So you say you wanna #OccupyWallSt? Some lessons from experience — Part I

Note: I started writing this weeks ago, but wanted to share its content now, since plans are being laid for Monday and beyond. Ultimately, as a speaker said at yesterday’s opening rally: “Monday is a work day; and that’s when we have to get to work.”

There is Internet buzz and face-to-face planning going on around a September 17 occupation of Wall Street. With a pitch in the August Adbusters as a grain of sand, this proposal is crystallizing energy around a common action:

  • On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

Internet forums have been setup, and in-person general assemblies are taking place in New York City (next one: August 9). The vision and politics behind the event reflect 20 years of Euro-American activism against corporate rule, but the plan and the courage are coming from the success at Tahrir Square. Or as Adbusters puts it:

  • A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future. The spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain, is captured in this quote: The antiglobalization movement was the first step on the road. Back then our model was to attack the system like a pack of wolves. There was an alpha male, a wolf who led the pack, and those who followed behind. Now the model has evolved. Today we are one big swarm of people.

And at the center of this swarm are places for people to assembly, to debate plans, to envision their futures.

In the coming weeks, key preparations will help to decide the fate of this effort. Aside from enthusiasm, I want to offer some past experiences, all of them from the United States to help people who are making plans. The advice below is almost entirely about tactics, and not about old debates about which tactics are morally acceptable or politically enticing. Rather, this is to open a conversation about what works and doesn’t work on the ground for gathering, holding space, and taking over a place where hostile decisionmakers meet.

1. 2011 Capitol occupation in Madison, Wisconsin

I was a hemisphere away from this when it happened, but the basic structure has so much that could be replicated on Wall Street. Wisconsinites who followed this protest the whole way through should be hosted at least one night in the next six weeks in every community that plans to participate on September 17. One key idea:

  • Interplay of mass marches with more disruptive actions. Taking the Capitol inspired the whole state; bringing tens of thousands to the capitol justified the more confrontational action. Each effort should think about how it can best be a love letter to the other.

2. January 2002 World Economic Forum Protests in New York City

The buzz about #OCCUPYWALLSTREET that isn’t enthusiasm is basically about one thing: NYPD Lockdown. These protests, held four months after 9/11, saw the worst of times for mass deployments of cops and demonization of protesters. The key tool? Not some fancy weapon shooting rubber bullets or piercing sounds, but linkable security fences. NYPD circulated the idea that any legitimate protester needed to put him- or herself inside of a ring of these, or on street blocks enclosed by them at front or back. Then they arbitrarily closed protesters in and pushed them around using them. Options for resistance: It turns out these cages open with a good upward shove and are quite movable, if a crowd isn’t intimidated by the letters N,Y,P, and D in metal on the side.

Despite the clampdown, actions took place across the city. It turns out that Manhattan is a long island with lots of centers for corporate power stretched out along it. Police have to drive up and down it to get to your protest. Overly concentrating makes their life easier; a variety of locations makes your life easier. Also, pop-up actions in public places like forced security forces to play catch-up while locating their actions in view of the general public. Non-participating witnesses are a major deterrent.

Know the NYPD: Thanks to lawsuits, we now have a view of how the police saw their tactics in 2002. Some key elements:

  • “It should be noted that a large part of the success in policing the major demonstration on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2002, was due in part to the proactive arrest policy that was instituted at the start of the march at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and directed toward demonstrators who were obviously potential rioters.”
  • In another report, a police inspector praised the “staging of massive amounts” of armored vehicles, prisoner wagons and jail buses in the view of the demonstrators, writing that the sight “would cause them to be alarmed.”
  • Indeed, one of the documents — a draft report from the department’s Disorder Control Unit — proposed in blunt terms the resumption of a covert tactic that had been disavowed by the city and the federal government 30 years earlier. Under the heading of recommendations, the draft suggested, “Utilize undercover officers to distribute misinformation within the crowds.”

Extra reading: People with time may find useful information in these reportbacks on the tactical situation from the protesters’ perspective: 1.

3. March 2003 Financial District Shut-down in San Francisco

This large-scale mobilization paralyzed the city’s financial district on the first two days of the invasion of Iraq. In summary,

  • In San Francisco, the Bay Area Direct Action to Stop the War called for a next-day shutdown of the city’s financial district if the United States invaded Iraq. The well-publicized goals of the shutdown said in part, “We will impose real economic, social, and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops…” (David Solnit and Aimee Allison, Army of None, p. 140)
  • Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into San Francisco on Thursday, fulfilling their promise to disrupt life in the city as they occupied intersections, blocked buildings and tried to shut down the Bay Bridge in protests that occasionally turned violent.Sirens wailed throughout downtown and helicopters whirred overhead most of the day as police in riot gear hustled to keep up with bands of demonstrators. Often they were unsuccessful, as small groups of protesters scurried into place in intersections or dodged around corners to elude police.  (SF Chronicle, March 20, 2003)
  • Up to 1,400 had been arrested before the protests finally began to wind down after 11 p.m., and about 1,000 remained in custody. Most face citations for blocking traffic and failing to follow police orders, but at least 18 face felony charges.”This is the largest number of arrests we’ve made in one day and the largest demonstration in terms of disruption that I’ve seen,” said Assistant Police Chief Alex Fagan Sr., a 30-year department veteran. (SF Chronicle, March 21, 2003)
  • A more detailed view here, and on video in We Interrupt this Empire.

