Carl Davidson : Occupied Wall Street and the Emergence of a Popular Front

Photo by Emily Laermer / Crain’s.

We shall not be moved!
A report from occupied Wall Street:

A new popular front against finance capital, encompassing a progressive majority of the country, is beginning to take shape.

By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / October 19, 2011

NEW YORK — Riding the New York City subways in a rush hour is always an adventure. But experiencing the crowds of people on the downtown train to Wall St at 5:30 a.m., Friday Oct 14, 2011, was a special treat. The closer we got to the financial district, the more workers with union jackets poured into the cars, in a militant and upbeat mood, ready to assert their power.

I was in town for a speaking engagement at a union hall the night before, when our small group got the word of an email blast from the national AFL-CIO, saying, “Everyone who can, get down to Wall Street by 6 a.m. We’re going to block Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to evict the protestors with the police.” The after-meeting chatter ended quickly, since we knew we needed to get some sleep for a long day ahead.

It was still pitch dark as we climbed out of the Wall Street station. We could hear the noise from Zuccotti Park, but batches of cops were everywhere, putting up barricades as a kind of obstacle course. I was with Pat Fry and Anne Mitchell, both SEIU staffers and leaders of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

“Goodness, look at all the media,” said Pat, noting the hundreds of reporters, together with vans and cranes erecting their cameras. When we got to the park it was jam-packed with more than 1,000 young people, mostly sitting in the dark with arms linked. The incoming thousands of supporters from labor and the general public began encircling the park until they were about three deep in front of the wall all around it.

Anne spotted an open space on the wall. “Let’s get up here,” she said, as we each got a hand lifting us into position.

From our vantage point, even in the darkness, we could see an inspiring but intense scene unfolding. The police had paddy wagons and empty buses for mass arrests trying to find positions, but getting blocked by traffic. Every few minutes, hundreds more emerged from the subway stations as additional trains rolled in. You could tell who was there from the jackets, caps, and t-shirts — Teamsters, SEIU, the Transit Workers Union, and many more.

“No way there’s going to be an eviction,” I said to my partners. “The cops are way outnumbered and outmaneuvered. All they can do is teargas the entire plaza, but then what? That would create a fight shutting down the entire financial district. They’re not ready for it yet.”

Inside the park, an amazingly ordered but still spontaneous “General Assembly” was underway. The “human microphone” was in play, a technique developed to counter situations where amplified sound equipment was banned. A speaker would shout out a relatively short statement, and then it would be re-shouted in turn by the dozens around him or her, and re-shouted again by much of the crowd, aiming their voices out into the streets. The only limitation is that you have to speak and pause as if you’re being translated, but it’s English-to-louder-English.

The speeches were intermixed with call-and-response chants. “Tell me what democracy looks like?” was met with the return roar, “This is what democracy looks like!” When someone wants to speak from different part of the park, they yell out “Mike check!” and when it gets repeated loudly enough by 20 or so people, they get their turn, and at any given spot, there will be a “stack” of people lined up with something to say, managed by a “stack-keeper.” For this dramatic period at least, it worked beautifully.

Finally one speaker yelled out, “We’ve finally got the official word. At a meeting just a few hours ago, the city agreed to postpone the eviction. We’ve won!” The occupiers were jubilant — and even a good number of cops seem relieved. Soon after the announcement, one speaker was a member of New York’s City Council. “You need to hear that you have more friends than you know about inside the council!” In other words, the mass pressure from below forced a split, and now there was a crack in the ceiling to be taken advantage of by the occupiers.

We stood on the wall for another hour or so, listening to a few speeches but mainly talking with friends and comrades who spotted us on our perch. Jay and Judith Schaffner, retired unionists, had driven in from the Poconos, and reported on what was happening even in the small towns of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Many activists with New York City’s Labor Left Project stopped by, as did people we knew from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Communist Party, USA.

A good number of veterans from the old SDS of the 1960s came up and said hello. “We’re everywhere!” I noted with a smile. I also had a surprising number of young people I’ve never met come up and say, “Hi! I’m one of your Facebook Friends!” The new media seemed to be working well.

By this time the gray light of dawn arrived. Some people were leaving the square to go to work while more were still arriving. “I don’t know about you guys, but I need some coffee and a serious breakfast,” said Anne. We agreed, jumped down, made our way through the police lines to one of New York’s ubiquitous coffee shops. Over our eggs and sausage, we discussed the meaning of it all before Pat and Anne had to get to work.

In choosing Wall Street as their target, and taking direct action defined by moral clarity against a range of injustices, the young occupiers had opened up a new public sphere. It was a dynamic and flexible political space open to all whose issues, demands, hopes and dreams had been swept “off the table.”

