What do you think about Occupy Wall Street?

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WHEN: October 5th at 4:30 pm

WHERE: City Hall (250 Broadway)

DETAILS: Let’s march down to Wall Street to welcome the protesters and show the face of New Yorkers hardest hit by corporate greed. Union workers and community members impacted by the economic crisis have been demanding Wall Street and the wealthiest New Yorkers pay their fair share. It’s time to stand together and continue what started in in Wisconsin.



“Exactly who I expected to be at Occupy Wall Street is there doing exactly what I expected them to be doing,” a white friend of mine and an experienced organizer said as we wondered around Zuccotti Square a couple of days ago.

“So what is wrong with that?” I asked her.

She said she just couldn’t help but see Occupy Wall Street cynically. I’ve overheard the snarky cynicism from friends and read it in articles. I can’t help but wonder if the critique, which I’ve heard from white folks especially, is a way to separate ourselves from young, white activists. And more troubling, I worry that it represents an inability think beyond the formula that non-profit organizing groups have prescribed in the past few decades.

First, it is important to say that I generally agree with the critique that I’ve heard. Do I think organizing is more effective and long term? Yes. Are white men in their 20s the majority of people at Occupy Wall Street? Yes. Have they been unable to create actionable demands? Yes. Is it a turn off for “mainstream America” that many people there look raggedy and punk? Yes.

The critique is accurate, but loveless and cynical. Not to mention that most of it has come from the mouths of white people who just 10 or 15 years ago probably would have been setting up camp there in an excited flurry, learning how to use (and abuse) consensus and make large vats of food for lots of hungry people.

There is a time in my life when I (and many of the movement critics) would have dropped everything I was doing and headed to Wall Street. On more than one occasion, I drove 24 hours to attend a mass demonstration. Most were unsuccessful in reaching their stated primary goal of stopping the war, ending free trade agreements or halting toxic environmental practices. Many were disorganized and though they tried, never lived up to their idealistic premise.

I participated on the edges of Take Back the Land Miami, which took over a vacant lot for six months with a demand that Black people should have control of all vacant property in Black communities. Take Back the Land was not a non-profit and had no funding. Their revolutionary demands were not met, but Umoja Village stood for six months, sparking a national debate on housing and inspiring groups around the country to take up the banner. Five years later, a national network of Take Back the Land exists to continue the struggle. Are there critiques I could make of Take Back the Land? Of course. But, I will always honor the imagination and vision that it took to do something completely outside the bounds of what any non-profit organizing group at the time would touch. Take Back the Land’s actions may have even played a role in inspiring Occupy Wall Street’s initial organizers.

Major demonstrations, protest encampments, and other outside the box actions were the first things to draw me into the movement. They introduced me to a worldview I never even knew to imagine previously, to issues of privilege and race and to debates about tactics. Actions and occupations like Occupy Wall Street helped me have a vision that still helps guide me, though I’ve shifted as far as the tactics I choose to use and prioritize.

Occupy Wall Street is a training ground for future action and for a new batch of rabble rousers. It was a starting point for a march to protest the murder of Troy Davis and to support postal workers and an ending point for a City University march about education funding. Three thousand people are watching their live stream at any given time as experienced organizers  pass on their histories of resistance and share information in formal and informal ways. Occupy Wall Street is bringing us the gift of a conversation about capitalism, revolutionary action and how to craft reformist demands in a rotten system.

Most importantly, it is a space that is unabashedly calling bullshit on capitalism. Yes, white activist and organizers should critique it, but with love and respect for people who are part of our collective journey in seeking a more just world. We never know what and who they could be laying the groundwork for and we shouldn’t pretend like we do.

Special thanks to Padraig O Donoghue for contributions to my developing thoughts on Occupy Wall Street.



Many thoughts to respond to Sally’s post, but a few questions…

– I am not certain what she is calling for other than calling names: smelly, anarchist (I’m guessing “anarchist” is a negative term)? Does she want the Occupy Wall Street protests to stop? Does she want the imagined or real “smelly” people to shower? Does she want the imagined or real white people to stop being white? Does she want people of color to go to the protest? Really, Sally, I’m confused as to what you are calling for here – other than, “When you protest, please shower, dress nicely and make sure you wear clean underwear so when the NYT or other media come knocking (or the NYPD come thumping) you can scream angrily, but look pretty for the camera.”

– Her initial post calling for the “well-organized” and well-groomed early 1960s decades reminds me of the in-fighting then between certain leaders of the SCLC against the participants in urban riots across the U.S., the younger crowds in SNCC and later against the Black Panther Party (“don’t try to organize the “lumpenproletariat”!”).

– Also, seeing that she bases her assessment of the Occupy Wall Street protests on that one NYT article (to which a decent response was made by Kilkenny in her 26 September The Nation article) doesn’t only take the columnist from the NYT at their word, but also does not take the activists at theirs. Meaning – she silences and thus, assumes who they are. Many of the activists at Occupy Wall Street are involved in a number of long-term community-based organizing campaigns. I think this is a significant damaging factor of her article: that she silences who the activists are without an attempt to engage with them. Many have come to Occupy Wall Street as an expression of their everyday work, which they continue to do otherwise.

