Why the Elites Are in Trouble
Ketchup, a petite 22-year-old from Chicago with wavy red hair and glasses with bright red frames, arrived in Zuccotti Park in New York on Sept. 17. She had a tent, a rolling suitcase, 40 dollars’ worth of food, the graphic version of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and a sleeping bag. She had no return ticket, no idea what she was undertaking, and no acquaintances among the stragglers who joined her that afternoon to begin the Wall Street occupation. She decided to go to New York after reading the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which called for the occupation, although she noted that when she got to the park Adbusters had no discernable presence.
The lords of finance in the looming towers surrounding the park, who toy with money and lives, who make the political class, the press and the judiciary jump at their demands, who destroy the ecosystem for profit and drain the U.S. Treasury to gamble and speculate, took little notice of Ketchup or any of the other scruffy activists on the street below them. The elites consider everyone outside their sphere marginal or invisible. And what significance could an artist who paid her bills by working as a waitress have for the powerful? What could she and the others in Zuccotti Park do to them? What threat can the weak pose to the strong? Those who worship money believe their buckets of cash, like the $4.6 million JPMorgan Chase gave* to the New York City Police Foundation, can buy them perpetual power and security. Masters all, kneeling before the idols of the marketplace, blinded by their self-importance, impervious to human suffering, bloated from unchecked greed and privilege, they were about to be taught a lesson in the folly of hubris.
Even now, three weeks later, elites, and their mouthpieces in the press, continue to puzzle over what people like Ketchup want. Where is the list of demands? Why don’t they present us with specific goals? Why can’t they articulate an agenda?
The goal to people like Ketchup is very, very clear. It can be articulated in one word — REBELLION. These protesters have not come to work within the system. They are not pleading with Congress for electoral reform. They know electoral politics is a farce and have found another way to be heard and exercise power. They have no faith, nor should they, in the political system or the two major political parties. They know the press will not amplify their voices, and so they created a press of their own. They know the economy serves the oligarchs, so they formed their own communal system. This movement is an effort to take our country back.
This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend. They cannot envision a day when they will not be in charge of our lives. The elites believe, and seek to make us believe, that globalization and unfettered capitalism are natural law, some kind of permanent and eternal dynamic that can never be altered. What the elites fail to realize is that rebellion will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished. It will not stop until there is an end to the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically reconfigured. And that is why the elites, and the rotted and degenerate system of corporate power they sustain, are in trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They don’t understand what is happening. They are deaf, dumb and blind.
“The world can’t continue on its current path and survive,” Ketchup told me. “That idea is selfish and blind. It’s not sustainable. People all over the globe are suffering needlessly at our hands.”
The occupation of Wall Street has formed an alternative community that defies the profit-driven hierarchical structures of corporate capitalism. If the police shut down the encampment in New York tonight, the power elite will still lose, for this vision and structure have been imprinted into the thousands of people who have passed through park, renamed Liberty Plaza by the protesters. The greatest gift the occupation has given us is a blueprint for how to fight back. And this blueprint is being transferred to cities and parks across the country.
“We get to the park,” Ketchup says of the first day. “There’s madness for a little while. There were a lot of people. They were using megaphones at first. Nobody could hear. Then someone says we should get into circles and talk about what needed to happen, what we thought we could accomplish. And so that’s what we did. There was a note-taker in each circle. I don’t know what happened with those notes, probably nothing, but it was a good start. One person at a time, airing your ideas. There was one person saying that he wasn’t very hopeful about what we could accomplish here, that he wasn’t very optimistic. And then my response was that, well, we have to be optimistic, because if anybody’s going to get anything done, it’s going be us here. People said different things about what our priorities should be. People were talking about the one-demand idea. Someone called for AIG executives to be prosecuted. There was someone who had come from Spain to be there, saying that she was here to help us avoid the mistakes that were made in Spain. It was a wide spectrum. Some had come because of their own personal suffering or what they saw in the world.”
* Correction: An earlier version of this column said JPMorgan Chase gave a donation “a few days ago.” JPMorgan’s website says its gifts to the New York City Police Foundation, which together add up to “the largest [gift] in the history of the foundation,” began arriving last year.“After the circles broke I felt disheartened because it was sort of chaotic,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody there, so it was a little depressing. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“Over the past few months, people had been meeting in New York City general assembly,” she said. “One of them is named Brooke. She’s a professor of social ecology. She did my facilitation training. There’s her and a lot of other people, students, school teachers, different people who were involved with that … so they organized a general assembly.”
