Occupy Seattle’s Big Week
The Movement Stumbled, Sprinted, Then Seemed to Hit Its Stride
By Dominic Holden
Hundreds of Occupy Seattle protesters marched into the lobby of City Hall last Thursday, October 13, to confront the mayor. They chanted, demanded, and waited. But Mayor Mike McGinn wasn't even in the building.
Phil Neel was one of two protesters who stayed to get arrested after everyone else marched off. After being released from jail that night, he was still annoyed that his comrades bailed while he was handcuffed, booked into King County jail, and held in a cell without vegan food.
"Every time we have had the numbers, moderate [protesters] have said, 'Now is not the time to get arrested, we should wait until tomorrow,'" Neel said.
This lament goes right to the heart of the Occupy movement's challenge: The factions are sufficiently splintered—unable to agree on their tactics, their location, or their leadership—that, last week at least, the protests in Seattle appeared directionless. Smart folks who agreed with the overall message about economic disparities were getting sick of seeing protesters obsessed with staking a few tents in Westlake Park. Onlookers were annoyed that nightly general assemblies, in which anyone could speak endlessly and everyone else had to recite any idiot's words back at top volume, was like a Cult of Lowest Common Denominator, the most radical fringe making everyone else chant anti-cop rhetoric and driving away would-be supporters who prefer sticking it to Chase or Bank of America. Seattle's occupation looked like it would fizzle.
But it didn't fizzle. This past week, Occupy Seattle started to find its footing.
That wasn't obvious on Tuesday, October 11—25 days after the protests began on Wall Street and 10 days after the protesters took Westlake Park. Even though the University of Washington association of professors had just that day declared solidarity with Occupy Seattle, adding to a massive cluster of labor unions' support, the local protest still had trouble making a plan and sticking to it. Weary from nine days of sleeping on the cold granite at Westlake Park, 84 percent of the Occupy Seattle General Assembly voted to accept Mayor Mike McGinn's offer and move to the plaza of City Hall, but then in the wee morning hours of October 12, an antiestablishment contingent persuaded the group to overturn the previous vote.
"The problem with City Hall is that it's seen as capitulating to the mayor who offered it to us," said Neel. They voted that evening to "stay in Westlake indefinitely" and risk arrest; a few hours later, two more were arrested, bringing the total arrests in Seattle to roughly 30 (most released but some charged by the City Attorney's office with obstruction). In their grand war just to hold the park, just to defy the mayor for the sake of defiance, protesters seemed to be losing sight of the protest's ultimate issue: nationwide economic disparity.
Reason and palatable weather returned when roughly 200 union folks arrived on October 13 for the mid-morning "Rally for Good Jobs Now" backed by labor unions. David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, urged everyone—protesters and labor—to stick together going forward. "They're trying to divide us," Freiboth said. "They're trying to get us looking at each other and wondering what the problem is." There's no time for division, he said. "Now let's go kick some ass." But pep talks like these only seemed to stir suspicion of takeover among the radicals, who are paranoid that Democrats are attempting to co-opt their movement.
On Friday, October 14, the group voted to move to City Hall, for real this time—the first sign that Seattle protesters were getting serious and not just being petulant. The following day, Saturday, October 15, was a national day of action and a breakthrough for the Seattle protest. When the local movement is in sync with the national movement, the results are amazing: Seattle's 3,000-person march was the fifth largest in the country.
Saturday saw the biggest showing worldwide for the Occupy Wall Street movement since it began last month, drawing out 70,000 protesters in US streets and over half a million demonstrators in Europe, by conservative estimates. Down in Westlake Park, the crowd was a mix of young people and middle-aged people who did not fit the bongo-playing, drug-trafficking stereotype that Fox News has been trying to paint. They looked to be as normal as you can imagine, except they were talking about corporations and tax rates and what they believe America can be. Finally. Would the cops come to kick them out? Mayor's office spokesman Aaron Pickus said, "Obviously, the police department exercises its judgment on how to enforce the rules, with the primary emphasis being on public safety. So obviously there's a balance that's struck."
