Normally, after I teach a four-hour class on Staten Island, which takes me two hours to get to and two hours to get back from, I go straight home and take a nap. But there’s no denying that something special is in the air these days, and since the Express Bus passes by Wall Street in any case, I thought I would go and have a look at the most exciting potential social movement since the 2003 anti-war protests.
I had only been living in New York City for a couple of years when the Bush government began a palpable build-up towards the war in Iraq. The 2003 protests were much larger, perhaps because there was a single clear and urgent demand uniting us and bringing us into the streets: Do not invade Iraq. But the urgency and poignancy of this demand was matched by a sense of inevitability as it became apparent that our country could and would start a war in Iraq despite our attempts to stop it.
Despite the fact that I believe profoundly in a politics of social protest and radical democracy, I’ve always found it hard to participate on more than an occasional basis. On a personal level, I’ve often found the act of protest unsatisfying. It’s not precise, well-crafted, or efficient. I believe in it, but I’ve always want to be part of something more clearly defined, something within which I could have a clear role and a clear set of responsibilities. As a result I have pursued an artistic practice and eventually academic studies: areas where I could set long-term goals for myself and feel I had some chance of achieving them.
But I think I may have been wrong. Maybe social movements are, in their own way, precise and well-crafted and efficient. Maybe it is possible to find or make a clear role for oneself in a social movement. Maybe it is possible to set long-term goals. Maybe the problem for me in 2003 wasn’t that protest didn’t make sense to me but that it couldn’t provide me with a living. Now that I have a more stable income, at least for the time being, and now that my artistic practice is also more secure, I wonder again how my life and my work could be made to serve more directly political ends.
I had barely arrived in Zuccotti Park when the 3:00pm march began. The crowd flowed uptown as a line of police kept our chanting and placards confined to the sidewalk. “ALL DAY! ALL WEEK! OCCUPY WALL STREET!” Not one but several double decker tour buses passed alongside the protesters. We cheered at them and sometimes they cheered back. The mood was festive. “BANKS GOT BAILED OUT! WE GOT SOLD OUT!” A woman with a tape recorder briefly interviewed me: “Do you feel proud of these people?” Yes.
We filled up the entire sidewalk, making it difficult for non-protesters to get through. There were cameras everywhere. One man spoke into his own tape recorder, calling the crowd “inspired and eclectic.” He was right. Although there was a substantial portion of visibly punk-influenced protesters, they were not the majority. There were plenty of older folk and a range of dress styles including a few people in suits. “TELL ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE! THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” From where I stood the group seemed predominantly white, but by no means entirely.
I was surprised when I saw in front of me that the protest was headed up onto the Brooklyn Bridge. I had thought we would circle back to the park or perhaps head up towards Union Square as I knew happened recently. What was the plan here? Were we going to walk to Brooklyn? What would we do once we got there? But it didn’t really matter. A point was being made. We were walking. We were appearing. I wanted to be part of this appearance. As I told the woman with the tape recorder, I don’t have any expectations, but I do have a hope. I hope this is the beginning of a new social movement.
I followed the line of protesters onto the pedestrian walkway and we began to cross over the bridge. Then, slowly, I began to realize that there was another group of protesters below us on the other level. They were down there with the cars. And the cars were stopping. At first traffic was reduced to two lanes, then one. Finally it came to a halt. “WE ARE THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT! YOU ARE THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT!” At least two hundred protesters jammed the bridge, making it impassable. It was an electric moment, one that seemed not to have been anticipated either by the protesters or by police.
We were taking over the bridge.
From the pedestrian walkway, I watched the other group below. Those of us above were protesters, but we were not breaking the law. They were. It was our job to witness whatever happened to them.
After several minutes the police began to arrive from both sides on the lower level. No one was in any hurry. I heard someone ask: “How do you de-escalate a situation like this?” The answer: You don’t. The protesters wanted to walk to Brooklyn. They were not going to turn back. And at a certain point the police would no longer let them. “WHOSE BRIDGE? OUR BRIDGE!” Soon the police had set up barriers around the protesting group. Cops and protesters faced off. From above, we watched.
