story & photos by Safiya Balekian
I went to New York City on a very limited budget aided by friends who supported my intention to Occupy Wall Street. I am your neighbor, a regular person, not a professional protester or financed by any group or cause. I went to New York City because I identified with a sense of outrage that our government and media have been seized by corporations and driven us to endless wars.
I went to Occupy Wall Street because I identify with the 99% of the population whose combined net worth is less than the combined net worth of the 1%. This concentration of wealth and power has undermined our economy, corrupted our democracy, deepened the racial divide and demolished the middle class—tearing our communities apart. I am the 99% and probably, so are you.
The first day of the occupation began at noon on September 17. Large crowds gathered at Bowling Green Park, near the iconic Golden Bull statue that symbolizes the Wall Street drive. Tourists hovered around the statue, snapping photos of themselves, smiling and cupping the large bull testicles in their hands. It was almost reverential, like a pilgrimage to a holy site.
Speakers expressed their rage against the “Corporate Machine.” Reverend Billy Talen gave a rousing Earthalujah! Peace-alujah! rant. Others led chants while we all waved banners and signs. A woman was costumed like a birthday cake; a man wore a 3-piece suit with a noose around his neck for a tie; there were people of all shapes and sizes and colors. It was a carnival atmosphere as we began to march to One Chase Plaza, but were turned away by NYPD officers. So, we spontaneously marched to Zuccotti Square, (renamed Liberty Square, in the shadow of the rebuilding of the twin towers that collapsed on 9/11), and spent the rest of the afternoon in small group assemblies.
At that stage I was unsure how this would unfold. In the following days, however, I was thrilled to see vibrant and fully engaged youth leading the way. Over time I grew inspired by the intelligence and commitment of young and old alike who had been moved to join. Above all, the People’s General Assembly was the beating heart that propelled the occupation from an impotent struggle to a real excercise in intentional community. The use of a hybrid of the direct democracy methods of the Clamshell Alliance from the ‘70s (wheels and spokes, rotating facilitators, consensus-building, etc.) gave the decision making process life. Democracy can seem tedious, but there is beauty in its inclusive and elegant nature. This process stands in direct opposition to what passes as “democracy” in our society, where the majority of our “representatives” represent primarily those with the deepest pockets.
At this daily gathering we practiced an open, participatory and horizontally organized process with the aim of organizing the movement, finding the best way to articulate the message and provide a forum for the autonomous collective forces to explore, provide solutions, and demonstrate in response to the crises of our times. It may have looked chaotic, and the prohibition of any electric amplification that had been imposed by the police added to the sense of disorder. But this obstacle merely aroused innovation in the form of the People’s Microphone, which in some ways fostered a greater solidarity within the group.
Over weeks that followed, I spent most of my time at the “Information and Welcoming Table” answering questions about our daily schedule and engaging in lively discourse with those who agreed, as well as those who disagreed or didn’t understand the occupation. There were some who argued, but more often people would thank me/us for speaking on their behalf. Occasionally, someone would identify themselves as working in the adjacent buildings surrounding the Plaza, glad to see us there. I spoke to citizens and immigrants, union workers and banking executives, housewives and domestic workers, attorneys and students. There was an overwhelming agreement that indeed there was “something wrong” with the system as it stands.
I was interviewed by OpEd News and other internet bloggers. I was asked: “Why are you protesting?” My answer: “Why aren’t YOU?” In retrospect, I can only surmise that people have been traumatized by the economic devastation that has affected 99% of our population. I imagine that we have dissociated from cruel reality of the rape of our personal and collective economy and political process, while propagandized into believing that the top 1% deserve to be protected from our suffering.
