A trip to Zucotti Park

Posted on November 18th, 2011 in Culture,Economy,Government,Media by Robert Miller

Zucotti Park First Aid

Last weekend, November 12th and 13th, my son and I went to Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan New York,  where the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement had established its epicenter. We were lucky to get a hotel room just around the corner from the park and spent a good part of two days mingling among the occupiers, talking to them about the movement and learning more about the people involved. The first thing you noticed when you came around the corner from Nassau Street towards Broadway and Zucotti  was the huge array of police that surrounded the park. It seemed likely that there were more police than park mainstream OWS residents, though by then the resident population of the park had reached about 1600 (see Jeff Sharlet below). The police had huge communication trucks and many different kinds of squad cars; I couldn’t  tell if Homeland Security was there, and while I didn’t see any cars bearing that label, there were many unmarked cars in the police car mix. In the post-9/11 world, getting Homeland Security involved means that the movement (like the events we saw for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008) had reached threshold for a national security threat, but so far, it didn’t seem like that had happened. Of course, as we know, Homeland Security funds and trains police departments to serve as their proxy and many police departments have paramilitary squads that are prepared to carry out lethal assaults.  It was clear that the huge police presence surrounding the park was not going to allow the OWS movement to get up and walk towards Wall Street without a serious confrontation.  Two days after our visit, the police shut the park down, evicted the occupiers and confiscated or destroyed their belongings. Last night (Thursday, November 17) a crowd estimated at 32,500 by the NYPD occupied major blocks of the city, including the Brooklyn Bridge and simply overwhelmed the police. This morning Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be wishing he had left the movement in Zucotti Park where it seemed joyfully contained and a picture of industry.

I had a hard time thinking of Zucotti Park as a park when I first saw it–it is tiny. Located one block from the World Trade Center, it is currently owned by Brookfield Office Properties, a commercial real estate firm, headquartered in New York. When the building was first constructed in the 1960s by US Steel, they built a 50 + story structure at One Liberty Plaza.  They agreed with the city to provide a publicly accessible space, available 24/7  (this was one of those trades where the corporation gets to add more floors to a building and create a park to compensate the city).  Originally it was named Liberty Plaza Park, but later renamed Zucotti Park after John Zucotti, former chair of the City Planning Commission and current chair of  Brookfield Properties. It was badly damaged in the 9/11 attack and served as a launching site for the cleanup.  The renaming came after they remodeled the park, post-9/11. But because it is not actually a public park, it doesn’t carry with it the restrictions of public parks in New York, one of which bans tents without a permit. You can read more about the history and dilemma of Zucotti Park here.

How it all began: Jeff Sharlet of Rolling Stone has written a fascinating account of the OWS movement and its early history. From the first paragraph of his article:

  • It started with a Tweet – “Dear Americans, this July 4th, dream of insurrection against corporate rule” – and a hashtag: #occupywallstreet. It showed up again as a headline posted online on July 13th by Adbusters, a sleek, satirical Canadian magazine known for its mockery of consumer culture. Beneath it was a date, September 17th, along with a hard-to-say slogan that never took off, “Democracy, not corporatocracy,” and some advice that did: “Bring tent.“”

The OWS movement members often refer to this space as “Liberty Park.” At first glance, the park looks like a wall to wall space of a crowded  tents,  some of which were made by joining colored plastic sheets, while others were of the small conventional variety that you use for backpacking or camping.  Many people stay all night and some people are invited to spend the night, either as a small group or as individuals.  At the time of our visit, many were talking about the need for a well-insulated winter sleeping bag and a much better tent to replace their makeshift plastic sheets;  most were confident that public donations would solve that problem (the site where I donated had already raised over $500,000 for the cause). Police did not allow generators to be used, claiming that the noise level would be too high. But, to charge batteries, the Zucotti Park residents used stationary bicycles connected to an electronic arrangement that allowed recharging of computer and cell phone  batteries and those willing to peddle for a while for their contribution to the workload were always welcome.  In general, it was a very friendly environment and if you entered the park with some apprehension about your compatibility with the protestors, you could immediately relax. After all, just about everyone is a member of the 99 per cent and thus a colleague to those in the movement. And you are generally treated in that way. This group wants to grow.