Nationally, hundreds were arrested over the weekend, including 175 in Chicago, 141 in Boston, 100 in Phoenix and Tucson, 90 in Boston, 24 in Denver, and 19 in Washington, DC, but there were no arrests over the weekend in Seattle. Then, just after dawn on Monday, October 17, more than 50 cops surrounded the tents in Westlake and arrested eight people. Early in the morning on Tuesday, October 18, there were more arrests in Westlake Park, while other protesters were sleeping peacefully outside City Hall.
The lesson? Westlake Park should not be your battle, protesters. Protest in Westlake by day, sleep at City Hall at night, and focus your firepower on programming tied directly to the national movement—like the national day of action and the jobs rallies—which draw the largest crowds, garner the most media, and eclipse the quixotic elements of the movement. These focused gatherings are the future of the Occupy movement, if leaders can keep them up. Squabbling with cops and the mayor over where you sleep is a sideshow.
The real war is more important—the fight over economic inequality—and you're showing signs of winning it. Monied conservative interests have been completely thrown for a loop by Occupy Wall Street's message. One example: Conservative blog Pajama Media recently whined that the hashtag used on Twitter (the symbol used for Occupy Wall Street and literally every other popular topic on Twitter: #) is too much like a swastika. "Don't they know that the early Nazis tried to garner sympathy with street rallies and marches?" What does this kind of hyperventilating tell us? That conservatives are scared.
Westlake May Fall, but the Fight Will Go On in Discreet, Disruptive Actions
The protest has spread to Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Rome, Berlin, Hong Kong, and dozens of other cities throughout the nation and the world. Rather than just defending a plot of downtown real estate from police encroachment, occupiers in many cities are beginning to morph their tactics toward a broader, less predictable, nonviolent guerrilla war that seeks to disrupt the economic elites through numerous small-scale actions.
At least, that's what I'm starting to hear from folks on the ground in Westlake Park, and that's exactly the sort of tactics we're beginning to see in New York City and elsewhere.
Whether the Seattle Occupiers persist in laying claim to Westlake Park or they ultimately move their operational headquarters to City Hall, the protests are likely to become ever more diverse and disruptive. "We're going to have marches and demonstrations throughout the city," Seattle protester Michael Dare told me after the police hauled away the last resisting camper at Westlake Park on the morning of Monday, October 17. "You never know where we're going to show up," he added. "We're going to have flash mobs in banks."
In New York, 24 protesters were arrested for crowding into a Citibank branch and attempting to simultaneously close their accounts, while a national "Bank Transfer Day" is being organized for November 5. On Saturday, October 15, when about 3,000 occupiers poured out of Westlake Park and into the streets for a scheduled but unpermitted march, it was not even clear if organizers knew exactly what route they were taking, leaving the police helpless to do little more than block off traffic at intersections. Authorities can't prepare for what they can't predict, giving the perpetual advantage to protesters who are both more mobile and able to blend in with bystanders once the police arrive.
The goal, as in real guerrilla warfare, is to use a relentless campaign of small-scale actions to gradually wear down a much more powerful opposition, ultimately provoking a massive overreaction from the governing elites. And as long as the protesters stick to a campaign of nonviolent disobedience, they will not only draw more and more attention to their cause, they will garner increasing sympathy and support once they fall victim to the inevitable asymmetrical police response.
The Westlake occupation may fall. Or not. But no matter, for if the tactics move in the direction they appear to be moving, the powers that be may soon long for the days when the protesters were so easily contained.
