Occupy Wall Street! Observations from a New York Public Sector Worker
I'm a public sector worker in health care in NYC, and for the past week most of my coworkers and activist networks have been talking about “Occupy Wall St.” (OWS) constantly. There's definitely a buzz, and it extends beyond the 'usual suspects' of New York's progressive / left scene. I went down to OWS on Thursday evening (while the 'grievances' were being debated... see below) and again on Saturday, towards the end of the attempt to march across the Brooklyn Bridge (by the time I got there, they weren't letting anyone else on the bridge), and then hung around for a while talking with folks. The New York Times story about Saturday's mass arrests isn't bad, though they changed their initial coverage to understate how marchers were lured onto the roadway of the bridge (blocking traffic), expecting they'd be allowed across.
With yesterday's arrests of more than 700, according to the Times, it seems like the City is taking a gamble that this will be enough to drive away the protest (clearly luring a large number onto the bridge in order to increase the number arrested). With the way this has been growing in the past week, it seems like this may actually back-fire on Bloomberg & Co.
The basic feeling among folks in or around Solidarity that I've spoken to is that ten days ago we weren't sure where this was going or how it would get there (if it did get anywhere at all). We had a 'wait and see' approach. Ten days ago it was still relatively small, and even more white and young and male than it is now. My impression was that the Ad Busters folks that were so central to initiating OWS hadn't done much outreach to the NY activist community, and very little --if any-- to organizations of people of color here in the City, whose communities have of course been hardest hit by the recession, compounding already dire situations that existed before the recognized national recession (for many of these communities, a de facto recession has been present throughout the 'boom years' of the 1990s).
Last Saturday, September 24, the NYPD arrested -- and pepper sprayed -- about 85 people, and OWS grew significantly since then. From the reports of comrades who were there, the rally on Friday was perhaps bigger than some of the larger rallies organized against the budget cuts back in June -- at least several thousand. Keep in mind that those June rallies were organized by the major unions (with combined memberships of over a quarter of a million people), having been planned months ahead of time. The rallies Friday and Saturday were planned on much shorter notice, with far fewer resources. From what I can tell, they were significantly more diverse (based on my visual estimates of race) than when OWS began, but with people of color composing perhaps twenty percent of the crowd, it is still far from representing anything close to the working class of New York. Of the dozen or so I've talked to, about half are from out of state, but even from Thursday to Saturday, the number of New Yorkers seems to be increasing, and, though this is anecdotal, these folks seem more likely to be people of color. That being said, the proportion of people of color is of course not the only important departure from what seems to be a white, young, college-educated, male norm.
Of course a lot remains to be seen, but if Madison is any indication, upping the ante in this struggle and achieving measurable wins will require more than crowds ... it will require the focused activity of significant layers of the organized working classes, that existed before Ad Busters, and that have the roots and the experience to help leverage the power that is being built against the establishment here and nationally. Even if we don't get concrete wins, this will have been a hugely important protest for New York and the country, but there is a potential for it to be concretely effective as well, and I hope that we can help it get there.