What’s Going On?
Occupy Wall Street’s roots run to 1999 Seattle
by Paul Dechene
You've probably heard all about Occupy Wall Street by now, that slowly growing mob of protesters daily invading the financial district of New York. They're singing songs, giving speeches, waving witty signs and inspiring similar protests around the world. They've been at it since Sept. 17 and they don't seem to be going away.
It's all very inspiring but I can't help but look at this unchecked civil uprising, and think, back in my day, they'd have tear gassed the lot of us long ago.
And you know, I'm a little jealous that I'm not there, on Wall Street or even Bay Street. This movement seems very much like a brighter, more potent reincarnation of the Battle of Seattle in November of 1999.
Sure, Occupy isn't so much about rampant globalization. But standing up to corporate greed, financial deregulation and governmental cowardice were as much a part of the WTO protests as they are of the Occupation.
In a way, this protest feels like a revolution do-over. A social movement mulligan.
So, I called up three people who know this protest stuff better than I do and asked them what they think about these two protests, 12 years apart, and if there were lessons we should have learned in between. Here's what they had to say.
Dominic Holden is the news editor for Seattle's alternative newspaper, The Stranger. He was in the AFL-CIO march on the first day of the WTO protests and was tear-gassed along with his friends and family. Now, he attends the Occupation events in Seattle.
"I don't know if there's so much of a connection between the WTO protests and this event other than to say there is a breaking point socially and economically, [in] which we've handed over so much to unscrupulous business interests that the only thing that gets the attention of the media and of lawmakers and the general public is to take over the public square and demand that people pay attention to it," he says.
"In some ways, I think that the Occupation protests stand to be much more successful because the failure of the U.S. economy and the banks responsibility for it is much more easily understood than the role the WTO played in the global economy 12 years ago."
THE OLD WARHORSE
Don Kossick is a producer for Making the Links Radio on CFCR in Saskatoon and a community organizer. He was also prairie dog's guy on the ground during the WTO protests. Kossick argues that the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 brought a premature end to the blossoming anti-globalization movement of the late 90s.
"What's happening right now is the end of that circle that the WTO people would've had anyway. [What you'd expect for] the politicians who should've known better and said 'Hey, you can't grab it all, you have to make some concessions to civil society because that's how constitutional democratic governments have operated.' That all got pushed out of the way, so you ended up with the [CBC right-wing blowhard] O'Learys of today - which is complete disdain, disrespect for people and for civic structures. [Just] cold, hard, brutal ways of looking at the world."
"I think that the rapaciousness was beyond anything anyone could imagine in these last 12 years since Seattle. It was all forecast. All the issues were there in Seattle as they are now."
Micah White is a senior editor for Adbusters magazine in Vancouver.* The idea for Occupy Wall Street came out of a brainstorming session between White and Adbusters founder, Kalle Lasn.
"We were watching the Egyptian revolution and the Spanish Indignants and wondering, 'what would it take to kick off something like that in America?'" says White.
After launching Occupy Wall Street through mass e-mails and a poster campaign, and by coordinating with activists in New York, the movement has pretty much run wild on its own from there. And, he argues, while the WTO protests were an aggressive force, a wolf pack, the Occupy movement is just a swarm of people that's super democratic and super non-violent.
Still, he sees it as a revolutionary people's movement that wants to topple the corporate power structures of the world.
"I think that we're moving into something that Adbusters calls soft regime change. It's going to look like this. This is it. All of a sudden people start realizing that a true people's democracy is possible, they start meeting in these squares and there's this soft regime change where we shift from one way of doing things, which is one per cent of the world's population controlling everything, to another model where 99 per cent of the world's population controls things together."
He says the next big push for the Occupy movement will come on Oct. 29, when they'll be encouraging all the groups around the world to demand a Tobin Tax from the Nov. 3 meeting of the G20.
Be nice to see that happen. That was something the WTO protesters were calling for as well.
THE END OF THE OCCUPATION
With winter coming on, it's going to be hard to keep the momentum going. And White admits there is no grand backup plan for when the cold weather hits. It's going to be up to the collective intelligence of the movement to find a way to keep going.
And, he suggests that letting this thing just peter out would be an enormous tragedy.
"Part of me feels like this could be the last great social movement, in the sense that if we mess this up there might not be another chance," says White.
"I think that if this completely flops and it takes another 10 years to get this kind of movement going, well in 10 years, if we just listen to the scientists, everything is going to be screwed. We've got peak oil, climate change, there's going to be no fish. It's going to be horrible in 10 years. Either we act now or we lose."
(A complete transcript of my interview with Micah White will be posted to the Dog Blog)
* Note: For the record, several months after marching in the Battle of Seattle, I found myself accidentally working at Adbusters. Mostly in shipping. And I have to say, getting tear gassed over the WTO and then spending two years immersed in the Adbusters family were the things that radicalized my thinking about politics and economics. And, in phoning up Adbusters to request an interview, I felt a little like that kid who calls home for the first time in ages wanting to borrow the car.