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"Huck Farper"

Protesters rally outside Hamilton’s Federal Building for the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street


It’s been one year today since the initial “Occupation” of Zuccotti Park in New York, which kicked-off the now world-famous “Occupy Wall Street”. To celebrate, hundreds of demonstrators have again marched on Wall Street, with at least 180 arrested by an(other) small army of cops. Protests are also taking place in dozens of North American cities, including at least 17 across Canada. In Hamilton, a dozen or so held a vigil outside the Federal Building on Bay St, echoing an anti-Harper sentiment which could be heard all the way to Parliament Hill.

Today’s anniversary is certainly bittersweet, given how the “Occupy Movement” fared over the winter and spring (something most press coverage is taking pains to remind us about…). Facing incredible internal and external pressure, mobilizations crumbled in many cities. There will certainly be attempts to resurrect some, but today was about far more than that. For some it’s an opportunity to see old friends, for others, to again bring attention to pressing social issues. Occupy always meant very different things to different people, and today was no different.

Given all the troubles which eventually befell the young movement, many (myself included) have wondered aloud whether “Occupy” is dead. Even more have argued about what kind of legacy, if any, it had. Judging by history, these debates are far from over. Whatever else it meant, two things are for sure. First, that it was an unprecedented mobilization for this continent, growing at a pace and in ways which we’d never seen. Before last September 17th, most seemed to believe that we’d left such things in our past. Occupy re-ignited the idea of protest and revolution amongst generations who’d, (generally) never witnessed anything of the sort. It should be no surprise that this turned out to be much harder than most thought, but at the very least, there are now tens of thousands more people with first-hand experience. Secondly, the movement turned inequality into one of the biggest issues in the “public consciousness”. All one needs to say is “the 1%” to evoke images of the kind of extreme concentration of wealth and power which rules our society. This topic was virtually taboo until a year ago, almost never acknowledged in public. “Occupy” changed that, and for a time gave a name to the discontentment which had been quietly growing for decades. For all it’s faults, Occupy transformed the way our society talks about wealth and power, and while we still have a long way to go, it’s now clear that there’s no going back.

I came across an interesting little report the other day – an analysis of traffic from Occupywallstreet.org. Studying trends in hits, new/repeat visitors and length of stay, they came up with a very interesting theory. They’re calling it the “riot porn hypothesis”. The second slide makes fairly clear why – the eviction of Zuccotti Park on Nov. 17th generated an immense surge in views, from ~`10 000/day or less to more than half a million. This date and other events led to the hypothesis, which states that traffic spikes after incidents of arrests or police brutality.

Quantatative Analysis of Phase One of Occupy Wall Street – OWS Analytics (Google Docs)

To anyone familiar with the media or activism in general, this should come as no surprise. “If it bleeds, it leads” has just been put to the test, and it got the result everyone expected. Nothing catches people’s attentions like a bunch of arrests, and that’s just as true with new media as old.

Why? Because arrests show that both “sides” were serious. That something “happened”. In an atmosphere of conflicting accounts where most are wary of cops, reporters and protesters, they give a solid number by which to judge the “scale” of unrest. The create a story with compelling characters and conflict, and make normally “boring” issues exciting. “Riot porn” in particular – images and footage from “the front lines” captivates people, whether for or against, and it’s very hard to ignore.

OWSAnalytics didn’t manage much detail on what in particular drives this attention. Is it police brutality per se? Does it matter whether protesters resist arrest or go peacefuly? How about property destruction? How do the effects differ between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland? Ultimately, this may matter a lot less than one might think, since the coverage of these events is so standard, no matter what actually happened. Papers will write about “clashes between demonstrators and police” whether those demonstrators are seated quietly or burning police cars.

