[Marxism] John Halle report on Wall Street protests

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 25 11:35:18 MDT 2011

Hi Everyone,

The following is a report from the Wall Street Occupation protest march 
which I am now on the train returning home from.

When I arrived at Zuccotti Park at approximately 12:15,  the march which 
was just getting under way initially appeared to be small, marginal and 
unimportant.  By describing it in this way, I do not mean to denigrate 
it. After all, I have spent a good part of my life attending small, 
marginal, and almost certainly unimportant events-namely concerts by 
obscure ensembles performing obscure "new" music, whatever that means 
these days.  Of course, in these days of internet connectedness, events 
which attract only a few local participants can attract a national, or 
even world-wide audience of thousands.  A concert in New York of the 
music of Lamonte Young or Milton Babbitt will almost certainly seem, and 
almost certainly is marginal, by any reasonable definition of the term. 
  But invariably, scattered around the world there are a few pockets of 
admirers who will amplify the event into something which is, at least, 
in their minds of great importance.  The same goes with 
#occupywallstreet.  Numerous "tweets", blog postings, comments to blogs, 
reports of solidarity marches, busses arriving from Madison, St. Louis, 
etc. gave the impression that this event had the potential to attract 
large or at least respectable numbers.

The fact is that it did not.   The original group, and I made several 
efforts to check this, was almost certainly less than 1000, which is to 
say that it filled about a half the length of a New York  city block. 
Those who were at the Feb 15, 2003 demonstration will remember that the 
throng extended the entire length of 5th Avenue from 42 St. to 96th, 
across to and back down again on Second across to the United Nations and 
then back up again to 96th.  That makes for something like 120 blocks or 
more crammed full with people-a crowd estimated at a million. This was 
almost certainly a factor of 500 smaller-an indication of where this 
movement needs to go to get the attention of Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie 
Dimon, and the other felons who are now our de facto rulers. More on 
that later.

When I describe the march as marginal, those familiar with protests of 
this general sort will know what I mean.  Doug Henwood's report 
of his visit to Zuccatti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Plaza) nicely captured a 
static version of the basic outlines of the scene pretty well: a throng 
of college or post college radicals, whatever that means these days (not 
much, in my experience), with a few moth eaten contingents from the 
various Marxist sects still carrying the flag based on some more or less 
idiosyncratic passage in the Grundrisse, a few obvious psychotics best 
avoided, a few artsy lower east side types, though by now surely 
displaced to the outer boroughs. Of course, there were lots more: a few 
vaguely neurotic looking, aging academics like myself, a disarmingly 
pretty Asian girl with purple hair and her boyfriend, a few hip-hop 
enthuiasts, likely attracted by rapper Lupe Fiasco who had endorsed the 
march.  In any case, this is what we had to work with.  And as Donald 
Rumsfeld famously remarked, you protest with the marchers you have, not 
those you wish you had.  And so I joined in somewhat skeptically though 
I was to become less so for several reasons which I'll describe in the 
following, along with some interspersed commentary and reflections.

First, as the march got close to its ultimate destination of Union 
Square, it seemed to pick up steam, its numbers increasing, the chants, 
while still mostly pedestrian, becoming more coherent and less obvious 
recyclings of decades old slogans which have become by now almost 
irrelevant.  Most significantly, as the march progressed it would be 
infused with a lot more passion and legitimate anger.  On this latter 
point, it needs to be observed that a double digit unemployment rate 
means that being college student or a recent grad is likely to be 
suffused with something in between misery, dread and stark terror of the 
future which likely awaits. And while this has becoming increasingly 
apparent to me among the students I teach, it was still more visible in 
the faces of more than a few of the protestors.  This is not just the 
long term future of carbon induced planetary apocalypse which they will 
live to see-and which I, thankfully, will not.  It is the immediate and 
midterm future of  un- or at best underemployment at wages and working 
conditions reflecting the tight, employer-centric labor market.  That 
means eking out an living through dead end internships, temporary office 
work will become the norm for all but a few of the chosen (read Ivy 
League) grads in the appropriate majors having the right connections. 
And while for a long time the Nietzschean devil-take-the-hindmost ethos 
of college students was unforgiving, viewing those unable to compete in 
the new economy as having only themselves to blame, it is now becoming 
apparent that the game is being played with a stacked deck.  And so for 
the first time in a long time those in their teens and twenties have an 
immediate personal stake in that which they are protesting, and while 
the still dreadful legacy of sociology departments, "non hierarchical" 
discourse, diversity training and "anti-racism" remains evident in the 
rhetoric, slowly the smothering layer of academic abstraction and 
language games seems to be lifting from protest culture and what is 
revealed is a deep, festering and altogether righteous anger-what the 
Arabic speakers refer to by the word "hamas."