Occupy Wall Street Had a Good Week, Too
By Stuart Smithers
Mayor Bloomberg learned a lot over the last week. Reports swirled that he was going to evict Occupy Wall Street to "clean" Zuccotti Park on the morning of Friday, October 14, the day before the protest went international. Everybody pretty much recognized the threat was a ruse to close down the OWS movement in Manhattan before it actually became a movement, although the protesters seemed to welcome the fight. After all, OWS was ignored by media for its first two weeks, until the mayor and the NYPD made those first predictable blunders: the pepper-spray incidents and the Brooklyn Bridge debacle.
As for the "cleanup" of Zuccotti Park (another potential blunder), the NYPD commissioner announced that protesters wouldn't be allowed to bring sleeping bags or tents back into the park after the pressure washing had been completed. The OWS protesters scrubbed the park themselves and called for reinforcements the morning of the scheduled eviction, and they got them: Over a thousand people showed up before dawn, and the promised pressure washing was called off.
Slavoj Žižek, the superstar Marxist philosopher, made a visit to the park earlier in the week. Through the human microphone, he delivered his encouragement and the observation that the 99 percent wasn't destroying Wall Street, the system, or anything else—we were instead witnessing the capitalist system destroy itself. Žižek was in town for a coincidentally scheduled conference he was hosting at Cooper Union, sponsored by Verso Books, on the theme: "Communism, A New Beginning?" Žižek's entertaining presence commanded the conference, and speakers frequently included observations on the unexpected uprising of OWS.
The whole point of politics is to name the enemy. At several points during the conference, speakers turned their attention to media complaints that the movement had no goals or clear agenda. Susan Buck-Morss reminded the audience: "The tiger does not declare his tiger-tude; he simply pounces." The protesters are pouncing, without concern for the formalities of a manifesto or list of goals. In fact, she argued (as did Žižek and others) that the movement should continue to slow down and resist the demands to define themselves and their objectives. She maintained that to resist these demands is to resist the capitalist framework of time and the speeding up of time, to resist being named and dismissed. Every day that the event continues, with or without stated goals, proves that the world could be otherwise, that a new beginning is actually possible. We have been told so many times that the change we want is impossible, but OWS proves that it is possible.
The mayor and police assumed the OWS crowd would be a soft target, but the resilience of the protesters and the botched attempts of the police have transformed the protesters into a more forceful, galvanized collective—a hard target from here on out, regardless of the winter weather. On the evening of Saturday, October 15, an estimated 20,000 people marched from the occupation to Times Square. Again, NYPD seemed to aggressively create conditions for containment and confrontation: At one point they brought in horses as an attempt to intimidate the crowd. And it worked to a point: People were terrified but couldn't move, while the horses seemed more humane than the cops, balking when they were spurred toward the crowd. Finally, when the cops were pushing barricades against the crowd, NYPD chief Joseph Esposito stepped in and told the visibly astonished police officers to back off. The crowd cheered Esposito and chanted: "The police are the 99 percent!" This may have been the most important and underreported turning point of the protest to date.
The Occupy Protesters Know What They Want, Even if You Don’t
By Brendan Kiley
Maybe you don't know why they're protesting. Maybe you have no idea why they've taken the time to go downtown, sit in the damp and the cold for weeks, and risk getting arrested. That's okay. People across the political spectrum have been baffled by the Occupy protests since they began. The problem is, there's no quick fix. There's no one law (or two laws, or 10 laws) that our elected representatives can write or amend to make everything better. People are irritated about a lot of things.
They're irritated about income disparity in the US. They're irritated about how enormously wealthy people and financial institutions have been bailed out with taxpayer money—your money—while taxpayers were simultaneously told to tighten their belts and get used to being broke and cold and hungry. They're irritated that the folks who claim to "generate the wealth" are more invested in exotic trading instruments than the jobs they're supposed to be creating or in reinvesting in the American social structure that made it possible for them to get rich in the first place. (If you haven't seen the graphs at Business Insider—of all places—that document this, find yourself an internet connection and go here: tinyurl.com/3whqyog.)
