The 99% Occupy No Man’s Land

We are the 99%- the hand painted placards held high by masked, anonymous protestors across the globe have captured the media’s attention as the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread through major cities around the world.

From its beginnings as an activist group inspired by the writings of author and journalist David DeGraw, especially his article that was published on entitled The Economic Elite Vs.. The People of the United States, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has evolved into something far greater than its founders could have ever imagined back in February 2011 when it all started.

David DeGraw and the 99%

The central message of the OWS movement at the start was that 99% of Americans didn’t have any genuine political representation and so they were at the mercy of the 1% who did. DeGraw emerged onto the online alternative journalism scene with his site only a couple of years ago but his message has been picked up with great enthusiasm, mostly by a younger demographic that feels as if the GFC is the direct result of their elders’ greed and corruption. His seminal work begins with a call for 99% of Americans to mobilize and aggressively move on common sense political reforms and immediately found fertile enough ground among those disenchanted youths to evolve quickly into a call for active protests. In response to the growing behemoth of the 99% organization released How to Fight Back and Win: Common Ground Issues That Must Be Won, an article that outlined the 99% movement’s intended method of operation. With that the 99% movement was officially launched.

Originally these protests were aimed at very specific objectives outlined by DeGraw as a list of demands. Firstly he called for an end to corporate financing of political campaigns and an end to the lobbying racket, secondly he demanded that the Federal Reserve Bank and the ‘too big to fail banks’ be dismantled and for Ben Bernanke to step down as the Federal Reserve Chairman. He also called for the RICO laws to be enforced against the ‘organized criminal class’. Overall he blamed the GFC on a conspiracy between the world’s central banks to dominate the greatest economies of the world and promised to carry out “a relentless campaign of non-violent, peaceful, civil disobedience”.

OWS and the Arab Spring

Meanwhile, early in 2011 as rebellion broke out in Egypt supported its stance against the IMF, quickly connecting the 99% movement with the beginnings of the Arab Spring that was about to sweep through North Africa and the Middle East. DeGraw claims that the website came under attack from unknown hackers repeatedly at this time and OWS picked up its second major influence when the hacker group known as Anonymous took over the webhosting of and established a designated social network for the 99% movement.

Anonymous were known for organizing coordinated attacks on corporate computer systems and had been actively assisting the rebels in Egypt and Tunisia. From the time that 99% and Anonymous joined forces the message of the movement began to change. In February 2011 released what amounted to a political manifesto with the threatening statement that “If you think what’s happening in Egypt won’t happen within the United States, you’ve been watching too much TV.” The threatening tone and the Socialist leanings of the group got the attention of the uber right- wing media like Glenn Beck who used the connection to vilify the 99% movement as a socialist ploy to undermine American values. Ironically Beck himself said almost exactly the same thing on his own television program but from the other side of the political fence. The battle lines were drawn.

Through the Looking Glass

The 99% movement’s original seminal message of the evils of central banking and its demands for the Federal Reserve to be dismantled already had it skirting the edge of the world of popular conspiracy theorists like David Icke and G. Edward Griffin. With the broadening of its membership the group began to also widen the scope of its protests. It seemed that the 99% were disenchanted with more than just the fiscal policies of its government and environmental issues, haranguing attacks on pharmaceutical companies and a bevy of other fringe and new age causes began to jump on board. Many of the newly joined-up 99 Percenters were largely ignorant of economics and so the message began to get watered down.

While DeGraw had originally called for precise goals such as prosecuting specific executives that were responsible for fraudulently representing shoddy mortgage bonds as AAA investments the masses were now clamoring against capitalism in general. At the same time Anonymous began calling for the ‘US Day of Rage’ in an echo of the rallying call that was being used by revolutionaries fighting in the Arab Spring. The 99% movement had a lot of momentum by now but very little definite direction so this call for active protest met with an enthusiastic response but when the protest eventually materialized in Liberty Park it was a flop. Even so it did bring it into contact with a newly formed group called the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA). This was a group that called itself a People’s General Assembly that had formed to protest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget cuts and the new union was immediately fruitful.

