Just getting started or funeral march? RS takes a look at the events of November 17 ("N17") in New York City and ponders the fate of OWS.
November 15–Dawn of the Dead
By now the story is well known: In the early morning hours of November 15, organized forces of the NYPD stormed the Occupy Wall Street encampment, evicting those who remained in Zuccotti Park by force. Those in the park had been “temporarily” ordered out a few hours earlier under the pretense of allowing access to sanitation crews.
In the lead up to the eviction, social media, email, and phones of those with any connection or interest in the ongoing occupation lit up with calls to come to the defense of the encampment. A similar attempt to clear the park under the rubric of “sanitation” had earlier been abandoned in the face of mass opposition, and there were hopes that this attack too could be turned back.
I had visited the park a few times before since Occupy began, and quite honestly wasn’t impressed. The potential of the movement, revealing itself in short bursts and in various actions, was visible from the beginning; but the actual camp in Zuccotti was quite limited. But although I had no desire to spend my nights in the encampment, I felt a real need to help defend it, driven largely by a deep-seated opposition to the egregious acts of the state.
I arrived just as the shit hit the fan, but was too far away to be hit by the splatter. The police kept onlookers, supporters, those who had fled the encampment, and even members of the media far away from the park—or at least far enough way to prevent them from seeing what was going on.
Most of those involved in the encampment beat a hasty retreat when it became clear that the cops were going to move in. A common theme heard amongst the crowd was that people should avoid arrest so that they could participate in the planned “Day of Action” on November 17. Still, others were adamant that their “new home” in the park had to be defended. For them, simply maintaining the encampment signified victory. In the end, a few dozen stalwarts remained as the police pushed forward, locking themselves together and preparing for what was to come.
Tensions ran high. A few scuffles broke out on the periphery as the baton-wielding police cleared Zuccotti and pushed hard against the wall of humanity that surrounded it.
During all of this and throughout the day, I argued to anyone would listen that it was a mistake to make a fetish out of the physical occupation of the park. I did my best to explain that attempting to maintain the encampment at all costs would in all likelihood lead to an undue expenditure of time, energy and resources (fighting matches, arrests, bail, etc.). I argued that it was necessary at all times to remain flexible, weigh our options, and not get bogged down.
The biggest advance marked by the emergence of the occupation is that it has brought thousands throughout the city, state, and even the world, into contact with each other, opening regular discussions and debates up among people from different ages, regions and industries. Though proponents can come under attack, this state of affairs cannot be arrested, beaten or evicted.
In the early morning, there was little support to be found for my arguments. That would change as the day went on.
In a short period, the eviction was completed, with everyone besides the police and clean up crew forced out and away from the park. Different proposals were raised, though none won over the crowd. There was a feeling of mass confusion. Finally, a group broke off and headed north, through the heavily fortified corridor, to Foley Square.
As the group marched toward its destination it was met by numerous police who apparently were stationed at their posts in advance, in anticipation of just such a turn of events. At every intersection, these cops would come out into the street with each red light, holding back a section and dividing the ragtag group into smaller and smaller pieces. As someone at the head of the pack later explained: “We were marching, then some of us turned around and realized there was no one behind us anymore!” One member of the media described it as “a very professional way of breaking the group up.” By all accounts, the slicing and dicing would have made a butcher proud.
Not everyone was a part of the Foley-bound group. In fact, the only sure thing at that time was that nothing was sure. Different people made different claims and proposals, throwing out the names of numerous locations to serve as the new center.
The biggest development came when a large number headed to Duarte Square, a small public space that borders a fenced-in, undeveloped park-like property owned by a church. By the time I arrived at the area, there were a few hundred people in and around the square, with a few dozen straddling the top of an easy-to-climb wooden fence that lines up one side of the church property. A makeshift encampment was starting to come together inside, and occupy banners hung from the chain link fence that made up the other three sides.
The majority of people were either standing in the public section of Duarte Square or on the sidewalks around the church property. The familiar drum circle appeared. There were very few cops visible.