Around the periphery of Zucotti, there were a few quacks, hyping some distorted vision of the World, but they were not members of the OWS movement.  I stopped to talk to one person who seemed very bright and articulate, but when he started advocating that the people in Zucotti were too lazy to work and then began quoting from the Bible, swearing that the earth was only 6000 years old and that evolution couldn’t be true because turtles always seemed to be turtles and if anyone needed to evolve it was surely turtles. As I politely parted company with the young man, it occurred to me that he was a victim of Ronald Reagan, or Reaganism, because it was Reagan who first advocated that creationism should be taught alongside science in the public school system (OK, we have the Scopes trial, but that was long ago and culturally far away: Reagan brought the issue back into our living rooms).  Our culture has been dogged by this creationism/intelligent design/science dilemma ever since and this young man sounded like an unfortunate victim, not unlike what’s still going on in much of the country. Education is critical for a modern, civilized society and we seem to be losing our grip on this requirement. This too is part of the neoliberal plan designed to reduce the cost of labor, but it has reached a runaway toxic level of intrusion.

Library in Zucotti Park

Once you begin to move from the outside periphery to a more central region of Zucotti, you are more likely to run into people who have stories to tell and sensible solutions to propose. The OWS movement has been criticized for not articulating a set of demands and many within the group have tried to inject a demand strategy. But the movement has rejected such pleas and prefers to remain a group that is growing and is certainly content to say “hey if you want to announce your objections to the system, go ahead, you are part of the 99 per cent and we don’t intend to speak for you. We encourage you to speak for yourself.” It is a group that largely emerged from the arts and communications fields rather than from progressive academics or union types. In that sense they do not carry the traditional leftist point of view, though some individuals do harbor that sentiment. The OWS movement represents, in effect, a perfect democracy where everyone has a legitimate view and the right to express it. There are many who feel that the lack of a cohesive set of demands by the group will eventually be their undoing, but right now, they have a growing sense of confidence that they have tapped into a vein running through America and they intend to pursue what has so far been a successful strategy. It is quite astonishing to recognize that the movement is only two months old.  Every person is allowed and even encouraged to express themselves. I saw one sign denouncing the communications giant Verizon for its corporate practices, but in Zucotti, there is more of a focus on Wall Street and the banks. Many in the park had signs specifying specific reasons for change and some cited historical events to make their point. Those that made specific points (the need for a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not people–surprisingly I think that that one might actually get through) are generally well informed about the subject and eager to converse. And everyone is talking and communicating and arguing. Virtually everyone was approachable and polite. I found that a common theme among those that have attended college is a heavy debt from student loans. In this respect, they have all been victims of corporate greed. But this is a group that has respect for education and many want to return to complete their degrees or get into graduate school. This is especially evident if you go to the wearethe99percent website and read the statements submitted by individuals. Members of the movement have also started a newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, which has received high marks for its journalistic quality.

A few paths through the park interior allow people to move through in single file, but most of the paths are all so narrow, that to me, they looked more like a  representation of the extracellular space of the brain. In the middle of the park, there was a big food line. Food is free for anyone who enters the park and it mostly comes from donated food sources, manned by dedicated volunteers, many of whom have just arrived and are anxious to contribute. There was a library at the Broadway end of the park, consisting of a large tent with plastic boxes filled with donated books. You can check a book out and don’t need a library card. And because the area has no real public library facility nearby, neighborhood parents came to the library and checked out books for their children. It was a picture of industry and the OWS movement was proud of this additional effort for the cause. When the police came in and destroyed the Zucotti camp, early Tuesday morning (November 15 at 1:00 AM)  the library books were confiscated or destroyed and the OWS movement is trying to get them back, as they look for a place where a new library facility can be established.

