“Corporations are not people.” “Too Broke to $peak to my Rep.” “I am Troy Davis.” These are some of the diverse signs that hundreds of individuals from various creeds and backgrounds overtaking two miles of trafficked streets in downtown Manhattan this past Saturday held up in the name of freedom and fundamental change. Uninhibited by the sectarian partisan politics that have stalled both politicians and citizens alike from taking action, these individuals united under one realization: that there are problems in the world, and they are demanding solutions. But what was intended as a peaceful, nonviolent demonstration ended with the aggressive mass arrest of over a hundred activists, journalists and witnessing citizens.
As this diverse group of New Yorkers marched through the streets proclaiming their anger and frustration with “the system,” many peered down from their apartments and stopped on sidewalks, some with looks of disbelief, others responding with the same anger and vigor that the marchers themselves were demonstrating. What began as an initial group of roughly 300 individuals at Liberty Plaza –– formerly known as Zuccotti Park –– soon grew to a mass of over a thousand as they took the streets of Chinatown and SoHo. Making their way to Union Square Park, they drummed out chants signifying that “this is what democracy looks like,” “we are the 99%,” and “the banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” But who are these people? Why are they here? And what exactly do they want?
For the past week, a few hundred people have been “occupying Wall Street.” What began as a call by the Vancouver based magazine Adbusters to stand up to the corporate tyranny that has overtaken the American political system has evolved into a long-term, international demonstration in various financial districts across the globe. On September 17th, over five thousand people showed up to demonstrate their resentment towards the intimate relationship between corporate entities and the government. Of these five thousand, roughly two to three hundred individuals have camped out on mattresses and cardboard boxes for over a week now, and will continue to do so until a global revolution has been ignited. They have set up a library, a kitchen, an information table, a legal group, and a media team. They have dropped political identities and agendas, communicate with one another and support each other in their fight. Surrounding the park is a constant blockade of metal barricades and police officers, who are offered food, water and coffee by the demonstrators but have been ordered to refuse.
Ask anyone why they are here at the encampment, and you’ll likely receive vastly different answers depending on whom you ask. Some are directly protesting corporate personhood. Others are upset at the unemployment rate and the inability to get a sustainable job. Yet others are objecting environmental degradation. The lack of health coverage for most Americans. The low quality of the education system. Political corruption. The Troy Davis case. Global poverty. The economic crisis. Individually, these people seem to have no focus, lacking any semblance of direction. But taken communally, their responses paint a picture of the many manifestations of social problems that Americans face today. And they have all targeted corporate interests as the culprit.
Modeled after the “Arab Spring” wave of demonstrations that overtook the Arab world over the last few months, #OccupyWallStreet (as the demonstration is formally known) is dependant on techniques of nonviolent civil resistance and the use of social media technology to disseminate information. Lawyers and speakers teach at assemblies the importance of remaining peaceful when arrested, on the legality of what officers are doing, and what actions to take when arrested and questioned by the police. The media, eschewing what many have denoted as a national “media blackout”, has downplayed and twisted the movement’s recognition in the public sphere. For the past week, anyone who wanted information on the movement have had to go to an unofficial website (occupywallst.org) to watch the raw and unedited live stream footage, or have had to search international news sources such as the British Guardian or Al-Jazeera English. Adam Lashinsky, a junior here at SUNY Geneseo, has commented on the media blackout stating “it’s simply disrespectful to discount these educated, ambitious people as a joke. To picture them as self-absorbed and overzealous…they’re exercising their rights to speak in this country, to speak out against political dealings that go unchecked in this country.” Many are speculating that the media blackout is due to a majority of media outlets being owned by corporations, regardless of political affiliation.
However, on Saturday the media blackout seemed to have ended after the 100+ arrests that had occurred during the march. Many local media outlets, including NY1 and PIX 11, appeared at Liberty Plaza and began interviewing the demonstrators. The arrests have also caught national attention as various videos of the events have been uploaded to YouTube and have been trending on Twitter. Many highlight peaceful protesters being grabbed and shoved onto the ground, and a popular video of a deaf girl being sprayed with mace by a white-collar police officer has been circulating the Internet. Other reports of brutal arrests include a protestor who was given a life-threatening concussion by a police officer and left in a van while being refused medical care. Many on the ground have also noted that the police arrests were targeting certain individuals; those who were arrested were usually young and sporting a “hippie” aesthetic, while the elderly and more conventionally dressed individuals were left unharmed. Additionally, the arrests have been made on baseless charges, such as loitering or filming a police officer. As a result of the violent harassment being shown to the demonstrators and the police forces refusal to respect their first amendment rights, occupywallst.org has demanded the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly for his inability to control his most senior officers, and that Mayor Michael Bloomberg address their general assembly and apologize for the police brutality and the media cover-up that followed.
But as many observers have been quick to point out, this is not a battle between the police and demonstrators. Nick Sloper, a junior student at SUNY Geneseo who attended the demonstration this weekend, almost risked arrest when a line of police officers split off a group from the march onto a side street and netted them in from both sides. He escaped arrest by walking towards one end of the mesh net being held up by a police officer, who began visibly crying and pushed down the net to allow for his escape. “I looked to my right to find a female police officer holding the end of the mesh net, eyes wide with what I understood in that moment to be shame” recounted Sloper. “As we made eye contact, tears began to run down her face. She looked down at the mesh and lowered it about two feet, then looked back at me. I knew she was letting me go. I ran as fast as I could and leaped over the orange mesh, followed by three or four others.”
This story highlights the disjunction between white-collar and blue-collar officers within the force. Many of the officers identify with the “99%”, and have been feeling remorse for their actions against the protestors. A demonstrator who was arrested and thrown into a van with two girls who were pepper sprayed tweeted from his account, @Pulseofprotest, the following message from zip-tied hands behind his back –– ‘I'd rather just die today, we're so sorry for you, can't believe we're being ordered to do this’ - NYPD officer to girls who had been maced and are being detained.” Yet the repentance is not a matter of empty words; as of Monday, over a hundred NYPD officers have refused to come into work, having had enough of the aggressive tactics the police department is deploying on civilians.
But where is it to go from here? Following the mass arrests, many of the demonstrators realized that the use of scare tactics by the police and the lack of media coverage has left them unorganized and unrecognized. Yet they are fully aware and committed to their fight, and are determined to stay in Liberty Plaza for weeks, even months, until the American public wakes up and demand a free and egalitarian society. As they continue to receive international support and cities across the nations begin to set up their own demonstrations in solidarity, in what is now being coined the “American Autumn,” they appear determined to maintain their zeal through whatever obstacles they may face. As long as they are given food to eat and a spot on the concrete to sleep on, they will continue to represent the rest of the 99% of Americans who do not have the ability to speak up for themselves and fight for their rights.
Kevin Casteneda is a student at SUNY Geneseo, he is from New York City. If you would like to reply to Kevin feel free to email him: email@example.com. The GeneseeSun.com does not endorse any columnists views it only provides a forum for freedom of speech to be exercised. All those interested in writing as guest columnist for the GeneseeSun.com should email firstname.lastname@example.org