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Occupy Wall Street: The View from Across the Bridge

With all of the media now focused on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan, it’s easy to lose sight of the real human tragedy unfolding right across the bridge. I’m referring to Brooklyn, New York’s most populous borough, which has suffered mightily since the economic meltdown of 2008. Though the crowds participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement are now more racially diverse than at the outset of the protests, most disadvantaged Brooklyn residents are still shying away from demonstrations. This fact is most glaringly evident when one takes the 2 or 3 train from Fulton Street near the protests and heads out into Brooklyn: while most of the protesters are young and white, the subway riders are predominantly African-American and Caribbean.

For the time being, the protesters certainly enjoy a certain degree of momentum and enthusiasm. However, if demonstrators want to see Occupy Wall Street turn into a mass movement in the long-term, they will have to learn how to appeal to poorer Brooklynites and to address residents’ local concerns. As they continue to organize, activists should recognize a simple premise: in New York, not all districts are created equal. Indeed, the unemployment rate in Brooklyn rose from 4.7 percent in 2008 to 10.1 percent in January 2011, making it one of the worse afflicted counties in the state. Though the recovery is helping to spur some job creation, for example in the health field, other jobs have vanished forever. In particular, crucial sectors such as construction and manufacturing have been hit significantly.

For Brooklynites, the situation is vexing and befuddling as many are forced to choose between changing careers or trying to cobble together a couple of smaller jobs. Some university graduates have become so discouraged that they have ceased looking for new employment altogether and instead pursue other options like heading to graduate school or continuing to work their old college jobs. Perhaps that is understandable given that young people have few options other than retail sales, with an abysmal starting salary of about $15,000, and waitressing.

From The Hipster Generation to Food Stamps

Think of Brooklyn and images of affluent young hipsters may come to mind. In recent years, the district of Williamsburg has become synonymous with this up and coming generation. Meanwhile, many residents living in other prosperous white neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill may be oblivious to serious economic dislocation afflicting other parts of the borough, where some are forced to subsist on social security and food stamps.

Indeed, there’s been a great racial discrepancy in the jobs figures, with black unemployment in New York averaging five points higher than whites, and Latinos averaging four points higher. Overall, New York ranks as the third most unequal city in the country in terms of wealth disparity. Hollywood, however, continues to focus upon Brooklyn’s affluent elite as witnessed by such recent films as The Switch. The movie, which stars Jennifer Aniston, deals with a young woman who finds happiness with a wealthy sperm donor friend who lives on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights.

A world away from the Promenade, teachers are being handed the pink slip and it is disadvantaged kids in poor areas like East New York and Brownsville who are getting hit hardest. Cuts in educational services are just the tip of the iceberg for impoverished communities, however: reportedly, food pantries are being stretched to their limits. Facing a stagnant economy, high unemployment and low levels of charitable giving, not to mention high food prices, soup kitchens in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Midwood and Bushwick are feeling the pinch with administrators reporting a dramatic increase in whole families turning up for help.

Reportedly, even the hipster women of Williamsburg are turning to waitressing to make ends meet. Known for its concentration of so-called “trust-funders” or, more humorously, “trustafarians,” Williamsburg has a reputation for gentrification and white entitlement. Now, however, parents of the younger generation are scaling back and have stopped buying their children new condos, let alone subsidizing rents or providing cash to spend at local boutiques or coffee houses.

In a sign of the times perhaps, one web site has sprung up to draw attention to locals’ economic plight. Called Unemployed Brooklyn, the site is run by a single woman named “MatchGirl.” While looking for a job in the fashion industry, Matchgirl uses her sewing skills to make stuffed animals and sell them over the internet to make some extra income. Matchgirl’s objective is to “vent frustrations, insights and inspirations about being unemployed…tips for cheap places to eat and shop in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

A Painful Four Years

The recent troubles cap a number of painful years for local residents. The problems started in 2008, when Brooklyn families started to face eviction and foreclosure on condos they had purchased from corrupt developers. As a spate of real estate crimes proliferated, ranging from deed forgery to mortgage fraud schemes, Brooklyn’s district attorney belatedly announced it was time to set up a specialized unit to investigate and prosecute such offenses. When a group of young filmmakers started to produce a documentary film about the mortgage scandal in Brooklyn called Subprimed, they received harassing letters in the mail from lawyers representing local developers.

