Occupy Sets Wall Street Tie-Up as Protesters Face Burnout

Occupy Wall Street, the global movement against inequality that ignited in Manhattan last year, will mark its first anniversary by trying to block traffic in the financial district and encircle the New York Stock Exchange.

Planning for the Sept. 17 protest, dubbed S17, follows months of internal debate and flagging interest, according to interviews with organizers. The morning action may include attempts to make citizens’ arrests of bankers, and some activists intend to bring handcuffs, they said.

“We are here to bring you to justice,” said Sean McKeown, a 32-year-old chemist and New York University graduate who’s helping organize the demonstration. “We’re offering you the chance to repent for your sins.”

Protests against income disparity, bank greed and corporate abuse sprouted from San Francisco to Hong Kong after demonstrators established an encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park last September. Police ousted them in November, and governments around the world used concussion grenades, gas, riot gear, pepper spray and arrests to disband camps and protests.

Organizers said there has been more fatigue than fresh thinking this year. Occupy’s New York City General Assembly, which oversaw planning by consensus, ceased functioning in April because of infighting, ineffectiveness and low turnout, according to organizers and minutes of meetings. The group’s funds were frozen to preserve money for bail, ending most cash distributions, they said.

“Movements calcify, and it’s difficult to maintain the vigor and camaraderie,” said Travis Mushett, 26, a novelist who helped organize an Occupy reading group. He was one of six who used the word “burnout” to describe the recent mood.

Laundering, Losses

The cascade of banking scandals since May 1, the last time Occupy organized major protests, reads like a roll call of corporate greed and dishonesty. Regulators found that Barclays Plc (BARC) systematically attempted to rig global interest rates; Standard Chartered Plc (STAN) faces federal inquiries over claims it funneled Iranian money through the U.S.; Senate investigators said HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) helped drug lords launder funds; and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) lost at least $5.8 billion on trades.

“It really hasn’t sparked the same outrage,” said Akshat Tewary, an employment attorney who co-wrote a 325-page comment letter in February on bank regulation with the group Occupy the SEC. “It’s harder to maintain that kind of momentum.”

Adbusters, the Vancouver-based magazine that put out the call for last September’s Wall Street occupation, wrote in a June post on its Occupy website of “ossification that could be fatal to our young spiritual insurrection unless we leap over it right now.”

‘Cause Chaos’

S17 organizers said at meetings in New York this month that they’re planning for teams of protesters to avoid police on Sept. 17 by circulating around intersections, holding spaces long enough to give out food or offer free medical care.

“We are just going to cause chaos, period,” said Drew Hornbein, 25, who helped develop the website for Occupy’s New York General Assembly. “Have you ever been in poverty in this country? Talk about inconvenience. I don’t have any sympathy for anyone who has any semblance of middle-class life in this country — no sympathy.”

Whether protesters should feel otherwise and reach out to Americans who want to improve the system rather than overturn capitalism is a core question facing Occupy as its first birthday approaches, said Paul Getsos, a former lecturer on community organizing at the Columbia University School of Social Work who has been involved in the protests since Zuccotti Park.

“Does the movement want to engage the 99 percent in a deep and meaningful way?” asked Getsos. “Or does it want to engage the most radical and most committed?”

Venomous Forums

Attendees at general assemblies had long and circuitous talks about allocating money, not about “what they wanted in the world, or how they were going to change it,” said Nicole Carty, 24, a Brown University graduate who helped run meetings.

Hornbein said that online forums became venomous as “systems broke down.” A separate oversight body, the Spokes Council, also dissolved, he and other participants said.

That means there’s no nucleus to a movement that had already rejected leaders, a central website, unified fundraising drives, administrative headquarters or a national advertising initiative. A working group that tried to come up with a list of essential demands wasn’t able to, organizers said.

Anarchist Core

Some don’t mind, pointing to campaigns this year to promote local farming or against student debt and weak financial regulations as models for decentralized activism. In this year’s “Occupy Handbook,” David Graeber, an anthropologist who teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London and was an early Occupy organizer, writes that demands shouldn’t be articulated because the systems they would be addressed to are irredeemable.

Anarchists are at the heart of Occupy, organizers said.

“In a way, the fringe is the core,” said Mushett, the novelist. “That’s where you find a huge anarchist presence.”

The movement has avoided electoral politics even as big banks pour money into Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Employees of financial firms account for eight of Romney’s top 10 sources of campaign cash, according to Federal Election Commission data. Occupy was built to topple the system, not reform it, said Marisa Holmes, 26, who has helped organize protests since the second meeting.

Dark Knight

“If they’re promoting ideals that don’t ring sensible to large numbers of people, what they want doesn’t go anywhere,” said Todd Gitlin, 69, a former president of 1960s protest organization Students for a Democratic Society and now chairman of Columbia University’s interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in communications. “It doesn’t become a social reality. It becomes the expression of a subculture.”

The combination of anarchist initiative and widespread revulsion to Wall Street that sparked the movement last year is no longer enough to drive it, according to Gitlin, whose book “Occupy Nation” was published this month. The movement needs to be “more identifiable, more available to people outside the inner circles,” he said.

Protesters have discussed the possibility of alienating New Yorkers with their anniversary demonstration, McKeown, the organizer, said. The Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” the second-highest-grossing movie of 2012 in the U.S., features a villain who takes over a stock exchange and instigates an uprising against the rich and powerful.

“We decided it’s not going to be that big of a concern,” McKeown said about the movie parallels. “We are a nonviolent civil-disobedience movement. That was homicidal maniacs.”

Bringing Handcuffs

Occupy organizers met with representatives from unions and community groups for more than two hours on Aug. 16 to muster support for the anniversary protest. Sitting around desks pushed into a makeshift conference table at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, attendees asked about tactics, timing and a longer- term vision. Amy Muldoon, a Verizon Communications Inc. field technician and a Communication Workers of America liaison to Occupy, was ambivalent about union attendance.

“I don’t think they’ll try to turn people out during the day on a Monday,” she said.

While some protesters oppose the idea of making citizens’ arrests because they don’t want to validate the U.S. prison system, two S17 organizers said other activists plan to bring handcuffs. They described the morning protest as a more ambitious and better-plotted version of a November attempt to disrupt the stock exchange, when the New York City Police Department arrested 252 people.

The plan to block the financial district will follow anniversary celebrations planned for the weekend in New York, including a concert, open classes and town-square gatherings.

“This isn’t over,” said Dana Balicki, a member of Occupy’s press team. “This isn’t over until the last person calls it quits and goes home, wherever home is.”

By Max Abelson

Courtesy of Bloomberg News

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