Role of the students
The demonstrations began in lower Manhattan twenty days ago. The majority of the protesters were students. This is a natural development. Although the students cannot play an independent role in the class struggle, they are always a sensitive barometer that reflects the tensions and contradictions that are silently accumulating in the depths of society. Historically, the students always tend to move first. They can anticipate a movement of the masses.
What is significant is the class content of the slogans shouted by the protesters. This is a movement of the poor against the rich, of the exploited against the exploiters. Ordinary Americans who have had to bear the brunt of the crisis have seen their living standards decimated while the bankers who have helped themselves to billions of dollars of public money award themselves lavish bonuses.
Filmmaker Michael Moore attacked the fat cat bankers in plush offices far above the street. “They are responsible for ruining the lives of millions of people,” he said. “They weren't just satisfied with being filthy rich.”
All layers of the working class have seen their living standards eroded, including those who long considered themselves “middle class.”
“I feel the middle class has been under attack for some time now. I always wondered when this was going to happen,” said Jimmy Shea, 45, a union carpenter at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. “The students set it off with Occupy Wall Street and the unions came around because the unions are finding the same problems as the kids,” he added.
The mood of many was summed up by Alex Ponton, a 67-year-old retired salesman who had never been to a protest before: “I want the wealthy to pay their fair share. If, in some small way, I can show up and yell and support and march, I'll do whatever I can do to help Main Street.”
Role of the unions
The media at first attempted to portray the demonstrators as a bunch of hippies and eccentrics, highlighting the presence of people dressed as clowns and zombies. But this cynical propaganda was immediately cut across when thousands of workers and union members joined protesters marching through the financial district of New York.
At first the unions mostly watched from the sidelines as the Occupy Wall Street protests grew from a motley band of activists camping in a park into a movement that was growing in strength and spreading across the country.
Members of the city's biggest unions marched in solidarity with the students who began camping out three weeks ago to protest the excesses of the richest 1%. “We are the 99%. So are you!” protesters chanted as they marched to Foley Square, just north of City Hall. “It's an epic march,” said John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, who urged his 35,000 bus and subway workers to march.
Among these is the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the Empire State's largest union, representing 600,000 teachers. In an interview on Tuesday, spokesman Carl Korn publicly offered NYSUT's support for Occupy Wall Street and its message about shrinking income inequality, investing in public education, and making the rich pay. “Teachers and public employees represent the other 99 percent; they are not in the 1 percent,” Korn said, echoing the theme of the occupation.
The participation of organised Labour in this protest represents a most important development and a turning point. The unions have put new energy into the campaign, adding organising coherence and greater numbers to the demonstrations. The union intervention has served to clarify and sharpen the much more amorphous and confused message of the early protests, concentrating it more on the economic issues. One demonstrator was quoted as saying that he welcomed the participation of the unions because it gave the protest more substance, “so it doesn't appear to be a clown show.”
It was now impossible for the media to present the protests as a circus. It was obvious that many were just ordinary Americans who are fed up of the oppressive rule of big business and the political Republican-Democrat establishment that defends it, ignoring the plight of millions of working, poor, and middle class families.
The march was entirely peaceful, with an almost festive mood. But when night fell the mood changed, as some of the younger demonstrators tried to pass beyond the barricades blocking them from Wall Street and the stock exchange. At this point the police turned violent, revealing the real repressive face of the state in the service of big business.
After a round of speeches, the marchers headed back to Zuccotti Park. Then, according to witnesses, about 200 people tried to push through barricades and police penned them in with orange netting. Dozens of people were arrested, manhandled and blinded with pepper spray.
A video posted on the Occupy Wall Street Twitter account last night showed police swinging at a protestor with a night stick. In just a few hours, the demonstrators, many of whom were probably naive and inexperienced, have received a valuable lesson as to the true meaning of “democracy” and the right to peaceful protest.
The protests spread
The protests are not confined to New York. An explosive mood of frustration is spreading like wildfire around the country. In Boston an occupation in solidarity with New York has begun. An eyewitness writes of a mass meeting held last Friday:
“The general message was one of anger against the current system with money in politics, the fact that most people have been ignored by the current political process and that social/economic inequality has not been addressed. There is also a lot of anger at the banks, bailouts, and the financial system as well.” (Impressions from Occupy Boston)
The signs carried by the occupiers range from “We are the 99 percent” to “Capitalism is Criminal.” There are salutes from passersby at times. The most consistent to honk their horns in support are truckers and taxi drivers.
Messages of support have come as far away as London and Egypt. A very interesting detail is the attitude of the Boston police: “Some police officers have offered salutes to the protesters and more than a few have helped to carry supplies when they arrive.”
There is a questioning of the capitalist system that was not present before. This is also an important change. The eyewitness from Boston mentions the kind of questions that are being debated by the people:
“Here are some of the questions that have been raised? What is wrong? How did we get here? Why does this culture spawn corruption? Who created wealth? Why isn’t that wealth shared equally? Why are students going to school in order to gain useless degrees and debts that they can’t pay? Do we all have the right to the necessities of life? And if we do, what will it take to get those necessities? Can the system be reformed? If not, what will it take to make some fundamental change? Is capitalism the best of all possible worlds? Is communism?”
Marx explained that for the masses, one real step forward of the movement is worth a hundred correct Labours. The Boston comrade continues:
“However, when mass movements boil over they draw people together. The seemingly isolated atoms of society become drawn together and speak. A remarkable chorus of different voices playing different melodies are fusing and intermingling in a new symphony. Suddenly, you are no longer alone. You can speak freely and others will listen. You can air your concerns. New views can break through the muck of ages and crystallise latent connections in the mind. Through discussions, marches and expressions you can gain the type of education that it may take a lifetime to gain.