RFM in Zucotti: proof of presence

At the other side of the park, but still on the Broadway end, meetings are held in which discussions take place on matters brought up in the General Assembly of OWS, where meetings take place regularly, at which time they try to resolve issues about the focus and direction of the movement. They are also very big on behavior and want this movement to be non-violent. Once the General Assembly meetings are over, people gather in the park to deliberate on the issues that have been raised in the meetings.  The police did not allow the protestors to have microphones and loud speakers, so they developed the art of the “people’s mic,”  which is that when a single person raises an issue, they speak in short segments of a sentence and then wait until the entire group repeats the words, so that everyone understands what is being said. Very good if you’re hard of hearing. It works very effectively, with a couple of moderators standing in front of the crowd to help coordinate the effort. It’s a mechanism that seems to provide a bonding experience and errors for complex statements that were hard to repeat generally evoked laughter. It is through the General Assembly meetings and discussion of the ideas through the “people’s mic” where deliberations are made; anyone can speak, though it generally makes sense that you already attended the General Assembly meeting. They have hand position rules to reject, accept and listen to a speaker who has the floor. Sometimes contentious issues come up and various suggestions made at the Assembly are rejected by the group. The interior also has a First Aid tent and has some internal security. In addition, there was a large blue plastic tent that served as the communications center where people were broadcasting live feeds that you can watch on the OWS site.

Originally, the group only numbered about 60 people when they first met on September 17, 2011 and it was hard to see that they were going to get anywhere. V for Vendetta masks  were quite popular but seemed to convey a more violent confrontation when what the protestors wanted was a non-violent beginning. Drugs and alcohol were not allowed in the park, though you certainly knew that pot was on the menu. Today the OWS movement has spread not only in America, but throughout the World. About 1600 different OWS movements are flourishing globally. By the time we went, OWS was serving more than 3000 meals a day and something like 1600 people were bedding down in the park each night.

The 99 percent versus the 1 percent is a very catchy and simple phrase. It also has meaning in terms of wealth distribution. According to Joseph Stiglitz, published in his article in Vanity Fair, the top 1 percent of our society bring in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year and in  terms of wealth, they own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Twenty-five years ago, the numbers were 12 and 33 percent, respectively. Few would deny that we have a wealth distribution that is completely out of control and the neoliberal system we have been living under for the past forty years has proven to be too toxic and too radical for our cultural survival, and it is incompatible with the mounting threats we face for a healthy future for the planet we live on.

 

Tent City in Zucotti Park, November 12, 2011

 

After being evicted from Zucotti Park, the OWS movement in New York and many other cities, created a massive turnout that overwhelmed the police, whose intentions were to brutally block the demonstrators from taking over things like the Brooklyn Bridge. I have heard a rumor that the OWS library was re-established on the Brooklyn Bridge, though it’s unlikely to have permanent residence there. This movement is strikingly different than anything I have ever seen. Though they do not have demands per se, there is little doubt that they will have an impact on the coming election of 2012 and they already have sent both political parties scrambling to come up with approaches that might ameliorate them and that, in and of itself, could have a powerful transforming effect on the future direction of our economic policies and our social safety net. These are people who shun the neoliberal emphasis on individual liberties and instead promote the idea that we are all in this together–we must create an interdependent society and move away from what imprisoned and impoverished most of us for the last forty years. It will get worse before it gets better, but the OWS movement has started the spirit of revolutionary excitement that may now be impossible to contain. That is what many of us are hoping for.

RFM

 

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Crisis of Capitalism

Posted on November 9th, 2011 in Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

