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Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class

10/6/11

We are the 99% . . . You are the 99%.”

“Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!”

“Whose street? Our street!”

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This Is Not the Fringe.
This Is the Middle Class.

Yesterday into last night we gathered near New York’s City Hall and marched with what looked and felt like at least 100,000 “marginal fringe elements” such as nurses’ and teachers’ unions, the New York City Transit Workers’ union, the AFL-CIO, and innumerable others through Lower Manhattan to Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, the home base of Occupy Wall Street. We’ve been on numerous protest rallies in Manhattan and Washington and London with hundreds of thousands, and this felt as jam-packed as the anti–Iraq War marches in 2003, 2004, 2005.

But this—this feels like a revolution.

Yesterday’s marchers in the tens of thousands were nurses, teachers, professors, bus drivers, subway track workers, secretaries, students, at least one World War II veteran on an aluminum walker (according to the sign around his neck), many children on foot and in strollers, and so on. This is the middle class. As the signs and chants say, “We are the 99%. You are the 99%.”

Among the unions that announced their support and sent members to the march were National Nurses United, AFL-CIO (AFSCME), United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Service Employees International Union, SEIU 1199, the Transport Workers Union, Transit Workers Union Local 100, Working Families Party, Communications Workers of America, United Auto Workers, and Writers Guild East. (Click here for a longer list.)

A Few Things to Know about Occupy Wall Street 

•  Whatever you see on TV or read in the newspaper is probably a distortion, a minimizing dismissal, a marginalizing caricature. If you want the view of a seasoned journalist who has spent a lot of time with the OWS activists, read Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times reporter, at Truthdig and hear this interview with him. He describes the Occupy Wall Street activists as “the best among us.” See the video of Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Jeff Madrick, author of Age of Greed, talking with the Occupants last weekend through the “people’s microphone” (bullhorns are forbidden).

•  The OWS organizers, a loose-knit, non-hierarchical network, are not fringey radicals, but mostly well-educated, social media–savvy young people, creative and resourceful, and organized. They have worked hard in school but there are no jobs. The system—both the economy down to its foundations and the government—is not working for anyone but 1%. It’s over.

•  The Occupation was inspired by both Tahrir Square, Cairo, and the Arab Spring, and by Adbusters.org. See New York magazine’s revealing findings in “Meet the Occupants.” Learn more at OccupyWallSt.org.

•  This Occupation is not limited to Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. Occupy Together lists meetups in 588 cities. L.A. Chicago. Philadelphia. Boston. Seattle. Albuquerque . . . Tomorrow, more. London, you’re next. See map below.

•  The activists are not “unfocused” or lacking in specific aims. They have some very specific demands, including raising the tax rates on upper incomes; calling on the federal government to protect homeowners from arbitrary foreclosures by banks; establishing a financial transactions tax; and closing the “carried interest” and “founders stock” loopholes that, in the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “allow our wealthiest citizens to pay very low tax rates by pretending that their labor compensation is a capital gain.”

•  Americans prefer Occupy Wall Streeters to Congress. New York magazine reports: “A new Rasmussen poll shows that 33 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Wall Street protesters, compared with the 14 percent or so who said the same about the legislative branch. A whopping 79 percent also agreed with what Rasmussen characterized as the movement’s main statement: ‘The big banks got bailed but the middle class got left behind.’ ”

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Do the Police Know We’re on Their Side Too?

Before the march got going, we asked a crew-cut, man’s man–looking fellow in a red CWA T-shirt, what would he and his fellow union members say to the police who have shown their dislike the whole Occupy Wall Street thing. (e.g., NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying women held within an orange plastic fence).

This union man said he and his union members would say, “We support you when you’re negotiating for a new contract. We’re there for you, and we expect you to be there for us. Just let us protest this unfairness and don’t give us a hard time.”

There were many people with press passes interviewing union members and taking down notes, and it seemed nearly everyone had a camera—at least an iPhone camera—taking pictures of each other’s signs.

The atmosphere was festive, though still charged, passionate, determined. Some chanted against police brutality, against racist police. This was no Obama kumbaya feeling as in 2008. That was so long ago. In the signs and the comments between fellow marchers (you chat as you walk, or when the march stalls), the people are pretty much as disgusted with the Democrats as with the other party. One sign said OBAMA = BUSH.

