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15 October: Occupy Wall Street Goes Global

19 October 2011

By Dave Stockton

The global day of indignation against banks and pro-business politicians was an enormous success. A new movement has been born.

Hundreds of thousands of people in 82 countries took part. The greatest numbers were in Spain and the USA – the cradles of the Los indignados and Occupy Wall Street movements. A significant new development was the 40,000 who demonstrated across Germany.

Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, saw the first demonstration of day, when at least 1,000 people gathered at City Square, whilst in Sydney, about 2,000 protesters protested in the city’s central business district. Aboriginal groups, left groups and trade unionists all took part.

Demonstrations – generally in the hundreds took place in Asia; in Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. In Asia too, though the Asian economies is only just showing signs of a downturn, social inequality has massively increased in the boom years since the crash of 1998.

Then it was the turn of Europe.

Athens, used to almost daily strikes and protests against the government’s waves of austerity, 15 October was necessarily a less special event. Some 3,000 rallied in Syntagma Square outside parliament, while teachers and civil servants held marches elsewhere in the city. Up to 7, 000 people joined the concert of protest which followed it in Syntagma. In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, 3,000 took part in a demonstration linked to the global action day.
Strikes and occupations of public buildings are an everyday occurrence in Greece and one or two day general strikes a regular occurrence. With 17 per cent official unemployment, with suicide rates doubled in one year, but with the worst cuts yet to be implemented the country is facing social disaster.

Everyone is preparing for another major 48 hours general strike on October 19-20 but clearly all out decisive action to bring down the government is a critical issue that the union leaders are ducking. Greece shows the future of many of the movements in Europe and North America- protest will not be enough; the question of who holds state power cannot forever be avoided with populist or Situationist sloganising.

In Rome an estimated 100,000 demonstrated, but press attention focussed on black block groups who broke away from the demonstration to smashed shop windows, set fire to cars and fight with the police near the Colosseum and the square in front of St John Lateran.

Italy, with a national debt ratio second only to Greece’s in the 17-nation eurozone, is moving to centre stage in Europe’s debt crisis as Silvio Berlusconi’s crisis-wracked coalition pushes savage austerity budgets through parliament to prop up the country’s sagging credit-worthiness in the bond markets.

In Germany rallies and marches took place in over 50 cities, with a total of 40,000 participants (Attac-Germany’s figures); the largest protests being in Frankfurt and Berlin.

Frankfurt is mainland Europe’s financial hub and home of the European Central Bank (ECB). Around 8,000 marched and blockaded the Bank and around 200 people slept in tents there overnight. In Berlin 10,000 marched on parliament and chancellors office.

There were minor clashes with the police when people attempted to occupy the square in front of the Reichstag building. In Hamburg 5000 marched, in Stuttgart 3000, in Leipzig 2500, in Cologne 1500 and Munich 1000 and there were smaller events in other towns and cities. The Left Party, the SPD, the Greens and trades unions declared their solidarity to the movement. But all in all the role of the labour movement and the far left was small. Nevertheless, in Germany there is a real potential for this developing into an ongoing movement.

In Paris over a thousand marchers shook their fists and shouted, “Stand up Paris! Rise Up!” as they passed the city’s historic stock exchange, before congregating outside the Hotel de Ville. In Brussels, thousands marched chanting, “Criminal bankers caused this crisis!” and pelted the stock exchange building with old shoes. Protesters also condemned NATO, whose headquarters is in Brussels for spending billions on bloody wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. They pointed out that the cost of deploying one soldier to Afghanistan would pay for employing 11 schoolteachers.

Some 3,000 “Occupy London” protesters gathered with the intention of taking over Paternoster Square in front of the London Stock Exchange. City of London Police blocked their way so the crowds assembled around nearby St Paul’s cathedral. About 70-100 tents were pitched at the foot of the steps of St Paul’s overnight. Protests have also taken place in Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In Stockholm, 500 people gathered to heard speakers denounce capitalism holding banners that read: “We are the 99 per cent” and “We refuse to pay for capitalism’s crisis. Bilbo Goransson, a trade union activist, declared to the crowd: “There are those who say the system is broke. It’s not. That’s how it was built. It is there to make rich people richer.”

In the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, demonstrators, carried pictures of Che Guevara, communist flags and placards that read: “Death to capitalism, freedom to the people”.

In Rome up to 200,000 protesters took to the streets, “People of Europe: Rise Up!” read one banner.

In September the Spanish movement, whose main slogan was “Real Democracy Now!” scheduled October 15 as a global day of protest. The North American movement whose key slogan is “we are the 99%” responded enthusiastically, calling for worldwide support for 15 October.

Thus, the US protests linked up with long-running demonstrations against the southern European governments austerity measures, particularly in Greece, Spain and Italy.