David Harvey's Crisis of Capitalism on You Tube

For a short but informative historical introduction and analysis of our current fiscal crisis, I recommend David Harvey’s presentation on You Tube. In many circles and for many reasons it is no longer an unforgivable sin to be talking about Karl Marx and his critique of capitalism. When you see the corrupt form of capitalism that has emerged over the past thirty years, especially in America, you have to scratch your head to come up with a sound reason why we went in such a radical direction, except that powerful corporations declared war on the Middle Class and we didn’t offer sufficient resistance.  The main theory of capitalism is greed and complete, unfettered control of money, which turns into handsome lifestyles for the ruling class and no one else. Apart from that, there isn’t any real theory of capitalism. Why is it that brilliant analysts of social economics always seem to favor socialism or communism? They are certainly different: socialism wants to manage capitalism and communism wants to do away with it. If you have never read Karl Marx, I suggest you look at Terry Eagleton’s lively, very readable book Why Marx Was Right.”  It’s available from Amazon and as a Kindle download. You can also take an on-line course on Marx through David Harvey’s website by clicking HERE. Who in history was a more constructive critic of capitalism than Marx? And when you see on a daily basis how our version of capitalism is perfectly content with seeing the planet blow up, draining every drop of oil and using up tar sands to further pollute the air, all done in the name of profit from excess capital, you realize that the system we have is sheer madness and completely out of control. What’s more it makes so many feel that they have to struggle, turn to religion so they can hear it from their priest or bishop that they failed because they didn’t have enough faith in God, when in reality its our economic system that has failed them.  So we need to begin a new global dialogue about bringing back back sanity in our distribution of wealth and control of runaway corporate power, in the interests of our planetary future and that of our children who will have to inherit the world we leave behind. But what kind of world will allow us to live and save the planet while doing so? The contradictions of capitalism are too many to be ignored and we cannot rely on the current system to solve important issues like healthcare and the environment. But, what system will work and will it work for everyone? Can we create a utopia out of this current fiscal crisis? It’s probably too early for that conversation, but what the hell, let’s have it anyway.  Communism has no chance of working if there is no wealth to redistribute. That’s why the Bolshevik revolution deteriorated into a caricature of communism known as Stalinism. Both Lenin and Trotsky realized that if the Bolshevik revolution was not going to be joined by the rest of the workers of the world, particularly those  in Europe (which had very active communist movements at the time), it was doomed because Russia didn’t have enough wealth for redistribution into a functional society.  That’s why Marx argued that capitalism had to proceed communism or socialism, so that wealth of production could  reach a stage at which more social control could be used to benefit society as a whole. America is decades away from having that kind of dialogue, without things getting a lot worse.   It certainly looks like we are going to lope along, with a few more financial meltdowns likely to occur before America is ready to look at its fiscal house in a serious way.  But at least alternative thinkers, like Karl Marx can now come through the door again and sit in on the conversation.

RFM

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Updates from Occupy Wall Street

Posted on November 8th, 2011 in Economy,Politics by Robert Miller

 

Police Arrest in the OWS Movement (From Chris Hedge's Article in Truthdig

Chris Hedges writes passionately in Truthdig about his experience when arrested last Thursday while demonstrating in front of Goldman Sachs as a participant in the OWS movement in New York City.  He has covered many major conflicts as a journalist during the latter half of the twentieth century and paints a rich set of images, borrowing from Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the banality of evil as she reported on the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963 for The New Yorker.  Hedges leaves little doubt about where he thinks our financiers belong as a result of their fiscal transgression. Who can argue?

In case you missed it, William Black, professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, who worked on the Savings and Loan scandal in the 1980s (and author of the book “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One” (University of Texas Press 2005)), wrote an article that appears in Michael Moore’s website marking the 40th anniversary of Lewis F. Powell, Jr’s famous memo (August 23, 1971),   just before he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon. The memo encourages  corporations to fight back against the threats to corporate standing represented by Ralph Nader and his consumer advocacy. Many interpret Powell’s memo, written to the chair of the education committee of the Chamber of Commerce, as the beginning of the neoliberal pushback by corporate America, which currently has our financial system in a hammer lock.  What does all this have to do with the OWS movement? Black was recently interviewed while visiting the OWS movement in New York and detailed the difference between the Savings and Loan scandal (where many CEOs went to prison) and the current, much worse fiscal crisis, where no charges have yet been made against any of the deeply corrupt perpetrators of our casino economy and the global economic meltdown which they instigated, with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, as one of the prime suspects, or certainly the symbolic leader of the indifference demonstrated by Wall Street to the serious recession we find ourselves in today.

RFM

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