As I circulated through the group, I argued that the location left a lot to be desired. It was obvious to me that locking yourself into a cage is not a good idea. For the most part I was waved off or ignored, though a few individuals did voice agreement.
The new focus for most became the enclosure. I continued to move around outside, looking for people I recognized and talking to many of those I didn’t. I wound up at the back end of the enclosure, where a number of onlookers had gathered. Suddenly, I saw it: a line of armored police emerged from a side street in military formation. Then another. And another. One by one the groups marched slowly around the square and boxing it in. Most inside the square seemed oblivious. Some of us tried to make others aware of what was materializing, but our warnings largely fell on deaf ears.
Those of us not willing to wait around for the inevitable advance made our way outside of the police line while it was still possible. We joined a growing crowd on the side of the park, watching everything unfold through the links of the fence.
A new square police formation then appeared outside of the other. This one, which faced outward, was meant to keep the small but growing crowd away from the “clean up squad” as it moved in. When the inside formation began its advance, any remaining doubt of what was about to happen was removed. Some fled the enclosure. Others set up shoddy barricades at the gate which appeared to amuse the waiting police more than anything.
Finally a group of armored cops busted in, easily hurdling the knee-high barricade and chasing down those inside the fenced area. Onlookers gasped and yelled as officers hit those trying to retreat with nightsticks from behind. One who managed to wrest a stick free from his would-be-assaulter received the worst of it, coming under the attack of several well armed officers. After receiving his summary beating, he was drug out of the square horizontally.
It was at this time that I began to yell out, over and against the apologia of one particularly unsavory toady among us. Unable to hold back my fury, I raised my voice loud enough to be heard by all, including the line of police standing only a few feet away. What started out as an outburst meshed with the feelings of the crowd, disgusted as they were by what they had just witnessed. To my surprise, despite making the sort of confrontational, openly communist arguments that would usually bring disdain, the crowd became electrified, audibly voicing its approval.
“The police are nothing more than the defenders of capital,” I yelled. “They defend the interests of corporations and banks against the people who actually do all the work, who create all the wealth that they lock in their fucking vaults.” The support grew louder!
To be clear, this is not to say we were on the verge of Another October. But it was certainly the best hearing I’d ever received for such arguments; and it was taking place on a sidewalk in downtown Manhattan.
Many individuals in the crowd, which was largely made up of people who had not had any exposure to Occupy before then, shouted out things like “right on,” “exactly,” etc. I continued on, saying something like: “The police will never defend us, never join us, never be on our side. If you’re raped or have your car stolen you’re out of luck. But if you’re a bank or corporation, you have this massive armed apparatus at your disposal, to enforce your interests at the expense of everyone else.” Cheers broke out. The police line that confronted us menacingly only moments earlier grew visibly uncomfortable.
As the raid wound down, members of various media began to approach me, attracted no doubt by my furious pronouncements. I was quite happy to utilize my madness to gain access to a wider audience.
I was asked to state my arguments by an interviewer from an independent news outlet and another from a French radio station. I restated my previous arguments regarding the fetish of the park occupation, the advance the widespread discussions and debates represented, and the need to move forward.
I argued for the need to connect the struggle to active labor. To paraphrase: “Imagine most of the students and even a huge number of office workers came out and started supporting this. Great, right? Now imagine the transit workers that drive the buses and subways joined this. Imagine the truckers that bring everything in and out of the city joined us. That would shut down the entire city. Imagine a replay of the 2005 transit strike that brought the city to a screeching halt, then add in mass support and participation by large numbers of unemployed people, people in other industries, etc.” The crowd, which had by then focused on the question and answer session going on, was nearly unanimous in their agreement. I heard more than a few say that such an action would be a great way forward.
