New York, NY – Spring is here, and as the weather turns warmer, and the bluebirds start flying, the streets fill up with more people as some of the mental darkness associated with the cold of winter passes. It’s the season of renewal the poets have always sung about.
This year, it is also the activists who are cheering here in New York as Occupy Wall Street marks an anniversary, the sixth month since the movement burst onto the scene and changed the global conversation about the economy, by intjecting the reality of deepening economic inequality into the political debate.
The movement’s activists see spring as a season for the rebirth of their struggle. And how would you expect “occupiers” to commemorate an occasion such as this?
By doing some occupying, of course, especially in the midst of a time that many in the US call “March Madness”, a phrase used to describe a cultural mania triggered by highly competitive college basketball finals.
Mash this all together and you get what happened last Saturday night, when hundreds of determined activists converged on Zuccotti Park – aka Liberty Square, the park near Wall Street – from which they had been forcibly evicted months earlier.
They had come, they said, to reoccupy the public space.
As it happened, the annual “Left Forum” that brought 1,400 radical speakers to a nearby university for a talk-a-thon on the future of progressive politics was being addressed that night by well-known filmmaker and Academy Award winner Michael Moore.
He called on the crowded auditorium that came to hear him speak to join the march to the park, which many did, chanting, “we are unstoppable, another world is possible”.
The New York City Police Department which has – at billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s direction – been fighting its own war against Occupy, was monitoring the situation closely.
The NYPD was at the ready, thanks to their intelligence monitoring capacity, which includes more than a few infiltrators and agents provocateur, as well as sophisticated around-the-clock internet and videotape surveillance that has generated enough footage for several feature length films.
For many cops, this street “duty” is attractive because of the extra pay. The city announced last week that, in these harsh economic times, it spent $17 million dollars in police overtime to protect Wall Street from what it sees as a subversive mob.
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For many of the men and women in blue, this money represents manna from heaven.
Soon, these two uneven armies were clashing in the night. The gendarmerie ultimately surrounded the park, and closed it down with its superior armed force, pushing the occupiers into the street, and some into jail, before barricading it.
More than one hundred were arrested among the largely non-violent militants. Some ended up being thrown into cells with some of those busted that same day for being violent or over-inebriated (ie publicly drunk) in the St Patrick’s Day festivities.
The cops claimed three casualties and said they were investigating a mysterious tweet that said “We won’t make a difference if we don’t kill a cop”. While that sounded bogus to many activists in the movement who suspect it was planted by a police source, there is a growing debate about the role of violence.
The question: Should activists retaliate against police violence with violence of their own? Is violence in self-defence legitimate?
The role of violence in Occupy
Some of the more extreme militants in the anarchist camp – especially those grouped around the so-called “Black Bloc” made up largely of angry and more anti-social activists who see the police as “the enemy”, justify violent tactics by street fighters.
Others in the movement argue that violence is being encouraged or carried out by undercover cops to alienate the public and confuse the movement’s message. The media usually plays up any violence – “when it bleeds, it leads” – and makes that the story, not Occupy’s politics.
This issue was debated at the Left Forum. Arun Gupta, who started the Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper, told a plenary that police were not the enemy, however abusive they are. He called on the movement to keep its focus and avoid confrontations.
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Former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges – who has covered wars in the Balkans and the Middle East – was harsher, explicitly lambasting the Black Bloc for undermining the movement and estranging it from growing public support.
He embraced the spirit of nonviolent direct action of the kind advocated by Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
His remarks received applause, but is not clear how many of the Black Bloc were even there to hear them. Few seem to base their tactics on any rational or intellectual calculation. So far, most of the movement has reaffirmed a commitment to nonviolence, but with far more criticism of the police than the street thugs now among them.
The Nation reports that there have been semi-secret meetings of Occupy activists to discuss ways to handle this rift.
Writes Nathan Schneider:
“Let’s be clear: it’s not like the movement has considered stashing weapons, or making bombs, or anything close. Direct action has never made a plan to harm anyone. Part of the problem is that talk of violence and nonviolence is still mainly in the abstract, pivoting on words that are hard to define and incidents of property destruction or in-the-moment reaction that most have only seen filtered through unreliable news reports.”
There are other, and perhaps more important, uncertainties hanging over the movement as spring blooms and more activists get more involved or re-involved.
Movement activists had been promising a “spring offensive” of some kind, but observers such as Nation editor Richard Kim pose many questions:
“There’s no question that Occupy will be back this spring – it never really went away. But what will this second stage look like? Will it continue to function largely as a set of loosely connected, issue-based campaigns? Or will it retake public space and re-establish physical encampments and general assemblies as the heart of the movement? How much attention will it pay to the upcoming elections? Is Occupy’s chief value as a branding device to focus the attention of the 99 per cent on the issue of inequality? Or is it the leading edge of what will become a more radically anti-capitalist revolution?”
There are no ready answers to these questions, anymore than we know how far what Chris Hedges denounced as “pervasive and dangerous secretive state surveillance” will do to undermine the movement’s re-emergence.
Already two Senators, Colorado’s Mark Udall and Oregon’s Ron Wyden have said they are “stunned” to learn how the FBI and the Justice Department are using sections of the Patriot Act to broadly gather intelligence based on secret legal opinions.
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They raised their concerns as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee with the hope of pushing the Justice Department into revealing secret legal opinions that have been used to justify intelligence-gathering operations.
Wired magazine has just revealed the existence of a new (and more insidious) data centre in Utah that will dramatically escalate government spying on US citizens.
“A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks … Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails – parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’.”
So, the crackdown on Occupy Wall Street may only be the beginning of a new wave of repression, with vast implications for dissent and social change. All the government needs to have – or create – are new pretexts for a crackdown.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at Newsdissector.net. His new book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a weekly radio show on Progressive Radio Network (PRN.fm) To comment, write to [email protected]mediachannel.org
Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents