By Freedom Road Socialist Organization
On Sept. 17, 2011, a group of protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park in New York City. Their intention: to expose Wall Street greed and corporate domination over the lives of working and middle class people, the 99%. Almost immediately, police responded to the protesters with repression and pepper spray. This caused thousands of New Yorkers to flood to Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street was on. Protesters camped in the park and did not leave for 59 days. Support for the protest built quickly and spread across the country and around the world. Within weeks, almost a thousand cities had Occupy protests. U.S. cities big and small had Occupations, including Chicago, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Tampa and Winston-Salem.
Many of the protesters camping full time in the occupations are white students from middle or working class backgrounds, while others are unemployed and/or homeless. However, hundreds of thousands join the occupiers for protests during the day and on weekends, especially when unions are mobilized. These union mobilizations changed the composition of Occupy dramatically, as seen in New York or Chicago, where thousands of African-American, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and other oppressed nationalities took to the streets and public parks. Solidarity and appreciation grows in the process of protesting together.
One slogan emerged from the protests that captured the sentiment about the cause of the economic crisis: “We are the 99%.” Occupiers include a wide array of people being punished by the big economic downturn – students, professionals, small business people, workers, the unemployed and the homeless. The slogan makes it clear that people need to stand up to a government and an economic system that is run for the benefit of a handful of very wealthy people.
In city after city, the protests of the Occupy Movement have been met with police violence and repression. In New York City, police pepper sprayed and beat protesters and bystanders in hundreds of incidents. Videos show police arresting people for nothing more than filming the police response to the protests.
In Oakland, when riot police moved in to shut down the Occupy encampment, they fired tear gas into crowds. A tear gas canister fired directly at protester Scott Olsen struck him in the head, knocking him unconscious. His skull was fractured and he was hospitalized for several weeks. Olsen, an Iraq War veteran, had trouble speaking for weeks following the incident. Another occupier, ex-Marine and Iraq War veteran Kayven Sabeghi, suffered a ruptured spleen from to a police beating.
In Fort Worth, protesters were ticketed for everything from meter violations to sleeping in public. In one notorious case caught on video, a police officer claimed an American flag brushed him, so he grabbed the American flag and struck the protester from behind with the flagpole and then punched him in the face. The Occupy protester was arrested.
In Chicago, more than 300 protesters were arrested in a single week for trying to set up an Occupy camp. In Minneapolis, police seized every tent the occupiers tried to set up and, while they were at it, took food, blankets, and more. In Winston-Salem, police tried to shut down a People’s Forum and stole the group’s banner. Later, they shut down a city-approved meeting that was taking place on the city hall lawn and even arrested one occupier for talking back to them.
Police repression, more than the winter weather, has put an end to permanent Occupy encampments in most cities for now. A handful, like Madison, Wisconsin and Albany, New York, hang on. In Albany, the police chief refuses to use city resources to clear protesters from parks. It is clear now that three rounds of mass arrests and park clearances were organized at the national level – with Homeland Security and the FBI coordinating with local officials.
Police shut down the Occupy Oakland camp on Oct. 25, 2011. Occupy Oakland rebuilt the camp the next day. Then, on Nov. 2, Occupy Oakland called for a general strike, including a popular shutdown of one of the busiest ports in the U.S. Renamed a “mass day of action”, it was supported by many local unions and labor councils, most importantly the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The mass action also shut down much of downtown Oakland and some schools, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets. There is no way to know how many thousands more stayed home from work in solidarity. The new Occupy Oakland camp stayed open until the police shut it down again on Nov. 14.
On Dec. 12, the Occupy movement took the port shutdown idea to ports all over the West Coast. Ports in Oakland; Seattle and Longview, Washington; Portland, Oregon and Houston, Texas were partly or completely shut down for some part of the day. The mass shutdown of ports was controversial for some union leaders who opposed it, while saying they support the Occupy Movement, but many union members supported and participated. The cost to the ports, the cities, and the companies involved was many millions of dollars.
Occupy the Campus is a developing trend, with the college student protesters being beaten with batons at University of California (UC) Berkeley causing over 3000 students, faculty and workers to protest on campus. Then at UC Davis, there was the infamous police officer pepper-spraying of students who were sitting down and linking arms in an act of civil disobedience. This outraged students, parents and others across the country, in a similar way to the beatings of Civil Rights protesters 50 years ago. Over 5000 rallied at UC Davis to demand that the police be charged with a crime and that Chancellor Linda Katehi resign from her post. With students returning to campus, meetings and plans for what to do next with Occupy are brewing.
Despite the efforts of the 1%, the Occupy Movement is far from dead. The tactics of the occupiers have shown great creativity and variety. In Minneapolis and other cities, occupiers are challenging home foreclosures. In Grand Rapids, occupiers held a mock trial of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for war crimes she committed in connection with the Iraq War. Rice was speaking at a fund raising dinner a few hundred yards away. When Occupy Oakland shut down the ports, occupiers in Salt Lake City, Utah marched in support. Occupiers in Durham, North Carolina, Dallas, Texas and Champaign, Illinois march on big banks like Chase and Wells Fargo to hold the banks responsible for the economic crisis.
There is no way to know what will happen next with the Occupy Movement. It is clear, however, that the Occupy Movement represents an awakening of class-consciousness and protest in the United States. The economy is heading for more problems in 2012 and more people are suffering. We cannot predict what form the struggle will take, but we confidently predict that 2012 will be an even better year for struggle than 2011.