Dispatch from the American Autumn

In January of 2011 I was leading a study abroad trip to Egypt as I do every year.  I had a dozen American students who knew little about the Middle East.  On the day of the Tunisian revolution I gathered them in “class” (in the form of a gazebo at the bend of the Nile) and I told them that we have to disrupt our syllabus to talk about this revolution and how it is going to change the middle east and our world.  I told them that Arab tyrants are shaking in their boots right now.  I told them to pay attention, that this revolution will cause a ripple effect across the middle east.  They asked me if I think that Egypt will be next and I said that it will take a while for Egypt to catch on and that Libya is the furthest from starting the revolution.  Of course I was wrong on both counts and the Egyptian revolution started two days after we had departed for the US ( a week after my talk with the students).  We spent the days following our departure from Egypt watching TV reportage of the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

A month later, on February 14, I saw the first signs of the Arab Spring reaching across the Atlantic in the form of the workers’ struggle in Madison Wisconsin.  This was in response to a governor who wanted to strip away the rights of public sector workers in that state.  The ranks of the protestors were fed with solidarity from working people across the country until they reached numbers not heard of since the Vietnam war protests in that state.  The degree of association with the Arab Spring was debatable but one thing that was evident is that people had realized that  if the Egyptians can hold their revolution in more repressive environments then workers of Wisconsin can certainly prevail in the “democratic” United States.  There were nods to the Arab spring and in the form of signs and slogans that compared Governor Walker and President Mubarak.

I hoped that Wisconsin will host our Tahrir square but that did not happen, but it was a step towards The American Autumn.  Things have been building up since the financial crisis of 2008 with a movement that started organizing to liberate foreclosed houses across the nation. Middle class Americans were defying the legal bounds of the American injustice system in order to maintain their shelter.  Then disaffection grew, for anyone who was paying attention in 2010, when, rather than stemming the power of the corporate elements that caused the crisis, a supreme court decision gave Wall Street more lobbying and political power through the Citizens United decision that allowed Wall Street to have more access to the public’s wealth (“to occupy the public square” as scholar Bill McKibben put it).

A month ago, I saw that the Obama administration was not going to even pretend to side with main street against Wall Street, and that it became apparent that there will be another recessionary dip and that the bailout money that was given to Wall Street was pocketed by Wall Street without apologies or shame.  When it became apparent that corporate America was going to hoard trillions of dollars while 15 million Americans, and that the democrats were using the Tea Party (a corporate funded party that was posing as grassroots) to justify their further creep to the right some people, versed in the Arab Spring began to ask: “Oh Where, O Where is Our Tahrir Square” and the resounding answer came a few weeks later: Occupy Wall Street.  Before I could inquire about a place were we can meet in my hometown of DC people had are already occupied McPherson Square, which is close to K Street , the corridor of lobbyists and political power in the US.  Then another occupations started in Freedom Plaza near the square.  The reports of occupations around the country began to spring up on my Facebook page: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Charlotte ….. until there were more than 200 “occupations” around the country.

One of the first symbolic moves by the state against the protest in Wall Street was to literally try to silence the movement by making it illegal to use any sound amplification devices. The response did not only deal with this repression effectively, but it pointed to how we have to operate within this movement:  the organizers called for a human amplification system where the people within earshot of the speakers repeat every sentence so that all can hear.  This was such poetic response by the 99 percent of Americans to the top 1% owned the loudest amplification system, that of lobbyists.

The media immediately started their usual naysaying: the message of the protestors is not unified or coherent; or: the movement seems to be leaderless.  The short-term memory of the US media prevented them from seeing that they were parroting the official medias of all the Arab dictators that have been deposed or on their way out.  One response from the movement came from Tom Engelhardt:

“It’s true, as many have pointed out, that they don’t have a list of well thought out demands, but the demand to have such a list is just their elders trying to bring them to heel. The fact is, they don’t have to know just what they’re doing, any more than a writer or filmmaker has to understand the book being written or the film shot. It’s not a necessity. It’s not the price of admission. “


Another response from the ground came from New York from friend Joshua Stephens:

‘Last night, I was part of a nearly 3hr meeting that involved coordination of direct action trainings, legal strategy education, political education, historical education, support strategies for teachers of color in NYC, skillshares & theater to combat patriarchal behavior in organizing, support for indigenous remembrance in opposition to Columbus Day, and means of putting the struggles of marginalized communities in NYC at the center of it all. This involved management of TWO google groups, multiple schedule tracks of classes, 3-4 web calendars integrated into one web platform, and fuck knows how many twitter feeds. It also involved liaising, federation, and mutual support between no fewer than five thematic working groups and adherence to principles laid out by a directly-democratic general assembly. The next time you hear someone say Occupy Wall Street is disorganized, please slap them.'”

To understand where we stand now, with these occupations, it is important to go back further than the recent developments, all the way back to the seventies.  For it was in the mid seventies that the project of the top 1% started (the lobbyist-owning-trillion hoarding-40% of American wealth-controlling minority in the US).  It was then that corporate America decided that the gains by labor and social movements has rendered America ill-prepared for the coming accelerated race in the global economy. By the 80’s they had stripped away workers’ rights and were preparing the America populous for the dismantling of the welfare state (the gutting of the social safety net).  President Reagan was very effective in the ideological priming of the American public for such an attack and it was actually President Clinton that implemented that attack (even republican strategist Newt Gingrich admitted that Clinton succeeded in a project that Reagan began).

Finally we have the fight-back, and it is fueled by the convergence of the most outrageous flaunting of democracy and political power, a deep economic crisis, and the hope of the Arab spring.  We are finally seeing the resumption of a project that started with the  1999 Seattle anti capitalist protests. That fight back inspired the world and sparked a most dynamic and ever evolving movement which was disrupted by 9/11.

Ten years and several wars later, the American public has grown tired of the exploitation of this tragedy by politicians and corporations.  Everything is coming full circle now, the fight back that began over a decade ago is resuming but this time with bouquet of ordinary folks joining and relating to the movement.  Signs of decline of the American empire are everywhere exposed: the hundreds went from the Obama administration to the lobbying field, the high percentage of congressmen that went from pretending to represent us to work for corporations, the fact that 1% of the American population controls 40 percent of the wealth, the truth that the ballot box is a bullshit box and that the slogan of Rock the Vote is a scam because the two parties continue to conspire in the seismic destruction of working people. People like Van Jones who was kicked out of the Obama administration for his coherent analysis of the state of the United States is now becoming more relevant to every day people than Obama, as he is now a thinker in a growing grassroots movement.  Bill Clinton, who fully participated in the destruction of the American dream, is saying that the dream is dead. One of the slogans of the movement has been: “The American Dream: You Would Have to be Asleep to Believe it.”  Americans are waking up every day from their deep sleep and they are forging their future without the help of “vanguard” or a previously conceived ideology.  Any individual or organization that will try to pose as the leader of this movement, because they think have a monopoly on the analysis of the capitalist system, will stand out like false street prophet.  If you walk among the people of occupation you will witness a breaking open of the parameters of dialogue, set by the media, through art and discussions sobered by the struggle for the daily bread.  I will not be speculating on how long will this movement will last, rather I will help in forging a path forward, with the knowledge gained from experience, that positive thinking creates the material conditions for the fulfillment of the goals of our movement.


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