We need to be really careful here of treating these events as simple “spectacles” for the sake of viewers at home. They aren’t. There’s a difference between protests and publicity stunts. Success cannot be measured in “views”, and getting people to read your website is only the first step in changing the world. Focusing too much on publicity obscures real strategic goals. These struggles are newsworthy because people are fighting for a cause, not our attention, and once that changes things start to seem a little forced. When it becomes obvious that a group of demonstrators wanted only to be arrested or break stuff, it’s never quite as interesting. Beyond that, these actions are really frackin’ dangerous, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

How this all relates to debates about “violence” at protests is a really interesting question. Above all else, it certainly does lend some credence to the oft-made claim that the only reason protests get any coverage is because things get broken and people get hauled off. That does kinda suggest that the actions of the Black Bloc aren’t nearly as “unpopular” as often claimed, and that they’ve done a lot more for moderate groups than most would like to admit. It also suggests that police violence is a less popular than we might think, and that these actions are having a serious impact on public opinion of the justice system. None of this, of course, is any kind of “vindication” of one tactic or another – but it also can’t be ignored.

As someone who often writes about rioting, I must say, my own traffic sees the exact same patterns. Posts about riots get at least double the hits of others, and keep getting visits long afterward – seen most recently when I wrote about Quebec students. This kind of attention ensures that these confrontations will keep happening. When peaceful, thoughtful, polite protests get consistently ignored, while a few dozen rock-throwing vandals can capture the world’s attention, this kind of chaos is inevitable. Condemn them if you like, but you’re the ones tuning in every time it happens.

Oakland just witnessed the first General Strike to hit America in decades (the last one was also in Oakland). In response to the police brutality involved in clearing Occupy Oakland, thousands took the day off work and filled the streets. Some scrawled messages on banks, others shut down the port (one of the nation’s largest). This kind of escalation marks a new turn in the burgeoning American unrest, showing that protesters are willing and able to shut down significant parts of a major city.

In New York, on Wall Street, a large procession of protesters from the American military marched silently through the streets of New York then came to address the protesters. Many were inflamed by the near-fatal injury dealt to Scott Olson, a two-tour Iraq Veteran, by the police in Oakland. Veterans for Peace and OccupyMarines have been gathering steam rapidly in recent weeks, often in uniform, and announced proudly that they are a part of “the 99%” and were here to ensure that the constitution was defended.

In the financial world, things are beginning to look unbelievably grim. After revelations about corruption at trading firm MF Global and more grim forecasts, the American economy is staring over a precipice. Across the Atlantic, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has announced his intention to hold a referendum on the recent EU emergency bailout deal, which threatens to unravel all the work done for so much of this year at containing the exploding debt crisis. By doing so, he hopes to gain some sort of “mandate” for implementing the harsh austerity measures which come with it, which have left the population on the verge of revolution after their own general strikes last week. European leaders are fuming, and words like “resignation” and even “coup” are being thrown around (hopefully the surprise reorganization of military leadership had nothing to do with this…). Since Monday’s announcement, Papandreou has back-pedaled on referendum plans after resigning party members whittled down his majority to two people, and numerous calls were made, both in Greece and abroad, for his own resignation.

The economic crisis is growing more serious on every front. Not only would the global financial system probably be on the verge of collapse without any protests, but the petty and brutal attempts to keep protesters out of the limelight are having the the opposite effect. Any serious mis-step here could ignite an explosive process of global change like the world has never seen, and it’s entirely possible that the fuse has already been lit.

My last post ended with a remarkable video by Sgt. Shamar Thomas, a USMC Iraq veteran reaming out a few dozen New York cops at a recent protest. Since then the Thomas has appeared on Countdown with Kieth Oberman, explaining himself a little more calmly. It’s a truly remarkable interview – he talks about the need to respond to even murderous intent on the part of rioters with “humility”. What’s even more remarkable, though, is what happened next.

A group is now forming, calling itself OccupyMARINES, made up of American Military service-people and veterens, in support of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. They’re calling on soldiers to don civilian clothing and join the protests, or stand in uniform, medals and all, on the sidelines to guard against police brutality. They’re even calling on police to join them.