Humans weren’t the only ones to be affected by the foreclosure crisis --- even pets were displaced. In an unusual protest, animal rescue groups brought more than 400 dogs to the Brooklyn Bridge ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. According to organizers, many pets lost their homes to foreclosure and animal shelters had been hard hit by the economic downturn.

By 2009, one could walk down any commercial street in Brooklyn and spot vacant storefronts and advertisements announcing 70% off sales. Take Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, middle class immigrant communities with large numbers of Chinese, Ecuadoran, Lebanese, Mexican, Russian, Ukranian and Yemenite families: though these enclaves managed to escape the high foreclosure rate hitting Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York, Bushwick and Crown Heights, local entrepreneurs started to hurt with businesses ranging from restaurants to jewelers to clothing stores going through a downturn. In a brainstorming fever, business owners wracked their brains in an effort to lure customers, offering up everything from holiday chocolate tastings to weekend brunches to Feng Shui consultations.

Poverty Enters the Popular Culture

The economic malaise has advanced to such a degree that it has begun to have an impact upon popular culture. As far back as 2009, a local exhibit called “Plan B” explored how artists had been affected by the downturn. One exhibitor created a photo series documenting how she had been laid off by Hearst Magazines, featuring shots of boxes piled up one on top of another. Yet another artist constructed a sculpture made up of discarded circuit boards, meant to signify the “garbage economy.”

In a second work, the same exhibitor featured a simple easel meant to symbolize the local plight of artists. The idea behind the work, the artist remarked, was to “create an easel that can be stored in your room if you're renting or you only have one room and you've been kicked out of your studio due to financial concerns. What happens to a lot of artists in New York is they don't make art anymore, and then they're stuck in this crappy job where they're not really happy but they can't earn enough money to rent a studio to make more art, so I'm trying to offer them a solution.”

In theater, too, the theme of economic hard times has figured prominently. Take for example a recent play which ran at the Brooklyn Lyceum Theater in Park Slope, based on one of Arthur Miller’s lesser known works. In “The American Clock,” a Manhattan family moves to Brooklyn after losing its fortune. Playwright and essayist Miller himself moved to Brooklyn as a child, and his play is based on his own experiences during the Great Depression.

A large ensemble cast, including train-riding hobos and Wall Street tycoons, retells the story of the depression. “It’s very satisfying to be able to do this play during what we hope will be the end of the Great Recession, because I don’t think it ever really had its moment in Arthur Miller’s lifetime,” said the play’s artistic director. “He hoped this would be a warning to people, that the clock is ticking on the American dream, and the play needs to be heard.”

Brooklyn musicians, meanwhile, have been singing about economic hard times. Take Dan Costello, a songwriter based in Bushwick who became exposed to socially conscious musicians like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie through his politically active parents. In Recession Songs, his 2009 album, Costello sings on one track “Hey Mister, where’s my bailout? Give me a bonus Mister, you gave one to AIG.” On yet another track, Costello sings “I think I’ll dumpster dive at Whole Foods, Day old bread that can still be chewed. Organic Apples that are slightly bruised, but ugly produce is still good for you.”

From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Brooklyn

With all of the economic dislocation occurring just across the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s disappointing that Occupy Wall Street has not been more successful in attracting the poor and destitute to its cause. Yet, when you consider that many Brooklynites are simply too stressed out to attend demonstrations and are having a difficult time keeping their heads above water amidst the downturn, the lack of diversity in major demonstrations becomes understandable.

Another difficulty has to do with the spatial geography of Brooklyn: though it’s the most populous borough in the city, communities are spread out and isolated from one other and bridging cultural differences amongst the dizzying array of nationalities is a formidable task. A new group, Occupy Brooklyn, hopes to remedy the situation and has already started to organize locally. Perhaps, this most recent offshoot of the Wall Street movement might concentrate its efforts on downtown Brooklyn and Borough Hall, a busy district which by day is extremely diverse from a racial standpoint.

Though Occupy Wall Street has now become much more of a mainstream movement, it will need to do much more outreach to marginalized communities across the river if it wants to ensure that its demonstrations have the desired effect. At long last, it seems that the protesters have opted to take up my earlier pearl of wisdom and Occupy Oakland has called for a general strike no less. The action is scheduled for November 2, and could also spur a similar effort in Lower Manhattan.

If it does call for a general strike, Occupy Wall Street will have to shut down major thoroughfares like the Brooklyn Bridge. A couple of weeks ago, when protesters attempted to do precisely that, they were turned back by the police. Yet, perhaps this time the demonstrators will have increased numbers on their side and may link up with their compatriots in Brooklyn.

