OCT 17 — When hundreds of protestors were penned in with orange netting and arrested on Brooklyn Bridge earlier this month, I knew something big was brewing out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, now entering its fifth week.
More than 700 people were arrested by the New York Police Department on October 1; the largest arrest of non-violent protestors in United States history. Their crime? Having the audacity to draw the world’s attention to the inequities of corporate America.
For a developed nation the statistics (mostly sourced from the US government’s own data) make a sobering read: more than 14 million unemployed; 43.6 million live in poverty (annual earnings less than US$22,000 (RM70,400) for a family of four); one in six lives without healthcare coverage; as many as 3.5 million will experience homeless this year and a national debt exceeding US$14 trillion.
Set against this deeply-depressed economy, a grassroots movement of humble beginnings began on September 17 around the corner from Wall Street and its bankers, the recipients of numerous taxpayer-funded bailouts.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted that that first hundred or so people, with their wads of cardboard and Sharpie pen-markers, would spark a mass anti-austerity movement of tens of thousands not just in New York, but across America including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC.
I grabbed my camera and headed down to the financial district’s Zuccotti Park, now renamed “Liberty Square”, as thousands — including several major labour unions that had just announced their unanimous support to the Occupy Wall Street movement — prepared to march to New York City Hall a week last Wednesday.
I arrived just after noon to a sea of placards, a band playing, and thousands milling around the small private park filled with ad hoc food canteens, spare clothes stalls, tarps, sleeping bags and an increasing number of camera crew. The march was scheduled to start at 4.30pm, just after Wall Street’s closing bell marking the end of the business day.
The “I-could-lose-my-job-for-having-a-voice” placard held by a young man with an American flag shoved down his back grabbed my attention. Without removing the green one dollar bill taped across his mouth, 25-year-old financier Robert J. Carlson said he had taken a week’s holiday to join the movement because: “I want to raise awareness to some very serious economic issues that are happening in the world today, and to get leaders to talk about solutions before it is too late.”
He told me he had met nurses, doctors, professors, teachers, Wall Street bankers and “even two off-duty police officers” in the crowds over the past few days. These people are all “potentially sacrificing their jobs to participate in this peaceful movement — it’s amazing that it has come to this,” he added.
A healthy cross-section of society; this is what I saw too. Hardly the picture painted by Bill O’Reilly, Fox News, of a movement fuelled by the great unwashed, unemployed or marijuana-smoking hippie-types (OK, I admit there were some).
More moderate news outlets like CNN cautiously hedge their bets. While coverage from the traditionally liberal leaning The New York Times has ranged from outrageously dismissive (check out Ginia Bellafante’s column of September 23) to the positively respectful, following President Obama’s concession in a recent press conference that the movement might have a point: “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel.”
Dressed in pink scrubs, Tammy Vick, a 49-year-old medical secretary from Connecticut, said: “I’ve been waiting since the ‘80s and the [right-wing] Reaganomic-years for this movement to take place.” It’s finally happened: “I just had to come down here to voice out about the inequalities that is going on in this country.” Vick recently lost her job after she lodged a complaint over unfair working conditions.
I eavesdropped on an interview with a Californian construction worker wearing a hardhat and sporting a tattoo on his left arm reading “Union Ironworker Built America”. Carl Armstrong, a 48-year-old Ironworkers Union member since 1996, joined the movement on Day Three after his job in lower Manhattan was postponed.
“I am very proud of my job, and I love what I do for a living... but if only America would wake up to the fact that the rich keep getting richer and the poor, poorer, and an increasing number of the middle classes are on the brink of poverty.” These people “can’t even pay their bills and feed their children” let alone pay their taxes, he added. He wants tax reform and Washington DC lobbyists to back the movement.
A fresh-faced student, who went by the name of “Sugts”, held a placard reading “Wall Street is Stealing the American Dream”. The senior, about to graduate in economics and politics from Seaton Hall University, timorously confided that he was joining Wednesday’s march because the economy is in such a mess that his “job prospects don’t look at all good”. He wasn’t alone; two other students from the same university stood at his side.
A class-action suit has been filed over the mass arrests on Brooklyn Bridge. Occupy Wall Street lawyers argue police invited them to march on the roadway, as opposed to the pedestrian crossing.
Rightly or wrongly the NYPD were just doing their job, albeit one helped along by a US$4.6 million gift recently given to New York City Police Foundation by JPMorgan Chase — the largest private donation ever received by foundation.
As with this year’s Arab Spring uprisings, the more democracy in action is suppressed the bigger the explosion of support.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have gone global this weekend. Thousands have marched in anti-austerity protests in Rome, Madrid, Sydney and London.
But what will become of this movement? Are we watching history unfold? Who knows. The only certainty right now is that the protestors are not ready to be silenced.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.