Gayatri Spivak at the teach-in at Washington Square: “I believe you can win if we keep this will for social justice alive. Logistics are important. Pizzas are important. But the real demand--is to win.”
A guest post by Bob Samuels
I went to several Occupy Wall Street events on October 16 to talk about student debt, unemployment, and the academic labor system. In the morning, checked out Zuccotti Park, and I found that the site is serving as a training center and launching platform for occupation events spreading across the city and the globe.
In the morning, I marched with a few thousand students and workers to several banks around Wall Street. The crowd was very organized and polite. There is a lot of spontaneity in this movement, which really is leaderless and highly democratic. While I came to New York looking to see if there was any strong organization or set of demands, I soon discovered that I was looking for the wrong thing.
After leaving Wall Street, I went to a rally for college and university students at Washington Square Park, which is right next to New York University. There was a general assembly, where each speaker would say a few words, and then the “human mic” would echo the phrases. At first, this non-amplified system really bothered me, but after I got to speak about student debt and the causes for high tuition, I started to understand the power of this approach. I even imagined what it would be like with all of my students repeating back my words (perhaps medieval?).
Most of the general assembly at Washington Square Park was spent relaying messages about upcoming events and groups. I have to stress that the people in this movement are obsessed about direct democracy and consensus. While it may make things messy and frustrating at times, the idea is to model a different political system and method of social organization. For instance, during the general assemblies, everyone is allowed to speak, and everyone repeats aloud what everyone else says. The end result is that people feel included and that their voice matters, both literally and figuratively.
The next big event was that we marched all the way up to Times Square (40 blocks), and we were joined by several thousand people. This was the most diverse and intelligent crowd I have ever seen; there was a senior with a walker and several infants, and we were also surrounded by a huge police presence. Some of the marchers were holding books by Hegel and Freire.
At first things were going well, but then the police started to block our way and surround us with a huge orange net that they use to arrest masses of people. Being surrounded by the net, which is called kettling, really freaked me out, but people started to chant to the police, “NYPD, They Want Your Pensions Too.” This chant reduced some tension and made me think that we really all are the 99 percent.
It was clear from the march and the Times Square rally that the central theme was banks got bailed out, but the people got sold out. This theme relates both to the way the government has spent trillions stabilizing the financial sector and the fact that so many people are suffering from lost jobs, incomes, savings, and homes. There was a strong sense at these events that although most people are on the left, they do not support either political party, and they want a new system where money is taken out of politics.
The final event of the day was a raucous dance party and speech by Gayatri Spivak. She stressed that we are seeing a global fight for justice, and people all over the world are following the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also discussed how we need to get economic power out of politics, and these events will change a generation. After her speech, we went back to dancing the polka and other international dances.
I have written in Academe Online how this new type of social movement mirrors the new forms of communication we are currently witnessing. Just as Internet networks are dispersed and redundant, leaderless democratic structures attempt to limit hierarchy and combine spontaneity with organization. Thus, as the Web challenges national borders and political hierarchies, the Occupy Wall Street movement reveals a new political system. Let’s hope that this movement will push us to change business as usual.
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Bob Samuels is President of the University Council - AFT and a lecturer at UCLA. He is also the author of the popular blog, Changing Universities and the book New Media, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory after Postmodernity.