The interviewer from the French radio outlet, who was clearly more familiar with such mass actions than his American counterpart, asked if I was calling for a general strike. I answered that at the present time a general strike in the traditional sense could be problematic due to the existence of a huge number of isolated, desperate, unemployed workers that would almost certainly guarantee a plentiful supply of replacement workers, and the desire of many capitalists to get out from under the workplaces they own. I pointed to examples of factories like the Stella D’Oro cookie plant in the Bronx being shut down following strike action. (The ground under the Stella D’Oro factory was recently sold at a huge profit to make way for yet another set of retail shops). I said that workers shouldn’t, and in all likelihood wouldn’t, take action that would effectively amount to firing themselves.
Instead, I argued that mass strikes in combination with workplace occupations would be the best way forward. I said that workers occupying a factory or other workplace could actually utilize the army of unemployed people by inviting them to come and take part, participate, and share in anything produced. Additionally, I said such occupations would have to move beyond basic demands and raise their sights on worker control of all of society. I was astonished to find these arguments again met with widespread approval by many of those around me. These high points were brief. Soon the square was empty. The line of police remained, but the crowd began to dissolve.
A smaller group of those most interested in what I was saying started to congeal. We started to discuss these questions and more. Most introductions began with a common refrain: I’m in debt, I have no money, I have no job. Most were interested in the occupation since it first made headlines, but only one had actually participated in it before that day.
Eventually, our small group made it back to Zuccotti Park. Not much was happening. A crowd was gathered around. The double ring of barricades was back in place. The park was now occupied by a combination of NYPD officers and private security guards, with everyone else on the outside looking in.
The exterior ring of the barricades was eventually penetrated; first by one, then another, then the whole crowd. Soon we could walk freely between the two sections. Only a portable metal fence and a few dozen cops separated us from the park.
In the hours that followed our little group joined up with a friend of Insurgent Notes and a few others. Some great discussions followed, sometimes bringing in interested parties who overheard our conversation. People came in and out. A large number agreed with my arguments, and a number of contacts were exchanged.
The police presence was large, but the atmosphere seemed incredibly free. From time to time, people would outright defy police orders, the crowd would turn its attention to the conflict, and the police would back down. Even more often, individuals would berate the police stationed in and around the park—calling them the sorts of things that would usually get your arrested, beat down, or both—and then went on about their business. The crowd was quite varied. The left sects were notable only in their absence.
Eventually, a police captain announced over a bullhorn that people would be allowed back inside the park, but would be searched upon entry. Expressly forbidden were the things like tents and sleeping bags that make camping out possible. A small opening was made in the barricade, and people began to file in. At this point, our group had greatly thinned out. I had been out for several hours and decided to depart.
Of course, despite the tensions and conflicts encountered throughout the day, things continued to function normally in most of the city. I was brought back to that reality after leaving the area around Zuccotti. Business as usual… tourists, workers and Wall Street parasites jostled for space on the crowded sidewalk leading back to the subway.
The real isolation of Occupy Wall Street—even on this day, with all its increased visibility, involvement, attention and support—was obvious. This was clearly demonstrated a few hours earlier at a Burger King restaurant across the street from Zuccotti Park. Inside, I overheard workers complaining about management and talking about their plight working for little pay in such a dehumanizing environment. Despite being able to see the encampment through the window of the restaurant, they made no connection between their conditions and what was going on. This is indicative of the situation more generally.
November 17–Day of the Dead
The events of the long-promoted “Day of Action” have been recorded by a large number of observers and participants. Walls of words, photos and video abound, accessible to anyone with an internet connection and a little bit of free time. What follows then is more of a reflection on the day’s events than a play-by-play account.
1. In the early morning there was a rally of more than a 1,000 people near Zuccotti Park, which was the starting ground for an announced attempt to disrupt “business as usual” in the Financial District.From the gathering, groups broke off toward Wall Street. Routes were marked by participants carrying flags that signified the perceived threat of arrest.The New York Stock Exchange was approached from several different directions, with groups emerging in various intersections at different times. All streets leading in were barricaded, with more barricades beyond them.
Where I ended up, the crowd forced the police to move a barricade back. The same happened elsewhere. Eventually, the circle had closed in from several sides and we were all closer to the stock exchange. At that point, it wasn’t clear what would happen.