Will Occupy Wall Street remain a Manhattan movement, or will it manage to marshal the sympathy of those living in the outer boroughs who are most affected by the recession? In the coming weeks, Occupy must prove that it can move beyond its own base and become a truly mass movement capable of bringing about real, systemic change.

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'Occupy': A path to non-violent revolution?

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Occupy Wall Street: If South Americans Can Reform Their Constitutions, Then Why Not Us?

After a couple of weeks trying to find their groove, Occupy Wall Street protesters are now on a high and are set to take their movement to the next level. First came the announcement that New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg would not dismantle the encampment at Liberty Plaza, and then, as anti-capitalist demonstrators took to the streets in cities as far afield as Madrid and Rome, activists may have sensed that Occupy Wall Street stood to become truly global in scope. With the mushrooming of protest across the United States, corporate executives are sitting up and taking notice, while both the Republicans and Democrats have been forced to recognize the growing power of demonstrations. With the 2012 presidential election just a year away, it is not inconceivable that Occupy Wall Street will exert a political impact upon the campaign.

Though these wins are certainly impressive, the protesters must now face some daunting challenges. Youthful and energetic, Occupy Wall Street activists have enthusiasm and momentum on their side. There will come a time, however, when the demonstrators may find it difficult to sustain such a high level of mobilization. Perhaps sensing that it was too soon to put forth a concrete set of demands, anti-corporate protesters have, up until now, exploited a general sense of unease with Wall Street excesses and government bailouts of the financial sector.
Yet, for all their successes, the demonstrators are locked in a paradox: on the one hand, Occupy Wall Street must appeal to more disenfranchised people if it wants to grow the movement, ye by including other constituencies the protesters may find that the nature of their protest becomes too diluted or diffuse. Activists, then, must delicately find a way to channel their demands in such a way that the movement expands without losing its core focus. In looking to the future, some on the left are seizing on ambitious goals which heretofore might have seemed, to put it modestly, rather "pie in the sky."

Occupy Wall Street Thinks Big

Take, for example, the radical notion of amending the Constitution to address protesters' demands or even convening a constitutional convention. Already, an Occupy Wall Street "working group" has called for a "non-partisan National General Assembly" which would convene in Philadelphia in July, 2012 to draft a "petition of grievances." In an echo of the original Continental Congresses of the colonial era, members of the assembly would deliberate amongst themselves and present points to the presidential candidates in advance of the 2012 election.

Occupy Wall Street has listed a number of grievances having to do with economic fairness, and not surprisingly the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (or FEC) stands out. Reformers would like to remove corporate money from the political process by doing away with this recent Supreme Court decision, which granted companies the right to spend unlimited funds to influence the outcome of elections. The ruling has enraged the progressive community which now sees democracy as hanging by a mere thread.

Taking Up the Cause of Constitutional Reform

Though some may be taken aback by Occupy Wall Street's idea, the notion of overhauling the constitution is not a new one and, indeed, dovetails with some recent efforts on the left to address the issue. Indeed, in an attempt to head off creeping corporate influence, a number of organizations including Ralph Nader's Public Citizen recently called for a national grassroots campaign to amend the constitution, overturn the Supreme Court's decision and declare unequivocally that corporations should not enjoy the same rights as persons.

Yet another backer of the proposal is the Liberty Tree Foundation, run by Wisconsin activist and attorney Ben Manski. I met Ben in Madison in the summer of 1999, shortly before the emergence of the anti-globalization movement. Later, Manski played a key role in organizing protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, considered by some to be a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. "Given that the occupy movement is concerned about the fundamental allocation of political and economic power," Manski wrote me in a recent e-mail, "and is committed to the practice of direct democracy, as opposed to merely representative government, it's reasonable to expect that in time this movement will take up the work of constitutional reform."

Occupy Wall Street and Constitutionalists Coalescing?

Manski is already seeing signs "of integration between the occupy movement and the existing post-Citizens United v. FEC movement to amend the U.S. Constitution." In the coming months, he believes, these two currents will continue to overlap and coalesce. Perhaps, Manski's predictions will turn out to have merit: already, moveon.org, which has traditionally been tied to the Democratic Party, has taken to posting Occupy Wall Street's call for the separation of government from corporations, much as the colonists called for the separation of government from England in 1776.

Moreover, during a recent conference held at Harvard Law School both tea party activists and anti-corporate liberals made common cause to discuss the corrupting influence of political contributions in campaigns. The conference, which was attended by Manski amongst others, discussed the possibility of convening a constitutional convention in order to address fundamental failures in American government.