People are irritated that the wealthiest nation in human history can't do a simple thing like make sure its people can take their kids to a doctor without going bankrupt. People are irritated that the Supreme Court recently affirmed that businesses—i.e., pots of money—have the same constitutional rights to speech as individual citizens.
Just because the Occupy protesters haven't drafted a policy platform or a cure-all law doesn't mean they shouldn't be out in the streets expressing their irritation. Because (a) there is no cure-all, and (b) this isn't North Korea. People expressing their irritation in a democracy isn't just a right, it's a goddamned duty. At least that's what they taught us in civics class.
So don't dump on the protesters because you don't understand why they're there. Ask one or two why they're there. They will have answers. Those answers will be wide-ranging, but don't read that as an indication of confusion or irrelevance. Read that as an indication of how much work needs to be done—how much work we need to do—to make things better.
The Occupation’s Most Egregious Confrontations with Cops Yet
• In the pepper-spray shot heard round the world, a NYPD deputy inspector cowardly maced a group of young female protesters helplessly penned behind mesh barricades. This allegedly unprovoked act of police brutality on September 24 drew mass attention and sympathy to the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement. The officer has not been charged for his assault; however, WNET reporter John Farley was jailed for "disorderly conduct" after attempting to interview the women who had been pepper-sprayed.
• Nobody did more to cement the resolve and solidarity of the Occupy Wall Street movement than the NYPD when they herded 700 peaceful protesters onto the Brooklyn Bridge, then arrested them en masse. It was also the day that the media first started paying serious attention. Thanks, NYPD!
• New York City protester Felix Rivera-Pitre admits he "shot the cop a look" on Friday, October 14, and apparently that was provocation enough for an officer to turn around and punch him square in the face, so hard it tore his earring out. "I remember seeing my earring on the ground next to me and it was full of blood," recalled Rivera-Pitre. "I was completely dumbstruck." Or struck by a dummy, more like it. Rivera-Pitre was neither charged nor arrested, but the officer may have a few sleepless nights after reading the news accounts. "I'm HIV-positive," warned the bloodied Rivera-Pitre. "That cop should get tested."
• NYPD arrested 24 people on Saturday, October 15, for attempting to close their Citibank accounts. When the protesters lined up in the bank lobby, attempting to make a statement by closing their accounts en masse, the manager locked them in, called the police, and had them arrested for... wait for it... trespassing! Wow. Talk about crappy customer service.
• Seattle police have thus far shown more restraint than their NYPD counterparts, but that hasn't stopped them from looking stupid and vindictive. After police cleared out the rest of the Westlake Park encampment shortly after dawn on Monday, October 17, Debra Lynn Peardon remained defiant, sitting atop her belongings, enjoying a smoke and a coffee. Police repeatedly urged her to move on, but it wasn't until she rebelliously raised her umbrella that a couple dozen officers swooped in and handcuffed her before hauling the homeless woman away to jail. The punch line: SPD is asking that she be charged with assaulting a police officer after the cold cup of coffee they knocked from her hand spilled on an officer's shoes. I guess he was a petty officer.
Brandon Whitehead, 38, actor
"The rich do hate me. My American dream is different from theirs. I dream of regulating Wall Street, of affordable housing and Medicare for everyone. And they hate me for it. Their high-risk derivatives almost bankrupted the world. I want marriage equality. No more war. I want to see an end to corporate tax loopholes and the notion that corporations are people. I want to encourage people to vote, not discourage them. I want a strong and educated middle class. And because of that, they hate me."
Frankie Petitclerc, 60, unemployed for four months
"We need to take away [politicians'] incentive to pander to corporations. Your average person donating five or 10 dollars can't compete with million-dollar contributions from people like Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers. There are legislators who want to do the right thing, but they've got to cater to oligarchs to get in the game, and then they're beholden to them."
"John Doe," 32, computer science student at Renton Technical College
"For me, this isn't a political movement. It's a spiritual uprising, an awakening of consciousness... The punk movement has been screaming about this for decades. I'm glad to see it materialize."