The kinds of scuffles broke out that can be expected. Here and there the police would do in some poor soul, claim they did this or that, and then carry them off to a van headed for jail. In general though, the NYPD seemed more restrained than usual. It appeared they wanted to hold off the crowd rather than deal with mass arrests. Some barricade movements were clearly strategic.
A few small groups penetrated the barricades on their own, but they were all quickly found out and dealt with. Other such incidents found a similar end. Eventually, despite physical advances, the whole thing sort of petered out.
The motto of the action was “Shut Down Wall Street.” That certainly didn’t happen. But the street activity around it was surely disrupted.
The police set up checkpoints in the area, only letting people with suits and/or “proper identification” that indicated they worked in the area through. The rest were kept away.
Plans for “subway occupations” received a lot of attention. Train stations near Wall Street were filled with police and their specially-trained dogs, and officers also rode on the trains themselves. In the end, not much actually materialized in the way of protest activity on the subways. In a handful of stations, exits were reportedly chained open to let passengers board the trains for free.
2. Around noon I headed back to Zuccotti. It was the usual scene, though there was notably less pro-police sentiment than in weeks past. It seemed the events of the 15th had changed a lot of minds, and also drew out more who knew better than to think the cops were our friends or protectors.Illusions in capitalism remained, with more than a few arguing that all that is needed is to get “money out of politics” and “let capitalism work.” Any mention of class politics was for the most part unpopular—after all, “we are all the 99%.” But conversely, there was some rudimentary communist sentiment. At the very least, participants were questioning things, and most were very much open to discussion.There was word of student strikes around. Since the park was more stagnation than standoff at this point, I headed off, eventually stopping at two separate universities. Each had public student meetings that drew no more than a few dozen participants.
3. In the afternoon, there was a student rally in Union Square. Around 1,000 people showed up, mostly from a student march that had originated uptown. It was the typical rally for the most part, though the chant “students and workers, shut the city down” is not one often heard these days in the U.S.Noticeable in the crowd were a number of professionally-made campaign signs typical of the “full-time activist” crowd. This was an indication of what was to come.
4. In the evening I traveled to Foley Square, where the “big rally” was scheduled to happen. When I passed by earlier in the day, I noticed that the area had been cleared out, with police signs announcing a “planned parade.” I had asked many who it was that secured the permits for this rally, but no one in Zuccotti or the morning actions near Wall Street seemed to know.I arrived early on, with the first few handfuls of people. A stage was set up. In front of it, peace marshals signed in and received their instructions.As people began to file in from the subway station in small groups, they snapped up copies of the Insurgent Notes statement. Quite a few expressed their agreement with its calls for moving toward workplace occupations.
Then, there was a shift. Organized contingents suddenly arrived from all sides. In a matter of minutes, the square was full with thousands of people. Banners of most of the unions, joined by the distinct signs of pressure and front groups, flew high above the heads of the various groups who appeared seemingly from nowhere. And the processional activists joined them, with their ready-made signs, sound systems, stages, etc.
The left sects showed up too. There were all there; enough acronyms to fill up a bowl of alphabet soup, though it’d be as hard to swallow as any of their various claims to the mantle of “proletarian vanguard.”
The transformation was as obvious as it was speedy. Despite all attempts at co-option, the Occupy movement had remained well outside of the narrow confines of “acceptable politics.” This event became something else: another good old reformist funeral march.
The militancy that remained, seething under the surface, was drowned out in a sea of mediocre pressure politics.
Many familiar faces of the park occupation and subsequent struggles were sidelined. I saw quite a few sitting dejected in the grassy field at the back of the square, while the deafening tone of screeching “organizers” bellowing hackneyed old phrases blared out from the oversized speakers. One of the contacts I had made on the 15th who was there called it “a fucking circus” and announced her intention to get the hell out of there. Cold and tired, I decided to follow suit. The “regularly scheduled” march, brought to you by the SEIU & Co., was forced to go on without me.
After the parade ended, all but a few packed up their things and went home.