An arrogant and dismissive ruling class, determined to impose more neoliberal austerity and longer wars, was in for a rude awakening. If those at the top thought the bottled up frustration and rage of millions at the bottom “had nowhere to go,” they were now facing this new insurgency in the streets.

Young people in the 1960s had acted as a critical force, holding up a mirror to the rest of society, prodding it to respond. The Black student sit-ins in the Deep South were a prime example, as were the anti-war students on the campuses and the young alienated GIs returning from Vietnam.

But this new insurgency was different in important ways. First, the “long wars” had fed a deep crisis abroad, feeding both the Arab Spring “square” occupations and a long-frustrated antiwar majority at home. Second, the financial crisis had alienated millions in the working class and other strata in a deep way.

The labor upsurges in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio revealed an angry discontent in the U.S. heartland. So instead of taking years of “critical force” protests to create and awaken a progressive majority, the young occupiers rather quickly found that they had large and important allies.

That was evident in the rapid support they received from Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers, from Richard Trumka speaking for the AFL-CIO, from the 20,000 workers mobilized by New York’s unions in a solidarity march a week ago, and finally, from this morning’s dramatic intervention blocking the eviction. An important new alliance between a radicalizing youth movement and the more progressive wing of organized labor has been forged in the streets — and it was ongoing and open-ended.

It also didn’t stop with labor. A number of city councils across the country, themselves suffering at the hands of Wall Street-imposed neoliberal cutback policies, passed resolutions and spoke up in defense of the occupiers. Others equivocated, and tried to restrict and disperse the actions, resulting in nearly 1,000 arrests across the country.

Electoral groups like the Progressive Democrats of America urged its members to go ‘all out’ in support of the occupations, and PDA’s allies — Bernie Sanders in the Senate and the Progressive Caucus in the House — also spoke up. Even Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House, gave her support. And while President Obama didn’t go that far, he tipped his hat to the effort, acknowledging the validity of “their concerns.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka visits Occupy Wall Street protest. Photo by Pat Ivers /

A new popular front emerging

The implications of all this are deep, complex, and strategic. A new popular front against finance capital, encompassing a progressive majority of the country, is beginning to take shape. It is emerging against the neoliberal intransigence on Wall Street, against the GOP-dominated Congress, and against a White House that too frequently conciliates with the right wing of both parties. It brings together many demands, many voices, and several contending platforms, but all aimed against a common adversary — the “99 percent versus the one percent,” the most popular theme in the protests that sums it up.

After breakfast, I headed back to the park to spend a few hours talking to people and taking it all in. There was a lot of activity reassembling the different facilities of the occupiers that had been taken down the day before to sweep and scrub the occupied zone. The Mayor had been using the sham excuse of “unsanitary conditions” as to why he was going to clear the area. “If the Mayor was serious about this,” said one young guy with a broom, “he’d give us the porta-johns and dumpsters we’ve been asking for since we started. But they’re still refusing, so we do the best we can.”

The cleanup was actually very good. A large number of young people were also by now sleeping in the various sections of the park. They had covered their spaces with tarps and folded cardboard signs that doubled as sleeping pads for their sleeping bags. They had been up all night and were exhausted. All the sleeping was out in the open since the city had banned tents in the area, as well as amplified sound.

Not that the sound restriction mattered all that much. On the west end on the square was a huge drummer’s circle with about a dozen people beating out a constant background of rhythms. The styles changed as one cultural grouping took over the drums from another — African American, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, women, white rockers, and various mixtures of all sorts. The drone was actually a pleasant background, creating an energized atmosphere.

You could tell that many protestors were from a new and fresh layer of young activists. The reason? Four huge American flags were constantly being waved over the drummers. There were also a few red flags, an Earth flag, and several rainbow flags — but in a more seasoned left event, especially with a large proportion of anarchists, the American flags would not likely be there.

The youth also seemed quite diverse. There was one small “Class War” corner with several dozen kids dressed mainly in black, other areas with kids mainly in tie-dyed shirts, and even one young man, very busily engaged in cleaning up the area, was dressed in his full Eagle Scout uniform, complete with all his merit badges.

The matter of ‘demands’

The media pundits had been criticizing Occupy Wall Street (OWS) for not having a set of specific demands. Rather the occupiers were simply underscoring vast inequalities and demanding a new world.

What the pundits ignored was the fact that one reason the movement was resonating so deeply with wider circles of people was that all decent demands made over the last few years — ending the wars, Medicare for all, full employment legislation, and especially the demand to fund all reforms with a financial transaction tax on Wall Street speculators — had all been rejected, declared “off the table,” and not even allowed to come to a vote in Congress and other government bodies.

In any case, OWS actually had come up with a long list of indictments, which were widely circulated on the internet, even if they were ignored in the higher circles of power.

