By Jane West
Following the mass protest on the weekend of 1st/2nd October, hundreds of primarily young people remain camped out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park under the slogan of ‘Occupy Wall Street’, and calling for action against the banks to alleviate poverty and unemployment.
While the precise demands of the protests are vague and varied, there is no doubt about the overall character of the mobilisations – they reject that the American people should be forced to pay for an economic crisis made on Wall Street.
Before Occupy Wall Street, apart from the demonstrations in Wisconsin earlier this year, the outrage at the impact of the economic crisis in the US has mainly built support for the right-wing Tea Party movement. This had captured the agenda with its anti-welfare (a fraudulent and unconstitutional ‘Ponzi scheme’ according to Republican hopeful Rick Perry), anti-state, tax-cutting, gun-toting, Christian fundamentalist, racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
A former Obama aide, Van Jones came close to welcoming Occupy Wall Street, dubbing it the ‘progressive’ version of the Tea Party movement. And support for the movement is growing. On Sunday 2nd October the occupiers were joined by thousands of protesters for a demonstration that ended in 700 arrests as Brooklyn Bridge was taken over.
The heavy-handed tactics of the police – which included commandeering city transport to take away the arrested protesters, and previously an NYPD officer had used pepper spray on protesters – have met wide criticism and built support for the protests. In particular the Transport Workers’ Union objected to their drivers being used by the police to move arrested protesters. A court action to bar the police and the city transport authority from doing this was rejected by a judge, but has only led to stronger statements of support from this and other unions for the protests.
A number of labour unions decided to join the action on Wednesday 5th October. Jim Gannon, spokesperson for the Transport Workers Union in the area, told the Financial Times: ‘The protesters have hit a chord with workers and working families. We are expected to pay for Wall St’s implosion with jobs and wages and benefits. Protesters are putting a spotlight on that’
Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which has 20,000 members in the New York area, said: ‘It’s really simple. These young people on Wall Street are giving voice to many of the problems that working people in America have been confronting over the last several years. [They]…are speaking for the vast majority of Americans who are frustrated by the bankers and brokers who have profited on the backs of hard-working people. While we battle it out day after day, month after month, the millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street sit by — untouched — and lecture us on the level of our sacrifice.’
The protest is also supported by the United Federation of Teachers, with 200,000 members in New York. Its president, Michael Mulgrew, said: ‘The way our society is now headed it does not work for 99 per cent of people, so when Occupy Wall Street started … they kept to it and they’ve been able to create a national conversation that we think should have been going on for years.’
Support for the protests has also come from Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore who have all visited Zuccotti Park to offer support.
Wednesday’s protest was swelled not only by union support, but also by growing support in the colleges. The related movement, Occupy Colleges, listed 75 colleges across the US where walk-outs to support the Occupy Wall St movement were being organised.
Moreover the protests are spreading to other cities across the US, with organisers claiming there are now actions and protests – of varying size – in 148 US cities and 46 states.
Occupy Wall Street is a welcome development in a progressive direction in the US. It remains to be seen whether the hopes of the protesters that this is the start of an ‘American Autumn’ to parallel the ‘Arab Spring’, will be realised. But all progressives world-wide can only hope that it is!