The police began to arrest the protesters on the lower level of the bridge. It was unceremonious and simple. They didn’t need any cause beyond the fact that the protesters were blocking traffic. Yet how could this end? Surely they were not going to arrest hundreds of people? Then I began to understand that this is exactly what they were going to do.
“THIS IS A PEACEFUL MARCH! THIS IS A PEACEFUL MARCH!”
Or perhaps they would not be officially arrested, but merely detained. Separated. Hands bound behind their backs with white plastic zip-ties. Lined up sitting against the side of the bridge. Trucks and buses called in to bring them away. The bridge cleared for business as usual.
It was obvious that this was going to take hours. Hours in which outgoing traffic would be halted, causing jams throughout lower Manhattan as everyone leaving the city had to take an alternate route.
From above, we watched.
Some protesters were very angry at the cops for doing this. Some of them were yelling that it was our right to be on the bridge because the bridge is a public space. A few were screaming at the cops and calling them Nazis.
I didn’t feel any anger at the cops. I don’t consider the police force to be entirely aligned with the interests of the rich. We do not live in a police state. From what I saw today, the cops behaved respectfully, even if their attitudes were verbally and physically aggressive.
I understand why there is a law that says you can’t block traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s not a bad law, as laws go. The point isn’t that protesters should be allowed to do whatever they want with impunity. The point is that protesters can choose to break the law peacefully but firmly in order to draw attention to their cause.
But what is the cause?
No single demand is being made by the protest movement that has become known as Occupy Wall Street. I think that’s a good thing. The demands of this seedling movement are too broad and fundamental to be captured in a single demand or even a list of demands, at least so far. The Tea Party did not begin with a single demand. It’s a party, a group, a community. It has pulled the Republican party to the right. Can this new movement pull the Democratic party to the left?
It would not be hard to describe the basic politics of the people gathered at Wall Street. They are against corporate globalization and the ever-increasing, unjustifiable gap between rich and poor. Surely most of those gathered there also support environmental sustainability, green technologies, feminism and anti-racist politics. But there’s plenty of room for disagreement as well. And when it comes to putting these values into practice through specific social policies — that’s a whole different question.
I wonder if an action that clearly breaks the law, such as stopping traffic on a Brooklyn Bridge, does imply the need for a clearer demand. To peacefully occupy Wall Street is one thing. Such an occupation could go on indefinitely. It could last for days, months, even years. It could become the epicenter of a new social movement in the United States, something that hasn’t been seen for decades. A city within a city. A beating heart for a new body politic.
Blocking traffic is something else. We are the people. Ultimately, when united, we hold all the power because we are everyone. We can shut down the city. We can redistribute the wealth. We can create a federal works program. We can rebuild infrastructure. We can regulate the banks. We can pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan. We can release nonviolent offenders. We can forgive student debt. Because if “we” is everyone, there’s no one else to stop us. But “we” do not agree on all these things. We have different perspectives, different values, different ideas.
Who occupied the bridge? I’m not asking for the names of individuals who were there. I’m asking who these individuals represent. The idea that a small group can represent a larger one is tricky, dicey, delicate, but absolutely essential. We will not have pure consensus among three hundred thousand people, let alone seven billion. Some form of representation is essential.
So who was it that occupied Brooklyn Bridge today? Was it a bunch of left-wing New Yorkers? Was it the NYC branch of a global anti-tyranny movement that started Tahrir Square? Was it the face of democracy? Was it the people of the United States of America? Was it you?
Eventually the police came and cleared us off the pedestrian walkway as well. By the time I left perhaps a quarter of those on the lower level had been arrested. I wonder if they are still there now, as I write this, in the process of being arrested. More importantly, I wonder how many people will be back tomorrow and the next day. Increasing numbers, I hope. More every day. Until we find out what this moment really means for this city, this country, this world.
(More details and photos here.)