Tactics for organizing: David Solnit and Aimee Allison assign the success of this movement to four factors that make up what they call a “common-strategy framework”:

  •  Clear What-and-Why Logic:  Shut down the Financial District in order to impose a cost on war.
  • Broadly Publicized: Repeated lead-up actions and press conferences, street art, tens of thousands of fliers, a widely utilized Web site and broad community mobilizing made sure a huge portion of the Bay Area knew what was planned and why.
  • Mass Training and Mass Organization:  A few thousand people received civil-disobedience trainings at schools, churches, and rallies, and well over a thousand people were directly involved in the organizing via affinity groups, working groups, and public meetings.
  • Decentralization: Many allied groups who had minimal contact with the initiating organization understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without  coming to an organizing meeting or bothering to identify as part of the organizing nucleus, “Direct Action to Stop the War.”

From my experience in this mobilization, it’s clear that all of these things were crucial. But so too was the nature of the overall plan, traditions of taking the streets, methods of responding, and sheer numbers. And one more thing helped incredibly:

  • The civil disobedience pick and roll: Those of us who have gone through conventional nonviolence training usually learned to plan an action around arrests. Maybe not everyone gets arrested, but people who are willing to use that willingness to hold space, shut down an office, or simply make a point (recent example: the Tar Sands protests at the White House). Most normal people, on the other hand, tend to get out of arrestable situations while the getting is good. With an aggressive police force, this results in a very boring game of cat and mouse where people are swept all over town.
    What San Franciscans accomplished in 2003, however, combined the best of both worlds. Committed activists, with our without lockdown equipment sat down in roadways, linked up across the fronts of corporate offices, and surged through semi-private spaces like lobbies and malls, in potentially arrestable actions. They took their places as if ready to get arrested, and they worked together with larger gathering crowds. But when the arrests came, nearly all of them melted back into the crowd. Meanwhile, the larger mass took advantage of the police concentration on one corner, including the really massive effort it takes to lock people up and cart them off to jail, to start taking over the next. Like the basketball move the pick and roll, this let people hold space in one place while setting up the next. It kept San Francisco protest rolling all day, while shutting down the financial district.

There’s much more experience to feed in, but all of this is a good start.

Denying Reality to Defend Power

Self-censorship may not be the most pernicious form of censorship out there, but it certainly can reorient one’s perspective on what really is happening in the world. It’s strange enough to interact with people without a shared vision of what is actually happening in the world. Even stranger is to watch people deliberately repress their own knowledge in the service of a political agenda, whether that’s misinforming the public about global warming, “protecting” secrets that have already been released, or sustaining a deceptive narrative of the Great Recession.

One

Democracy Now! has obtained the text of a memo that’s been sent to employees at USAID. This is to thousands of employees, about reading the recently released WikiLeaks documents, and it comes from the Department of State. They have also warned their own employees. This memo reads, quote, “Any classified information that may have been unlawfully disclosed and released on the Wikileaks web site was not ‘declassified’ by an appopriate authority and therefore requires continued classification and protection as such from government personnel… Accessing the Wikileaks web site from any computer may be viewed as a violation of the SF-312 agreement… Any discussions concerning the legitimacy of any documents or whether or not they are classified must be conducted within controlled access areas (overseas) or within restricted areas (USAID/Washington)… The documents should not be viewed, downloaded, or stored on your USAID unclassified network computer or home computer; they should not be printed or retransmitted in any fashion.” That was the memo that went out to thousands of employees at USAID. The State Department has warned all their employees, you are not to access WikiLeaks, not only at the State Department, which they’ve blocked, by the way, WikiLeaks, but even on your home computers. Even if you’ve written a cable yourself, one of these cables that are in the trove of the documents, you cannot put your name in to see if that is one of the cables that has been released. (Democracy Now!)

The Library of Congress followed suit in blocking Wikileaks, prompting a lively debate among librarians on information access.

Two Media Matters exposed the following memo from Fox News managing editor Bill Sammon: “…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.”  To quote Media Matters,

“Contrary to Sammon’s email, the increase in global temperatures over the last half-century is an established fact. As the National Climatic Data Center explains, the warming trend ‘is apparent in all of the independent methods of calculating global temperature change’ and “is also confirmed by other independent observations.'”

