More than 1,000 revelers gathered in Manhattan’s financial district on Monday, Sept. 17, to celebrate the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and demonstrate to detractors that the movement is far from dead.
Protesters “swirled” through downtown streets in deliberately chaotic moves that gummed up the morning commute of those in the financial district who hadn’t taken the day off for Rosh Hashanah. (The holiday, too, got the Occupy treatment at an “Occupy Rosh Hashanah” event the evening before.)
Affinity groups representing a multitude of causes – the arts, peace, labor, campaign finance reform, education, debt relief, faith and more – staged a multitude of actions, sometimes collaborating to amplify their effect.
Sam Talbot, a member of UNITE-HERE Local 100 in New York, hoisted a banner that read “Labor” and explained what his group was planning:
We want to do a little tour of some bad employers and union busters. We’re going to visit Jackson Lewis, one of the biggest union-busting law firms in the country. They’ve got offices right here. We’re going to go protest at Chipotle; they won’t make a deal with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pay them a penny more per pound for tomatoes so farmworkers can get out of horrible conditions. We’re going to the post office – they’re trying to shut down all kinds of postal jobs; Wells Fargo, which profits from immigrant detention centers; and the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] because we want the right to organize for all workers.
Police were plentiful on the scene – some in riot gear, some not – and arrests were ongoing. Some protesters were handcuffed for non-violent civil disobedience inside private financial institutions, but many were plucked at random off the sidewalk; one white-shirted officer gave the command to “Go grab some bodies.” Police said 185 had been arrested by day’s end.
At mid-morning a crowd gathered near Wall Street’s famous “Charging Bull” sculpture at Bowling Green park, the oldest public park in the city, which afforded speakers the opportunity to promote the old-fashioned concept of the commons, or land that could be used by anyone. Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, a “radical performance community,” sang “Happy Birthday” to Occupy with a subset of his choir, followed by his usual stem-winder of a “sermon.” He closed with a call to join a flashmob the next day at the site of a proposed pipeline that would route fracked gas through New York City.
A warm, sunny, dry day contributed to the festive mood. A brass band oompah-ed through the streets, playing Klezmer music on one corner and New Orleans-style Second Line jazz on another. Cyclists in polar bear costumes reminded everyone about the dangers of climate change and its roots in the 1 percent’s unlimited thirst for profits.
Around noon a big crowd gathered in Battery Park to assess the morning, which was universally deemed a rousing success, although business as usual had been only hampered, not stopped.
So close to November, the elections were on the minds of corporate media pundits covering the event. Many asked why Occupy doesn’t engage in electoral politics to try to counter the Tea Party, which, with help from deep-pocketed corporate donors, succeeded in 2010 in transferring the House of Representatives back to Republicans, as well as helping sow gridlock in the Senate.
Participants in Monday’s events offered several answers. Jarrett Lloyd, who’d been carried off by the cops when New Haven’s six-month encampment was dismantled last April, said, “I don’t think electoral politics is the answer. I think real change is made in the streets. If anything, you’re going to scare them into changing things. Just showing up and voting for who they’re giving you to choose from is a complete waste of time.”
Peace activist Ann Wright, a retired colonel and diplomat who resigned her post to protest the Iraq War, agreed:
“[It’s a problem] if you want political change through the current system: the Tea Party model of getting big bucks that’s divvied out to candidates that are running so they have a ready-made political organization. Whereas [Occupy] is a grassroots movement that – thank God – does not have any big political backers. It’s not interested in getting involved in [electoral] politics. It’s interested in raising Cain about the issues, and leaving it to whoever wants to pick up the political side of it. There are plenty of Americans who can pick that thing up, and we don’t have to do it all. Anybody who thinks the system ought to change, you need to pick out your part of this thing and start working on it.”
A man standing behind police barricades that divided a sidewalk between protesters and people trying to get to work said all the hoopla was a waste of time and that Occupy’s demand for more economic equality was whistling in the wind. “It’s not going to happen in America. I’m a black American and the people who run this, they are going to keep it. This don’t mean nothing.”
Many Occupiers plan to continue their local efforts focused on issues such as stopping home foreclosures, reducing student debt and ending fossil-fuel extraction – always making sure the story line of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent remains in the public’s consciousness.