Recent surveys suggest that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling is wildly unpopular amongst the American public, including Democrats, Republicans and independents. Judging from some recent grumblings in Congress, too, this movement might have some legs: some liberal members of the House have voiced support for a constitutional amendment aimed at Citizens United, and in the Senate too there have been calls for an amendment which would allow the government to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns.
A Constitutional Uphill Climb

Despite such efforts, the reality is that constitutional reform would remain a challenging uphill struggle. If popular forces sought to repeal Citizens United, they would have two options: either pass an amendment by a two-thirds margin in both houses of Congress, and then get three-quarters of the states to ratify it, or, more controversially, get two thirds of the states to convene a constitutional convention and get three quarters to ratify. The first option has proven to be rather thorny: since 1789, over 10,000 amendments have been introduced into Congress, but only 33 have been approved and of those just 27 have been ratified and added to the Constitution.

The second option, which is favored by the likes of Manski, has almost never been used so we'd be in slightly untested waters. Since the Constitution went into effect, there have been hundreds of petitions from the states to convene a constitutional convention and none of these efforts ever bore fruit. What is more, if the left ever succeeded in convening a constitutional convention, activists might regret their decision as this could unleash a virtual Pandora's Box. There's no contemporary experience with a national constitutional convention and no clear consensus about what it should do. In theory, a constitutional convention could allow the right to introduce its own amendments.

As South America Goes, So Too North America?

Faced with such daunting odds, some on the left might dismiss any such grandiose constitutional maneuvers. But just think: a mere two months ago who would have guessed that a modest encampment near Wall Street would have sparked world-wide protest and rallies of hundreds of thousands of people? Perhaps, within the present milieu, such ambitious plans might at the very least succeed in sparking a long overdue national debate.
Having endured thirty years of conservative ascendancy the left is understandably a bit jaded, but I think progressives may sell themselves a little short. In South America, a couple of countries have managed to reform their constitutions in short order, yet many in the U.S. believe that such radical change is impossible in Washington. Why is that? Are Venezuelans, Ecuadorans, or Bolivians more inherently revolutionary than Americans?

In light of the current political impasse, perhaps activists should reconsider the case of South America. As I point out in my second book, popular revulsion with free-market reforms succeeded in driving political elites from power across the Andes, first in Venezuela and later in Bolivia and Ecuador. As the old order came crashing down, leaders such as Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa sought to capitalize on popular discontent by clamoring for nothing short of a new constitutional order, one which would "re-found" the state to be more inclusive and democratic toward the marginalized and dispossessed.

A Look at the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999

As anyone who's read my other essays will know, it didn't entirely wind up that way and the picture throughout the region, particularly in Ecuador and Venezuela, remains decidedly mixed. Nevertheless, some South American constitutions represent important landmarks in progressive legislation. Take, for example, the Venezuelan constitution of 1999, which allows for so-called "social human rights" such as employment, housing, and health care. Under the legislation, all workers have the right to a decent salary, and the state will even promote and protect economic cooperatives.

In addition, the constitution is very forward and broad-looking on the issue of gender equality, stating that any discrimination which results in lasting inequality must be dismantled, which in practice implies that public policies must be reexamined. Furthermore, there are provisions for recall of any elected officials, which might be of interest to U.S. activists in light of recent efforts to remove Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Under another interesting provision, Venezuela scrapped its bicameral legislature in favor of a unicameral structure which in theory will be more in tune with the country's needs. While some on the U.S. left have argued that it is time to get rid of the Senate, it would clearly take some time for such calls to gain any traction out in the American heartland, however.

Radicalizing Occupy Wall Street

In South America, leftist populists have latched on to the constitutionalist banner yet in the U.S. events have unfolded differently. Indeed, here in this country it is the rightist Tea Party movement, and not leftists, which has adopted patriotic symbols and wrapped itself in the constitution. Perhaps it is time for Occupy Wall Street to reverse this equation and develop its own brand of left populism designed to revive American democracy. It will certainly be an uphill climb, but the American left may not encounter a more auspicious moment to present such radical proposals.

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General Strike in Lower Manhattan

On a somewhat more personal note, check out my latest article about Occupy Wall St and the possibility of launching a general strike in Lower Manhattan. Click here to read the piece on Al Jazeera.

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Beware of al-Chavezeera

I'm back writing for al-Jazeera, which is probably wondering why its activities are being monitored by the U.S. State Department in Venezuela. To read the article, click here.

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