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Rethinking the “Occupy” Movement in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Though certainly devastating in an environmental, economic and even psychological sense, Hurricane Sandy may lead to significant long-term political change. Already, activists affiliated with Occupy Wall Street have fanned out across New York to provide disaster relief to the neediest. For "Occupy," the storm provides an opportunity to broaden a movement which in recent months had seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. As the movement matures, there has been some talk of rebranding as evidenced by this "Occupy Sandy" web page.
For Occupy, the storm represents a kind of coming of age and in the long-term relief efforts might serve to re-energize the movement along environmental lines. Such a change comes none too soon. Whatever its initial strengths, Occupy later suffered when it failed to provide a coherent and long-term vision for society. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the group's anti-establishment rhetoric and outlook only propelled the movement so far.
It's unfortunate that it took a devastating hurricane to alert the public to the dangers of climate change, but belatedly some national and state politicians seem to be waking up to global warming. Perversely, however, the issue of climate change remained largely absent from the presidential campaign, and both candidates seemed wedded to the underlying mantra of endless economic growth, a doctrine which has contributed to extreme weather in the first place. The planet urgently needs to act on climate change, but to question fundamental assumptions about the economy is to risk derision and probably even ridicule within the present context of U.S. politics. Given such constraints, how should Occupy promote its environmental agenda?

Return of the Humble Oyster?

It's a challenging dilemma for activists because climate change is a very abstract concept to convey and most people have difficulty grasping the true scope of the problem, not to mention the radical economic and technological changes which will necessarily be in order. In light of such limitations, perhaps the most central thing for activists to recognize —- at least initially —- is the importance of stressing non-threatening symbolism over ideology. As the city that inspired other Occupy movements across the country, New York should take the lead in developing such catchy symbols, and fortunately some have already come up with intriguing suggestions.

Curiously, a recent New York Times article suggests that the humble oyster could play a vital role in combating the ravages of climate change within the metropolitan area. At one time, oysters built up enormous underwater reefs, which protected New York from storm surges. "Just as corals protect tropical islands," the piece notes, "these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force."

At one time, the bivalve population numbered up into the trillions and assisted in coastal defense all along the eastern seaboard from Boston in the north to Washington in the south. Ingeniously, oyster beds also play a vital environmental role through efficient filtration. Indeed, a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day. Such filtration allows marsh grasses to grow and extend their root structure, which in turn helps to stabilize and hold shores together.

Environmental Symbolism

The humble oyster, then, has fulfilled a vital environmental purpose but has also played an important role in the local economy. Few are aware of such history, and it's a theme that activists might want to touch upon in the coming weeks and months. As far back as the 1600s, the Lenape Indians of New York ate oysters and discarded the shells in large so-called middens. When they first arrived, the Dutch observed that the estuary of the lower Hudson River still contained 350 square miles of oyster beds. Oysters were so abundant, in fact, that the Dutch called Ellis Island "Oyster Island" and Liberty Island "Great Oyster Island." Later, oysters contributed greatly to the mercantile wealth and international renown of the burgeoning New Amsterdam colony.

The British, who inherited New Amsterdam from the Dutch, also went crazy for oysters and the bivalve was equally consumed by both rich and poor. Even before bagels, pizza and food trucks became the talk of the town, cheap oysters were New York's original street food. Every kind of gastronomic creation was marketed, from oyster pie to oyster stew. Oystering later proved to be a particularly popular trade amongst free African American slaves who opened oyster bars in Lower Manhattan. Staten Island, a district hard hit by recent Hurricane Sandy, was also an important center of the oyster trade and by the mid-19th century a number of black oystermen chose to settle within the local community.

New Yorkers embraced original oyster varieties, which grew up to nine inches and longer, including the now extinct Rockaways and Bluepoint from Long Island. Though over dredging later reduced the local bivalve population, New Yorkers continued their mollusk eating habit by encouraging oyster farming. Eventually, oystering became one of the city's biggest industries and by 1880 New York was known as the oyster capital of the world. Unfortunately, however, unsound sewer systems led to the dumping of typhoid and cholera-carrying bacteria into the waterways, while industrial pollutants rendered oysters inedible. In 1916, a local typhoid epidemic led to an official ban on oystering and the industry, which had led to such fabulous wealth, died out virtually overnight.
For the Occupy movement, which had fallen into a state of torpor prior to New York's recent environmental disaster, Hurricane Sandy reshuffles the deck. Perhaps, in light of the catastrophe, the public may be more receptive to political activism with a strong ecological component. Nevertheless, Occupy needs to be careful lest it alienate many New Yorkers who are not yet ready for the coming radical debate about how to transform the economy in a green and environmental sense. It is here, however, where the humble oyster comes into play. If they are shrewd, activists might appeal to the mainstream by declaring the need for greater coastal defense and the repopulation of local oyster beds. As they recruit a wider following, activists might even bring up New York's forgotten environmental history which will come as a surprise to many.