“It’s funny that the cops won’t let us use megaphones, because it’s to make our lives harder, but we actually end up making a much louder sound [with the “people’s mic”] and I imagine it’s much more annoying to the people around us,” she said. “I had been in the back, unable to hear. I walked to different parts of the circle. I saw this man talking in short phrases and people were repeating them. I don’t know whose idea it was, but that started on the first night. The first general assembly was a little chaotic because people had no idea … a general assembly, what is this for? At first it was kind of grandstanding about what were our demands. Ending corporate personhood is one that has come up again and again as a favorite and. … What ended up happening was, they said, OK, we’re going to break into work groups.
“People were worried we were going to get kicked out of the park at 10 p.m. This was a major concern. There were tons of cops. I’ve heard that it’s costing the city a ton of money to have constant surveillance on a bunch of peaceful protesters who aren’t hurting anyone. With the people’s mic, everything we do is completely transparent. We know there are undercover cops in the crowd. I think I was talking to one last night, but it’s like, what are you trying to accomplish? We don’t have any secrets.”
“The undercover cops are the only ones who ask, ‘Who’s the leader?’ ” she said. “Presumably, if they know who our leaders are they can take them out. The fact is we have no leader. There’s no leader, so there’s nothing they can do.
“There was a woman [in the medics unit]. This guy was pretending to be a reporter. The first question he asks is, ‘Who’s the leader?’ She goes, ‘I’m the leader.’ And he says, ‘Oh yeah, what are you in charge of?’ She says, ‘I’m in a charge of everything.’ He says, ‘Oh yeah? What’s your title?’ She says ‘God.’ ”
“So it’s 9:30 p.m. and people are worried that they’re going to try and rush us out of the camp,” she said, referring back to the first day. “At 9:30 they break into work groups. I joined the group on contingency plans. The job of the bedding group was to find cardboard for people to sleep on. The contingency group had to decide what to do if they kick us out. The big decision we made was to announce to the group that if we were dispersed we were going to meet back at 10 a.m. the next day in the park. Another group was arts and culture. What was really cool was that we assumed we were going to be there more than one night. There was a food group. They were going dumpster diving. The direct action committee plans for direct, visible action like marches. There was a security team. It’s security against the cops. The cops are the only people we think that might hurt us. The security team keeps people awake in shifts. They always have people awake.”
The work groups make logistical decisions, and the general assembly makes large policy decisions.
“Work groups make their own decisions,” Ketchup said. “For example, someone donated a laptop. And because I’ve been taking minutes I keep running around and asking, ‘Does someone have a laptop I could borrow?’ The media team, upon receiving that laptop, designated it to me for my use on behalf of the Internet committee. The computer isn’t mine. When I go back to Chicago, I’m not going to take it. Right now I don’t even know where it is. Someone else is using it. But so, after hearing this, people thought it had been gifted to me personally. People were upset by that. So a member of the Internet work group went in front of the group and said, ‘This is a need of the committee. It’s been put into Ketchup’s care.’ They explained that to the group, but didn’t ask for consensus on it, because the committees are empowered. Some people might still think that choice was inappropriate. In the future, it might be handled differently.”
Working groups blossomed in the following days. The media working group was joined by a welcome working group for new arrivals, a sanitation working group (some members of which go around the park on skateboards as they carry brooms), a legal working group with lawyers, an events working group, an education working group, medics, a facilitation working group (which trains new facilitators for the general assembly meetings), a public relations working group, and an outreach working group for like-minded communities as well as the general public. There is an Internet working group and an open source technology working group. The nearby McDonald’s is the principal bathroom for the park after Burger King banned protesters from its facilities.Caucuses also grew up in the encampment, including a “Speak Easy caucus.” “That’s a caucus I started,” Ketchup said. “It is for a broad spectrum of individuals from female-bodied people who identify as women to male-bodied people who are not traditionally masculine. That’s called the ‘Speak Easy’ caucus. I was just talking to a woman named Sharon who’s interested in starting a caucus for people of color.