Well damn. The potential for a swift and efficient military response to these protests just hit a big brick wall. I don’t suspect even the most conservative members of public will take kindly to soldiers and veterans being beaten, arrested and pepper sprayed, even if those soldiers do. One Iraq veteran has already been arrested at Occupy Orange County today, along with three others. Ironically, the officers arrived on horseback.

This development represents an enormous and dramatic schism tearing apart American political opinion. Soldiers taking part will bring a whole other dimension of legitimacy in a lot of sectors that usually have nothing but scorn for protesters. In a lot of ways, it isn’t terribly surprising, given how heavily the military recruits from marginalized parts of society, and the way veterans are treated when they get back from service. Large scale WWI veteran protests were common in the 1930s, backing the unemployed and other groups protesting during the Great Depression. In America, the “Bonus Army” with thousands of veterans marched and camped in Washington before being violently evicted in a gas attack by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton.

There will, of course, be a lot of complications which stem from this. I must admit, I have my apprehensions. Military personnel tend to have very different world-views and ways of doing things than most radicals. This will test the limits of many participatory and inclusive structures. The American Military, is, of course, an authoritarian organization (possibly the world’s foremost authoritarian organization), and that has a lot of connotations – they’ve hurt a lot of people. How might an Iraqi refugee feel about this? Guatamalan? Chilean? Yugoslavian? What will soldiers think of working with Palestinian solidarity workers, the peace movement or communists? This will, undeniably, involve a lot of patience on everybody’s part. We can only hope it’s the beginning of a long and much broader process of bridge-building.

The other issue, of course, is the state. Were I a commanding officer of these brave men and women, I’d be shitting like an open-source mudbrick press. At what point do they take reprisals against those involved? At what point can’t they take reprisals?

This all just keeps getting more interesting.

In other news, Occupy Hamilton had another, larger and longer rally yesterday in Gore Park, and held our first General Assembly under the statue. Occupy Toronto had at least a thousand or so in their march, now meeting with a wider embrace from labour and student groups as well as zombies. Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie led a march through New York singing “we shall overcome”. And 130 people were arrested at the continuing Occupy Chicago protests.

Yesterday, despite cold, rain and high-powered winds which literally destroyed our canopy tent, Occupy Hamilton held its first rally in Gore Park today in solidarity with actions in nearly a thousand cities around the globe. A few dozen made it out, holding signs and banners and taking turns at the microphone talking about poverty, policy and injustice. A modest beginning, to be sure, but with so many off in Toronto, and with all of this organized in less than a week, we felt it best to keep things simple. Next weekend the real fun begins, when the first General Assembly is held in Gore Park.

<a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1070622"Occupy Toronto saw a few thousand people turn out for their march and rally, and protesters have now settled into their own encampment in St. James park. Rallies were also held in Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal as well as smaller communities like Guelph. OccupyTogether.org now lists nearly two thousand communities where groups are forming – among them towns like Ajax, Mississauga and Kitchener. News is still very scarce, so I’m no doubt missing many, but it’s certainly a promising beginning.

Worldwide, there were demonstrations just about everywhere. Tokyo, Sydney, London, Johannesburg, Madrid – the list just keeps going on. Some went better than others – Julian Assange spoke at the London gathering, where there were some scuffles with police but no large-scale arrests. Rome, on the other hand, saw serious rioting amidst the tens or perhaps hundred thousand who marched there. New York saw arrests as occupiers took to Times Square and at a CitiBank protest. Berlin’s occupation recently came under siege from police, though I’ve had no real word yet on how that turned out.

Disclaimer: These words reflect the views of Undustrial and not Occupy Hamilton. Our General Assembly has not yet met on the matter of public statements and policy, and we’ve decided to hold off on group statements until we do, so that nobody “sets the tone” for everybody else by being the first one to a reporter or computer. If you want to hear more, you’re going to have to stay tuned, or perhaps even come join us next Saturday.