I was also asked: “What do you expect to accomplish?” My answer must be, that I expect nothing . . . but I hope for everything! I hope for a reversal of the nonsense of Citizens United; I hope for a return to Glass-Steagall, a tax on stock market speculation, and a financial transaction tax. I hope for a return of all soldiers and an end to foreign adventurism. I hope for an economic philosophy that embraces the innate human quality of compassion. I hope for a future free of authoritarian interference in our personal lives, while growing a government that is protective of our health and safety. Years of disillusionment in the political structure left me cynical of any innate wisdom of the body politic. Today, I hope for a society where peace, wisdom and love can guide us. Call me crazy.
In the first few days of the encampment police felt a need to tear down tents and take tarps away that were protecting citizens from the rain. Several people were also arrested and someone lost a tooth. Later, a civil rights attorney came to present a pro bono offer to challenge the case. This was brought to the General Assembly and approved, providing a wonderful boost to morale.
We marched to the infamous Stock Exchange at the opening and closing bells each day. Usually, the police simply followed and were, for the most part, civil and friendly. Protesters thanked them for protecting us and tried to engage them in conversation.
On one march through Greenwich Village however, something changed. People were being corralled and dragged off to be arrested. Amidst some chaos a group of young women were chanting, but corralled in peaceful compliance, when a senior officer emerged and pepper-sprayed and ran away. The next day thousands of protesters marched to One Police Plaza to demand the release of those pepper sprayed and arrested.
Celebrities came and went, expressing solidarity. Roseanne, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore and the rapper Immortal Technique. Princeton professor Cornel West also came in support! But it was the ordinary people who showed up and spoke their hearts and minds that really impressed me.
At the General Assembly on evening of September 30 we empowered a few individuals to organize the next day’s action for security reasons. On October 1 we marched. I was in the midst of the crowd. Some people got separated, it seemed, and were on a walkway parallel to the majority of us. We kept on walking and chanting with police walking alongside. I noticed that the police had stopped traffic to the right of us. That was when I realized we were on a road. Well, ok. The police were right there. We were not warned away or ordered to turn back.
In fact, we were on the Brooklyn Bridge marching from the Manhattan side to the Brooklyn side! Suddenly the marchers ahead stopped . . . so, we all stopped. Police began to corral us to one side and we cooperated. Eventually officers from the Brooklyn side began walking handcuffed protesters to paddy wagons behind us. Then, officers from the Manhattan side began arresting protesters from that side. When it was my turn to be arrested, the officer told me to keep walking! And, so I did. I was among a lucky few, over 700 protesters were arrested that day.
This action stimulated controversy and debate. It also brought more people to Liberty Square in the following days. I leave it to you to judge the wisdom of the decision. Civil disobedience is a powerful statement. Regardless of our best intentions and most carefully worded affirmations, we are experiencing a global goose-stepping march into fascism. While most of us have been aware of the accumulating injustices, there seems to have been a disconnect between the facts and our ability to feel the pain and respond appropriately. Forty years of multiplying the wealth of the few while slashing the rights of the many with the sleight-of-hand trick called “trickle-down” economics: the corporatization of health care, the illusion of a “free-press” in the corporate owned media . . . and the oxymoron of “corporate personhood” that allows the influence of monied interests to seize our democratic process for the narrow interests of the rich.
Like victims of trauma or abuse, we have been suffering a mass dissociative disorder. In order to heal, we must first acknowledge we are being victimized. Now I am home. I’m happy to be home, but I am not any less resolved to speak out. These now-global occupations are awakening the body politic, sending us signals and symptoms of our trauma. Time to end the denial and reintegrate. We need to take a hard and honest look at the source of our collective abuse. It is not an easy task, but it is necessary.
I left Occupy Wall Street after three weeks. Many have remained. I went on to spend a week in Washington, DC where Occupy DC and the October 2011 movement are spreading the message. On October 15 there were actions around the world in solidarity with Global Revolution. My daughter Bernita organized a march in Alamosa that was attended by around forty participants. I’ll probably be going to Occupy Denver soon. This is a good beginning, but more voices must be heard. Come on board the love train! You are the change you have been waiting for.