(This article was first published in print in issue 16 of the Philippine Collegian on 15 November 2011.)
We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
– from the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City
One afternoon in September, around 200 New York policemen prepared for a protest march in Liberty Square. Using movable metal fences, they have divided the street into squares, like corrals for cattle. White police vans stood at various intersections, anticipating the arrest of protesters. As if together with the rain, a group of around 300 protesters arrived carrying their banners with rather simplistic slogans like “Wake Up”, “Close all the Banks” and “Occupy Wall Street for a Day, for a Week.” The police obligingly escorted them towards the East River and led them back towards Broadway and Trinity Church before they were gone.
A month later, this seemingly small and innocuous protest of the young and the unemployed would eventually grow into a worldwide phenomenon determined to change a prevailing world order.
Gathering the troops
Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District. Inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, men and women of all races, backgrounds, political and religious beliefs, held non-violent protests and demonstrations in Wall Street, claiming to represent the 99 percent of the population that partake on a small amount of resources, while the wealthiest one percent of America enjoys the lion’s share of the pie.
The movement’s agenda is to fight the immense power that major banks and multinational corporations have come to hold over America’s democratic processes. Foremost of which is the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations, resulting to a need for the federal government to bail out numerous banks using taxpayers’ money.
When the original projections for the protest were not met, with barely a thousand marchers gracing the first few days of the movement, mainstream media and corporate America dismissed the movement as a bust. But as the days progressed, the movement has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and has led to actions in over 1,500 cities globally.
Facing the wall
In a speech delivered to the protesters in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek said, “The solution is not found in the slogan ‘Main Street, not Wall Street,’ but to change the system in which Main Street cannot function without Wall Street”.
Wall Street has always been synonymous with the financial markets of the United States as a whole, representative of “Corporate America,” with its big business interests. When Zizek used the distinction between Wall Street and Main Street, he did not merely call for a shift in people’s attitudes about greed and corruption: he is calling to change the system that allows and encourages such greed and corruption to thrive.
Mass culture and media representations have constructed in our collective imaginations the seeming inevitability and necessity of capitalism, that it is impossible for people to picture a world that functions without its machinations. Movies, TV shows, and books depict Wall Street and midtown Manhattan as seductive spaces of social mobility, First World affluence and cosmopolitan ease, a space that operates within a system where the accumulation of wealth is the foremost goal to strive for, never mind if it necessarily entails the disenfranchisement of the majority. Rather than interrogate this inherently unequal system, mass culture, media and other ideological apparatuses have instead created a 99 percent that aspires to be the one percent.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, then, is by itself an act of interrogation, blatantly questioning the system that enabled the existence of the ruling one percent to begin with. A more important question, however, as Zizek poses, is the type of economic organization that can replace the existing model of capitalism. The self-designated 99 percent at Wall Street seem to offer many alternatives, yet our imaginations, constructed as such, would always deny their possibility. A world without capitalism is just not acceptable. In our minds, there is no other currency except money.
Moving to occupy
The truth is quite simple: space is power. Thus, the simple act of reclaiming a space brings with it the reclamation of power.
While New York graffiti serves as a visual reclamation of space, merely leaving “a presence in their Presence”, Occupy Wall Street entails an actual, concrete presence, warm bodies inhabiting, by force or any other means, a contested terrain. Wall Street protesters assert their presence and leave traces of their lifestyles on the formidable territory of financial moguls and CEOs. Colorful banners, dishevelled tents and evidences of “guerrilla gardening” now plague its sleek and modern landscape.
While the movement may not overturn the primacy of capitalism overnight, nor change prevailing economic relations, the act of occupation itself reclaims a certain power for these protesters and serves as the concretization of their reimagining of a world devoid of economic disparities and social injustices.
The movement beyond Wall Street, with the order to occupy other key cities all over the world, seemed inevitable. Cities are territories of symbolic significance, for they serve as the cultural, political and economic cores of a nation. The movement adheres to the simple logic that the more cities are occupied, the more power they reclaim for the movement.
And now its call to occupy key cities all over the world has finally reached our shores. Insinuations of Occupy Mendiola, Alabang and Makati by the end of November surface on social networking sites, igniting the interest of the young and the unemployed to participate in such a movement. Disparities expressed by the movement are very much present in local conditions, and it would be no wonder if most Filipinos share the sentiments of the Wall Street occupants.
But let us not dwell on the seeming romanticism of the movement. Protesters stay, not because it gives them a false sense of power and collectivity. They stay because they hope that their act of occupation would not be just another sidebar in the news, but be the flame that would actually ignite drastic changes in the global state of affairs. ●
“Occupy Wall Street: The resistance continues at Liberty Square and worldwide”. (http://occupywallst.org/)
Harvey, David. “Rebels on the Street: The Party of Wall Street meets its Nemesis”. (http://davidharvey.org/2011/10/rebels-on-the-street-the-party-of-wall-street-meets-its-nemesis/)
Zizek, Slavoj. “The Violent Silence of a New Beginning”. In These Times, 27 October 2011. (http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/12188/the_violent_silence_of_a_new_beginning/)