Secondly, it became increasingly clear that more that a few of the 
participants were willing to push the envelope of the protest in the 
direction of outright confrontation, and, more importantly, this seemed 
both justifiable and appropriate under the circumstances. I use these 
words advisedly,  doing so based on the recognition that demonstrations 
have become choreographed rituals which have long since lost the 
capacity to demonstrate anything meaningful.  And when I say 
choreographed it needs to be understood that those doing the 
choreographing are the police, under orders from higher ups who are well 
schooled in crowd management techniques designed to marginalize and 
blunt the effectiveness of protest.

Under the Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes the cold precision of the 
choreography imposed by the NYPD on protests rivals that of the Bolshoi 
under Balanchine: since the Feb 15th, 2003 and Republican National 
Convention protest, the authorities have made use of a highly effective 
combination of carrots and sticks. Quiet and non-violent-by which is 
meant non-disruptive protests under the terms set by the authorities are 
tolerated.  However, those stepping out of line, those who insist that 
protests do what they are supposed to do, i.e. disrupt business as usual 
and impose a cost on those primarily benefitting from its operation, are 
dealt with considerable harshness.

The response of demonstrators over the past few years has been to 
capitulate to these imposed conditions and thereby, often under the 
rubric of "non-violence", allowing protest to become empty rituals. 
What is necessary now is that demonstrations reclaim their roots as a 
demonstrations of power, specifically, their ability to disrupt.  And 
while the disruptions effected today, in the larger scheme of things 
were quite minimal, what a critical mass of the participants seem to 
implicitly understand is that disruption-the ability to inflict real 
costs on entrenched capital through unpredictable and spontaneous (i.e 
unchoreographed) direct action is a necessary condition for the success 
of any protest.  If these protests succeed in growing with this 
assumption at their core, they have real potential to become truly 
meaningful.  It remains to be seen whether they will do so.

A couple of examples will give some idea of the potential I'm referring 
to, one of these extraordinary: after the march reached its eventual 
destination at Union Square Park, most seemed to expect that we would 
return more or less the way we came back to Zuccotti Park.  While we 
were there, it became clear that the police had received orders to 
disperse the group.  Their initial attempt to do so was when we were 
still in the park, and was effected by vinyl mesh barriers which 
prevented the crowd from returning south back to its original 
destination in Wall Street. To do this required erecting these barriers 
at edge of the group, turning back those who had just started on its way 
south.  Among these was a man maybe slightly younger than myself-though 
not much-who simply demanded to go where he to, and he would be damned 
if he would let the cops get in his way. And so he stepped in front of 
the cops who were trying to hem us in, inviting a violent confrontation 
and likely arrest. But that's not extraordinary, as this was to be 
duplicated with greater or lesser degrees of violence at least forty 
times over the next hour.  What was extraordinary was how the man 
impeded the cop: he did so by pushing a stroller which enclosed the 
man's three or four year old child in the cops way.  The cop pushed the 
stroller aside and attacked the man with real viciousness, in full view 
of the child.  I didn't see what would later materialize-how or whether 
the man would be arrested.  I did, however, see another small child in 
the park who was a spectator to the event breaking down in tears, as his 
father, a dreadlocked man tried to console him.

As a parent of a small child who I was considering bringing along to 
this, but thankfully did not,  I wasn't sure how to respond to what 
seemed to be an act of almost insane recklessness.  Initially, I was was 
appalled, but in retrospect, in revisiting the mental image, I couldn't 
help but be moved by the commitment and courage displayed, and by the 
recognition that finally the stakes of our confrontation are becoming 
clear. As Marx said "we are now required to compelled to face with sober 
senses, (our) real conditions of life, and (our) relations with (our) 
kind." While few of us will find ourselves capable of this man's 
courage, this is the kind of reaction which will be required of us when 
we face up to the realities we are encountering with sober senses.