Climate Change, Storm Surges and the Toxic Cocktail

So much for theoretical abstractions. But pragmatically speaking, how can Occupy achieve its long-term goals? Fortunately, even before Hurricane Sandy activists had turned their attention to valuable environmental work within the New York City area. Take, for example, oyster farmers operating within the area of the Gowanus Canal in the borough of Brooklyn. There, local residents, volunteers and young students carried out valuable oyster gardening projects, which have fostered a sense of environmental stewardship in the community.

At one time, the Gowanus was an ecological gem and early Dutch accounts made note of gigantic oysters in local waters, which were literally "the size of dinner plates." These days, however, the Gowanus is in dire need of ecological renewal and recently the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a federal Superfund site for cleanup. Such efforts come none too soon: for years the canal was fouled by industrial waste and light was unable to penetrate the water so as to sustain life. Though some eels, bluefish and jellyfish now ply the polluted waters, oysters are hardly on the menu. In 2007, a 12-foot minke whale calf infamously nicknamed "Sludgie" perished near the mouth of the canal after it failed to find its way back to open seas.

Like Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and other low-lying areas within the vicinity, the Gowanus is vulnerable to storm surges and the ravages of climate change. In the case of the Gowanus, however, residents are doubly concerned, owing to the threat of toxic overflow from the canal. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Gowanus flooded local residents' homes in oily sludge. As they clean up from the storm, many wonder how they will cope with future floods. Such concerns are well warranted given extensive future plans to develop the area and build new apartment complexes.

New Political Headquarters for Occupy

Is it time for Occupy to search for a new home? Ever since Mayor Bloomberg evicted protesters from their base in Zuccotti Park, the movement has lacked a fixed base. If they try to go back to Lower Manhattan, there is little doubt that activists will face the same level of political repression, if not more. Given these difficulties, perhaps establishing a headquarters in Brooklyn is not such a bad idea. If they head across the river, activists will be under less psychological pressure and could devote more time and consideration to the reformulation of their movement along environmental lines.

The Gowanus, with its recent history of ecological and oyster conservation, is probably just as good an area as any when it comes to launching a new base. Though Brooklyn is far from the corridors of power, the Gowanus is full of prime real estate and vacant buildings which could serve as a future political headquarters. If they venture into the neighborhood, activists will find a very diverse local crowd, including hipsters, artists, environmentalists and working class blacks and Latinos. The liberal enclave of Park Slope and the nation's largest food cooperative lay just a few blocks away.

All movements have their ebb and flow. In an earlier incarnation, Occupy raised awareness about the nation's corrupt economic elites and social injustice. With the more recent turn toward "Occupy Sandy," we seem to be entering a kind of intermediate phase, which could signal the turn toward something new. In the wake of the storm, activists have established some street credibility by assisting with everyday disaster relief. In the coming months, however, Occupy should hone its message in an effort to bring new people into the movement. Perhaps it's time to start connecting the dots between the earlier social justice work and climate change.

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Oakland General Strike: From Radical Past to Radical Present

As an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley in the late 1980s, I did not visit the nearby city of Oakland very frequently. For the most part, I was ensconced in my own student circles and, to the extent that I got involved in politics, it was the local campus activist scene which drew me in with its focus on Central America and U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the region. To be sure, Oakland had a radical tradition going back to the 1960s and the Black Panther movement, yet by the time I was in school that era was already a distant memory for many.

If there was any doubt about Oakland's radical stripes, however, then yesterday's general strike will certainly dispel any such notions. Galvanized by tumultuous developments over the past several weeks, in particular a nasty police crackdown on a local "Occupy" encampment, activists moved to effectively shut down the city by carrying out a general strike no less. Activists were particularly incensed by violent police tactics including use of tear gas and even grenades. During nighttime unrest, an Iraq war veteran was hit with a projectile and suffered a skull fracture.
Spurred on by the need to end police brutality, defend schools and libraries against local closures, and put an end to overall economic inequality, Occupy Oakland called for a day of action in which the circlation of capital would be blockaded, students would walk out of class, and various occupations would be staged around the city. Oakland is particularly important to commerce as the local port is the fifth largest in the country, and though union officials did not authorize a strike many longshoremen voiced support for Occupy's efforts.

