pentagon, to stop all these wars, to raise taxes on the rich.” America should adopt “a fairer system, like in Europe, where everyone has guaranteed health insurance.” The authorities allowed the October 2011 Movement to camp out on the square for four months. “We’ll stay here as long as it takes for something to happen,” Fariah said. But what? Fariah is not really sure.
Occupy DC, a similar-minded coalition, has set up its camp on McPherson Square a few blocks away. Colorful tents on the grass surround a stand doling out free meals, provided by the capital’s shops and hotels. The union of transport workers has been handing out waterproof jackets, with rain having fallen just earlier today. A medical station has been set up in the square alongside a place for waste disposal and an area for the media. It is a little town inside the big city. A timetable of the day’s activities has been carefully written out by the information booth: a solidarity march with the trade unionists in the morning, then a meeting of the action committee at noon, followed by discussions.
Daniel, a 20 year old with bare feet and a military jacket, does not want to give his real name. He has no home and is instead hitchhiking across the U.S. and sleeping where he can. “We want green power; we can’t be dependent on oil,” he said. His girlfriend, Heather Britt, was forced to drop out of college when the fees on her student loan increased dramatically. She is now enjoying an “alternative” education. “We have to make the banks accountable for their crimes. People have been robbed. We have to restrict the power of money and the lobbyists,” she said. Along one side of McPherson Square runs the famous K Street, home to several major lobbyists.
Listen to us
In New York, where it all started on Sept. 17, there is even more theater, picnicking and a quasi-political Woodstock. The demonstrators are occupying Zuccotti Park plaza near Wall Street where, in addition to its own media center, free food, dietary advisers and team of cleaners, it is now home to the Art/Signs Center, a kind of Speakers’ Corner, where anyone can shout about their gripes with the U.S. public debate. They have also published 50,000 copies of their own newspaper, the Occupy Wall Street Journal. The protesters have been visited by idols of the political left, including director Michael Moore and actress Susan Sarandon. Local artistes dance and poets recite their poetry and meditate under the “tree of life.”
A joyful happening? Not quite. There have been several clashes with the police, who arrested over 700 people during the march onto Brooklyn Bridge. Veterans of the protests are now teaching newcomers how to escape from plastic handcuffs.
What are the protesters protesting about? They have not made a list of demands; they only say that they want to be heard. They are proud of how long they have occupied the park and where they have come from: most are New Yorkers, but many have journeyed from Boston, Chicago and other cities. Young Marxists mingle with priests, journalists and peddlers of free hugs. And tourists, of course, because the movement to occupy Wall Street has become one of the city’s tourist attractions in its own right.
A digital counter in the information center shows how many people are watching events in the park live on the Internet. After four weeks, the figure has reached over 350,000. When asked about his demands, a self-government activist replies that he wants “28 amendments to the Constitution” to regulate the activities of corporations at federal and state level. Although he rejects the popular right-wing accusation of “socialism,” he cautiously admits that the government’s education and health policies “are not a bad thing.” He proposes making the Internet free, like in South Korea, and urges people to buy local products.
Nightly concerts of drums and brass bands in the park have left local residents unable to sleep. One of the activists is trying to appease them. A girl is standing on the grass carrying a billboard with the slogan “Prostitution is the only way to pay for my studies.” Another is calling for universal healthcare. Next to her, a boy holds a banner protesting “Hey Obama, I’m broke.” “I haven’t seen such an uprising since the 70s,” says a middle-aged man in a T-shirt proclaiming “We Are the 99 Percent.” T-shirts can be bought at the camp for $5.