First of all, so that we’re all on the same page, read this. Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, published these charts, which give a very clear picture of why people are so angry about the economy. To summarize: corporate profits are at an all-time high, while wages (adjusted for inflation) are still lower than the early 1970s. In fact, the percentage of the GDP spent on wages is at an all-time low after decades of declines. Employment still hasn’t recovered since the crash of 2008, the number of people giving up on job searches is growing, as is the average length of unemployment. By standard measures of inequality, America scores lower than China and India. All of these figures have been common enough, but it’s really nice to see them all in one place. It’s also a lot better than what Blodget first had to say about the protesters.

I chose this link among the millions talking about these protests because it gives us glimpse inside the machine. We all know about the symptoms of the problem – poverty, unemployment, etc – but that offers no prescriptions. The dire plight of those in poverty has been used to justify every economic policy from Reaganomics to Leninism. We don’t just need to talk about how bad it is – we need to ask ourselves what’s happening that’s driving all of these numbers with such consistency. There’s lots of villains here – “corporate greed”, banks, the Federal Reserve, the government etc. Easy as those answers might be – they do very little to actually explain what the problem is.

So what is?

Our entire economic system. Call it capitalism if you like, or corporatism if that suits you better. Some like “neo-liberalism”. Plutocracy also works, and the term technocracy is becoming more applicable by the day. Whichever name you use, it’s clear that beyond the divisions in individual fortunes, competing corporations or even nation-states, lies a system which is far too consistent and inter-related to be a coincidence. Globalization has brought together all the worlds major powers for the purpose of un-ending profit, and despite all the petty feuds, it still manages to function like one massive machine.

Looking at the issue this way is important. It explains our colossal power structures without conspiracy theories about secret cabals of bankers ruling the world for centuries. What makes control by a secret society of bankers really all that much different from ordinary, run-of-the mill capitalism? Looking for someone to blame will only find us the most local and recent examples – it doesn’t really matter who’s in these positions of power. If they want to keep their job, they have to play along – that’s the genius of this system. It isn’t a question of “who”, it’s a question of “what”.

This system is not static. It has been growing and evolving for at least two centuries. The simple growth in scale and scope is clear enough – 3% yearly growth means doubling in size every 24 years – and very clearly matches what we’ve seen over those years. Equally important, though, is the growth in complexity. The explosive growth of bureaucracy in both the public and private spheres now demands an enormous flow of cash, resources and capital to support, leaving little for wages or production itself.

Why does bureaucracy grow in this way? Because powerful groups and institutions are always competing for dominance. Growth is a survival strategy, to avoid being taken over or pushed aside. Over time, a few do become dominant and grow much larger than the rest. As they grow, they must become more complex to maintain and reproduce central control over a wider area and population. That complexity takes the form of rigid and bureaucratic institutions designed to supervise us and act as intermediaries between ourselves and the system (in ways which, of course, suit the system).

More power, wealth and prestige clearly benefit the people in charge of these institutions, as well as the institutions themselves, but the benefits to us are dubious at best. Having larger and more distant institutions ruling us certainly doesn’t grant us any greater representation. It also isn’t any cheaper, at least for clients, as the efficiencies they create (like buying in bulk) are all too often spent on themselves.

While advertising, management and banking cost money and create jobs, they don’t actually add value to products. A carrot is still a carrot, regardless of how many billboards advertise it or how many managers watched it grow. The carrot in question will surely be expensive and may even be profitable, but it’s no use to starving millions. Many of our largest corporations no longer even manufacture their own goods – choosing to focus entirely on investments and “brand image”. This growing overhead cost puts pressure on all other prices associated with production – there’s less money to spend on wages or raw materials, and a strong drive to raise prices. From appliances to homes, we’ve witnessed some pretty impressive raises in prices over the last few decades, though clearly not in the costs of production.

