The Occupy Wall Street movement is barely born and the mainstream media is already in the delivery room, asking questions about demands and plans, pontificating on whether it's "good for Obama," or an "alternative to the Tea Party," etcetera ad infinitum.
The newborn movement needs breathing space. Breathing space and basics like port-a-potties and supplies in Zuccotti Park, which I visited last Thursday night. In Los Angeles, yesterday, Oct. 11, with the encampment outside City Hall's windows, the City Council held a three-hour hearing on a resolution to support Occupy Wall Street/LA and specifically urge the police not to intervene. The non-binding resolution was introduced by Councilmember Bill Rosendahl and amended by Councilmember Richard Alarcon, will be voted on Wednesday by the full Council. The movement is "bringing new life into the progressive movement," Rosendahl said. "I was there in Chicago in 1968 when I was 18, and in the McGovern campaign in '72, and this is the kind of movement we need."
Personalities and districts divide the Council itself, and the City has done regular business with many Wall Street firms. Just last year, the Council majority voted 10-2, with Rosendahl voting against granting development rights at the controversial Playa Vista complex to Goldman Sachs. This changed a previous allowance of 100,000 square feet for commercial space to 2.6 million square feet for luxury development, a step that gave the Wall Street giant a $145 million windfall on its property, and created a project larger than Chicago's Trump Hotel and Towers. On the other hand, just this week local LA labor and community groups finally succeeded in preventing an eviction and renegotiating lease terms with a bank. It was the result of a months-long campaign, and the outcome was influenced by the climate of Occupy LA.
Similar events are occurring all over the country, and from the local energy generated a national protest agenda may surface. Sometimes the demands of social movements grow after the movement is initiated, after the police and establishment responses are measured, and depending on the level of public support. In time, the whole can become more than the sum of its parts.
Franklin Roosevelt did not campaign for the presidency on a New Deal program. The elements of that program -- Social Security, the Wagner Act recognizing collective bargaining, the WPA, anti-sweatshop regulations -- arose separately in response to separate battlefronts, and were implemented piecemeal after many compromises. The driving forces were the men and women occupying factories, going on strikes and generally raising hell.
That's what wrong with trying to impose overly specific demands at this point. What the nascent movement needs is spurts of growth, to move beyond a tremor, to rattle foundations -- to quake.
The Wisconsin movement has been the biggest tremor thus far. Were it taking place in the shadow of the New York Times, then it would be world news. But the Wisconsin organizing moves forward despite the modest media coverage. During a nine-month protest in freezing weather, protesters of all backgrounds besieged the capitol in numbers surpassing 100,000, again and again. They then channeled themselves into necessary recall campaigns against Republican senators, making huge inroads in Republican districts, leaving the Republican governor with a wobbly majority of one. This week they announced their drive to recall Governor Scott Walker. Beginning on a wintry Nov. 15, they will need to collect 540,208 valid signatures in just 60 days for a recall election next spring.
Wisconsin differs from Occupy Wall Street in substance and dynamics, if not in spirit. It was provoked by a direct attack on collective bargaining by a newly elected Tea Party governor, the response of which has been a mass movement to preserve long-held labor and democratic rights in the homeland of American progressivism. The movement's unique character has included police and firefighter support for the demonstrations, even the daily occupations and sing-a-longs in the Capitol rotunda.
The possibility of tangible union support for Occupy Wall Street is spreading after AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka's endorsement of the occupation, which was followed by New York unions throwing themselves into demonstrations last week. Similarly, the powerful Los Angeles labor federation is supporting those encamped around City Hall, and Chicago unions took part in marches of several thousand people.
If and when the police are ordered to disperse the protesters, massive confrontations may ensue, changing the focus of the debate from the economy to more familiar law-and-order themes. The Wisconsin protests took extreme care to avoid violence, property damage, and behavior that would force the police to intervene.
That isn't likely, at least not so far, since many police unions share the anti-Wall Street protesters' emphasis on labor rights and better public sector budgets.
