On Saturday, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement who had been evicted from their base in Zuccoti Park descended on New York City’s Liberty Square in a move they dubbed “re-occupy Wall Street.” Since September, the OWS movement, which was in part inspired by the Arab Spring, has taken the US and other parts of the world by storm.
In mid-November, protesters were violently evicted from cities across the nation, and on Saturday, OWS supporters started a hunger strike to demand free open space in which to protest. Unsurprisingly, the media coverage of the movement has been conflicting.
NOW Lebanon caught up with one of OWS’ main organizers, Palestinian-American lawyer Amir Husain, in New York to hear more about the movement, its relation to the Arab Spring, as well as its long-term goals.
Who started OWS, and who is at its core?
Husain: Journalists in general try to get to this, and people tend to try to come up with a [clear cut] narrative, but the reality of the situation is that the Canadian [Vancouver based anti-consumerist magazine] Adbusters put out a call for September 17th. They didn’t organize; they just put out an international call to occupy Wall Street. And I personally got exposed to this idea at 16 Beaver, an art collective I am part of, that has a variety of members … and we were talking about austerity measures, comparing movements. A lot of people involved then are still there, we started Google groups, general assemblies.
No one knew each other, but people started showing up for general assemblies and agreed to meet regularly, and discuss September 17.[…] We decided on which place to occupy, so on September 17th, we had tactical, food, and outreach teams. We had our first general assembly at Zuccotti Park, which was renamed Liberty Square. There was about 1000 people on 17th. For a while, those were the numbers, 300-400 during the day.
The main junctures were Union Square—100 arrests, the Brooklyn bridge—700 arrests, and then when the unions came out to support us, it was anything from 15,000 to 40,000 people.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Arab Spring tactic mentioned on the OWS website?
Husain: About a year ago, last December, I was in Palestine and there was something in the air. I was with friends and thought ‘I don’t know how this is going to change, unless there is some form of revolution.’
January came around, and you saw Tunisia, Egypt, this amazing sense of people power, which is something people at the time, had somewhat forgotten. There was also a sense that people could do something without the type of violence that you would expect when millions of people hit the streets. People don’t just rise like that, unless they are in a democracy. Then there was Greece, which is a democracy, but not necessarily one with advanced capitalism, and then the wave [of protests] hit Spain, so that made us think a global movement was taking place.
How do you respond to criticism that OWS does not have a clear mission, especially in comparison to the Arab awakening in which protesters have relatively clear demands?
Husain: The movements have a lot of similarities, but they are starting from different points. When you have a dictator, making the demand is easy. But there isn’t a society more fractured and with alienated individuals than in the US.
Right now, if you compare, there are people talking about social and economic justice and they are pointing to freedom of assembly and expression, because we are realizing that we can’t occupy any space. It is turning out to be the struggle for outdoor space.
There are different ways of looking at what happened. Now, we’re taking another space, and it’s an ongoing struggle. So the question is what is happening right now? Several mayors got on a conference call with Homeland Security and decided [OWS] was not good, and it wasn’t because of sanitation. It was because OWS is a challenge to the structure of the power. If you’re a protester from OWS, space is not being available to you, and that is a violation of the first amendment. Other people will tell you other things. But this is my opinion, from what I’m seeing.
What about criticism that OWS is a space for dancing hippies and rebellious teens? Is there no worry of the movement being “highjacked?”
Husain: Yes, there are hippies and non-hippies, and privileged and non-privileged: it’s a microcosm of society. The protesters are occupiers who are protesting the status quo. People could try to reduce [OWS], but then they would have to explain why it’s growing and why it is a threat. So one of the ways you can try to dismiss something is by re-characterizing it, and they tried to do that for 10 days.
People would also love to co-op this to make it something else, for example to be a 3rd help for the Democratic Party. Yes, the institutional left is trying to take this over. That’s what politicians do, but is that the future of this movement? I don’t think so.
What are OWS’ long-term goals?
Husain: The truth is no one really knows where this is going nor has a handle on it. The media and world at large is uncomfortable with that. But I’m one of those people who isn’t. It’s a time when you empower people, and imagine, what does economic and social justice mean. What that translates to in terms of laws, policy, demands is what everyone wants to know, and I frankly don’t think that it’s the time.
Today, it is crystallizing into a couple of things, it will either be this broad sweeping justice movement, that involves talk about rights, civil disobedience…or it might be something [that leads to new] laws, policy, cutting bonuses..
Everyone you’re talking to wants that second option, but I think this is just the beginning. And I think the economic situation is going to get worse, and if it’s not going to be this movement, it will be another one.
Do you consider OWS a national or international phenomenon?
Husain: I think that people in the movement feel they are part of global phenomenon, where action is local.
It is an anti-capitalist movement is its approach, but it’s not socialism, or communism, but more that something’s wrong with the system as it is now, and it is happening globally, maybe not in Egypt, which does however have issues of rich and poor. Then, you have the other approach which is that it’s an issue of bankers, which is very national.
Why is there no mention of politicians who have much of the country’s money?
Husain: Our politicians are also our business people. Part of the problem is the link between global capitalism and the state, which is so strong. The government is responsive to money [as opposed to]to the majority of people, so when it’s time to do your budget, it will lead to austerity measures that will affect the people who are already struggling. A lot of the 1% are politicians.
The banks haven’t policed themselves. The amount of money and the nature of how they make money is obscene.
With all the chapters of OWS worldwide, working for different causes, is there no concern that the movement is too scattered?
Husain: No, I think that’s the key. If you go with typical models, yes it does look like a mess. But if you think there’s all these things popping up, and think …that’s beautiful, and there’s pockets of empowerment, and lots of space for voices to be heard… that’s fantastic, because those voices is what will shift power.
This interview has been edited for length