Marianne LeNabat analyzes the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan, New York.
A group of protestors descended on Wall Street a week ago. Actually, that’s not true: they first gathered at Bowling Green, with some using the steps of the old Customs House as a dais to vocalize their discontent. A few hours later they began to migrate north. They were unable to access Wall Street, the Stock Exchange, or the charging bull statue at Broadway and Morris, because the police had got wind of their plans – well-publicized on the internet, after all – and cordoned off those areas in anticipation. (To do so, the police had only to move the several hundred metal barricades that had been installed around Ground Zero the week before, a few blocks east.) Thwarted from reaching their original geographico-symbolic targets, the protestors settled in Zuccotti Park, just a stone’s throw away, which, they promptly reminded us, is also named Liberty Plaza.
I know all of this because I live there. Right there. At the intersection of global financial capital and Ground Zero and City Hall. I queue at the deli behind construction workers, investment bankers, civil servants, and public defenders from the Manhattan criminal courthouse. TV crews and satellite trucks are a common sight – as are police barricades.
In fact, one thing I have become familiar with, in this neighborhood, is the restriction or control of movement. When I walk my dog to my friend’s apartment, I have to sidestep the retractable bollards on Exchange Place and give a wide berth to the bomb-sniffing Labrador on Broad Street. My building has seen three evacuations in ten years (for Tropical Storm Irene, the Deutsche Bank fire of 2006, and September 11th). This past summer my favorite subway exit, through the basement of 71 Broadway, was closed off for a week while Dominique Strauss-Kahn occupied one of the apartments above. And last Sunday I had to speak to four police officers and show my driver’s license twice in order to get an iced tea from the deli across the street.
Despite being restricted in their movements, the protestors at Liberty Plaza haven’t entirely stayed put. Every day last week, they did brief, noisy loops around Wall Street (the NYPD, ceding to the needs of commuters, had shifted the barricades to grant a margin of pedestrian access). Yesterday, they embarked on their most ambitious march yet, travelling all the way to Union Square, at 14th Street. That’s 36 blocks, or 2.6 miles, away (I’ve walked the route myself several times, since I work in the area). The march travelled fast: the participants were operating without a permit, and wanted both to assert their spontaneity and energy and avoid being kettled by the police. Nonetheless some 80 protestors, photographers and bystanders were arrested, seemingly without much cause, as the group has remained nonviolent.
My neighborhood is no stranger to political movement in general. Labour unions and community activists favor City Hall Park as a place to express their discontent with municipal policy. The Courthouse and 1 Police Plaza drew their share of attention one afternoon this summer when two on-duty police officers were acquitted of sexually assaulting the woman they had been called in to help. In fact, “Occupy Wall Street” isn’t even the first encampment-protest this year: earlier in June, “Bloombergville” squatted six blocks due north on Broadway, at Murray Street, in an attempt to mount opposition to the City’s latest austerity budget.
The effect of such protests – not just in New York, but throughout Western democracies – is usually, sadly, very minimal. This is in part because they enjoy little continuity with everyday life – with the normal political, bureaucratic and economic channels in which people operate. Of course, protests step outside of those channels precisely when the latter begin to seem obtuse or non-responsive (bailing out a banking industry that wrought significant havoc on people’s lives without stipulating that it change the way it operates, for example). But as a result of this discontinuity, the protestors’ political will is often forgotten the moment they disband, especially by the powers that be.
Hence Occupy Wall Street’s intention to stay “for months” – for as long as is necessary, until the media, the government, the world begins to pay attention, until things actually begin to change. Which is admirable. In fact, turning the damage done by global capital into a political issue – one we can absolutely do something about – is long overdue. Inspired by large-scale actions across the Middle East and Europe, the protestors intend to bring that spirit of revolution to the United States. Beginning with Wall Street.
The problem is that their target isn’t really so geographically tidy in the first place. For as much as this neighborhood is a symbolic as well as real seat of political and economic power, physically occupying it does nothing to subvert the exploitative practices to which the protestors object. As an Australian activist group said decades ago, speaking against the use of violence as a tactic, “You cannot blow up a social relationship.” Nor can you sit on it peacefully to make it grind to a halt. In Mediaeval times, perhaps, when the seat of power was literally the lord in his manor, or beyond him, the king, the geography of revolution – the necessary movement – was more straightforward. It lay in a torch-lit march to the castle, and later, on a gallows. But nowadays virtually all of our activity, all of our production and consumption and even interaction, takes place through the medium of an economic system that has no centre and no ruler, though by its very nature it enriches some at the expense of others. And the geography of resistance must become much more diffuse.
I imagine that most of the protestors recognize this, and would repeat that their more immediate objective is just to table the issue of the disproportionate power of the “one percent.” But in taking their cues from across the Atlantic, they would do well to remember that the revolution in Egypt was accomplished not just by amassing in Tahrir Square, but by striking in workplaces across the country, ejecting Mubarak-appointed deans from universities, and destroying the files of the secret police. The Egyptians understood that the modern space of revolution ultimately lies exactly in the spot where one already stands: where one works, lives, worships, attends school. And it consists in reclaiming those institutions that organize our lives and insisting that they become more democratic, that they be controlled from the bottom-up, and in the interest of those affected by them.
In the meantime, I stand with the protestors, both metaphorically and, from time to time, literally.