I spotted two students standing on the wall holding up a cardboard sign — “Education with Debt Is Not Justice! It Never Will Be!” — and struck up a conversation. They were burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and weren’t nearly finished with school yet.

“What’s the difference between then and now?” one asked me, about being a student in the 1960s. My tuition at Penn State, I explained, was about $1,500 a year and I could survive for a term on $500 for room and board, which I could make with my campus job as a janitor. If I took off to run around the country organizing against the war, no one’s mortgage was at stake.

Today’s students have to deal with $15-20,000 per year, a severe hardship for many, and a strong motivator behind the “Occupy!” movement.

But the occupiers were interested in everything, not just their own situation. There were several discussion circles of a dozen or so people going on simultaneously. Stopping by one, the topic was radical movements in Latin America. At another, the subject of militarism and the defense budget was being dissected. At still another, a small group of Ron Paul libertarians were trying to hold up under a barrage of friendly criticism.

Once you had an overview, it was clear that everything was fairly well organized. Right in the middle of the park were two long black chalkboards, propping each other up back to back. On one side was the entire schedule for housekeeping tasks — cleanup, food, dealing with the media, medical issues, and so on. On the other side was a timetable for various events and speakers, workshop times and topics, and the times of the daily General Assembly.

Next to the schedule blackboards was the food pantry. At the center was a can for money donations, along with a suggestion to bring canned goods and fresh fruit. One might get an odd variety of things to make up a meal, but if you were broke, the price was right. All along one side of the park was a line of lunch wagon trucks selling a variety of things. “What’s best?,” I asked someone who looked like he had been there a while. “The guy with the falafel truck. Awesome!”

The cleanup section, logically, was next to the food. Here were four large plastic bins with soapy and clear water to keep utensils and dishes sanitary. Lugging the water in and out was a chore, but it otherwise worked fairly well. Finally, next to that, was the first aid station, with a variety of bandages and such. “What’s been your most serious medical problem?” I queried. “Pepper spray burns by far, after the confrontation with the cops last week.”

The struggle continues

In the days ahead, the flexible plan seems to be to send out forays of marching demonstrators, of varying sizes, to assorted targets around the city, while keeping Zuccotti Park as a more secure base area. Today one relatively small group headed further south toward Battery Park, taking over the center of a street, but they got dispersed by the cops, and a few were arrested.

The following day, Saturday, saw a huge victory rally of tens of thousands in Times Square. One group, trapped on a side street by irate cops who wanted the street cleared, ended up with about 70 being arrested. But the kids are becoming more streetwise, now avoiding situations like last week where about 700 got trapped in a police net on the Brooklyn Bridge and were carted off to jail.

What happens next will depend a lot on vigilance, organizing skill, and the relation of forces. One ominous report in the news revealed the gradual buildup of a huge encampment of militarized police, with different sub zones encircling the entire Wall Street area. But through their determination, planning and audacity, fanning the flames of discontent, OWS has already scored a tremendous victory.

Similar actions are now taking place in over 500 cities around the world, and in nearly every major city and state capital in the U.S. In one month, they have changed the political conversation in all sectors, putting finance capital on the defensive at least tactically.

The latest opinion polls show a majority of Americans are supporting them to one degree or another, revealing the deep class divide between Main Street and Wall Street. If there’s any attempt to shut down any of the hundreds of occupations by force, a much wider and deeper solidarity effort is likely to emerge.

[Carl Davidson is a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a national board member of Solidarity Economy Network, a writer for Beaver County Blue, the website of PA’s 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America, and a member of Steelworkers Associates. He is the author of several books, including New Paths to Socialism, available online. In the 1960s, he was a national leader of SDS and a writer and editor for the Guardian newsweekly. This article was also published on Carl’s blog, Keep On Keepin’ On. Read more articles by Carl Davidson on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to Carl Davidson : Occupied Wall Street and the Emergence of a Popular Front

  1. Unknown says:

    Another take on OWS:
    -Congress is a whorehouse.
    -The financial sector is out of control
    -The Defense sector has America by the balls
    -The rich are incompetent and there is no end to their greed
    -US foreign policy is a sick joke
    -Ditto US democracy
    – neoliberalism has failed
    -The environment is going to collapse without a change in the way we do things
    These are the main issues IMO
    (Seafoid today at

  2. Anonymous says:

    Progressives and liberals have never been about inclusion. However, the can form an effective rear guard for the true left.

  3. A new popular front against finance capital, encompassing a “progressive majority” of the country, is beginning to take shape.

    It was easy to tell this article was a joke based on the assertion that there is a progressive majority in the USA. A bunch of people who have nothing better to do than hang out for a month demanding that other people’s hard work and resources be redistributed to support their lazy asses, does NOT represent the majority in the US.

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