The NYCGA added the political spirit and grass roots organization to what had been a chaotic, spontaneous movement and the result was the OWS 99% movement’s plan to stage an occupation of Wall St. on September 17. This campaign was now the focus of a number of protest groups and through DeGraw’s escalating public profile it gained more momentum telling  people who wanted to contribute that “anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.” The Anonymous-99% OWS movement went on to describe itself at this time by issuing a statement saying; “We are a decentralized non-violent movement. If you are looking to contact one of our leaders, go to the nearest mirror and peer deeply into it. It may take some time, but, eventually, one of our leaders will appear with answers to all of your questions.” By this time the original message, and maybe even the intention of the movement had become buried in a plethora of conspiracy theory driven causes ensuring that it was likely that 99% of the people that turned up to occupy Wall St. on September 17 wouldn’t have a clue as to why they were there.

OWS vs. The Tea Party

As the threatened occupation of New York’s financial districts loomed, fuelled by an internet savvy, social networking underground of activists, OWS became a political football as Washington tried to see what sort of mileage they could get out of it. The anti-elitist sentiments of OWS naturally put the movement into opposition with the GOP and their support for Wall St. even through the GFC but the controversial and semi-underground radicalism of OWS was too extreme for the more middle of the road Liberals too. But the natural affinity of the Democrats with the libertine nature of much of the OWS message ensured that by the time that the actual occupation began that Michael Bloomberg would arrange for the protest to take place on private property at Zuccotti Park and was quoted as saying, “People have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.”

Such obvious support from a staunch lifelong Democrat as Bloomberg was almost a declaration by the liberals that, while they weren’t sanctioning their opinions about Wall St., they were supporting their First Amendment Rights to express them. Politically OWS has been posited against the right wing Tea Party in a polarized way that ignores the fact that 70% of the occupiers are politically independent, and that this is probably because two thirds of them are under 35 and have been long disenfranchised by the major parties and the two party system itself. OWS offers them an alternative voice to say the things that they think that the politicians should be saying.

On the other side of the social reform fence is the Tea Party with its grass roots organization planted firmly in family values, patriotism that verges on xenophobia and Jesus. On the surface it might seem that the two movements have common goals as they are both calling for an end to the Federal Reserve Bank and its fiat money but under the surface the differences couldn’t be more different. Tea Partiers are uber-right wing and stand against many of the issues that have been adopted by the umbrella of the 99% movement like gay marriage and loosening immigration laws. It is almost as if the Tea Party want a return to some imagined golden age of Americana whilst the 99% movement want to fundamentally alter the structure of government for a future world. In fact the polarity has become so marked that Rick Perry used a bad joke about OWS to gain favor with the Tea Party in the GOP pre-selections only to have the whole thing blow up in his face when it was revealed that the source of his information was a hoax. It seems that the OWS has claimed its first premium political scalp.

OWS in the Big Leagues

Prior to September 17 the 99% movement had been merely an exercise in shadowboxing but when the occupiers arrived in Wall St. that all changed. As OWS gathered momentum and spread to other cities across the United States and around the world it became obvious that it was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Although it may have begun as a decentralized organization very soon it started to become more politicized as the supporters, and their donations, began to accumulate.

By late October OWS was well under way but it seemed like the movement lacked a unified direction. On October 23 OWS held a meeting to determine what its platform is going to be and a laundry list of proposed demands was published on the OWS website that enumerated 24 issues that it was suggested that OWS should champion. Some of the suggestions were a clear indication of the political naiveté of the OWS membership like banning the private ownership of land and reducing the age of majority to 16. Other demands were almost self contradictory; calling for universal health care and increased social security while banning the debt limit and reducing taxes for the bulk of wage earners at the expense of the 1% who are to be taxed at 90%, both spending untold amounts of money and ending the government’s income stream.

The socialist tenor of the demands continued with a repeat of the call to ban corporate investment in political campaigns and for elections to be taxpayer funded while the workforce is to be unionized and the working day reduced to 6 hours. There are a number of other, more farfetched demands but the most interesting thing about the list is that the original, seminal demand of the 99% movement made by DeGraw, that the Federal Reserve and the big banks were to be dismantled, was completely gone. Obviously by this time the OWS movement was suffering for its lack of firm leadership and was losing sight of its core purpose. These developments led to OWS losing a lot of its intellectual credibility and with it almost all of its political clout.

