The State of the Occupation of Wall Street

When activists began to occupy Wall Street, the corporate media and parts of the progressive community castigated them for not having demands. I believed that it would be necessary to settle on concrete demands at some point if the protest was to expand beyond the hundreds they attracted in the occupation’s first week.

The growth problem was solved by the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) crackdown and the determination of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activists to continue on despite repression. Their actions electrified the country and won the movement mass support.

A union-sponsored march to join OWS called a few days after the NYPD lured 700 activists onto the Brooklyn Bridge for mass arrests drew 20,000-30,000. Usually union marches are publicized months in advance and most of the people on them are union members. They come, listen to speeches, wave union-printed placards, go home after a few hours, and the status quo continues undisturbed the day after.

Not this time.

Most of the marchers did not appear to be union members, judging by their homemade signs and lack of union shirts. They had a spirit of defiance about them. They were energized by the militancy of OWS activists, outraged by the NYPD’s tactics, and felt safe to march because the unions secured permits.

As the masses poured into the Financial District that evening, 1,000-2,000 protesters held a mass meeting and decided via consensus to push through the police barricades at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway in front of TD Bank in an attempt to march on the New York Stock Exchange one block away. They were repelled twice by the NYPD’s night sticks and pepper spray, and scattered skirmishes occurred thereafter. At one point cops on motorcycles rammed protesters. Over two dozen were arrested.

OWS’s heroism in the face of repression has ignited a mass movement. Occupations and marches have taken place in 250 cities and towns across America: thousands in Los Angeles, California, 500 in New Orleans, Louisiana, 5,000 in Portland, Oregon, 1,000 in Tampa, Florida, dozens in Des Moines, Iowa, 150 in Nashville, Tennessee, 50 in Mobile, Alabama. All of them are led by determined, mostly young people who are willing to brave arrest and police brutality. All of them see reclaiming public space and the right to protest as being just as important as the underlying economic and political problems that drove them to the streets in the first place.

The sweep of the Occupy movement is as wide as it is deep. Everyone in America is mad as hell at Wall Street for nearly destroying the world economy, handing taxpayers the bill, and awarding themselves even bigger bonuses than before even though the economy is on life support. Wall Street and Corporate America did everything in their power to turn the 99% against them and the Occupy movement has succeeded beyond even the wildest dreams of OWS’s initiators.

This is a mass, grassroots movement, one that does not have leaders or leadership in the conventional sense. The people leading this movement are the people participating in it. It is direct democracy, unmediated by unions, non-governmental organizations, non-profits, political parties or organizations.

At Liberty Plaza, OWS can only be described as a self-organized mass of humanity, a combination Woodstock, Berkeley Free Speech movement, Bonus Army, and anarchist commune all rolled into one.

During week one, there were about 100 overnight occupiers in Liberty Plaza; during week two, it grew to over 200; now, there are over 600. After work hours, the number of people at the encampment grows into the low thousands. When you approach the area, you hear the low hum of thousands of unending conversations, some political, some not, with various drummer groups pounding away, their rhythms echoing off of office buildings containing the 1%. The scene gives new meaning to the term “concrete jungle,” and it sits just hundreds of feet away from the nerve center of world capitalism, the New York and Nasdaq stock exchanges.

OWS’s working groups deal with food, sanitation, medical, security, media, outreach to other activist groups, transparency, facilitating meetings, and meeting a variety of other needs of the hundreds-strong collective (last week they had a makeshift barbershop and gave people free haircuts). Many of the working groups are divided into subgroups due to the complex nature of the tasks they are responsible for. All working groups report to the General Assembly (G.A), an open mass meeting that operates using modified consensus, meaning almost everyone must agree for decisions to be made.

Although the Occupy movement is going from strength to strength, there are problems brewing beneath the surface of OWS’s success.

