x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Occupy' protests' winter of discontent

Despite the recent crackdowns, protesters are firm in their resolve to continue.

Soren Powell and his daughter, Willow, in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington.
Soren Powell and his daughter, Willow, in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington.

WASHINGTON // There's a strong nip in the air these days. Mornings are darker and the wind brings a chill. The leaves are turning late-year yellows and reds and the rains are due.

All this weighs heavily on the minds of protesters who have set up two camps in the heart of the US capital in sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York last month.

Since then, the "Occupy" protests have swept the world, bringing an anti-greed message to every continent bar Antarctica. On Tuesday night they came to a head in Oakland, California, with police using tear gas and arresting 100 people. Scott Olsen, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, was severely wounded in the clash and remained in hospital yesterday.

Also on Tuesday, Swat teams in Atlanta, Georgia, moved in on a protest camp after there were reports of a man in the camp carrying an AK-47. Police cleared the camp and arrested more than 50 people.

Despite the recent crackdowns, protesters are firm in their resolve to continue. Whether for the growing impatience of municipal authorities or the impending winter, the months ahead, acknowledged Reverend Bruce Wright, one of the organisers of the protest at Freedom Plaza in Washington, are "going to be tough".

Like their counterparts in New York and elsewhere in the US, the Occupy DC protesters are a politically amorphous group. What they have in common is anger at a system they say has failed not only them but the 99 per cent of Americans who do not have the money, and therefore influence, to bend government to their will.

But this is a generalised anger that lends itself to caricature, and conservative critics have been quick to label the protesters a ragtag bunch of activists who vilify success and will not stay the course.

In size, the individual Occupy protests do not compare to the massive anti-Iraq war demonstrations around the world in 2003, but their global reach and staying power have set them apart. What began as a 1,000-strong march in New York on September 17 has proved both resilient and infectious. The Occupy protests have spread to more than 80 countries and 900 cities around the world.

The protests in Washington are tranquil and well organised. There are medical and food tents - even a spiritual tent and a library among the roughly 100 tents on McPherson Square, the second site, two blocks north of the White House. The ground remains spotless even though people have now lived there for more than three weeks. If the movement is vague on specific political messages the site sends one resoundingly clear message: the protesters fully intend to stay.

But that is about the only clear message the protesters have sent. The two separate camps in Washington exemplify some of this confusion. On Freedom Plaza, there are numerous calls for the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, on the government to pursue renewable energy sources and for better care for army veterans.

Rev Wright, who is a minister with the Apostolic Catholic Church in Florida, said he saw the Occupy movement as part of a growing rebellion against a global order, that extends directly from the Arab Spring.

"It's time to change how this country and the world operates. We have to stop global corporate capitalism from taking away everyone's democratic rights," Rev Wright said, tracing a direct line from Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Indeed, protesters at Freedom Plaza were urged to sign a pledge that they would remain on Freedom Plaza to protest against US involvement in Afghanistan and turning the place into "our Tahrir Square, Cairo, our Madison, Wisconsin, where we will non-violently resist the corporate machine".

At McPherson Square, however, the aims seem narrower.

On Sunday, Saffiyya, 23, an American Jewish convert to Islam who did not want to give her last name, was the volunteer medic on watch at the protest's yellow medical tent, which had been donated by the National Nurses' Union.

She said she supported the movement because "we have to put an end to corporate interference in government".

A few steps away, Soren Powell, 32, a water treatment engineer who was finishing breakfast with his two-year-old daughter, Willow, said he simply wanted to see someone pay for gambling with the US economy and people's livelihoods.

"I want to see the people who set in motion the chain of events that caused our economy to collapse be prosecuted."

These are not competing messages. But they vary significantly, and critics say the lack of a single message dilutes the movement's effect. Indeed, the mainstream US media was slow to pick up on the story, and it was only after scuffles and mass arrests in New York that it gained some traction.

But Richard Eskow, a senior fellow with The Campaign for America's Future, a think tank that tries to devise strategies for progressive movements in the US, said that was partly the point. The Occupy movement taps into a "deep undercurrent" of frustration and anger.

"Rather than articulate specific policy demands, they're first and foremost articulating a sense of injustice and a desire to restore a kind of balance that's been lost."

The evident frustration with government has seen the Occupy movement frequently compared to the Tea Party, the conservative grassroots movement that brought Republicans a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections.

But unlike the Tea Party, politicians have not yet been able to tap the frustration evinced by the Occupy movement and it is not clear anyone will.

Rev Wright said the movement would not allow itself to be co-opted by any of the mainstream political parties, both of which he said were corrupt, and there is a deep sense of disenfranchisement and alienation from the political system.

Some Democratic leaders have tried to reach out to the movement. On Tuesday, Barack Obama, the US president, told Jay Leno, the Tonight Show host, that he understood their frustration. But such entreaties are liable to fall on deaf ears. Mr Powell said the conventional channels for political change had simply broken down, hence the movement.

Mr Eskow compared the Occupy movement to the civil rights movement in the 1960s that, he said, also began with an "articulated sense of frustration against racial segregation" that then grew into specific actions.

Protesters are confident that the movement will only grow, and Mr Eskow said he saw the potential for an extended movement. Before then, however, they have to stay. And there is the small matter of winter.

"If we make it through the winter," said Mr Powell, "it will be huge".