Occupying the Brooklyn Bridge and the Power of Protest ~ Matthew D’Elia

Part I

I did not know what to expect when I decided to go to New York on Saturday to check out Occupy Wall Street. In fact, I had only opted to go after seeing the now famous footage of police brutality, courtesy of inspector Anthony Bologna aka “Tony Baloney”(video). I had originally planned to go with a couple of friends, but that did not pan out. For a moment I was hesitant to go by myself because I rarely travel to New York City, let alone get involved in a protest in which people have been beaten, pepper sprayed, and arrested. But I decided to go anyway. After walking out of the PATH Station at the World Trade Center I was immediately taken aback by the number of police officers stationed in the area. Apparently the police have occupied their own portions of Lower Manhattan where they are keeping vans, buses, equipment and personnel at the ready just in case the word comes in to start making mass arrests.

I wandered a bit until finally making it to Liberty Plaza Park (formerly known as Zucotti Park), where I continued to wander aimlessly, snapping a few pictures until I happened upon fellow Rutgers University students, Kristin Clark, Matt Cordeiro, and Joel Salvino, who were looking for a bathroom. Joel pointed out a ninety-five year old Marxist-Leninist who had been yelling at a few Ron Paul supporters. I wanted to know why this man was so insistent on being a Leninist as well as a Marxist, so I decided to have a chat with him while I waited for them to come back. Here I learned a valuable lesson: ninety-five year old men do not take shit from anyone. He formed his political beliefs in the 1930s and they seem to have not changed since.What made him a Marxist-Leninist was the idea that radical social change was only possible through a tightly structured organization with ideological cohesion,  a specific set of goals, a powerful leadership and the willingness to achieve their ends by any means necessary. Occupy Wall Street does not follow this model at all.

It is usually difficult to categorize or try to make sense of mass movements and protests that emerge seemingly out of nowhere. Occupy Wall Street is marked partially by a strange alliance of both Ron Paul supporters on the far right (Anarcho-Capitalists) and socialists, Marxists, and Anarcho-Syndicalists on the far left. Barring their consensus on the full expansion of civil liberties, the only agreement among the two sides is that greed and, to borrow a quip from the historian Thomas Bailey, the “international gangsterism” of the global finance industry and powerful states has crippled the global economy and propped up the power of a handful of elites at the expense of the majority.

Liberty Park is not only Occupy Wall Street’s staging ground, but has also become a temporary, indefinite home for the movement’s core group of organizers, including Zu, a former Rutgers student and resident of New Brunswick, who after getting laid off decided to sublet her apartment and move into the park. Most of the youth living in the park seem to be in a similar situation.  In order to accommodate themselves they have set up sleeping spaces, a kitchen of sorts, a medical station, and even a library.

As we began preparing for the 3:00pm march, there were whispers that we would be marching over the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time—and even now—I did not know whether this meant that we would be marching over the walkway or one of the traffic lanes. In any case, the march got underway without incident. We were positioned in the back because Zu had taken up the task of setting the pace from the back of the march. The senior citizens were to take up the vanguard. Ironically enough, there is a much higher chance of getting arrested in the rear of any given protest march, because from there it is much easier for the police to use the “kettling technique” to trap demonstrators. However, being positioned there actually prevented us from joining those on the traffic lanes and subsequent arrest.

The group of marchers was increasing in size as we moved north along Broadway towards the Brooklyn Bridge. This was easy to notice because in order to continue setting the pace from the back we had to keep moving behind all of the new people joining the march. People were getting really excited. There was a very energetic young woman (one of the organizers), who was running around starting up chants and trying to get everyone to close off the gaps between marchers. She accidentally stepped on the back of my shoe, causing my foot to fall out. She quickly said “Sorry, baby!” with real sincerity, and ran ahead to energize the rest of the group.

