"...Occupy Wall Street isn’t primarily an anti-Wall Street phenomenon. It is a generalized anti status-quo protest movement, for which Wall Street serves as the convenient focal point."
Austin, 10/6/11. This is a report of my (brief) attendance at this morning’s opening day of Occupy Austin, a local offshoot — one of many across the country — of the now weeks-old Occupy Wall Street event that started in Zuccotti Park, a coin toss away from Wall Street in lower Manhattan, NY.
Discovering that Occupy Wall Street was franchising across the country and that members of our fair municipality were setting up an occupation at City Hall, I was keen to check it out. The potential for (un-co-opted) grass roots effected change feels real to me (unlike that other so-called populist movement of the right), and I felt a whiff of exhilaration as I headed to City Hall — a feeling I haven’t really had since I marched against Anti-Apartheid in London in 1986. What would I find when a large crowd of leftists and the generally disgruntled, the police and the media converged on City Hall Plaza?
Well, this is Austin, hardly a hotbed of incendiary confrontation between citizens and security forces and, after I parked in the underground garage at City Hall and emerged onto the plaza, I saw a typical Austin gathering: plenty of relatively earnest, pleasant people, placards, police, photographers, bikes, water bottlers, coffee cups and backpacks, and everyone in good spirits. The gathering was civil and inclusive, like a meeting of City Council when there’s nothing controversial on the agenda.
The crowd, some seated on the plaza’s stone bleachers, others standing in an arc facing them, included young and old, from college students to former Vietnam-era protesters to middle-aged folk, some people brought their kids. Facing the whole shebang was the phalanx of media — TV, radio, social — armed with cameras, mics, iPhones; some old-fashioned types even used pen and paper. The few people there who were well dressed were clearly from the visual media, the TV fizzogs; the occupiers tended toward jeans and t-shirts and sweat. The police presence was notable yet reserved, the cops stood mostly on the periphery and showed no particular concern about proceedings (I heard several bursts of laughter during the hour or so that I was there and turned to see groups of cops amusing themselves in conversation while paying scant attention to us). Police Chief Art Acevedo worked the crowd with a smile and a pat on the back for anyone he came near. More than one person thanked him for being such a visible, friendly face. I’d say the demographic breakdown mirrored Austin as a whole; the crowd was largely white, with a smattering of every minority imaginable.
When I got there around 10:15 in the morning the whole thing had just kicked off. A petit woman in a blue dress, who seemed to be one of the organizers, concluded her introduction and then another in a red dress stood up and made her brief remarks. She invited anyone who wanted to speak to come up to the steps and air whatever they wished for two minutes, “would you please line up here.” A small line formed immediately and as speakers spoke, there were always four or five people standing in line, ready for their turn.
There was no microphone, no bullhorn and the local occupiers and their speakers haven’t worked out yet how to amplify speakers’ voices via the theatrical and inclusive technique that Occupy Wall Street calls the “people’s microphone.” But you could hear most of what most people had to say and it was, as you’d expect from such an eclectic group, a mixed bag of mini-speeches. On topic, I heard men and women lament corporate greed, the divide between the richest Americans and the rest of us and the need for this sort of grass-roots leftist movement to combat the entrenched and moneyed forces of the right. There were anti-Fed comments, a teacher’s plea to end standardized testing (so she and her colleagues might actually teach children how to solve problems) and a fellow from Lockhart, a town 30 miles away, painted a picture of struggling neighbors in a weak economy. There was a man in a boot cast who can’t get a job but wants to work and get off welfare, and there was a black man not in a boot cast who also can’t get a job but wants to work and get off welfare; I saw an Operation Desert Storm vet, a few tie-dyed commentators speaking out against corporate greed; I heard measured comments about the need for everyone to pay a fair share, including corporations/banks/the wealthy. One fellow who liked to shout from the crowd that it was all the Fed’s fault got up to speak and I wasn’t sure if he was going to rant, but he made a quick and articulate plea that this gathering keep up its efforts to ensure equality for everyone. A lawyer (“I’m not a wealthy one”) argued to cheers that it’s time the left stopped getting trampled by the right and its media and moneyed cronies. And a professor in full academic regalia announced he was leading an ongoing discussion about capitalism throughout history under an oak tree on the periphery of the plaza.
There were two occasions when someone got up and seemed to be saying something against this protest movement. I couldn’t hear either clearly, but from what I could make out, it seemed as if they feared for the direction the occupation might take and that we had to slow things down. The first fellow went on much longer than two minutes, and despite rubbing many in the crowd the wrong way, was not cut off; he got to finish what he wanted to say, though he changed no one’s opinion. A woman got up and appeared to be demanding some sort of restrictive rules be enforced about who could speak and when (and about what?). She was met with a burst of “Free Speech! Free Speech!” from the audience and gave up. I think she shared the man’s concerned that this group might get out of hand, but that hardly seems likely. This is Austin.
Like the Wall Street occupation, there are twice-daily general assemblies planned to map out the course of Austin’s occupation of City Hall plaza. This afternoon the organizers and the occupiers will hammer out some sort of operating standard for the occupation, slated to continue until…well, presumably until the group’s mission is met:
Our mission is to assert our rightful place in the political process, and take the reins of power away from profit-driven interests.”Will we succeed? I have to admit that it’s a big ask that this country, in its current direction, could fulfill these demands:
1. This movement is about democracy. We demand that the government be truly responsive to those it represents. We demand an end to the massive corporate influence blocking the voice of the people by eliminating corporate personhood and limiting monetary contributions to political campaigns and lobbying.
2. This movement is about economic security. We demand effective reforms to prevent banks and financial institutions from causing future economic crises.
3. This movement is about corporate responsibility. We demand strict repercussions for corporations and institutions who cause serious financial damage to our country and its taxpayers.
4. This movement is about financial fairness. We demand tax reforms to ensure that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.
But it’s worth a good, sustained effort, isn’t it?