Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reflections on OCCUPY Oakland

By now if you are following the Occupy Wall Street movement you may be aware of the critical injury two-time Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen sustained two nights ago at a demonstration in Oakland.  Footage of the incident from one of the news organizations covering the demonstration has been re-posted on Move-on.org.

As I noted in last week’s blog, I have just returned to Oakland and had intended to go to Occupy Oakland, which is four blocks from my office on Tuesday.  My plans were thwarted when, to the shock of many people, the Oakland police moved in on the encampment at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.  In a press conference, the spokesperson for the police noted that they had mobilized 200 police for this action.  Protestors were given a choice of leaving immediately with their belongings or being arrested.  About 30 left and another 75 were arrested.  So, 200 cops in full riot gear cleared out maybe 105 protestors.  This, in a city that has no money, and a very progressive mayor, Jean Quan. 

The protestors were camped at Frank Ogawa Plaza, which is a beautiful and well-used public space in front of city hall, circled by restaurants and other small businesses.  Quite a few nonprofits including the East Bay Community Foundation have offices on or near this Plaza and it is a major BART (subway) stop.  As with many public spaces, even prior to Occupy Oakland, it was already “occupied” by a dozen homeless people who hung out during the day and slept in doorways and on benches at night. 

I went down Tuesday about noon.  Barricades had been set up around the Plaza.  Behind the barricades stood a phalanx of police in full riot gear.  Inside the barricades, city workers dismantled what remained of the encampment.  The police stood about two feet apart, their arms dangling above all the stuff they wear around their waist.  What remained of the protestors stood on the sidewalk yelling at each other, the police and passersby.  I was struck by the sight:  a disciplined line of  cops:  mixed race, almost equal numbers of men and women, facing an unruly but nonviolent crowd of mostly African American young men and women.   The 99% turned on each other while the corporate fat-cats we denounce go on about their business. 

I went again Wednesday night about 5:30.  By then many of the protestors were back, and the mood was somber.   Scott Olsen had been wounded.  Mayor Quan had shown herself capable of calling for military like intervention, to the shock of her supporters.  You could even catch the occasional fume of tear gas.  The protestors still trended young, but were majority white.  I was very dressed up because I had done a presentation earlier so I wandered around particularly near the TV people.  I hoped I would show up on Channel 5 because well dressed people at protests almost never do. (To my knowledge, I did not break that pattern.)   I talked with people, patted their dogs (of which there were quite a few) and met several dozen well-dressed older people in the crowd.  The Hare Krishnas were serving food and people were making new posters.   The police were not in sight, although two helicopters circling overhead drowned out a lot of the commentary.  

A little later I talked with a friend of mine who works for Jean Quan and asked what Jean was thinking.  She said the first problem with the Occupy encampment is that there is nothing the city can agree to in order to get them to disperse.  There are no demands to the city (to me, part of the genius of this movement).    Second, people had started to build fires at night for warmth and cooking and we are at the height of fire season.  If something had caught fire, the entire camp would have been up in flames in a few minutes and people would have been hurt and killed.  (Fire is a very real and scary prospect to Bay Area people who years ago witnessed 1000 homes go up in smoke in one evening).   Third, the numbers of people had overwhelmed the public bathrooms and port-a-potties.  Fourth, dozens more homeless people had moved to the plaza, drawn by regular hot food and better sleeping conditions.  Some fights had broken out.  The restaurants on the plaza (which have been largely supportive, even supplying some food and coffee) were beginning to wonder how long this would go on.   The Mayor’s office (the Mayor herself is in Washington DC trying to round up federal money for Oakland) thought something terrible could happen and sought to prevent it.  I had a glimmer of sympathy for the City officials.  I don’t know why the camping protestors weren’t simply asked not to have fires, and why the city didn’t provide more port-a-potties, or ask the campers to expand their clean up committee to the bathrooms.  But I do imagine that those people in charge of public health and public safety have very mixed feelings about any big gathering of angry people.  Ironically, though, the most damage was done by those most sworn to protect us: the police.   