As we were approaching the bridge, I was still not sure if we were going to cross into the traffic lanes. The police had blocked traffic from travelling eastbound into Brooklyn, but had also formed a line to prevent protesters from entering. We were still at the very back of the march. The police were patrolling up and down the lane parallel to the walkway. It was not until we had travelled a few hundred yards up the bridge that we realized protesters had somehow made it down into the street. I had assumed that the police formed that line blocking protesters from entering the entire time; apparently that was not the case. A large number of protesters had stopped on the walkway to look, take pictures, and express solidarity with those who were fenced in on the street below. The police had already started making arrests, singling out specific individuals and grabbing them as the opportunity presented itself. After making our way a bit further up the bridge, past the penned in group, I heard a familiar shout. I squeezed over to the side to get a look and saw that energetic young woman, struggling and yelling as two police officers were dragging her away.

Those who were not trapped on the street or standing on the walkway to provide moral support made their way across the bridge into Brooklyn, where we rallied at Cadman Plaza Park, surrounding the William Jay Gaynor monument. Here the organizers passed along information regarding our fellow protesters on the bridge as well as advice on what to do next: who to call if a friend has been arrested, etc. Because Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are not permitted to use loudspeakers or megaphones, communication is done through a massive game of telephone. One person shouts the original message, and the surrounding crowd shouts it along to those standing out of earshot of the speaker.  I noticed that the same person never spoke twice. A different person conveyed each message.

While all this was happening, the police were slowly surrounding the park and making their way inside. According to them, we would not be arrested so long as we “did not break park regulations.” They conveniently failed to enumerate these regulations.

I would have loved to stay at Cadman Park, but I had a few obligations that night in New Brunswick. Joel and I decided to walk back across the bridge to get to the PATH station. As we started up the walkway, two police officers warned us that “protesters were blocking the path up ahead and not letting people through.” We snickered to ourselves, musing at how we could assume different identities by not walking with a large group of people.

The police were stationed throughout walkway, telling people that they had to keep moving to the other side of the bridge. Now there were buses (some of which were from MTA) lined up in the street below, outside of which arrested protesters were waiting to be loaded up and taken down to the station. Joel and I shouted down to one of the protesters asking, “how did you get down there!?” The response was “I don’t know, I was just following the group!” We then came upon the group of alledgedly obstructive protesters who, roughly twenty strong, were standing on one side of walkway in solidarity with those below. A few police officers were standing around them, telling them that they had to get off of the bridge. One man questioned the legality of forcing people off of a public walkway, to which an officer in a white shirt responded by grabbing the protester and threatening arrest. They said that we were allowed to be on the bridge, but that we “had to keep moving.” One of the officers began approaching me as I was trying to take a picture, so I quickly put down my camera and walked away.

As Joel and I walked to the train station, I could not help but mull over the greater significance of what happened and what my role was within these events. It was a shared role, of course. I am grateful to have had support from Matt, Kristen, Zu, and Joel. I feel like we are a part of what could become the largest social movement of our generation, but I do not yet know how to classify it.

Part II

History certainly verifies the power of protest, but despite this common technique, Occupy Wall Street is decidedly different from its predecessors in its organization and goals.

Solidarity, which with roughly ten million members would become the largest trade union in history, emerged  from a strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, in 1980.  Solidarity used civil disobedience and nationwide strikes to demand workers’ rights and social change from a government whose legitimacy was founded upon notions of workers’ rights and social change. Though this movement was violently suppressed by the Communist government in 1981, they would remain underground throughout 1980s until finally reemerging in 1988-89 to successfully negotiate for democratic elections. This set into motion a chain of events leading to the Revolutions of 1989 in the Eastern Bloc and arguably the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Similarly, the Civil Rights movement demonstrates the efficacy of non-violent protest and civil disobedience in an American context. This movement exposed the inherent contradictions in a supposedly liberal, democratic state, which emphasized human equality in theory while in practice systematically marginalized the political power of a select group. In this case, the legal basis of the state itself had provided the means for its own criticism. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution could be used as effective tools to compel the U.S. government to concretely meet its theoretical obligation to guarantee political freedom for all citizens of the United States.

