Whether or not he ever realized it, and I doubt he did, Troy Davis, a 42 year old man who was executed in 2011 for the murder of a police officer — he had always maintained his innocence — probably had more to do with the early survival of the Occupy Wall Street than anybody.
Davis maintained his innocence up to his execution. In the 20 years between his conviction and execution, Davis and his defenders secured support from the public, celebrities, and human rights groups. Amnesty International and other groups such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took up Davis’s cause. Prominent politicians and leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. Congressman from Georgia and presidential candidate Bob Barr, and former FBI Director and judge William S. Sessions called upon the courts to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary hearing.
In spite of how Occupy Wall Street was later accused by establishment liberals of being too white or too class based and not sufficiently “intersectional” the first two weeks of Occupy Wall Street often resembled a Black Lives Matter protest. Without the established New York City left who saw the movement as a platform to continue to protest Davis’s impending execution, I’m quite convinced that Occupy would have fizzled out before it even got started. Of course Davis was quickly forgotten almost as soon as the state of Georgia strapped him into the death chamber (and to be honest I had to Google “man executed who inspired early Occupy protests” even to remember his name). But even though he was executed for a crime he probably didn’t commit, Troy Davis didn’t die in vain. The largest protests in and around Zuccotti Park during the first week of Occupy Wall Street mostly involved the “one demand” to stay that very execution. That it’s has largely remained unmentioned among high profile commentators indicates that most of them probably weren’t at Zuccotti Park until the infamous pepper spray video went viral the next week.
Around noon on September 24 2011, a young black man named Robert Stephens fell to his knees in the middle of the road outside Chase Bank headquarters on Liberty Street, New York City. Wearing a white fleece and black-rimmed glasses, Stephens pointed at the Chase building and wailed: “That’s the bank that took my parents’ home.”
Looking through some of my photos from late September of 2011, I realize that I was at one of the incidents the article describes.
One thing that I can’t help but notice 10 years later is the number of photographers. For every protester willing to risk arrest and help build the movement there were at least a dozen people (like me sadly) who just wanted to take photos. I think in some ways that might provide some insight into why the Occupy movement fizzled out after it was evicted from Zuccotti Park. It really didn’t fizzle out. Many of its supporters went onto “careers” in alternative media. How many leftist YouTubers, for example, got their start covering Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Wall Street was as much about the birth of the new leftist media as it was about protest. In many ways it’s inevitable that the most prominent leftist politician in American today, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, is essentially the politician as social media influencer.
This of course was the same march that continued up Broadway and ended with the famous incident of the NYPD pepper spraying kettled protesters near Union Square. I didn’t get any photos of the pepper sprayings because I left the march as soon as it reached its destination. I had learned, from going to anti-war and pro-Palestinian marches during the Bush years, that it was always a good idea to leave the area after the official march was over since right wing counterdemonstrators usually hung around to pick up stragglers and provoke them into fights that would inevitably lead to arrests. In the Bush years almost nothing interesting happened after the least official speaker had had his turn at the podium. But at Occupy Wall Street that rule had changed. Anything could happen at any time. A march would break out when you least expected it. The police could launch an attack at the moment you felt most at ease.
But that chaotic atmosphere also made it inevitable that the NYPD would win the running battle between police and protester. There was nothing more demoralizing than watching the “shift change” every night near Zuccotti Park, when one army of police officers was replaced by another. You realize after awhile that you the protesters were the barbarians facing up to disciplined Roman legions. The police got a paycheck. They got to go home every night and watch television. They could call in sick or request another assignment. Repressing protest for the bankers and the ruling class wasn’t something they necessarily wanted to do. It was their job. And how many people in the world really like their jobs?