The Occupy Wall Street movement has sought to have the 99% understand our common identity, but the reality is that in the 99% there are multiple and conflicting identities, motives and needs.  For this movement to move to have a more revolutionary impact, those conflicts will have to be explored.  Right now they are simply being exploited, and the one group that isn’t really suffering a great deal from OWS is the 1%.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Everywhere

I have been on a long business trip for the last two weeks and haven’t been able to attend any of the “We are the 99%” gatherings, which have sprung up everywhere.  The right wing clearly doesn’t know what to do with this movement and has resorted to using petty and cliché descriptions of the protestors as communists, lacking any demands, unfocused, and unsophisticated.  From time to time, the protests are taken seriously and the protestors are arrested en masse.  Clearly the powers-that-be have no idea what to do with this movement.   Their efforts to be dismissive have run aground as “occupy” camps and rallies are now literally arising in every town and hamlet.  No further proof of this is needed than the fact that next Saturday, Hendersonville, NC will have an “Occupy” movement made up mostly of retirees.  Hendersonville is a beautiful little town of 10,000 people about 22 miles from Asheville.  Like many towns in Western North Carolina, it has high unemployment and a high poverty rate, with pockets of affluence.  With about ¼ of its population over 65, it has the feel of a retirement community.  It is an unlikely place to find an “Occupy” protest. 

I am in Asheville as we speak.  Earlier today, I went by the Occupy Asheville site but it was pouring rain and really cold so I wished them well from my car rather than joining in.  I admit, with some embarrassment, to being a person who really does not like to attend demonstrations, rallies and protests.  When everyone is chanting, “What do we want?”  I want to respond, “To put my arm down” or “A cup of coffee.”  I have dragged myself to many demonstrations over the years but largely leave that part of movement building to others who seem to enjoy it.  I do love the Occupy Wall Street movement, though, and may just have to pitch my tent in downtown Oakland when I get back. 

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University and author of, 'The Price of Civilization' captures the spluttering outrage of those who can’t believe the other 99% would ever dare say anything in his Huffington post op-ed,
“Here's a short note to the titans of Wall Street to help them understand what's happening.
Let me start with the Wall Street Journal, which seems to be the most confused of all. In its Friday edition, the Journal editorial board couldn't understand why the protestors would want to protest JP Morgan and hedge fund manager John Paulson. The Journal also couldn't understand why the protesters were failing to champion something as wonderful as the Keystone Pipeline, which the Journal assures us would create many jobs.

The protesters are annoyed with JP Morgan because it, like its fellow institutions on the street, helped to bring the world economy to its knees through unprincipled and illegal actions. The Journal editorial board apparently missed the news carried in the Journal's own business pages that JP Morgan recently paid $153.6 million in fines for violating securities laws in the lead-up to the 2008 financial collapse. JP Morgan, like other Wall Street institutions, connived with hedge funds to peddle toxic assets to unsuspecting investors, allowing the hedge funds to make a killing at the expense of their "mark," and the world economy.”
“Mr. Paulson actually made some extraordinary statements in the New York Times on Friday (hard even to believe the nonsensical quotations are correct, but there they are, in the paper of record). He too expressed befuddlement about the protests against his business dealings. Didn't the protestors know that he had created 100 high-paying jobs in NYC? 100?”
He goes on to say,
“What the protestors do know is that Mr. Paulson's success in shorting toxic assets bundled for gullible investors has netted him billions. In 2007, he reportedly took home $3.7 billion by betting against the U.S. mortgage market. And the protestors can also do their arithmetic. Paulson's take home pay was enough to cover not just 100 jobs at $50,000 per year but rather approximately 70,000 jobs at $50,000 per year. Nice try, Mr. Paulson, but the people in Liberty Plaza don't think your hedge-fund play is really worth the compensation of 70,000 people. Nor do they understand why hedge fund managers pay a top tax rate of 15% on their hedge-fund earnings.