“To give an example, some comrades and I went off to a corner to discuss what we thought the demands of the movement should be. There were only five of us to begin with. Yet those walking by listened to our discussions and just came over. They started to air grievances, state demands, and articulate their values. The atmosphere was free. Everyone listened with respect and open ears. Since this was a festival, each voice may at times be echoed by another voice. At times a voice may find someone disagreeing.”
This shows that there is a ferment of ideas and debate out of which clear socialist and revolutionary ideas will gradually emerge.
Democrats and Republicans scared
The political establishment can no longer ignore the movement. This is not like the notorious Tea Party movement, the distilled essence of reactionary middle class hysteria that has been nurtured by the Republicans for their own cynical purposes.
It is self-evident that the Occupy Wall Street movement supports neither Democrats nor Republicans but is a protest directed against both. The victory of Obama was an expression of widespread disgust against the discredited Bush administration and all its works. Millions of ordinary Americans believed that they were voting for change. But there has been no change, only more of the same. The packaging is different, but what is inside is just the same. It has taken a little time for this fact to register in the popular consciousness. But now the truth has dawned on millions of workers, poor and middle class people: these parties and leaders do not represent us; they only represent the interests of the rich and powerful!
Some Democrats are trying to get in on the act, sensing that there may be votes to be won here. Thus, Louise Slaughter of upstate New York stated: “For 30 years, America’s middle class has watched its living standards erode while the wealthiest 1% amass fortunes that would make the robber barons blush.”
But this is a genuine grassroots movement that is far to the left of the Democrats. Indeed, many of the latter are probably more scared of it than are the Republicans. Democratic Caucus chairman John Larson of Connecticut has said: “The silent masses aren't so silent anymore.”
That was well said. But Mr. Larson overlooks the small detail that the people protesting on the streets are expressing their discontent not only with the Republicans but with the Democrats and the politicians in Washington in general And a man who rides on the back of a tiger will find it very difficult when he tries to dismount.
As for the Republicans, they naturally hate this movement, which is the antithesis of the big business interests they even more openly espouse. Herman Cain, the Republican primary front runner and Pizza mogul, attempted to smear the movement as tools of Obama. “If you don't have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself!” said the fat cat owner of the appropriately named Godfather Pizza business.
Another would-be Republican president, Newt Gingrich, was a bit smarter, describing the demonstrations as a reaction to Obama's policies – the bank bailouts in particular. Smarter but completely dishonest, since it was Republican George W. Bush who initiated the policy of massive bank bailouts, saddling America with its present vast and unsustainable public debts.
A Labor Party is needed!
Even some of the people in the skyscrapers on Wall Street against whom the anger of the demonstrators was directed expressed a degree of comprehension, and even a sneaking sympathy for the protests. A journalist from the British Channel Four News asked a man in a smart suit whether he was surprised at the protest, to which he replied: “I am surprised that there have not been protests in every American city long before this.”
There are the elements here of a broad coalition that brings together all the exploited, dispossessed and oppressed layers of society. And the natural leader of this coalition is, and must be, the organised working class.
At least 39 unions and community organisations joined Wednesday's march in New York, including groups like MoveOn.org and the Coalition of the Homeless. But by far and away the most powerful were the unions: the United Federation of Teachers, the Communication Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, the United Healthcare Workers, the Public Employees Union DC37, and many others.
This represents potentially a powerful force for change. But it must be organised and mobilised. A number of other key unions have officially endorsed the Occupy Wall Street protests, including the AFL-CIO federation, SEIU, and the Teamsters. This is an important starting point. But it is not enough.
The time has come for US Labour to sever all links with the Democrat Party, which is only the left boot of big business. The time has come to set up an independent Labor Party based on the unions, which will attract to its banner all the living forces of American society. The Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor (CMPL) points the way forward and is working to raise this idea in the unions. No effort must be spared to spread the campaign and raise this idea in every town and city, in every factory, workplace, school, and union local.
What we are seeing on the streets of New York is the beginnings of a sea-change in American society and politics. What is required is a party that can organise, unite and galvanise the feelings and aspirations of the masses and provide them with a vehicle that can put an end to the present intolerable state of affairs and reconstitute society from the bottom up.
It may be objected that the demonstrators in New York had no clear programme for changing society. That may be true. But from where do you suppose they can get such a programme? The masses, whether in the USA or any other country, do not learn from books but only from experience. And who can doubt that the people of America are learning, and learning fast?
Maybe the people who demonstrated yesterday did not know exactly what they wanted. But they know very well what they do not want, and that is a very important fact. We are witnessing a major turn in the situation on a world scale. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Madrid to Athens, in one country after another, the masses are entering the scene of history.
It is not a case of this or that country. What we are seeing is a global crisis of capitalism, which as night follows day, must express itself as a worldwide movement in the direction of revolution. The causes of these movements are very similar, if not identical.
It is the same spirit that moves the masses, the same feeling of burning indignation, the same sensation that what we have now is intolerable, does not deserve to exist, must be overthrown and will be overthrown.
The comrade from Boston asks: “Are we that spark which will light a fire? Have we already?”A middle-aged and obviously middle-class woman in New York yesterday told a BBC reporter: “We need another American Revolution”. That is the way that consciousness is developing. It is the voice of the future. Everything else is only the past.