For protesters however, demonstrations are a strange amalgam of love and will. You’re not only doing it for free, you’re essentially paying to protest (in the form of arrests, court dates, missed work days, fines). Unlike the police, you can’t just clock out, go home, and sleep it off. You have to guard against two opposite and yet equally dangerous states of mind, disillusionment and fanaticism. On one hand, there was always the temptation after a particularly grueling “General Assembly” to just say “fuck it. I’m going home.” On the other hand, there was also the tendency to put yourself in a state of mind where you would dismiss any criticism, to hate the media even more than is logically warranted (to forget that like the police they’re only doing their jobs), to accuse other protesters of being provocateurs or traitors. It’s an almost impossible balance to maintain, which is why most protest movements in the United States tend to fall apart after a few months, and why I don’t really blame the leaders for allowing themselves to get coopted. A job is always easier than an act of love.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, which killed the euphoria around Barack Obama victory over John McCain, produced two competing narratives. On the left there was the familiar idea that corporate America had too much power, that in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagall the big investment banks had gambled heavily on the real estate market and lost, making it inevitable that they would have to be bailed out by the federal government. On the right, on Fox News and among the various libertarian subcultures that had grown up in the wake of Ron Paul’s run for the Republican nomination in 2008, they blamed the government. The Clinton administration, they argued, had issued too many government backed loans to people unable or unwilling to pay them back.
From 2008 to 2011, in spite of the fact that the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, the far right bullied the media and the Obama administration into submission. Any time a small group of “Tea Party” protesters decided to disrupt a congressional town hall on healthcare or a not too subtly racist conspiracy theorist shouted “where’s the birth certificate” it received extensive, and at least from my perspective, largely favorable media coverage. The left just seemed to be in shock, blindsided not only by Barack Obama’s stacking his cabinet with corporate neoliberals like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emmanuel, but by the fact that everybody in the Republican Party and on cable news seemed to consider him a secret Muslim and a socialist born in Kenya. Arguing with your racist Boomer uncle at a family reunion felt a bit like being part of Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. The more you pointed out how Obama had protected anybody and everybody in the financial industry from prosecution or how he had continued George Bush’s “war on terror,” the more your racist Boomer uncle seemed to believe that he was a secret Bolshevik being manipulated from behind the scenes by Bill Ayres and the ghost of Saul Alinsky. “Where’s the birth certificate!”
On September 17 2011, a small group of protesters met near the Wall Street Bull on lower Broadway, a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve. Neither the NYPD nor the few tourists in the area — it was a Saturday — seemed to think very much of it, another small left wing protest that would go nowhere, yawn. After being turned away from the New York Stock Exchange and Chase Plaza, the protesters finally set up shop in Zuccotti Park, hardly a park at all but a dreary slab of concrete near the old World Trade Center. For the next week, the small encampment lingered on, largely kept alive by the fact that some people on the traditional New York left were willing to use it as a base to protest the impending execution of Troy Davis. Remember him?
Nevertheless, all through that first week, momentum was building, mainly through the daily breakaway marches that would emerge from Zuccotti Park, do a loop around the Federal Reserve and One Chase Plaza and continue up Broadway to Union Square. There was no ideological consistency. Some of the protesters carried signs with Karl Marx, hammers and sickles. Others carried signs that said “End the Fed,” but everything seemed to be a refreshing change of pace from the authoritarian, top down anti war protests of the Bush years, where you showed up at a permitted rally, held up a sign for an hour or two while listening to a long list of speakers drone on and on, and then went home feeling vaguely demoralized and useless. As small as those early break away marches were, you felt that they were your marches, not some shadowy organization’s, that you were in control, that you were finally at long last speaking for yourself, not just parroting someone else’s canned talking points.
On September 25, a week after the original occupiers set up in Zuccotti Park, the NYPD “kettled” a group of protesters near Union Square, trapped them behind barricades and started making arrests. A high ranking NYPD inspector named Anthony Bologna who decided that he wasn’t going to leave the dirty work to some 23-year-old recruit, took out a can of pepper spray and assaulted a group of young women at close range. The video, which can still be seen here, “went viral,” and suddenly Occupy Wall Street came to symbolize an American working class under attack by corporate America and by the government. Just a quick note, “Bologna” is a major city in Italy that is not only the site of the first university in Europe, but also a traditional stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. Perhaps, like in an Assassins Creed game, “Tony Baloney’s” intellectual and left wing ancestors were using their moronic descendent to spark an anarchist revolution in the United State of America.