When compared to Solidarity and the Civil Rights movement, Occupy Wall Street lacks the means to make very specific demands because the enemy is not so clearly defined. For those living in the Eastern Bloc, information came from the Politburo and one could either accept it as fact or, as most did, reject it entirely. The goals of the Civil Rights movement were legitimized by the state itself.

Today’s issue is far more nuanced: the enemy is amorphous, and mainstream sources of information provide no basis from which this systematic oppression can be criticized.

Wall Street has become an institution fundamentally embedded within the political and economic structure in not only the US, but the entire world. So much so that its sudden failure carries with it the threat of global collapse through a process that practically nobody–let alone Wall Street bankers– truly understands. By creating specific demands that fit into the typical logic of American politics, the Occupy Wall Street movement would compromise its essence and surrender its claim to representing “the 99%.”

For example, demanding a specific tax increase on large corporations or a clearly defined fiscal policy on Wall Street–within the framework of mainstream economics–would do little curb their power over society.Wall Street and other corporate interests have gained such influence over the political and economic sphere that any such maneuver would require the support of these institutions to succeed. Having the power to convert and move its capital anywhere in the world in an instant, Wall Street could easily adapt to new economic circumstances. Large corporations, using the money they have already accumulated, could likewise send their productive potential outside of the country. In short, operating within the mainstream political, economic, and social paradigm would be self-defeating.

The failure of this paradigm  is apparent in its inability to predict the economic crisis of 2008, while Libertarians like Ron Paul and Marxists such as David Harvey had a sense that the system was untenable.

More importantly, creating narrow demands would undoubtedly alienate individuals who, although they support the revolutionary spirit of Occupy Wall Street, may see certain demands as being counterproductive to the overall intent of this movement. If the group’s demands do not receive something like unanimous consent, leaders would have to take the charge and set the agenda. Such an organization has certainly worked for movements in the past, but conditions in the present seem to belie this kind of structure.

Solidarity was lead by the personality of Lech Walesa and individuals such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were specific figures of inspiration within the Civil Rights Movement. These were all charismatic figures around whom personality cults formed and served as a source of inspiration and ideological cohesion.

Despite their effectiveness, Solidarity and the Civil Rights movement often did not represent “the 99%.” They represented certain classes of people who were clearly being oppressed within the legal framework of society. So they applied pragmatic political means, within the structure of their society, to achieve their ends. After taking power, Solidarity itself, as a political organization, succumbed to infighting among the leadership, causing its decline (Paradox of Change). Even Dr. King had to refrain from openly opposing the Vietnam War until after 1965, as doing so would have undermined support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

Occupy Wall Street has no definitive leaders, just familiar faces.

This movement is not about playing politics with actors in a broken system. It has emerged as a result of the inability of so-called “leaders” to deliver on their promises and fix these errors. The masses of unemployed, underpaid, or indebted are sick of these political games and are seeking to build a new system in which they are free to use their vast creative potential and are not subject to all of the crap being shoveled by our political institutions. The only option is to try to create a movement that stands outside of this paradigm.

Occupy Wall Street should be seen as continuation of the Arab Spring, like the protests in Wisconsin, the demonstrations against austerity measures in London, and the protests in Greece and Spain in May. This is a global protest against the current organization of power: one that is suppressing the power of most individuals through exceedingly complicated mechanisms which are run by only a few. But this movement may be even more than just a reaction to thirty years of lying by global elites that is to be considered only within the context of recent history. Perhaps it is the enduring idea that those in power, whether they are political, bureaucratic, financial, or industrial elites, must be held accountable for their actions. An expansion of democracy beyond polls and voting booths, following through with principles established during the Enlightenment. In this regard, it may be more appropriate to consider this movement as a part of a tradition that dates back to the revolutions of 1688, 1776 and 1789.

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Photos by Mr. Matthew D’Elia. All rights reserved by the artist.

One thought on “Occupying the Brooklyn Bridge and the Power of Protest ~ Matthew D’Elia

  1. I’ve been pretty busy lately, but I just wanted to say that I’m impressed with the latest barrage of coverage you guys are doing on OWS and the Deloatch shooting. Stay classy, stay relevant.

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