There is an intense level of frustration among occupiers with the G.A. process and the dysfunctional nature of some working groups. This has given rise to talk of creating a spokescouncil, a body composed of the working groups that would more efficiently deal with mundane, practical matters, allowing the G.A. to be more focused and productive. Some people in working groups skip the G.A. altogether because they feel it is a waste of time. One woman in the sanitation working group spends 20 hours a day cleaning the plaza and has no time or energy left to participate in the political process.

Bobby, a self-described anarchist who is part of three different working groups, complained at a discussion about the proposed spokescouncil that the G.A. was often held hostage by the “tyranny of the minority.” (A minority can block decisions from being passed in a system based on consensus; conversely, the pressure to agree unanimously to get something done led to ugly racial tensions after people of color repeatedly blocked the G.A. from incorporating the absurd claim that racial divisions no longer existed in the text of OWS’s first official declaration.)

Bobby also complained that decisions passed by the G.A. were often impractical, such as the G.A.’s approval of the sanitation working group’s request to buy trash bins to help clean Liberty Plaza. The G.A.’s approval came with conditions: they had to be “fair trade” trash bins and the sanitation group had to look on Craigslist first for the best price. This hampered execution of the decision and made meeting a vital need of the occupiers very difficult.

The simple, horizontal structure originally created around a G.A. using modified consensus has become a barrier to practical and political work getting done now that over 600 occupiers and an even greater number of people (workers, students) are involved through working groups. What was once an asset has now become an impediment.

There is even more tension surrounding the issue of money. At least $40,000 has been donated to OWS mostly via the internet, and OWS has yet to figure how to account for and control spending. The G.A. process is too inefficient and arbitrary to be responsible for deciding this question on its own. For example, the G.A. voted to give $200 to one of the protest organizers after he said he lost his phone and needed to buy a new one. He was not forced to buy a “free trade” phone or look for the best price on Craigslist.

The biggest challenge facing OWS is not the lack of formal demands. As someone in the OWS media group put it, “we’ll settle on those once the movement stops growing.” Not having demands allows the movement’s message to be shaped by rank-and-file participants; this all-inclusive openness, combined with the heroic determination to march on Wall Street no matter what, is the key to the Occupy uprising’s fast and furious growth.

Demands are not decisive. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott was declared before a formal list of demands was adopted at a mass meeting. The boycott led to the complete end of segregation on the bus lines, a far more radical outcome than the boycott’s modest demand that seated blacks not be forced to give up their seats for standing whites on segregated buses.

Historical experience shows that the fate of movements and the course of history are not determined by lists of demands but by mass action.

The biggest challenge facing OWS is sustaining the movement for the long haul because the dramatic regulatory, economic, and political changes we want are not on the cards in the near future. It is going to take even more protest than we have seen thus far to win things like a tax on all financial transactions or the separation of commercial and investment banking, which would mean splitting up “too big to fail” institutions in an operation dwarfing the division of “Ma Bell” into four smaller telecom companies in the 1980s.

However, there are many things on the local and state level that are within reach: reversing the Bush-style tax cut for millionaires championed by New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, raising New York City’s local income tax rate for the 1%, getting banks or states Attorneys General to halt foreclosures and fraudclosures are a few examples.

Anything that alleviates the suffering of the 99% is worth fighting for.

Creating a sustainable movement also means building or modifying our infrastructure of protest and organization to be more responsive to our needs, more democratic, and more open to mass participation beyond the core of people who can “all day, all week, occupy Wall Street.” Properly staffed and well-run working groups would take the burden off of the very committed occupiers who are members of multiple groups and are working so hard they do not or cannot participate in the time-consuming decision-making process.

OWS is the vanguard of the Occupy movement, and what happens at Liberty Plaza will play a disproportionate role in shaping the future of the biggest rebellion to rock this country since the 1960s. OWS has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations thus far, and we need to be clear and honest about what can be done better if we hope to build on this success and reign in the most greedy, powerful, and ruthless 1% the world has ever known.


Pham Binh is an activist and recent graduate of Hunter College in NYC. His articles have been published at Znet, Asia Times Online, Dissident Voice, and Monthly Review Online. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Pham, or visit Pham's website.