When New York City’s mayor ordered an assault this week on Liberty Square, the story played like a script only the 1% could write: Michael Bloomberg, a Wall Street media baron worth $18 billion, who spent $50 million of his own money and rewrote the law to win a third term in office, sent in a thousand cops to trash a library, close a kitchen, shut down an occupation and arrest hundreds in the name of “unsanitary” conditions in the park.
But the tactics behind the scenes are more complicated.
Preceding the NYPD’s raid on Occupy Wall Street, 18 mayors held a conference call to “discuss” the national movement. In the days that followed, police attacks on Seattle, Portland, Denver, Atlanta, Salt Lake and other cities went into effect. Careful public relations strategies were crafted to spin the legality of the assaults against peaceful democratic assemblies. Federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, served as consultants.
Nine weeks into the occupation, we know this: every time the forces of order have confused themselves with the rule of law, the movement has expanded. Numbers have multiplied. Four young women pepper sprayed without cause brought thousands more into the streets. After 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, organized labor and students led 30,000 people into the streets. As New York occupier Noah Fischer put it: “Every week is a turning point.”
It’s helpful to remember the last big turning point—the night of October 26 when hundreds left Liberty Square, outraged by the tear gas and rubber bullets that Oakland police had fired on peaceful occupiers the night before. Marching to the sound of staccato drumbeats and bagpipes toward City Hall, the chant resounded — “New York is Oakland and Oakland is New York!”
At first the march looked like many of those that came before; surrounded by flashing lights, with police escorts violently pushing people from the streets back up on the sidewalks, the crowd circled City Hall Park. Then, while circling it a second time, something unexpected happened: the group dispersed, bodies dashed through traffic toward Foley Square and, moments later, rejoined to form a 500-person mass surging uncontained up a side street.
People streamed through police lines that hurriedly assembled to block them at Broadway and overtook the avenue. They used the people’s mic to announce NYPD movements and to coordinate directions of the march. For the next two hours, occupation euphoria swept lower Manhattan: it was on the asphalt in the lanes between stalled sedans and taxis where marchers walked, danced and cheered. On the sidewalks outside of bars and restaurants, diners looked up into a sea of exhilarated faces.
The evaporation of fear wasn’t all that changed that night. People who had been barricaded and brutalized realized their power to control the streets. It was the recognition that the revolt had traveled from coast to coast, and back again, like an echo taking on a life of its own.
It’s hard to make sense of what has transpired so quickly. Only nine weeks ago, 21-year-old Hero Vincent from Charlotte, North Carolina, remembers climbing out of the subway at Wall Street and seeing almost no one.
“There were only four or five of us,” he recalled, “so I said, ‘Hey guys, where’s the protest?’ and they looked at each other and said, ‘We’re
it.’” The group walked to Battery Park where they met up with some others. A couple of thousand marched. Several dozen camped that night, September 17, under the delicate canopy of honey locust trees in what was then called Zuccotti Park.
“I only thought I’d be here a week, I thought it would be over,” said Hero, tall and athletic with a handsome face that has thinned visibly after the four arrests he’s endured in two months. “I didn’t know it would become a movement like this. It’s uncontrollable. We’re building history right now.”
Crucially, organized labor has swung into action. When Liberty Square first faced eviction by Mayor Bloomberg, the New York State AFL-CIO sent an unprecedented call to its members: “We can’t tell you exactly what will be happening when you arrive. But we can tell you this: the more people who can stand in solidarity the better.”
Transit workers, domestics, teachers, retail and communications workers fresh from the picket lines of the Verizon strike have all stepped up. As George Gresham, president of the Healthcare Workers Union 1199SEIU, told a group of labor organizers: “Through the militant, the bottom, the youth — where revolutions have always started — there’s enough momentum to take this to another level.”
From Cairo to Athens. From California to the New York Island. The script of the 1% has been read. Now it is time to write our own.
This article was published in our fifth print issue on November 18, 2011.