(Further outrage from the über-centrist National Wildlife Federation)

Three

The bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was established by law to “examine the causes, domestic and global, of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.” …

It’s a straightforward story, but a story that the Republican members of the commission don’t want told. Literally.

Last week, reports Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post, all four Republicans on the commission voted to exclude the following terms from the report: “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and, yes, “Wall Street.”

When Democratic members refused to go along with this insistence that the story of Hamlet be told without the prince, the Republicans went ahead and issued their own report, which did, indeed, avoid using any of the banned terms.

That report is all of nine pages long, with few facts and hardly any numbers. Beyond that, it tells a story that has been widely and repeatedly debunked — without responding at all to the debunkers. (“Wall Street Whitewash,” by Paul Krugman)

It’s been said that, Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions; but everyone is not entitled to their own facts. Someone tell Fox News, the State Department, the Library of Congress, and the Financial Crisis Commission.

Bailout fails in Congress; Dow falls; Wall Street eerily silent. Now what?

I paid a second, shorter visit to Wall Street today, in the midst of the sharp crash that followed the House of Representative’s surprise rejection of the financial bailout bill. It was just plain quiet. Only two, fairly sectarian-looking representatives of public protest stood at Wall and Broadway, amid a tableau of tourists and television cameras, slack-jawed business people and an unearthly calm.

It’s hard to believe that the alarms of emergency sounded by both parties and much of the media didn’t push the package through, but they didn’t. The House roll call shows that this wasn’t a resistance of the left, but of the bottom, of people across the country and the political spectrum who didn’t want to be pushed into a massive government buyout of junk debt. Oponents included people I respect like antiwar maverick Barbara Lee and former Black Panther Bobby Rush and people I disdain like Cuba hawk Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and anti-immigrant zealot James Sensenbrenner.

Meanwhile some people on the supporting side, including Nancy “Does she really represent San Francisco” Pelosi, have been inspired by the crisis to speak of principles if not act on them, saying this before the vote:

They claim to be free market advocates when it’s really an anything-goes mentality: No regulation, no supervision, no discipline. And if you fail, you will have a golden parachute and the taxpayer will bail you out. Those days are over. The party is over.

With the express train to a quick bailout now derailed, we may have time to do some collective thinking about the future of our economy. A list of big ideas begins here:

  • Economist Dean Baker (who among other things, called the housing bubble back in 2004) argues things aren’t so urgent after all: “the worst case scenario is that we have an extremely scary day in which the markets freeze for a few hours. Then the Fed steps in and takes over the major banks. The system of payments continues to operate exactly as before, but the bank executives are out of their jobs and the bank shareholders have likely lost most of their money.” (“Why Bail?,” Huffington Post)
  • Bailout Main Street is compiling a list of counter-proposals.
  • Former CIA analyst turned critic of empire Chalmers Johnson notes the government’s long term financial crisis (read potential bankruptcy) boils down to war. (“We Have the Bailout Money–We’re Spending It on WarThe Nation)
  • Katrina vanden Heuvel & Eric Schlosser echo protesters’ call for a “New Deal for Main Street” (America Needs a New New Deal, The Nation, op-ed in Wall Street Journal)
  • Jeremy Jacquot asks “What About the Climate Crisis?

Bailout Protest on Wall Street

Responding to an open call circulating in the city, some 300 protesters against the bailout plan gathered in New York’s financial district and marched to the New York Stock Exchange at Wall St. and Broad yesterday afternoon. The crowd was loud, diverse and fed up. Video coverage of the rally is part of today’s Democracy Now! The Indypendent has a live blog archive of the protest. Click on the picture below for more Indymedia photos.

Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall
Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall

Apparently, we weren’t the only people pissed off, either. TrueMajority.com is hosting a bulletin board for coordinating protests, with over 250 planned or carried out already, as covered her by CNN.

Being on the streets, there was a happy thrill to be back in force, in a protest taking over Wall Street for my first time since the J18 protest against the G8,* when a Reclaim the Streets protest flooded that intersection for nearly an hour. Of course, this time, our connection to most Americans was much more organic, as everyone from New York anarchists to Montana’s governor are raising big questions about this handover of government loans for junk securities.

What was strange, though, was to look so many Wall Street traders in the eyes. While many waded into the crowd to snap photos with their IPhones, others were visibly unnerved at the display of public opposition. And is the unfortunate nature of public protests we weren’t being the most articulate in our chants (see Tom Tomorrow from 1992 below), even if we were some times hillarious saying things like: “You break it, you bought it” and “You fucked up. Suck it up.” Above all, we needed to be loud and unequivocal in just the right physical space. Thankfully the media was the outlet for my desire to be articulate, and apparently for others desire if you listen to Democracy Now!

How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison
How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison

*Some of you may remember I worked on another more recent protest there, but I spent the morning working phones off-site.