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Two views of the same E–W street (Ann Street?) from Centre to Broadway.

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We’re Peaceful, But Screw with Us and We Multiply

The NYPD seemed unprepared for the massiveness of the turnout. Once we got to walking, after the speeches very few could hear in Foley Square near City Hall, we were channeled into narrow Dixie straw–like passages on sidewalks or on the margins of the streets while large spaces of the streets were occupied by the white shirts and the regular blue-uniformed cops. At one point along an east-west street between Centre Street and Broadway (see above), we were held up, absolutely still, for five minutes or more. People started shouting, “The light says walk! The light says walk!” Others were chanting something indistinct but provocative against police. We were carrying a sign that read “We’re Peaceful, But Screw with Us and We Multiply,” and weren’t too comfortable being penned in among anti-NYPD chanters. Nearby were yellow signs saying “NYPD Protects and Serves the Rich.” Finally someone lifted the steel barricades and several dozen of us moved through across the street. Police yelled, “Stay on the sidewalk!” The cops didn’t like that freedom of movement and came running to slam the gates shut to keep the cattle penned in.

The videos of police violence later in the evening were doubtless instances of the crowds spilling out of the designated perimeter, the chain of steel barricades penning in the multitudes. (“Whose street? Our street!”) The talk among the crowds is that the police, the authorities want conflict, want confrontation—the media certainly do (“If it bleeds, it leads”). You can feel that they are on edge. They don’t like us, even though we are there for them, for all of us. The authorities want to know who the leaders are so they can decapitate the Occupation, but it’s dispersed, decentralized, like the Internets.

Around 7:30 we peeled off to take the subway back home. The marchers were still coming, about 8 to 10 abreast, down Broadway, pouring into Zuccotti Park at Liberty Place, holding up signs, chanting, beating drums. It was a beautiful sight. Someone said, “The French are here!” Across the street we saw a large white banner, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (photo below).

There is no telling where this is going, but we know it’s growing, and it’s spreading. There will be violent repression, and the movement will continue to grow. As they said in Madison, Wisconsin, “Screw with us and we multiply.” The popular uprising will give some backing to the president’s newfound populist push against the Republicans and put some courage in the spines of the Democrats to stand up against the rich, but in a way it’s too late. In the signs, the chants, the conversations, in the passion and conviction of the people marching toward Wall Street yesterday, you could feel that the people have already moved beyond the politicians, perhaps even beyond the old American economy and society as we’ve known it.

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Click here for Mother Jones’s interactive map of the anti–Wall Street protests spreading across America  •  inequality charts  •  Occupy Wall Street–NYC timeline  •  roundup of top coverage  • and more. And see Further Reading sources below.

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close-up, Supreme Court, N.Y. County Clerk’s building (10-5-11)

Drummers on Broadway, St. Paul’s Chapel

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“the French are here!” someone said).

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Further Reading:

See Timothy Noah’s fine and troubling series, “The United States of Inequality,” at Slate

See Pulitzer Prize–winning NYT reporter David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else

Stanley Greenberg, James Carville, et al., “Democrats Should Want This Tax Cut Debate

Robert B. Reich, “Extend the Bush Tax Cut to the Bottom 99 Percent, But Not the Top 1 Percent

Robert B. ReichAftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future

Jacob HackerWinner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Robert ScheerThe Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street

Barbara EhrenreichNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Steven GreenhouseThe Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker

Robert KuttnerThe Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity



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5 Responses to “Occupying Wall Street with Nurses, Teachers, Transit Workers, and the Rest of America’s Middle Class”

  1. Cousin Pat from Georgia Says:

    Thanks for reporting.

    I’m not sold on the #OccupyStuff “movement” as anything other than pure, cathartic spectacle. I’ll believe whatever this is is worthwhile when people are inspired to take back their local school boards, city councils, and political parties – moving onward to affect municipal and state policy. My problem is, they are already free to do all of that, and no police can pen them in under those circumstances. The only difference is they choose not to participate in the agency citizens in this country are already granted.

    Policy is affected in the meeting room and the town hall. Spectacle is made in the streets.

    Right now, it is a bunch of folks yelling at bankers who aren’t going to be shamed into changing one damn thing.

