by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 12, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1433)
Occupy Wall Street, the national protests that were sparked in New York City’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2001, headlined the anger of the 99% whose futures have been derailed by the financial elites of the country and their political executors. While uneasily tolerating the mushrooming protests for a month, all the while investing in elaborate security systems to protect their wealth and holdings from mass anger, Wall Street called in the national authority to pull the plug.
Mayors and university regents across the US cracked down on the protests, evacuating encampments and arresting protesters. If Zuccotti Park was the flamboyantly visible epicenter of the protests, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg displayed a canny awareness of the importance of dismantling the common space that provided the platform for resistance. Citing the need to maintain “sanitation” and the city’s right to keep its parks and streets clean, Bloomberg called in the riot police to beat the campers, raze and tear down the tents, libraries and living installations, and hose down the park.
Just as Tahrir Square was the symbolic space of the Egyptian revolution, Zuccotti was the symbolic platform for Occupy New York, and indeed, the Occupy movements across the United States. Since the October 2011 crackdown, Occupy Wall Street has been attempting to reclaim Zuccotti as a site of public protest. Lawyers affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement filed a court case attesting to their clients’ right to use the park and declaring that the city’s actions to bar them was a violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech. It was hardly a surprise that the New York judge Michael Stallman dismissed the case and backed Bloomberg’s decision on the city’s entitlement to “protect public health and safety”.
On January 23, the Occupy Wall Street lawyers finally threw in the towel, withdrawing their case and admitting that the occupation of Zuccotti Park was finally at an end. The compromise was certainly to the advantage of the city police, acting on the behest of the 1%. Occupy lawyer Allen Levine declared that they were comfortable dropping the action now because police and park owners have removed the barricades from around the park and stopped searching people going in. “Everything we sought — unlimited access to the park — they’ve given us. There wasn’t any point in continuing the action,” Levine said. That is, Occupy Wall Streeters can use the park as any other passing flaneur — but their ability to take up public space and make a point about public ownership to Wall Street, is certainly at an end.
As their ability to use public space as a means of broadcasting their message is at an end, Occupy Wall Street is also suffering from dwindling finances. The media attention they were able to garner in the initial days fed the energy of the movement, including enthusiastic volunteers offering donations and free services. In losing Zuccotti, Occupy Wall Street has also lost hold of the public imagination. As donations run low, the accountants of Occupy Wall Street have imposed a partial spending freeze to make sure that enough money is available for crucial functions like bailing protestors out of jail. Donors to the general fund have given about $28,000 so far this month, down from about $330,000 during the first 17 days of October, according to the movement’s accounting site. The pressures of earmarking funds for the needs of the branch Occupy movements is also eating into funds — Occupy Wall Street also helps with the logistics of movements like Occupy Congress and Occupy Oakland.
Occupy Wall Street has used up around half of its fund of $700,000, and now only has $300,000 remaining. The spending freeze means that no more money is to be earmarked for out of town Occupy movements, which indicates a trend toward the splintering of various Occupy branches. “We’re definitely concerned about the downward trend in donations,” said Haywood Carey of the Occupy Wall Street accounting group. “But we’re an incredibly savvy movement that has done a lot with a lot and a lot with a little.” It must be admitted that they are confronting a rather staggering juggernaut — the legal codes, corporate services, the whole institutional machinery of the country, whose levers are controlled by the financial elites and their political servers in Congress.
The invisible handlers of this machinery can slow down the protestors’ ability to move, vocalize, congregate, leading them to expend energy to the point of exhaustion. A small case in point is Greyhound stranding 13 Occupy Congress protestors in Texas enroute from San Diego to DC — and the polite refusal of the mainstream media to cover the incident. But in their work to keep Occupy Wall Street afloat, protesters are displaying a certain tenacious ingenuity. After the New York City police dismantled the Zuccotti Library — an attack on the intellectual culture of the protest movement — the Occupy protestors painstakingly recovered the volumes from the trash and have turned the library into a mobile installation using shopping carts.
Efforts are also being directed toward Occupy Congress in DC, organizing rallies in front of the US Congress to protest public officials that no longer represent the interests of the country. Whatever the fate of Occupy Wall Street, it has left a mark in the public culture in the United States — that resistance is a potent threat to unjust power. In San Francisco, when an African American grandmother who ran a daycare from her house discovered that her home had been foreclosed when she was behind in her mortgage payments, she was able to get the community activated. When university students, colleagues, church groups and neighbors began protesting outside of the bank offices, the bank reconsidered and gave her a new contract. As the 1% anxiously consolidates their holdings, tipping the middle class into obscurity, the 99% are forced to confront the necessity of revolutionary action.