In any event, the NYPD, who had initially taken little notice of the protests, now considered Occupy Wall Street to be their enemy. Their patience was wearing thin, so thin that on October 1, after a huge crowd showed up in Zuccotti Park after an ultimately false rumor that Radiohead was going to play a free outdoor concert, the police trapped another large breakaway march on the Brooklyn Bridge and started arresting everybody in site. Their intention, of course, was to isolate the leaders, trump up serious charges on anybody they considered to be a threat, and slap the rest of us with a summons and the hassle of a court date. But that’s now how it played in the media. Occupy Wall Street, it seemed, had stormed the Brooklyn Bridge, as iconic a structure in its own way as the Bastille, and the revolution had at long last arrived. Suddenly Occupy Wall Street, like the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, had captured the zeitgeist. It was the place to be. Everybody in the media wanted a piece of it. Every photographer in New York wanted a photo. Every radio talk show host wanted an interview. It didn’t matter that the typical Occupier didn’t know exactly why he was protesting, that the ideological spectrum of the movement as a whole ran all the way from communist to to fascist, or that the shadowy “leadership” refused to issue any demands, a large group of protesters had taken over the financial district in New York City, had “stormed Wall Street.”
The NYPD at that moment had to know had badly it had fucked up. It had birthed a left wing movement that spawned copycat occupations in every major city and on almost every college campus in America. For a brief moment, Occupy Wall Street had become so popular that on October 14, when New York City’s plutocratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to clear out Zuccotti Park on the pretext that the occupation was a health hazard, so many people showed up over night that the NYPD decided not even to make any arrests, and the encampment would survive for another month. But of course, as I should have realized at the time, the outcome was inevitable. The beautiful late September, early October weather wasn’t going to last forever. What’s more, the NYPD and NYC tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily News, which had never been sympathetic to the movement, began to coordinate their efforts to smear and discredit the occupiers in what eventually amounted to a low level counterinsurgency.
It’s important to remember that the NYPD and the city government initially tolerated the occupation of Zuccotti Park because the entire area was at the time essentially a construction site, the “Oculus” (the huge upscale shopping mall at the site of the old World Trade Center) and the Battery Park Subway station that would anchor the hypergentrification of downtown Manhattan, still works in progress. But it was still valuable real estate and local merchants and property owners were already howling for the movement’s destruction.
While it took a few weeks, the writing was on the wall, Occupy’s 15 minutes of fame were up. The tabloids and local cable news outlets got to work in earnest, effectively painting Zuccotti Park as a filthy homeless encampment full of rapists and criminals so dangerous unless you were a heavily armed police officer you would be better off avoiding the area altogether. The New York Post published so many stories about rapes at Occupy Wall Street it began to feel like Berlin in 1945. Needless to say, the “me too” movement was still far off, and nobody in 2011 had any suspicion that the American ruling class was full of rapists, perverts and pedophiles like Andrew Cuomo, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, that your daughter was in far more danger of being sexually assaulted at Goldman Sachs than she was in Zuccotti Park. The American people are, if anything, fickle and easily propagandized. By November 15, when the NYPD finally cleared out Zuccotti Park and surrounded it with barricades, few people even bothered to take notice.
Social democrats and liberals, it seems, have decided that Occupy Wall Street was ultimately a success, that it “pushed the Democrats left” and created the conditions that would eventually give rise to the Bernie Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter. Was it? I could offer up an opinion of my own but as we all know opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. The rich have more money now than they ever had. The 99% and the 1% are more like the 99.999999% and the .0000001%. Medicare for All, while briefly a serious topic of debate, has all but disappeared from the national conversation. In March of 2020, all it took to destroy the Sanders campaign was one phone call from Barack Obama (the same man who probably coordinated police attacks on Occupy encampments in the Fall of 2011). But there’s no question that in some important ways the culture has changed. Looking at this video of Michael Moore getting booed at the Oscars is quite frankly shocking. Even the Hollywood liberal elites used to love George W. Bush. Protests against the police, even during the Covid pandemic, are so common they’ve essentially become part of American life. Unlike Barak Obama, who refused to shut down the American torture colony at Guantanamo Bay and allowed Hillary Clinton to destroy Libya and Syria, the moldy old right wing Democrat Joe Biden defied the military industrial media complex and pulled American troops out of Afghanistan. While Occupy’s demands — what were they again? — were never achieved, the political style Occupy invented on September 17th, 2011, has become mainstream, the way Americans protest. Occupy’s medium has become the message.
