Monday, May 7, 2012

Occupy Wall Street alive and well

Commentary

By: Denis Murphy
1:00 am | Monday, May 7th, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer


When we finally caught up with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) people on May 1, they were organizing New York City’s largest protest rally of the year. Some people we talked with in previous weeks had been pessimistic about OWS’ future. We found OWS well and as rambunctious as ever.

It was raining in the morning but the afternoon was lovely. Hundreds of OWS people, union members, and special cause groups of all sorts gathered to celebrate in Union Square in lower Manhattan on May 1, the world’s Labor Day. Some groups were truly unusual. For example, one man wearing a woman’s skirt carried a sign saying, “Queers against Israel.” He didn’t take questions, so we don’t know any more about his group.

Speakers repeated the OWS emphasis on inequality, the need for more funding for education and health services, the need for peace and rational immigration laws, and an end to all discrimination. All of the city’s minority groups were there. A man walked through the crowd shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Many of the issues were new—student loans, for example—but just as many were age-old. These included the call of unions for solidarity. The old slogans appeared on aged-looking signs: “A people united will never be defeated.”  “Whose side are you on?” The Communist Party of New York State called for “Jobs, Peace, Equality.” Its demand for equality seems to be a result of the OWS exposure of the inequality in the American economy. An article in the New York Times (April 17) that discussed the work of two French economists said that between 2000 and 2007, the incomes of the lowest 90 percent of American workers grew by only 4 percent, when corrected for inflation, while the incomes of the top 1 percent of the super-rich grew by 94 percent.

At the end of the speeches, we all sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land” and “Solidarity Forever.” At this point there were close to 10,000-15,000 persons lining up to march south toward the financial area on lower Broadway. The media on May 2 reported that there had been bloody clashes between marchers and police and a large number of arrests. We didn’t march. As the sun went down, the marchers were far down Broadway. We could see where they were by the flashes of red light from the police cars.

It is hard to evaluate the influence of OWS. Its effort at exposing economic inequality seems to have succeeded. President Barack Obama talks often about “fairness,” after he has cited examples of inequality and the crowds roar approval. OWS was the leading group in bringing together the many organizations that celebrated on May 1. It is a major political actor.

However, the crowds that OWS gathered were no larger than those it organized last year. It is still criticized for not reaching the poorer workers. There were no notices, signs, or mention in the media of the May 1 affair beforehand except in the social media, which the poorer people don’t use to any great extent. We saw only one postcard-size announcement on 14th Street the Sunday before May 1.

What, if anything, does this Occupy Wall Street activity mean for countries like the Philippines? There were up to 15,000 people in the May 1 rally, but most of New York City was scarcely aware of it. The same is true in Metro Manila, though we haven’t had big rallies in quite a time. We have to find ways to get our message out to the poor people who are supposed to benefit from the rallies so that they attend and become involved in what is planned, and so they can have a say on what is done.

We can gather people of different issues, as what happened on May 1. There has to be cooperation among workers, urban poor, farmers, women’s groups, children’s protection groups, anti-trafficking groups, and religious bodies, and other nongovernment organizations and people’s organizations. We have to work together. If we don’t work together, we will all fail separately, to paraphrase the old saying.
We have lost the ability to work together, which has weakened us all. We must not fight each other to garner the small benefits that society is now prepared to give the poor. Indeed, if we look closely we may find that the party-list system is itself divisive.

Union Square, where the rally took place, has been the scene of protest for decades. The offices of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper, were in a building on the square. Irish activists, including my mother, battled New York police there in the years after World War I.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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