The protestors are not envious of wealth, but sick of corporate lies, cheating, and unethical behavior. They are sick of corporate lobbying that led to the reckless deregulation of financial markets; they are sick of Wall Street and the Wall Street Journal asking for trillions of dollars of near-zero-interest loans and bailout money for the banks, but then fighting against unemployment insurance and health coverage for those drowning in the wake of the financial crisis; they are sick of absurdly low tax rates for hedge-fund managers; they are sick of Rupert Murdoch and his henchman David Koch trying to peddle the Canada-to-Gulf Keystone oil pipeline as an honest and environmentally sound business deal, when in fact it would unleash one of the world's dirtiest and most destructive energy sources, Canada's oil sands, so that Koch can profit while the world suffers. And they are sick of learning how many Republican politicians - the most recent news is about Herman Cain - are doing the bidding of the Koch brothers.

Here, then, Wall Street and Big Oil, is what it comes down to. The protesters are no longer giving you a free ride, in which you can set the regulations, set your mega-pay, hide your money in tax havens, enjoy sweet tax rates at the hands of ever-willing politicians, and await your bailouts as needed. The days of lawlessness and greed are coming to an end. Just as the Gilded Age turned into the Progressive Era, just as the Roaring Twenties and its excesses turned into the New Deal, be sure that the era of mega-greed is going to turn into an era of renewed accountability, lawfulness, modest compensation, honest taxation, and government by the people rather than by the banks.

That, in short, is why Wall Street is filled with protesters and why you should wake up, respect the law rather than try to write it, and pay your taxes to a government that is ruled by people rather than by corporate power.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Resources from IPS

Today we share the latest resources from our partners from the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. Their research gives some background to what’s being pushed for down in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and around the world.
“No budget cuts until millionaires and corporate tax dodgers pay their fair share.”

Our message and program focus for the last five years has now become a national rallying cry, from Occupy Wall Street to the Halls of Congress. We are providing analysis, talking to legislators, and supporting “street heat” during this critical time.

Last week, a bill was introduced in the Senate to provide a “tax holiday” for companies that have parked over $1 trillion in offshore tax have havens after heavy lobbying from a coalition of Wall Street Companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We’re pushing back in the news and on the streets. Call Congress today through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and tell them “No Tax Holiday for Corporations That Destroy Jobs.”

We just released the report, “America Loses: Corporations That Take 'Tax Holidays' Slash Jobs" which shows that the 58 companies that got 70 percent of the tax breaks in 2004 destroyed almost 600,000 jobs.

Earlier this month, we released “The Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging” exposing the ugly intersection of CEO pay and aggressive corporate tax avoidance. The report was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, and literally hundreds of other media outlets.

Watch this short video of media highlights.

IPS and our partner project, The Other 98 %, has been providing infrastructure support to US Uncut and the Occupy Wall Street protests, and Chuck Collins recently made these comments at the Occupy Washington DC rally to 2,000 people in front of the Chamber of Commerce.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street!

Today we share a guest post from Ann Holder, a friend of ours who celebrated Yom Kippur down on Wall Street and was touched by the commons spirit of the service and the crowds:

Easily 600 people celebrated the Kol Nidre in the plaza across from Zuccotti Park last night. I’m not a religious person, having already received a severe overdose of Christianity, and neither is my secular Jewish GF (who usually has a small identity crisis at the High Holy days).

But both of us were incredibly moved by this very public ritual of remembrance and atonement, the words of being born anew to move forward without the baggage of regrets or resentments from the past, in the context of this hopeful seizure of the Park, and the outpouring of both righteous anger and goodwill that have accompanied it.

The occupied park—as usual—had a host of activities going on: musicians jamming, people holding signs to be seen by the passing traffic and media, a group cooking, clusters of people talking. As seems to be the case in general, the Info Desk was very helpful and organized, directing traffic, needs, appeals in all directions. They sent us across the street to the Plaza, where five or six headlamp-wearing rabbis were surrounded by an enormous crowd.