Last week in New Jersey we experienced the kind of natural disaster most of us have only heard about. While my home state may be the butt of a lot of jokes, we also tend to be free from horrible things like earthquakes, tornados, mass shootings and Republicans. Nevertheless, after a hot rainy summer (which is far from over) the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped over 10 inches of rain on the already water logged ground. Twenty three people died in the floods. Some people died through no fault of their own. Four people in Elizabeth drowned in their basement apartment after a river overflowed its banks and made escape impossible. Other people died out of sheer stupidity. For some odd reason an 83-year-old man in Union felt he needed to get in his car and drive and another man in Maplewood felt it necessary to clear the debris out of a culvert near his house.
As for me, I was doing my best to get a Darwin Award. I live on the second floor of a very well-built house on top of a hill. I could have easily slept through the storm and not even realized it happened. As soon as the storm was done, however, I jumped on my bike to explore the area, because, well, why not? Not far from my house, at the bottom of two steep hills, there was a small body of water where, only the day before there had only been the street in front of the local topless bar. There were also dozens of abandoned cars, their electronics shorted out when they tried to make it through what turned out to be at least two feet of water. I road through without a hitch, my feet soaked, but my pride swollen. My bike has no electronics, and it turned out I was stronger than 2 tons of Detroit metal (well these days fiberglass) powered by a V-6. I wound up riding through three large bodies of water, each more deep than the other, the last one lapping over the side view mirrors of cars parked on the street, a couch that had formerly decorated someone’s back porch floating by as I chugged through the brackish muck.
When I got home I couldn’t help but turn on Pete Seeger performing his now all but forgotten song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.
For Seeger, the song, which tells the tale of an infantry officer who drowned on a training exercise while foolishly trying to bully his platoon to ford a tributary of the flooded Mississippi (a stream that turned out to be the Mississippi itself), was a metaphor for the Vietnam War. The same military industrial media complex that recently attacked President Biden for his surprisingly courageous decision to end the American Occupation couldn’t admit they had made a mistake intervening in the Vietnamese Civil War. Like the idiot platoon commander in Seeger’s song, they were determined to drag the American people down with them. But Seeger’s platoon was smart enough to turn back and barely make it to dry land. The American people in the 1960s were smart enough to protest the occupation of Vietnam and demand we leave.
In 2021, I wish the “big muddy” were the war in Afghanistan. But it’s not. It’s something much more dangerous, to be specific, global warming, the weather patterns that have turned the Northeast into the Southeast, complete with deadly tornados, hurricanes, and floods. And the foolish platoon commander is not the American ruling class. It’s all of us, every ordinary citizen who just has to get into his car every day to run the rat race that’s killing the planet. Will we make it out? Or will we condemn our grandchildren to a dead, flooded planet. One can only hope for the best .
Michael K. Williams, the actor who played “Omar” on The Wire and Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, died yesterday of an apparent overdose. We were about the same age. He was born in 1966. I was born in 1965. I’m not going to judge him for the way he died. There are many good people who die of substance abuse, and many monsters and war criminals (e.g. Henry Kissinger) who seem to live forever. Even though one of his most memorable scenes in Boardwalk Empire involved savoring the idea of torturing a Klansman to death as revenge for the murder of his father, Williams rejected identity politics. It’s not about race, he said. It’s about class.
In my perspective, the show has very little to do with race, and everything to do with class. I’ve come to realize that the race thing is a smoke screen. The real war is a war on class. It’s about how much green you have in your pocket. In this country, you can unfortunately literally get away with murder if you have enough political background behind you. You are innocent until proven poor.