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'Occupy Wall Street' Fighting Bankster Greed and the Surveillance State

Over a week in, and despite mass arrests, the protesters are still camped out around the corner from Wall Street, and the Internet is watching.
 
 
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The crackdown on the Wall Street protesters this weekend seems to have backfired. The campsite-cum-experiment in radical democracy is still there, holding general assemblies just shouting distance from Goldman Sachs and the Wall Street bull. It even appears to be growing.

The complaints that the media has ignored the sustained protest seem to be resonating—the park has cameras aplenty today, and food trucks line one side of the plaza. (Local eateries have been taking out-of-town orders for protesters.) Tourists seem to be catching on that this is something, as they snap pictures of protest signs.

While even theoretically like-minded folks had been a bit dismissive of the Wall Street occupation before Saturday, the heavy-handed moves by police to control a small march have brought worldwide attention to Zuccotti Park, formerly Liberty Plaza. The Guardian has broken stories ahead of the New York media, outing the police officer caught on tape pepper-spraying penned-up protesters as the same officer named in a wrongful arrest lawsuit from 2004's Republican National Convention protests.

Techniques honed from the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, including penning up protesters with temporary fences or an orange mesh net, were deployed in 2004 and then exported to the UK in the past year, as student activists fighting their government's attempt to impose fee hikes on university attendees found out when they were trapped outside in so-called “kettles” for hours in the cold, unable to leave.

The orange mesh net came out on Saturday and the #OccupyWallSt Twitter hashtag was filled with warnings from those who had been there in 2004. “Anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the net, even if they were just out buying milk, is going to be arrested,” New York blogger and activist Phillip Anderson said.

The anger in 2004 stemmed from two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the GOP's politicization of the September 11 attacks, while the protests now are aimed squarely at Big Business and indeed at least some of the protesters would be happy if government would take action against the big banks. Camille Raneem, who has been at the occupation since the beginning, told me that she voted for Obama in 2008, but found herself getting involved in activism when the things she'd hoped to see didn't happen.

“I've been waiting for this for three years,” she said. And like many in 2004, she was angered by Guantanamo Bay, and the crackdowns on civil liberties of the Bush administration—things she sees continuing under Obama, and proved this week when many of the Wall Street protesters were arrested.

Many of the overzealous police moves in the past have been around political rallies or events where there were diplomats, politicians, world leaders involved that police could perhaps be justified in claiming a need to protect. Who was being protected in Union Square from girls behind an orange mesh net?

But though the police overreaction caught everyone's attention, crackdowns on political protests are nothing new—anyone who remembers Chicago in 1968 could tell you that. What's new now is the way information is both being spread, lightning-quick on Twitter and Facebook, videos uploaded instantly from smartphones to YouTube to go viral, and the way that same information is being suppressed, or used against people.

From Hacktivism to the Streets

Imagine Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham, Alabama Commissioner of Public Safety, who authorized the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protesters, in the age of YouTube and Google. Imagine videos of peaceful activists zapped around the world at the touch of a button, uploaded in seconds from a smartphone in Martin Luther King Jr.'s pocket.

That's what protesters in New York and around the country are counting on as they risk arrest.

The protests were organized on the Internet; they weren't taken seriously by many. The crowds at Zuccotti Park were shrugged off as dirty hippies, angry kids, incoherent. So were Anonymous and Lulzsec, two of the most prominent hacker “collectives,” until they showed that they could take down Visa and Mastercard.

The gradual politicization of Anonymous and the other hacktivism groups has seemed incoherent at times, but they've always stood for a loose sort of Internet freedom, jumping to the defense of WikiLeaks against both government and corporate attacks. In June, LulzSec and Anonymousdeclared Operation Anti-Security, making explicit the link between government power and big banks:

“Top priority is to steal and leak any classified government information, including email spools and documentation. Prime targets are banks and other high-ranking establishments.”

What they are opposed to is power and control. Which is why it makes perfect sense that hacktivists from Anonymous are supposedly down in Zuccotti Park, the Guy Fawkes masks they cribbed from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as a badge of identity (and occasionally an excuse to arrest them). They are fighting the power out from behind a computer, putting their bodies on the line.

The Internet, after all, was a military invention, paid for with government dollars. It took the form we know it by now because the people creating it couldn't stop using it to talk to one another. Like the surveillance state itself, the 'net moved from the military to corporations, a center for profit. Yet despite the intentions of the tech companies who may or may not be intentionally obstructing the attempts of the Occupy Wall Street movement to get the word out (accusations of censoring emails have been raised against Yahoo and many have complained that Twitter is preventing #occupywallstreet from becoming a trending topic despite the frequency of tweets using the hashtag), the Internet still works best as a way for people to talk to one another, and it has been these protesters' ally, allowing them to get their message heard.

And after the ability of Hosni Mubarak's regime to effectively shut down the Internet during Egypt's revolution, a group of scholars and activists have been working on creating alternative networks to use in case of a similar government or corporate crackdown:

“At the heart of the movement is the idea that seemingly mundane technical specifications of Internet routers and social-networking software platforms have powerful political implications. In virtual realms, programmers essentially set the laws of physics, or at least the rules of interaction, for their cyberspaces. If it sometimes seems that media pundits treat Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Apple's Steve Jobs as gods, that's because in a sense they are—sitting on Mount Olympus with the power to hurl digital thunderbolts with a worldwide impact on people.