The Unusual Weapon of the General Strike

As I explained in another piece, general strikes are practically unheard of in the United States. Indeed, the Oakland unrest marks the first general strike in the country in 65 years. One notable exception to this pattern of labor docility was the Seattle general strike of 1919, which in my estimation holds profound historic lessons for anti-capitalist protesters in Lower Manhattan. For the most part, however, U.S. labor has shied away from such confrontational tactics, and this has posed a great tactical dilemma for the left according to veteran organizers.

Over the past month or so, I have puzzled over the fact that most of the organizing and political activism has centered upon New York, which is a little unusual. On a purely personal note, I have always been struck by the contrasting political cultures on the east and west coasts. As a New Yorker observing the local scene in the late 1980s, I was taken aback by the greater militancy of protests in Berkeley and San Francisco. In contrast to the Big Apple, where people were isolated from one another and seemed obedient and deferential towards the authorities, Bay Area protesters were less willing to play ball.

It is now Oakland, however, which has come full circle, providing a crucial missing link in the Occupy movement within the Bay Area and indeed farther afield. Peer a little closer and it's not too surprising that the city should be in the radical vanguard. With its long and checkered political past, Oakland has been a path breaker in many ways including class struggle, women's rights and racial justice.

Local Oakland Boy Jack London

It was the celebrated writer Jack London (1876 - 1916) no less who inspired future generations. A local Oakland boy, London was a member of the Socialist Labor Party and to this day his presence can be vividly felt in the city. Currently, Jack London Square is one of Oakland's great landmarks and a symbol of the city's maritime history. Situated in front of a natural estuary leading to San Francisco Bay, the site lies at the heart of Oakland's port operations. As a boy, London spent much of his time on this very waterfront, later taking up an adventurous sea-faring life as an oyster pirate. And it is here in the square that local residents continue to honor London's heritage by observing the general strike.

Though he is most recognized for masculine adventure stories and such works as Call of the Wild and the Sea Wolf, London also penned political fiction like the Iron Heel, a futuristic, dystopian story about America in which corporate interests are on the ascendant. In the Iron Heel, London sought to consolidate his ideas concerning the working class and its struggle against the so-called shadowy "oligarchy." The central protagonist of the book, a socialist named Ernest Everhard, witnesses the fall of the American republic and goes into underground resistance. A highly influential work, The Iron Heel, exerted an impact upon George Orwell who went on to write two of the 20th century's other great political novels, 1984 and Animal Farm.

Through Everhard, London was able to project his own political predictions for the coming decades. In 1937, Trotsky wrote, "Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution." In the Iron Heel, London presciently anticipated the growing power of money in politics. Portraying capitalism as a "monstrous beast," London foresaw Reaganomics and the rise of the Republican far right.
In an echo of today's Occupy movement, London warned that the poor can only achieve a level playing field by uniting against the 1% who have inordinate access to the world's wealth and resources. Though the oligarchy kills strikers and citizens, Everhard endures as a kind of personification of the working class ideal. "Far be it from me to deny that Socialism is a menace," London once remarked. "It is its purpose to wipe out, root and branch, all capitalistic institutions of present-day society. It is distinctly revolutionary, and in scope and depth is vastly more tremendous than any revolution that has ever occurred in the history of the world."

Today, London's great-granddaughter Tarnel Abbott continues to walk in the radical footsteps of the notable American writer. During the recent Oakland police disturbances, she wrote "It is true that Jack London is my ancestor, he is my great grandfather, but more importantly, he is a working class hero and a visionary. I looked at the Jack London oak tree in front of City Hall and felt possessed by the spirit of the great man. I thought of him standing there on his soap box making socialist speeches and getting arrested because he didn't have a permit. I thought of him writing Revolution, The People of the Abyss and The Iron Heel. I felt that I was witnessing the Iron Heel of fascism being challenged. I knew that I too had to resist it."

London's Radical Heritage
If he had lived to see the day, London would surely have been proud of his great granddaughter as well as Oakland's militant and combative post-war labor movement. In 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, workers gathered in Oakland's streets to support the struggle of women department store employees. The move formed part of a larger national strike wave designed to ensure that demobilization did not serve to erode workers' rights. The epicenter of the Oakland strike, which quickly developed into a general strike, was none other than Latham Square at the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, which today serves as an organizing point for the Occupy movement.

