It’s lunchtime for the occupiers of Wall Street.
The activists who have been camping out in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan since Sept. 17 to protest the power, wealth, and indifference of America’s major financial institutions need no help organizing their meals. Enormous submarine sandwiches and dozens of pizza boxes line the makeshift outdoor cafeteria they’ve built, and things move with impressive efficiency, the line never growing long and none left hungry.
Right now, they’re focused on sustaining the demonstrations, not building an agenda or articulating support for any particular policies.
“We don’t have official spokespeople. There’s no leaders of this group, no organization with an umbrella over this thing,” said Justin Wedes, an organizer with the New York City General Assembly and U.S. Uncut. “The groups that have been driving the organizing, New York City General Assembly, U.S. Day of Rage, U.S. Uncut. They’re grassroots people without the influence of major unions or NGOs. As more people join, we try to remind them that this is a collection of individuals. You leave your institutional baggage at the door.”
But it might be hard to leave that institutional baggage — and financial support — at the door, as thousands of union members and establishment progressives from New York’s Working Families Party are poised to join the protesters in a solidarity march on Wednesday and more traditional liberal groups hash out their strategies on how to respond to what enthusiastic boosters have dubbed an “American Spring.”
“The Wall Street demonstrations, whatever criticisms people may levy against the style, certainly speak to issues that our members feel,” said Maida Rosenstein, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 in New York. She anticipated the national arm of her union, and also the SEIU 1199, the most powerful local in the Northeast, formally jumping on board this week.
Faced with increasing attention from the media — and scrutiny from the established left — the protest organizers have said they will roll out a set of demands in the coming days. But for the time being, they seem to prefer to keep things vague.
“One of the biggest attacks against what we’re building here is: ‘OK you’ve made your point, go home,'” Wedes said. “But we’re not done, we’re just getting started.”
The organizers come from outside the traditional political channels — the two most prominent early sources of support for the protest were the Canadian magazine Adbusters and the hacker community Anonymous. And the local activists that have organized the crucial first nights of camping hail mainly from community groups that formed to protest New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget cuts; many camped out in “Bloombergville” earlier this year.
By holding back from specific policies, the protesters are driving home the point that harnessing popular frustration with big banks and Wall Street into a sense of action is a bigger priority than details of what progressive change on Wall Street would look like.
Despite the ad hoc aesthetic at the camp itself, there’s a sense among progressive activists and policy wonks that there needs to be more of an agenda to turn the cultural spark into political momentum.
“Wall Street’s irresponsible actions wrecked our economy, and the anger felt across America is now making itself visible,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Congress should pass a spree of Wall Street accountability legislation — including a resolution expressing congressional support if the Justice Department sees fit to throw Wall Street bankers in jail. Congress should also pass a Wall Street speculation fee — which would raise billions — instead of even thinking about cutting Medicare, Medicare, or Social Security benefits.”
The emergence of the protests — which have spread to cities across America — coincides with many state Attorneys General balking at a proposed settlement that would ask a lump sum of $20 billion or so from the nation’s biggest banks, in exchange for freeing them from future liability for the mortgage crisis and illegal foreclosures.
“It’s the last way to really affect things,” Mike Konczal, a research fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, said of the settlement. “It’s not a cosmetic thing. It goes to the core of what went wrong. And what continues to go wrong in damaging peoples’ lives.” (Konzcal also has laid out a three-point list of demands for the protesters to adopt.)
Activists promise to continue into the winter, and their energy, though it wanes at the start of each work week, seems to increase each weekend.
“This is a growing thing,” said Wedes, a recent college graduate who has emerged as one of the de facto leaders of the organizers, despite the unanimous distaste for hierarchy among the participants. “There’s a dialogue happening across the country about the effects and symptoms of Wall Street greed and corporate dominance over this political and social spectrum.”
Which basically means the next few weeks are crucial.
“Right now, this Wall Street venture is somewhere between a moment and a movement,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia who was president of Students for a Democratic Society at the beginning of the 1960s protest explosion. “Frankly, I’m amazed it took this long for there to be any protest, however hazy or diffuse, directed at Wall Street, given what the country has been through the last few years.”
Copyright 2011 The National Memo