Like the flavor of Occupy Wall Street itself, the Yom Kippur service was an immensely joyous and forgiving—if very talkative—circle of humanity. Surrounded by huge office buildings, no one complained about the noise, or the crowds, or the close quarters, or the occasional disruption as bursts of cheering wafted from the Park across the street. The Rabbis and Cantor competed with the roar of traffic, the rumble of generators from the food trucks that are now stationed next to the occupation 24/7. The occasional sound of a blender frothing a fruit drink, or the banging of massive garbage carts being used for Occupation Sanitation provided a fairly steady backdrop, along with the queries of passers-by who stopped to ask what was going on.

No amplification was allowed, so the entire service was done in a kind of call and response, with the inner circle shouting a repetition of rabbis’ words in unison so all could hear. Ritual phrases repeated by hundreds, echoed through the plaza, alternating with “Here’s what we’re going to do now,” or “Turn to page 32, 334 or 331,” the latter of course depending on the various versions of the machzor in use. People shared xeroxed copies, or dialed it up on IPads and smart phones.

The crowd was made up largely of PWC’s, people without children, which meant it was largely the very young adults and then elders like us. There were lots and lots of ‘older people,’ whatever that means these days, many who had brought their own chairs.

To our eyes, it looked like an exceptionally mainstream crowd considering that the Facebook invite had warned, “there may be disruptions and/or the possibility of police interference. Though it is highly unlikely, participants nonetheless risk the possibility of arrest. Please be prepared for that possibility.” It was largely white, though not entirely, and very, well, Jewish—as in lots of prayer shawls, yarmulkes, hardback copies of the service in tow.

The most interesting provocation was the public character of the event.

We left awed and wondering: What would it mean to do more of these kinds of things ‘in public’? Religious services, rituals, celebrations, classrooms—or even a variety of ordinary activities and conversations, all made available for respectful viewing or participating?

(And here I reference the number of people walking by, who had no idea what was going on, and seemed puzzled by the explanations, but who stayed to watch, and listen, with great interest and attention.)

It is this ‘new public’ that is one of the most hopeful and appealing aspects of the Occupation as it heads toward a fair weather weekend. The handmade signs continue to proliferate. Including, “Beware of Dogmatism.” There is now an informal sign gallery, where people leave their signs for display and re-use. Every kind of topic, lettering, color, idea, complaint—all different—mostly on brown cardboard.

Waiting in line at McDonalds, one of the only public bathrooms in the area, I met a young African-American woman carrying her sign. I asked if she was occupying. “Oh yes,” she said. I asked about staying over night. “No” she demurred, “I’m a high school student in Brooklyn. I come down here everyday after school, around 3:00.”

“How’s the homework going?” I asked.

She laughed and said, “pretty well,” adding, “Actually, that’s mostly what I do—sit and pull out my computer and write my homework.”

People are talking, learning to live in close quarters, in far from optimal conditions, to depend on each other, to enjoy the realm of the non-commercially social.

As we walked to the subway after the service, we passed a small group of young people talking excitedly and carrying their backpacks and bedrolls heading towards the park. With the warm weather, the growing crowds and the release of our regrets, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately, the city/state/police will close this down as soon as they can figure out how. Note headline in the NY Times this morning: “Neighbors are Weary of Protest”

[Apparently the Park is privately owned by a developer who was mandated to build this sliver of ‘public space,’ and keep it open 24/7, as part of agreement with the city. The irony of this privately held public space offers a sanctuary of sorts.]

Wishes/Needs: We’d love to see a solidarity campaign emerge. A ‘Support Occupy Wall St. movement,’ with some strategizing about how to continue to maximize the PUBLIC character of this protest, and a mechanism for calling out a protective ring of civil disobedience when the moment comes for ‘clearing the square.’

Is any such thing in the works? Anybody know? Any ideas?