The End of Non-Violent Civil Disobedience

By 15 October on the so called Global Day of Action the occupiers had begun to feel pretty comfortable, almost as if they were winning but as October progressed and OWS spread to most major cities in the US it became apparent that the disruption wasn’t going to be allowed to go on forever. It is hard to believe that any of the organizers, especially the politically savvy NYCGA, could have really believed that authorities would not act to remove protestors at some point. It would also have been clear what methods those authorities would use. On 25 October OWS released a statement of solidarity from the protestors in the Arab Spring movement in Cairo which carried the confronting message that “It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose. If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose.” From that time on it had to be fairly certain that the stage was set for confrontation and that the OWS was mobilizing its forces to resist.

The first hints that authorities were prepared to end the occupations came from Chicago where there were a few arrests as the police tried to disperse the protestors. Within days the reaction had spread across the US and the violence of the resistance in Oakland became the focus of the OWS online buzz. The colorful pictures of banner carrying, masked marchers have been replaced by the battered and bloodied resistance of the occupiers and the online hype has shifted away from attacking the central banks to discussing tactics for digging in and defying police. As the movement has become more extreme and is more aligned with the philosophies of the Arab Spring its direction is more and more being handed over to the extremists that will stand up to authority. The aroma of socialism that was espoused in the original intentions of the 99% movement has attracted a gamut of big brother conspiracy theorists that are subverting the movement towards a general stance against all authority as the protestors become less focused on who exactly is on the other team.

The Same Old New World

After a couple of weeks of recording the violence used by authorities everywhere to disperse the occupations OWS and the 99% movement had lost some of their original shine. The occupiers had become just another protest that had ended in bloody riots and the inevitable property damage and destruction that comes with that. This of course encouraged the belief that the establishment was threatened enough to hit back.  All along DeGraw had asserted that the GFC, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a host of other things were attacks by the 1% on the middle classes and the strong arm police tactics seemed, for many in OWS, to confirm these views.

The movement needed to restate its goals, to reconnect to its original message and so they began November with a post on their website entitled A New World. Under a photo of an attractive young woman holding a placard saying ‘The Beginning is Near’ is a short diatribe enumerating all of the popular support in New York and around the world for OWS. It states that the 99% are ‘the individuals and villages, the cities and peoples across the world who are seeing each other on the far side of appeals and petition. It is the world we are becoming.’ Semi-coherent statements like this sum up the intellectual position of the group as a whole as it drifts towards a libertine, Noam Chomsky inspired, humanist movement that can’t decide between becoming socialists or anarchists. As such they are also drifting away from representing anything like 99% of Americans, or the rest of the world for that matter.

Of course this has engendered new conspiracy theories that the top end of Wall St. and the government had infiltrated OWS, subverting their original message and muddying their purpose to stave off the frontal attack that the 99% movement made on the big banks and corporate sponsorship of the political parties. It could be said that the authorities have allowed them to have their occupation for just long enough, playing the occupiers like a fish on the line, until they lost their focus in all of the day to day organizational issues that a huge protest generates and forgot what it was that they were demanding or protesting against in the first place. Perhaps the corporate overlords in Wall St. had specifically financed the police crackdown with J.P. Morgan’s money and maybe social media site did have their content filtered for OWS material but in the end it is still up to the 99% movement and the people that run it to determine what their platform really is.

With the mainstream media now declaring OWS as an old story, and in a Market Watch article entitled Occupy Wall St. is 99% Dead, Jon Friedman points out that OWS is beginning to be corrupted by the very same corporate America that it began its life rallying against with rumors of a television series centered on OWS protestors. There have also been moves to trademark ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and recent reports that OWS had accumulated half a million dollars in donated funds with more coming in every day. 99% is becoming a capitalist venture in itself. In his article Friedman also points out that the once curious media has moved on and that in a busy 24/7 news cycle that they were always going to have a definite shelf life. The article makes a poignant point, quoting 60s anti-Vietnam activist, folk singer Joan Baez as saying, “I’ll be convinced when it develops a real direction… So far it’s hard to tell.”



Photography: AP

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