Very soon, the strikers instructed all stores except pharmacies to shut down. A carnival-like atmosphere took root in the city with couples dancing in the streets, and Oakland was effectively shut down when 100,000 laborers joined the effort. What distinguished the Oakland general strike from other labor unrest was that it spread from the bottom up without much evidence of official union leadership in the streets. In this sense, the events of 1946 are reminiscent of today's Occupy movement, which is not being formally directed by the rank and file [indeed, since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act one year after the 1946 Oakland general strike, unions have been barred from participating in strikes "in support of other workers," though to be sure many local unions endorsed Occupy's actions within the local vicinity].

Though certainly impressive, the general strike unfortunately collapsed after just 54 hours, called off by a wary and conservative American Federation of Labor. In the end, the city promised to stop sending scab delivery trucks to businesses where workers had been on strike, but female retail clerks didn't get any of the concessions they had sought. Nevertheless, four labor candidates were elected to Oakland's city council in 1947 and the strike had important psychological and symbolic consequences. Put simply, labor demonstrated that workers were willing to take big risks and rebel against top down control, even going so far as to essentially take control over the city itself.

Oakland's 1960s Legacy

Though the 1946 strike was an important forerunner of the Occupy movement, it would be a mistake to view recent disturbances in the city within a strictly labor perspective. Judging from some recent online videos, Oakland's Occupy activists are fairly diverse in a racial sense, perhaps more so than the Occupy Wall Street crowd. In this sense, what is happening in California harks back to the previous activist wave of the 1960s.

Founded in Oakland in 1966, the Black Panther Party played an important role in furthering the growth of black liberation movements. Guided by Oakland's earlier socialist politics, the Panthers espoused revolutionary goals and called for a radical and, if necessary, violent transformation of society. The movement was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, who had met as students at Merritt College in 1962. Their friendship was solidified by a desire to tackle issues such as racism, police brutality, housing discrimination and inferior quality of education.

By the 1960s, Oakland had changed dramatically in a racial sense. Though numerically small in the early twentieth century, Oakland's black population had always displayed a tradition of radical political organizing. In the 1920s, for example, the city had one of the most active chapters of the UNIA or United Negro Improvement Association, an organization headed by the infamous Marcus Garvey. Later, Oakland served as the headquarters of the powerful Sleeping Car Porters Union. Though the city was overwhelmingly white in the early 20th century, World War II accelerated the pace of change by drawing in new workers to the shipyards and defense industries.

By the 1960s, the growing black population had grown incensed by the overwhelmingly white dominated city government and cases of police brutality, which all served to spur on the likes of Huey Newton. Though the Panthers were subjected to FBI harassment and imprisonment, eventually splintering in the early 1970s, the movement had an important impact on Oakland politics. Indeed, Seale himself went on to garner a full 37% of the vote in the city's mayoral election of 1973, and eventually African Americans succeeded in wresting the entire political machine from white Republicans, occupying all major elected positions in Oakland. Moreover, the Panthers inspired other marginalized groups such as Native Americans, Chicanos and Asian-Americans who in turn launched their own struggles for racial equality.

Political Impact of Wednesday's Strike

As of this evening eastern time, it's still a bit early to assess the practical impact of Oakland's general strike. Some reports suggest that activists have not succeeded in shutting down the entire city let alone Oakland's important port, though some businesses remain shuttered. It's unclear moreover how many city workers joined the strikers but local coverage indicates that many teachers have joined the effort as well as thousands of students from the University of California, Berkeley.

Whatever the case, yesterday's actions represent an important milestone for the Occupy movement. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I penned my latest article outlining how a general strike might unfold in Lower Manhattan, I wondered how many people might take my writing seriously. And while it's still probably a stretch to think that activists can shut down the Wall Street area, the protests now seem to be accelerating at an exponential rate. Already, solidarity marches with the Oakland general strike have been organized in Boston and Philadelphia, for instance.

It is perhaps fitting that it was Oakland, home to radical socialists such as Jack London as well as later black liberation figures like Huey Newton, which pushed the unique weapon of the general strike. Though it was New York which initially provided the spark for the Occupy movement, Oakland is now nationalizing this struggle and inspiring other cities to take more decisive action. Already, the familiar call of "Oakland is New York, New York is Oakland!" is gaining traction amongst the demonstrators, much to the chagrin of economic elites and the political establishment.

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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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