Moving the Planet & Occupying Wall Street, The Surreal Look Of Democracy in NYC


All photos, unless noted otherwise: Mat McDermott

If this past Saturday in New York City is what democracy looks like, as activists in both 350.org's Moving Planet rally and taking part in the 10-day old Occupy Wall Street event say, then it looks slightly surreal indeed. Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, running from 1st to 2nd Avenue along 47th street in Manhattan, is just at the north end of the United Nations complex, across the street. A tree-lined, brick-paved space, for much of the year it quietly provides respite for passersby. Rarely is it particularly crowded. But with the UN General Assembly taking place the previous week, the story is different.


Tibetans greeting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's arrival, earlier in the week. A similar number of people remained on Saturday. Photo: Students for a Free Tibet/CC BY
Tibetans, Bangladeshis, Climate Activists, Fenced Apart
At the 1st Avenue side, taking up roughly one quarter of the length of the plaza and ringed in by a maze of metal police security fences, were Tibetans denouncing the Chinese occupation of their land and deportations of Tibetan nomads. On either side of them were two different, apparently opposing, groups of Bangladeshis, shouting slogans for political candidates and at times at one another.

At the 2nd Avenue side, taking up the balance of the space, as defined by the same police fencing maze, was the end point of several Moving Planet marches. Leaving from multiple points in the city earlier in the day, by 2pm, they began converging here.

Trickling in were faith-based groups, anti-fracking activists, Time's Up! (bringing with them the dance party, on foot and bicycle), student groups from various colleges, the NYPIRG contingent, a colorful group of indigenous activists burning sage. Somewhere along the way Colin Beavan, Dr James Hansen, and the Vice President of the Maldives Dr Mohammed Waheed arrived and took their positions in another separate fenced in area, a sort of open-air green room, complete with volunteer security guard.

The official press release for the event, handed to me towards the start of the rally, before everyone had arrived and written in the past tense, said 1000 people attended.

Perhaps that's accurate if you included the flow of people coming and going, but at any given time less than half of the space allotted to the event was actually filled. Maybe 500 people were there. Keep in mind though, that's roughly the same amount as in the past events; and that these events are a global thing, with participation in nearly every nation. It's a huge accomplishment overall and should be applauded.

Welcoming everyone was, for the first groups, an impromptu yoga class, and, for the later-arriving ones, music--all of it punctuated by the chants of Tibetans and Bangladeshis. Moving Planet had a bigger PA system so there was never really a question of whose message would be louder.

But the political messages coming from groups from two Asian nations on the forefront of climate change impacts mixed in with speeches from climate activists was poignant. All the groups seemingly unconcerned with one another--and even if they were, then security fencing made it inconvenient if certainly not impossible to unite in common cause.


On the Moving Planet side of things, the speakers certainly made a compelling case, if now familiar for many TreeHugger readers.

Dr James Hansen gave a much abbreviated version of the same presentation he made at the New School the previous day. Hansen urged all present to "get Tea Party mad...tempered by rationality" about "old geezers living high off the hog" while polluting the planet and endangering future generations. He went on to pillory politicians and financiers pushing cap-and-trade, and put forward the advantages of a fee-and-dividend system of carbon pricing. When he talked derisively about carbon offsets, included within cap-and-trade system, a loud cheer went up in the crowd.

I won't recount all that was said, from the names you could guess: Vice President of the Maldives (we're low-lying, doing a lot to go carbon neutral, why aren't rich nations doing more--which is true), the anti-fracking people (fracking is bad--which is true), Colin Beavan (rah rah rah), musicians (we play music, woo hoo).

That's not to belittle anything that was said by any means. By and large I agreed with every talking point presented--the indigenous group was particularly compelling. But in the middle of it all I got an email about arrests downtown at the Occupy Wall Street event. It said tear gas had been fired, which turned out not to be true, but it sure got my attention.

Step Out Of The Boundaries & This Is What Happens
The videos below tell that story:




Slow motion analysis of the pepper spraying from USLaw.com

All told roughly 100 people were arrested (no one seems to be able to provide a definitive answer). There was at least one incident of entirely inexplicable brutal use of pepper spray on some vocal but fully unarmed protestors, who had been penned into a corner with plastic netting.

Incidentally, the woman screaming most loudly in the video above, on her knees in the center of the frame, after being sprayed told Democracy Now! that she was blinded for at least 45 minutes, and that it would take a lot more than that to deter her from protesting.

Environmental Justice & Social Justice Can't Be Separated
After receiving that email all I could think about was the contrast between the events, which really have the similar sets of complaints at their center.

Protestor Ryan Reed told the BBC:

What I see, and what I feel most people in this country see, is an economy and a system that's collapsing. The enemy is the big business leaders of Wall Street, the big oil company leaders, the coal company leaders, the big military industrial leaders.

An official statement from Occupy Wall Street lays it out more bluntly:

Our nation, our species and our world are in crisis. The US has an important role to play in the solution, but we can no longer afford to let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies [for] our nation.

Comments in The Guardian's account of the arrests, flesh out the motivations of the protestors with a bit more nuance than much of the mainstream media has done.

NatalieNY says:

I am disappointed to find you referring to this protest as anti-capitalist which has a negative and alienating connotation, and which is a dangerously false label. This is about our broken system and taking our government back to a place of being about and for the people, not corporate interests.

kismeqwik notes:
The Occupy Wall Street protest isn't anti-capitalist - It's anti-unregulated capitalism. We want the system we had before Reagan began tearing it down: a return to sane economics, when Main Street mattered more than Wall Street and financial criminals were the exception, not the rule(rs).

You Can't Just Work Within The System's Constraints To Change It
How to do it? How to make protest effective? How to build a sustainable economy?

I don't have a hard answer on that--the work done here at TreeHugger and the green movement in general is just one small piece of that picture--but in contrasting what happened in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and in the streets of lower Manhattan, on a strategic level of getting message heard if not one of message itself, the video below from Naomi Wolf is informative.

Watch the whole thing, it's worth it, but the short version: The type of protest that "always works" (historically speaking), Wolf says, is the type that is illegal in the US. That is, marching without a permit, taking to the street without official sanction.

If nothing else, the videos from Saturday show what happens if you try to do that sort of protest.

Let's see what happens on the west coast. Occupy Los Angeles kicks off today.

More on Activism
Nation's Top Climate Scientist, 140 Others Arrested at White House
Why Civil Disobedience is Key to the Climate Movement

Tags: Activism | Global Climate Change | New York City | Occupy Wall Street

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