The call for mass protests on 15 October had originated a month ago from an international meeting held in Spain. Madrid was again a major focus with 300,000 on the streets.

Six feeder marches converged on Puerta del Sol plaza where the Movement of the Indignados was born, on 15 May. Hundreds of Portuguese protesters clashed with police lines in Lisbon as they attempted to occupy parliament.

Mainstreet USA

Crossing the Atlantic the protest spread to New York, where the movement in North America originally began, when protesters set up camp in a Lower Manhattan park on 17 Sept.
The protest grew to at least 5,000 people as they marched to Times Square from their makeshift outdoor headquarters chanting “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” and “End the war, tax the rich – how to solve the deficit”.

They occupied Time Square for several hours before riot police using pepper spray and horses pushed them out of the square arresting 42 people.

Many demonstrators then marched back to the main encampment at Zucotti Park, which they can only occupy because it is a private park – demonstrations in public squares require police permission (so much for the ‘freedom of assembly’).

In the neighbouring state of Rhode Island over 1,000 carried placards that included “The System Stinks” and “Wake up from the American Dream.”

In Chicago, more than 2,000 people marched from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago to Grant Park before setting up tents. Police said they arrested more than 200 protesters who refused to leave the day after. Thousands marches in San Francisco and Los Angeles and in Seattle protesters defied a 10p.m. curfew setting up 150 tents in Westlake Park.

In Toronto 2,000 protesters filled St James Park marking the arrival of the Occupy Wall Street movement to Canadian cities, others were also held in Vancouver and Montreal. The entire movement has been credited to the Vancouver-based activist group Adbusters.

The huge Spanish movement in May, with occupation of the Puerta del Sol plaza in Madrid were openly inspired by the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Egypt.
They plainly drew their inspiration too from the Argentine movement of 2000-2001 and the anticapitalist movement of the early 2000s.

The US movement in turn was inspired by developments in Spain and by a widespread disillusionment with Obama and the the apparent paralysis of the progressive ranks faced with the rise of the right wing Tea Party Movement.
US protesters constantly refer to Obama’s willingly handing out of money to the bankers whilst carrying through only the most timid measures for the unemployed.

The main slogans of the protests – we are the 99% – identify the crisis with the bankers and billionaires, and point to how the poor, the youth and the workers are the ones paying the cost. And that, moreover, this is only the culmination of a long term growth of glaring social inequality. They also target the corruption of politicians by big capital, a reality which means that democracy has been “hollowed out” so that no alternative solution to the pro-bosses agenda is even considered.

US labour unions have begun to get involved too. The Transport Workers of America and the New T York Metro 32BJ Service Employees International Union have pledged their support after the police ordered buses to transport arrested demonstrators on the 3 October demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

What next?

The movement is significant in its internationalism and its targeting of the banks and the super rich as the cause of the crisis, plus the politicians as their stooges.

If this movement links up with both organised union members and the millions of precarious and super exploited workers too then it could generate revolutionary crises in many countries, especially if the world is going into a further deep recession on top of the stagnation which it is currently gripped by.

But like the anticapitalist movement of the early 2000s, and the antiwar movement which followed it, protests and negative slogans will not be enough. Already there is debate in the occupations as to whether lists of demands should be drawn up.

Some activists are arguing that any demands would split the movement which must thrive on spectacle and events.
They are also the most hostile to drawing in “hierarchical” or “vertical” organisations like unions, and left parties which offend their fetish for mass assemblies and consensus as the only way to organise.

Some of those in the camps have the perspective of building mini-utopias, islands of collective democracy outside of capitalism. Many people however want to just carry out civil disobedience, a protest against the state and the way it acts.

The debates in the campsite about strategy are naturally diverse at the beginning, the danger is if they fail to come to agreements about the actions need to go forward.

Back in 2000-2001 the assembly model was tested by the huge, indeed millions-strong, Argentine movement with its popular assemblies, cacerolazos (pot banging demos), piqueteros (unemployed blockading of motorways and bridges) and factory occupations, which succeeded in bringing down several presidents, but was unable to formulate a political alternative. Consequently, despite the enormous radicalism of the situation, it eventually gave way to yet another Peronist government.

But the old official workers movement too is part of the problem because of the lame way it has responded to the crisis. Often tied to reformist labour and socialist parties or to so-called “friends of labour” like the US Democrats and Argentine Peronists they too limit themselves to one-day protests and general strikes.

Yet the question coming into ever-sharper focus is that of political power. If we want to make the rich pay, if we want to avoid the degradation of austerity, the crushing of 50 years of social conquests. Yes, if we want a real democracy then we have to create a political force, a party, an international party that can not only “make them all go away” (Que se vayan todos as the Argentine movement said) but take the power into the hands of working people and overthrow capitalism.

Image Credit: Mike Fleshman

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