The Occupy Wall Street movement is attracting a global following of people who are frustrated with a political system they say favours corporations and the super-rich.
In the less than three weeks since protesters first converged in lower Manhattan, similar demonstrations have already cropped up in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, and organizers in dozens of other countries – including Canada – say they will do the same. Here’s what you need to know about the movement.
How it works
The city erected metal barricades near the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall before the protest began, preventing the protesters from occupying their target directly. Instead, hundreds have set up a base camp in nearby Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan – since renamed Liberty Square by the protesters.
Demonstrators have been told not to set up tents or other structures, so many of those who stay overnight usually sleep directly on the ground, tucked into a sleeping bag, sometimes with a tarp wrapped around them to keep the rain away.
The group goes to great pains to keep the park clean, with volunteers signing up to clear away litter each day. Other chores include cooking in a makeshift kitchen, working at a medical station and handing out flyers and pamphlets at an information booth. A single table with a few chairs is the occupation’s media centre, where volunteers work off a generator and a series of wireless cards. Protesters also publish and distribute their own newspaper, cheekily called the Occupied Wall Street Journal, to get their message out in broadsheet form.
But the main event is the daily meeting called the general assemblies, held to plan all aspects of their occupation, from gathering supplies to determining where to march and how to communicate with the media. The assemblies are open to anyone who wants to participate, and the minutes from the meetings are posted online.
A New York bylaw prevents anyone from using a bullhorn or megaphone without a permit, so the protesters have adopted a system they call “the people’s microphone” to communicate with each other during large meetings. Someone shouts a message, a few words at a time, to the crowd, and then everyone who heard those words repeats them together for the benefit of those farther away. It’s an excruciatingly slow way to communicate, but it gets the message across.
Several lists of demands have been posted on the Occupy Wall Street website, but ideas and opinions still run the gamut, from scrapping the federal reserve bank to raising taxes on corporations and offering free college education.
The incoherence has sparked criticism, both within the movement and from observers, but some say it’s just the nature of starting a grassroots movement. “The protest comes first and serves as its own organizational tool,” one poster wrote on an online forum for Occupy Wall Street. “The protesters determine their own demands. Messy, but much more democratic, yes?”
What they could accomplish
David Meyer, author of The Politics of Protest and a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, said confusion about the protesters’ goals is a barrier to bringing about change because it’s easy for observers to dismiss the group.
But if the protests continue to grow in the United States, he said they could act as a counter-balance to the Tea Party, which has galvanized protesters on the right.
“If it works, if they’re effective, you’ll see pre-established activists and institutional politicians on the left becoming more vigorous, and more visible,” Mr. Meyer said. “There could be a political price to pay if they sign off for deals that, [for example,]don’t support progressive taxation.”
On Wednesday, Wall Street activists were joined by some of the country’s powerful unions and community groups for a several-thousand strong march through the city. The march was likely the movement’s biggest yet, and while it was largely peaceful, it ended in more than 20 arrests.
“I can’t tell what you’re going to get,” Mr. Meyer said. “It’s certainly going to be less than [demonstrators]want but it may also be more than [they] have any right to expect.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement has its roots in Vancouver, home base of anti-consumer magazine Adbusters. On July 13, 2011, Adbusters published a spread calling on people to occupy New York’s financial district. The magazine’s editors say they were inspired by the Arab Spring, and envisioned a similar uprising in the United States.
The protests began on Sept. 17, when a few dozen people tried to set up tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Since then, hundreds have flooded the nearby park, which has become the operating base for Occupy Wall Street.
When they aren’t planning an action or participating in a march, many of the Wall Street occupiers mill about the park and chat in small groups. Some play drums and sing together. And around the park, working groups focused on food, legal aid and other necessities hold meetings and sift through donated supplies.
On Sept. 24, police arrested about 80 people as demonstrators marched through lower Manhattan, and on Oct. 1, a march to Brooklyn ended in more than 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. Police say they told protesters to stay off the roadway on the bridge, while some protesters argue they weren’t warned in advance or were lured onto the road. Most of the arrested demonstrators were released soon after.
Coming to Canada
Canadians were among the first to jump on the global movement, with organizers in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal already hosting planning meetings to hold Occupy Wall Street-style demonstrations beginning on Oct. 15. Organizers in as many as 22 other Canadian cities may also participate, according to a website called Occupy Together, which is aggregating information on the global movement.
In Vancouver, traditionally a hot-spot for anti-corporate activism, Occupy organizers plan to meet at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Oct. 15, then branch out to several as-yet-unannounced locations for their occupations. The Toronto group is holding a planning meeting on Friday, Oct. 7 and organizers say they will take to the streets of Toronto’s financial district beginning Oct. 15.
With reports from Rod Mickleburgh in Vancouver and the Associated Press