At first, the growing distance between wages and prices seemed to be a boon. It boosted profit margins and forced families to work more to get by. Eventually it began forcing individuals and even nations deeply into debt, which made even more money since they could lend their profits back to us, at interest to buy more goods. Sooner or later, though, these debts catch up with us and we hit a wall as there’s just no more blood to squeeze from the stone and people can no longer afford to buy or borrow. This kind of rampant, disproportional and parasitic growth is never really sustainable, as any tumour can tell you.

Our economy has literally exploded since the 1970s, but since about that time, the amount given to wages froze, and even began to decline. The global economy opened up, we had a few digital revolutions, and stock market growth which blew away everything which came before it. This enormous influx of profits was spent finding ways to grow even larger fortunes, generally at the expense of workers and customers. The idea that wealth can grow without “trickling down” isn’t an anti-establishment fantasy – it’s been the dominant trend in nearly all economic data in many of our lifetimes.

Many people would suggest more government regulation to solve this problem. Given the sorry state of the European and Chinese economies at the moment, it seems fairly obvious that no form of state-based socialism – democratic or autocratic – is faring any better. The endless, ideologically driven debates about public versus private spending have sheltered the obvious answer – that these kinds of bureaucracies are just as ineffective, inefficient and petty whether they’re owned by billionaires or run by the government. The endless battle between the two has taken a horrendous toll on the rest of us, as each new set of regulations spawned whole new bureaucracies on each side, all eventually paid for by us.

This system needs to be looked at as a whole. Trying to isolate different sectors will only get us caught up in its circular and self-serving logic. Villainizing the bankers valorizes the government, and vice versa. Either approach takes half of the status quo for granted. Taking a more distant view, things come much more clearly into focus: the state and capitalists are intimately related, one issue Karl Marx and Adam Smith could totally agree on. The government exists to enforce property relations for private businesses, who exist to create enough commerce to fund the state. To both groups, the rest of us exist largely as a resource to be exploited, and a populace to be ruled.

Gathering in the streets and occupying parks isn’t a solution to this problem, but it’s a crucial step. It isn’t the signs we carry that are important, the statements we make to the press or the “demands” everyone’s so concerned about that matter – it’s the directly democratic process by which it’s all organized. That crucial aspect of these protests has been largely ignored, but is by far the most important. The ability of people who’ve never met before to assemble and self-organize into networks of occupations and protests spanning the globe is the true revolution here, and these encampments are only the first step.

Another world is undeniably possible. But before we can go about building it, we need to avoid that first crucial mistake of the current order. We can’t assume that any one person, group or platform is worth more than the input of the people involved. I’m not the 99% and neither are you – we all are. If we’re going to claim to speak on behalf of just about everybody, then we better make damned sure we’re actually offering them a chance at the mic, and not just grandstanding. A directly democratic world cannot be imposed by despots.

What might a directly democratic society and economy look like? Neighbourhood assemblies and their committees could take over many of the duties of local governments. Business and production could be run along co-operative and federated lines, for which there’s already many models, ranging from very small to very large businesses. The ghastly and grossly inefficient retail empires could fairly easily be replaced by consumer federations, collectively organizing bulk purchases directly from suppliers. These are a few vague options, but one aspect unites them. Their self-organizing nature eliminates the need for costly administrations and bureaucracies, and with them these motivations for exploitation and endless growth. While shouldering the burden of organization and capital on ourselves won’t be easy, especially at first, it isn’t as if we aren’t already paying for them with our working lives.

It’s official. Hamilton will take part in the global movement. This Saturday the fifteenth, meet at high noon in Gore Park to demonstrate along with Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and countless other cities around the world. The following Saturday at noon, and all Saturdays hence, we are planning General Assemblies downtown to determine a direction from here. If support for one exists, we may well soon have an occupation in Hamilton as well.

Hamilton was the site of some of the first labour demonstrations in Canada, with the nine-hour workday movement. Again, in 1946, a strike at Stelco played a crucial part in gaining legal recognition for unions across the country. It’s time to do it again.

Saturday. Gore Park. High Noon. Bring your friends.

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