For a sense of the coming together of labor and students, starting in Wisconsin, everyone should listen to and sing along with Tom Morello's "This Is a Union Town:"
"Today the policeman's a union man
Brother firefighter's my friend
And the kids locked up in the Capitol
Are fighting to the end
And we're not gonna break tonight
And we're not gonna bend
Some say the union's down
But I asked around
And everybody said
This is a union town, a union town
All down the line... "
In Los Angeles, there were rumors that some LAPD officers actually brought supplies to the demonstrators, whose tents number near 300 and participants during daily assemblies reach 500. One police officer told them he lost his own house to foreclosure last month. "The protesters," in turn, "are incredibly respectful to the officers," said one LA supporter who brings food to the encampment daily.
The LA occupation is not merely symbolic, but constitutes an interruption of government-as-usual by its presence on the City Hall lawn. Those in power simply cannot avoid the protest. On the other hand, it is definitely not an actual occupation of a financial or corporate seat of power. Those edifices, like Wall Street, are protected by a phalanx of police able to control the financial district. But the sight of a modern City Hall surrounded by tents makes a constant visual difference and brings a tension to the every day civic process. The protesters can enter city hall, lobby politicians, attend hearings, and gain a working knowledge of the legislative game. After making their rounds, they can return to the encampment, attend nightly assemblies, join periodic marches, and continue their vigil. There are showers, first aid and feeding stations -- a more "first class" setting than Zuccotti Park at this point.
If the encampments of this kind continue around the country, it is unthinkable -- or at least very unlikely -- that the political and financial establishments can continue shuffling through the status quo. Their power remains, but the daily public shaming they endure is eroding their authority.
An example of tremors setting off new tremors is the plan of the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition to demand "just jobs" during a four-day protest, November 17-20. This group, led by a tiny handful, was arrested for praying in the U.S. Capitol during the deficit debate this past summer. Their protest achieved a media opportunity, and now it might take on a much greater scale.
On a related front, arising from the Dream Act movement and the wake of the 2006 million immigrant march here in Los Angeles, along with hundreds of thousands in Chicago, Dallas, and 100 other cities, the idealistic, well-organized movement of "undocumented undergraduates" achieved a California Dream Act this week when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, one of the foremost pro-immigrant legislators in the country. It was another sign that movements in progressive states can achieve victories despite the vacuum in Washington, D.C.
The alternative scenario to the spreading movement tremors may come in a few weeks as winter sets in and hope diminishes. There are two dangers:
- The police will step in and forcibly remove the encampments.
- From within, the extreme tension that can cause powerless people to act out.
Councilman Rosendahl got a taste of the latter Tuesday, when an individual demonstrator got in his face and started screaming at him because he felt that Rosendahl wasn't paying attention. The fact that Rosendahl took a cell phone call concerning his hospitalized brother was unknown to the protester, who felt profoundly disrespected by a politician talking on cell and ignoring him. Rosendahl, shaken by the incident, later said, "I'm telling you, if this turns into insanity, the cops will come in."
On a more hopeful note, I spoke with Danny Russell and April Grace, an African-American actress who has had recurring roles on Star Trek and Lost, and was wearing a stylish yellow t-shirt bearing the words "Walk Like an Egyptian." While a thin young man was yelling into a microphone about "ushering in a new way of living," April and Danny were worrying about jobs now and in the future. April has managed to get by on intermittent roles; Danny lost his job as a teacher due to spending cuts, and was forced to bartend in the Marina, overlooking the yachts of the ultra-rich. They both wanted development based on a green-job future. Danny, laid off at 45, was taking photovoltaic classes at Santa Monica Colleges, and had helped in setting up the PV displays, which were powering the sound system.
Danny reminded me that we had met a decade ago. He heard me speak at an early rally against the invasion of Iraq. "You said then," he told me, "it's gonna be a very long fight, and here we are."
Danny and April were proud that the photovoltaics were working, that they were making a contribution. They weren't giving up. Maybe the future was arriving. They were in Los Angeles, waiting.