Having been a long-time member of a mostly white, mostly anarchist, and I suppose mostly “weird” or “smelly” seeming organization, I know the immediate reaction many of our members would conjure in the likes of Sally (btw, I agree too with Subhash that not only does Sally silence the other work these activists do, but also the number of other participants who are not “smelly”, “anarchist” or white.). I also have shared the apparent instant gasp at seeing “smelly” “weird” “anarcho-hippie” kids as a face of a movement or organization. I agree that to a certain extent, the way we project ourselves and express ourselves affects the impact we have on various communities. Yet, this does not mean these folks don’t organize. For my group, we were also involved in providing committed, long-term ally support to women-of-color led community based organizations and their campaigns. I guess, in essence, what I am saying is: don’t judge a book by its cover and especially if that cover is the New York Times.

– Lastly, this whole “protest for protest sakes” business. In her line in this article: “Second, yes, Families for Freedom sometimes protested for protest’s sake — understandable given the desperation and powerlessness many of their members felt.” Clearly, this is not protesting for protesting sake. This is protesting as a way to express individual and collective frustration, anger and yes, love as well as a way to feel collective support and empowerment at a time in which we are made to feel increasingly disempowered. Protesting for protest sake can actually help regenerate our energies and build collective strength and at the very least, demonstrate a modicum of dissent and opposition. What is “protest for protest’s sake” for, Sally, if we don’t “win”? So, then all the marches against the U.S. invasion in Iraq or protests for protest’s sake? Again,  in this context, I think she is using this phrase as she assumes the extent of the Occupy Wall Street’s political participation. A sad thing to do.

In the end, if you really want people to shower or change their appearance or – more substantially – change their tactics, maybe you shouldn’t start with insults and dismissive rips, the kind of which are received enough by those in opposition? Generally not a good idea when our movement is already small and you identify OWS participants as being within our movement. I’m sure this is not the organizing tactic taken by the New Bottom Line.



Subhash was right to take apart Kohn’s original piece. Kohn’s piece polices the boundaries of what is considered acceptable protest in the United States. Not in the literal sense of policing with a badge, a gun and a can of pepper spray. But in the no less important sense of marginalizing and isolating those acts of protest that fall outside fairly narrow bounds.

What are those bounds? Most generally they are the familiar bounds imposed in much community organizing of “winnable demands” which automatically excludes from the outset all demands that challenge the foundational assumptions of capitalism or otherwise involve a radical transformation of power relations. The most important victories of progressive movements did not start out as “winnable demands” of course. They started out as insistent cries against injustice that were promptly dismissed by the pragmatists of their age. Cries that were “poorly messaged” and often embodied by spokespeople no less wild-eyed and unkempt as some you will encounter in a sleeping bag in Liberty Plaza north of Wall Street. It has been one of the signal accomplishments of the non-profit industrial complex to separate so many dedicated day-to-day organizers, now dependent on annual grants for their meager salaries, from the wild-eyed, unkempt and often un- or underemployed who have historically been the conscience of progressive movements.

More specifically, the bounds are quite clearly articulated in Kohn’s piece. First, they are the bounds of respectable appearances and hygiene that she lays down by the predictable resort to ridicule which permeates the whole piece. She laments that her “jokes about smelly anarchists fell flat with many” not because they were a cheap resort to an ad hominem argument, but only because they failed to fulfill their mission of marginalization.

Second, they are the bounds of the editorial policies of the New York Times. Never mind that this action is an attack on the heart of global capitalism and the New York Times — and all the other “mainstream” (read: corporate) media who Kohn rightly notes take their cues from the Times — is fundamentally beholden to the preservation of capitalism.

Whether she sees herself this way or not, Kohn was acting as a gatekeeper when she wrote her piece. She ended up sending a message to liberal funders, non-profit staffers, and other progressive “opinion leaders” to keep away from the smelly crazies down camping out on Wall Street. Fortunately events have outpaced that position. A constant flow of people has broadened the base of the Wall Street occupation. The police attacks when they sought to link up with the Troy Davis protests have outraged a broad swathe of New York progressives. And now solidarity actions are being prepared in dozens of towns and cities. It turns out that the smelly white anarchists actually did have a message and that it has captured peoples imaginations in a way that little else has done (Wisconsin being the most notable exception) since the financial crisis began. It may not be sufficient to bring down the rule of Wall Street, but its a real start. One that happened in spite of, not because of, the gatekeepers of respectable protest. Good for them.



NOTE: This is more of a report from the field, than an engagement in this debate.  but we wanted to include it because of Paul’s long-time experience organizing in communities most impacted by the crisis. 

Down in Zuccotti Park, a few blocks north of Wall Street, a couple of hundred people have taken over a local park, more a sliver of concrete with some trees that provide shade from the sun, in what is simply called “Occupy Wall Street”.

What do you think about Occupy Wall Street?The people in the park are mostly younger and diverse. The overwhelming commonality is that most could fall under the banner of “alternative” lifestyle, people who had made some commitment to living and creating a space or movement that is essentially countercultural. But there were people who did not fit this mode, including a smattering of low-income people, workers from local restaurants, and some suits and ties who were observing the scene.

At the General Assembly I attended, leadership was shared and people who were under the age of 30 facilitated the meeting. A diverse group of people, maybe 120 people participated actively in the General Assembly. Young children tagged along with their parents or played by their side.  Older people connected with more traditional institutions, labor groups, community organizations and campaigns, were also present in the crowd and presented to the larger group.  The GA was a combination of agenda items that dealt with the logistics of keeping an encampment going over multiple days, food, safety and security, clean-up, communications etc. and a range of announcements of various activities and actions. The day’s actions were

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