Occupy Wall Street! Observations from a New York Public Sector Worker

by a Solidarity Member in New York

October 3, 2011

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.

In addition to growing in numbers and racial diversity, it seems that the protest is developing some more political clarity in both what it identifies as problems and the objectives it hopes to achieve. However, it also appears that these efforts to solidify some common 'grievances', demands or strategies are very inconsistent. For example, the initial proposed 'grievances' being debated on Thursday evening began with, "As one people, formerly divided by race, gender, sexuality….”The intent was to envision ourselves in a post-racial (and perhaps post-revolutionary) society, but this wasn't well received. A small group of women of color objected to that language (with Hena Alshraf as the impromptu spokesperson), and it was first changed to, "As one people, despite divisions of race, gender, sexuality…", and then the phrase was dropped altogether, replaced with, "As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members.” There have also been some concerns raised about the lack of acknowledgment that the slogan "take back America" ignores the fact that it was stolen from indigenous people here to begin with. Ricardo Levins Morales' article on Solidarity's website is a great discussion of this slogan as well. Perhaps similarly, one anecdotal report I heard from Saturday was that when an older Black activist tried to approach some of the leaders about developing more specific demands, the response was somewhat dismissive, re-focusing on the 'crimes of the banks' and away from the day-to-day needs of those struggling to survive the effects of those 'crimes' (or more accurately, the larger crisis of capitalism).

It seems that if OWS is to continue to grow and engage the working class of New York, it will need to develop some more constructive ways to engage with the organizations of people of color in the City… and there's some reason for being hopeful. On Thursday it was announced that a loose coalition of the city's public sector unions, and the larger of the community groups has created a "Strong For All Coalition" in support. They are planning a rally in solidarity with OWS. I haven't heard anything from my union (AFSCME DC37), but John Samuelson, President of TWU Local 100 (representing most of the mass transit workers), appeared on Keith Olbermann on Thursday night in support of OWS. In addition to the unions, some of the most militant, base-building and direct-action focused community groups area also participating (like Community Voices Heard, Make the Road NY and VOCAL).

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.


One response to “Occupy Wall Street! Observations from a New York Public Sector Worker”

  1. Iflexion Avatar

    Think about how many families the bankers kicked out on to the streets.. selfish.