  2. Levees Not War Says:

    I hear what you’re saying, and ordinarily that might be true, but in the present collapse & utter gridlock of economic and political order that remedy does not apply at all. 15+ million unemployed, and counting, and no one in power is doing *anything* to help. Serving on the school board and city council is certainly important, and you’re right that it is where policy is made, but in the present crisis such patient service is not going to force politicians and (somewhat) public relations-sensitive if not conscientious bank execs to adjust to public pressure. The people out in the street are frightened, passionate, some angry, desperate, homeless, etc. What you prescribe is in general the right way to go in more stable times, but I don’t think many of the tens of thousands out on the streets in Manhattan yesterday would view this prescription as realistic in the present circumstances. Yes it is true there is spectacle to this—that’s part of the intention—but it’s not only spectacle. Nor is the spectacle futile. There are times when getting out in the street by the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands is the only thing to do. This is part of the reason why the movement is spreading so rapidly all across the nation. It’s more like desperation and rage. Come to New York and taste the air. Or Chicago. Los Angeles. This may be bigger and deeper than people realize. By the way, in addition to the dead-serious determination there were also elements of Carnival and unmistakable love of country and true hope of making things better, with belief in fellow citizens’ capacities but almost no trust in any so-called leaders.

  3. Cousin Pat from Georgia Says:

    We’ve been dealing with desperation in the air for a long time, and the same things were said about the WTO protests, the “Battle in Seattle,” and the Iraq War demonstrations. How did those work out for you? They didn’t, that’s how. Because at the end of the day, no one took it to the next level of participation in government.

    You can’t say that the remedy doesn’t work when not enough folks have tried the remedy I’m prescribing, and it is exactly the antidote to the desperation and helplessness that they are feeling.

    The people who find themselves in the streets, looking to sway the opinions of our “leaders” ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THE LEADERS, but instead of stepping up to that, they’re expecting the folks currently holding office to take them seriously and take the country’s problems seriously. When are the folks in the streets going to realize that the people in office right now got where they are by not taking those problems seriously? You can’t shame them into altruism.

    Change is not going to happen until some of the people holding office now are thrown out of office through the power of the ballot. That starts with the local school board and the city council, and moves up to the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, and then Washington, DC.

    Going into the streets changes nothing, because it assumes one thing: the people in the streets have no agency, no power, to affect any change at all in their own lives. The streets are supposed to be the last resort, and there are plenty of open doors that simply have yet to be tried. The “movement” kneecaps itself by ignoring the places where it holds the most real power.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Pat,

    I hear what you are saying, but like Mark I have to hope this is quite different. I’ve been somewhat on the sidelines for more of my 50 years than I’d care to admit, but after what’s gone down here in Wisconsin and my now understanding about what’s at work in our country, my family and I are “all in.” We were in Madison every weekend all winter/spring and we will be in the occupy efforts as they unfold. My wife is currently researching flight/hotel packages for next weekend because we want so bad to be in NYC and put a “mainstream” face on things with our 11 year-old son and 7-year old daughter. But we don’t stop there. We are now both on the executive board of our union; we attended leadership union training over the summer; we’ve knocked on doors for recall elections and been to countless town hall and school board meetings throughout our area. You are correct that perhaps the younger members occupying Wall Street may have nebulous goals at best – but just like what happened here in Madison, WI, – those youngsters are soon backed up and fortified by wise middle-aged professors like me who know what it takes to effect change. Like the Bonus Army of long ago, I feel our time is ripe. Give us a chance and your support Pat – we’re going to do this! In solidarity – Kevin from Cheeseland 🙂

  5. Cousin Pat from Georgia Says:

    We are now both on the executive board of our union; we attended leadership union training over the summer; we’ve knocked on doors for recall elections and been to countless town hall and school board meetings throughout our area.

    This is exactly what I’m talking about as part of the solution. That kind of stuff gets ALL of my support, especially from Wisconsin, which I consider the Helmsdeep of Western Liberalism at this point. God help me I wish y’all’d give seminars to Southern Liberals and the Democratic Party down this way.

    I recognize the value of the protest as a gathering of like minds, the symbolism of changing the cultural narrative that these are just anarchic kids sleeping in parks. I hope you share your story with some of those youngsters, and inspire them to take that next step from spectacle to participation in the decision making process.

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