A description of the remainder of the march requires the trite but, in 
this context, altogether accurate phrase, "violently dispersed by the 
police", though this is, of course, usually applied to various third 
world dictatorships.   One block south the police began to erect a 
second set of barriers with the purpose of dividing the march into 
smaller groups, separated by a block or so, arresting those who refused 
to get out of the street, and who resisted.   The arrests were 
undertaken with considerable brutality which I was a direct witness to, 
and almost a victim of.  The worst which happened to me was to have 
receive the full brunt of a body which had been slammed with remarkable 
force by a particularly violent and thuggish cop.  Another encounter 
which I witnessed was worse and somewhat disturbing.  A protester who 
had, I would imagine, prevented the erection of the crowd control 
barrier, was tackled and set upon by at least seven or eight cops 
administering a series of blows to all parts of the man's head and 
abdomen.  I had never seen a display of violence of such intensity and 
it was quite unnerving. The fact that the target of this display of 
brutality was black will probably not come as a surprise.

These are some of the events which seem worth reporting here.  There 
were others which a more journalistically inclined (and trained) 
observer would no doubt relate.   Rather than itemizing these I'll close 
by mentioning a third reason for why I am somewhat optimistic.  This is 
personal and even a bit sentimental so those who don't know me might do 
well to skip the remainder of this paragraph.  At the intersection of 
West 4th my friend Judd Greenstein who I had called earlier darted in 
the the crowd next to me. Judd, in addition to being probably the most 
gifted, passionate and communicative of the younger composers I know, is 
also one of the finest people-in the most simple and meaningful sense of 
the term.  Pretty much unique in my circle of acquaintances, he is a 
reliable presence at these sorts of protests, having met up with me a 
year ago or so at a Wall Street protest following the bank bail outs. 
More significantly for me,  this seemingly random encounter brought back 
for me one of my most treasured memories.  At the Iraq war protest in 
Feb 2003, I was within a sea of bodies walking southward on the corner 
of 79th and Amsterdam,  when I spotted within the crowd heading west my 
father Morris who was then eighty and my mother Rosamond who was now 
walking slowly having begun to be affected by the Parkinsons disease 
which would take her life this year.  I probably shouldn't have been 
surprised.  While they are not political activists (certainly less so 
than my father's long time friend and colleague Chomsky) their 
investment in politics is real, though almost exclusively moral-dictated 
by a simple code which required them to actively protest when their 
government is enacting atrocities in their name, as it did in Vietnam 
during my childhood, and as it was about to do in Iraq.  Protest is what 
every decent person did back then-it was not limited to an activist 
clique.  There were lots like my parents back then.

Judd attended this demonstration for exactly the same reasons which my 
parents did nearly half a century ago, and which were defining events of 
my childhood.  Protest is what decent people do when they are confronted 
with evil.  Having both witnessed the thuggish crackdown south of Union 
Square, I was grateful to be able to be able take stock of the situation 
with him. His presence today was for me a validation of the possibility 
that there maybe some ultimate hope to be squeezed out of what now 
appears to be a fairly desperate trajectory into something approximating 
a police state-at least for those who do what is necessary to make 
protest meaningful.

Finally, a post-script: I'm writing this as the police prepare for what 
may be a final-and likely, if today's events were any guide, intensely 
brutal assault on the encampment in Zuccati Park.  As I have been 
posting on Facebook, this appears to me to be a Martin Niemoller moment 
for us-one where they are coming for a marginal clique, one which is the 
butt of jokes (including my own above) and regarded as absurd and 
insignificant by all but a few.  Today's NYT's coverage of the 
protestors, predictably contemptuous and dismissive, sets the stage 
perfectly for this crackdown-and provides grounds for all the right 
thinking people who are the Times' primary demographic to avert their 
eyes.  The few decent people who find out about this may get on the 
subway and head to Wall Street to bear witness, and maybe even act.  But 
I can't say I'm in the least optimistic that anything like this is in 
the cards-certainly nothing approximating the display of force which we 
must martial to make a difference.  All this is only further 
confirmation of Niemoller's dictum: when they come for us there may very 
well be very few left to speak up.

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