Primer on the financial mess…

Okay. No one can claim that the vortex of disappearing money is not confusing. Those of us who spend our days buying mere things with services thrown in for a bonus, are bound to be confused by the array of ways in which money, currencies, debt are bought, repackaged and sold. Not to mention the ways in which the possibility of any of those “things” fluctuating in value is then remade into a commodity in and of itself.

So, I’m assembling here (stay tuned to this post) as much background as I can on how this happened…

First up, is This American Life‘s collaboration with NPR on The Giant Pool of Money, an hour-long radio documentary on how excess cash begat a housing boom, a mortgage collapse, and the credit crunch. Ignore the bit from early this summer when they speculate that everything will only get as bad as the 1970s. As Lehman Brother’s understated last dispatch declares:

This episode of financial crisis appears to be much deeper and more serious than we and most observers thought it likely to be. And it is by no means clear that it is over.

Smart and graph-heavy expert Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer gives his take in two parts (1|2) as the crisis evolves.

The New York Times, which has had to start a blog called Freakonomics (after a book, but imagine the great grey paper running that title in stabler times), offers summaries of the crisis by David Leonhardt, “Bubblenomics,” and John Steele Gordon, “Greed, Stupidity, Delusion — and Some More Greed.”

$700B! WTF? New York to talk back to Wall Street THURSDAY

A do-it-yourself protest is gathering to counter the rush “do something” by bailing out Wall Street. More thoughts from me soon on how “we” got into this mess, and what options there are, but here’s one place to pull the emergency brake on the train to spending $700 billion of our money to buy bad debt. Seems to me all the times we’ve asked for our money for something useful, we’re told there isn’t any…

When: 4pm Thursday, September 25!
Where: Southern end of Bowling Green Park, in the plaza area
What to bring: Banners, noisemakers, signs, leaflets, etc.
Why: To say we won’t pay for the Wall Street bailout
Everyone,

This week the White House is going to try to push through the biggest robbery in world history with nary a stitch of debate to bail out the Wall Street bastards who created this economic apocalypse in the first place.

This is the financial equivalent of September 11. They think, just like with the Patriot Act, they can use the shock to force through the “therapy,” and we’ll just roll over!

Think about it: They said providing healthcare for 9 million children, perhaps costing $6 billion a year, was too expensive, but there’s evidently no sum of money large enough that will sate the Wall Street pigs. If this passes, forget about any money for environmental protection, to counter global warming, for education, for national healthcare, to rebuild our decaying infrastructure, for alternative energy.

This is a historic moment. We need to act now while we can influence the debate. Let’s demonstrate this Thursday at 4pm in Wall Street (see below). We know the congressional Democrats will peep meekly before caving in like they have on everything else, from FISA to the Iraq War.

With Bear Stearns, Fannie and Freddie, AIG, the money markets and now this omnibus bailout, well in excess of $1 trillion will be distributed from the poor, workers and middle class to the scum floating on top.

This whole mess gives lie to the free market. The Feds are propping up stock prices, directing buyouts, subsidizing crooks and swindlers who already made a killing off the mortgage bubble.

Worst of all, even before any details have been hashed out, The New York Times admits that “Wall Street began looking for ways to profit from it,” and its chief financial correspondent writes that the Bush administration wants “Congress to give them a blank check to do whatever they want, whatever the cost, with no one able to watch them closely.”

It’s socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the rest of us. Let’s take it to the heart of the financial district! Gather at 4pm, this Thursday, Sept. 25 in the plaza at the southern end of Bowling Green Park, which is the small triangular park that has the Wall Street bull at the northern tip.

By having it later in the day we can show these thieves, as they leave work, we’re not their suckers. Plus, anyone who can’t get off work can still join us downtown as soon as they are able.

There is no agenda, no leaders, no organizing group, nothing to endorse other than we’re not going to pay! Let the bondholders pay, let the banks pay, let those who brought the “toxic” mortgage-backed securities pay!

On this list are many key organizers and activists. We have a huge amount of connections – we all know many other organizations, activists and community groups. We know P.R. folk who can quickly write up and distribute press releases, those who can contact legal observers, media
activists who can spread the word, the videographers who can film the event, etc.

Do whatever you can – make and distribute your own flyers, contact all your groups and friends. This crime is without precedence and we can’t be silent! What’s the point of waiting for someone else to organize a protest two months from now, long after the crime has been perpetrated?

We have everything we need to create a large, peaceful, loud demonstration. Millions of others must feel the same way; they just don’t know what to do. Let’s take the lead and make this the start!

When: 4pm Thursday, September 25!
Where: Southern end of Bowling Green Park, in the plaza area
What to bring: Banners, noisemakers, signs, leaflets, etc.
Why: To say we won’t pay for the Wall Street bailout
Who: Everyone!