“A caucus gives people a safe space to talk to each other without people from the culture of their oppressors present. It gives them greater power together, so that if the larger group is taking an action that the caucus felt was specifically against their interests, then the caucus can block that action. Consensus can potentially still be reached after a caucus blocks something, but a block, or a ‘paramount objection,’ is really serious. You’re saying that you are willing to walk out.”
“We’ve done a couple of things so far,” she said. “So, you know the live stream? The comments are moderated on the live stream. There are moderators who remove racist comments, comments that say ‘I hate cops’ or ‘Kill cops.’ They remove irrelevant comments that have nothing to do with the movement. There is this woman who is incredibly hardworking and intelligent. She has been the driving force of the finance committee. Her hair is half-blond and half-black. People were referring to her as “blond-black hottie.” These comments weren’t moderated, and at one point whoever was running the camera took the camera off her face and did a body scan. So, that was one of the first things the caucus talked about. We decided as a caucus that I would go to the moderators and tell them this is a serious problem. If you’re moderating other offensive comments then you need to moderate these kinds of offensive comments.”
The heart of the protest is the two daily meetings, held in the morning and the evening. The assemblies, which usually last about two hours, start with a review of process, which is open to change and improvement, so people are clear about how the assembly works. Those who would like to speak raise their hand and get on “stack.”
“There’s a stack keeper,” Ketchup said. “The stack keeper writes down your name or some signifier for you. A lot of white men are the people raising their hands. So, anyone who is not apparently a white man gets to jump stack. The stack keeper will make note of the fact that the person who put their hand up was not a white man and will arrange the list so that it’s not dominated by white men. People don’t get called up in the same order as they raise their hand.”
While someone is speaking, their words amplified by the people’s mic, the crowd responds through hand signals.
“Putting your fingers up like this,” she said, holding her hands up and wiggling her fingers, “means you like what you’re hearing, or you’re in agreement. Like this,” she said, holding her hands level and wiggling her fingers, “means you don’t like it so much. Fingers down, you don’t like it at all; you’re not in agreement. Then there’s this triangle you make with your hand that says ‘point of process.’ So, if you think that something is not being respected within the process that we’ve agreed to follow then you can bring that up.”
“You wait till you’re called,” she said. “These rules get abused all the time, but they are important. We start with agenda items, which are proposals or group discussions. Then working group report-backs, so you know what every working group is doing. Then we have general announcements. The agenda items have been brought to the facilitators by the working groups because you need the whole group to pay attention. Like last night, Legal brought up a discussion on bail: ‘Can we agree that the money from the general funds can be allotted if someone needs bail?’ And the group had to come to consensus on that. [It decided yes.] There’s two co-facilitators, a stack keeper, a timekeeper, a vibes-person making sure that people are feeling OK, that people’s voices aren’t getting stomped on, and then if someone’s being really disruptive, the vibes-person deals with them. There’s a note-taker — I end up doing that a lot because I type very, very quickly. We try to keep the facilitation team one man, one woman, or one female-bodied person, one male-bodied person. When you facilitate multiple times it’s rough on your brain. You end up having a lot of criticism thrown your way. You need to keep the facilitators rotating as much as possible. It needs to be a huge, huge priority to have a strong facilitation group.”
“People have been yelled out of the park,” she said. “Someone had a sign the other day that said ‘Kill the Jew Bankers.’ They got screamed out of the park. Someone else had a sign with the N-word on it. That person’s sign was ripped up, but that person is apparently still in the park.
“We’re trying to make this a space that everyone can join. This is something the caucuses are trying to really work on. We are having workshops to get people to understand their privilege.”
But perhaps the most important rule adopted by the protesters is nonviolence and nonaggression against the police, no matter how brutal the police become.
“The cops, I think, maced those women in the face and expected the men and women around them to start a riot,” Ketchup said. “They want a riot. They can deal with a riot. They cannot deal with nonviolent protesters with cameras.”
I tell Ketchup I will bring her my winter sleeping bag. It is getting cold. She will need it. I leave her in a light drizzle and walk down Broadway. I pass the barricades, uniformed officers on motorcycles, the rows of paddy wagons and lines of patrol cars that block the streets into the financial district and surround the park. These bankers, I think, have no idea what they are up against.