Instead of just complaining, many of those heading to New York next month believe they can build alternatives that reduce the power of those virtual deities and give more control to mere mortals.”

Marisa Holmes, a filmmaker who has been part of the media team at the occupation and who was one of those arrested Saturday the 24th, told me, “We know we're going to get shut down eventually. We're preparing for a long-term occupation, that includes not only physical space but digital space. Occupy the media.”

Their systems are not ultra-sophisticated but they are impressive for a week's worth, for something that was planned very loosely on the Internet. They have a power source and wireless Internet access in the square, a media team huddled around laptops all day long making sure the word gets out, keeping in touch with supporters around the world. They're making long-term plans, testing ideas, building community.

“It's a space where a community can form,” Holmes, who recently returned from a trip to Egypt, where she was documenting the rebuilding after the revolution, said. “Tahrir Square was a space for organizing, for building a community of resistance. Even though the targets are different, the message is different, we're creating a similar space. We're all affected by neoliberal economics, the stratification of wealth.”

They understand that this is a fight for information. As Matt Taibbi pointed out at Rolling Stone, “[D]emonstrations could be very important just in terms of educating people about the fact that there is, in fact, a well-defined conflict out there with two sides to it.”

Arrests and Backlash

Marisa Holmes was arrested by an officer she identified as Anthony Bologna, the same officer accused of pepper-spraying the girls in the video, and of false arrest in 2004. The charges against Holmes are disorderly conduct and, interestingly, obstructing government property.

She was filming Robert Stephens, another protester who stopped along Saturday's march path to tell the story of his family's foreclosure by Chase bank. “Officer Bologna pulled me aside and said 'This is a public sidewalk, do you want to be arrested?'” she recounted. She argued that she had a right to film on a public sidewalk, but was cuffed and taken to the First Precinct, where she was put in a cell with three other women. After hours of asking for food and water, she says, they were given a bag of potato chips to share before being transferred to Central Booking and held overnight.

She was back at the plaza on Tuesday, seated at her computer, determined not to leave.

The occupations might be small, but London's student movement started with occupations at universities, where students held teach-ins and experimented with direct democracy the way most students experiment with sex and drugs at school. They led to massive rallies in the streets, to students dancing in the freezing cold as they were kettled by police and left penned up for hours.

Hacktivists have been connected to the public demonstrations across Europe and in Egypt, and they share with street protesters a willingness to risk arrest. And reports released of the arrests of supposed members of LulzSec and Anonymous note that many of them have working class jobs—retail workers, a gardener; one of them is homeless.

It shouldn't be shocking, with unemployment in the double digits for young people, that smart kids with unchallenging jobs are finding ways to strike back at those they see as holding them down. Signs at the Wall Street occupation make it clear that the protesters have made the connection—one read “College Degree = Unemployment.”

The protesters have been criticized for not having concrete goals or a coherent message. Their movement does have many targets, one of which is the surveillance state itself, the apparatus of security developed and honed since 9/11 (“Operation Anti-Security” indeed) and tested first and harshest against American Muslims.

Aziz Huq at the Nation reported:

To begin, the NYPD has a record of trying to provide security for New Yorkers by infringing on the rights of racial minorities. In 2010, the NYPD reported a record 601,055 stops-and-frisks, 85 percent of which targeted minority residents. But empirical studies of stop-and-frisk suggest the practice did little to push down crime rates faster than in other cities. The harassing of minorities pioneered in New York coheres with a conservative rhetoric of “tough on crime”; it reinforces the notion of a law-abiding “us” and a disruptive “them.” It buys not only a perception of security but also a moral self-righteousness based on the belief that crime is a problem caused by someone else.

Moreover, the NYPD has a history of targeting those with ideological differences—and recently obtained permission to loosen safeguards around surveillance. In 1971, left-of-center activists led by Barbra Handschu lodged a complaint against the NYPD alleging wiretapping, eavesdropping and infiltration of political gatherings. The resulting settlement decree—the Handschu degree—forced the NYPD to install new guidelines limiting the monitoring and retention of information about political activities in their Patrolman’s Handbook. But in 2002, spooked by the shadow of 9/11, a federal district court judge allowed its substantial modification. Rather than focusing on alleged terrorists, the NYPD quickly returned to old habits of targeting political activists around the 2004 Republican National Convention.

At least some of the protesters are well aware of the history of the tactics used so recently on their group. Camille Raneem noted, “There's a huge connection between creating a bogeyman and also breaking a group of people, and maintaining economic control over a system as a whole.”

She continued, “It's a network of fearmongering and deception and the people that benefit are the one percent. They have created a system of control that goes straight into an individual psyche.”

The group down in the square at Liberty and Broadway call themselves the Other 99 percent—one protester held up a sign that said “Cops are Also 99%. Join Us.” That's their message to the country and the world—most of us are not being helped by the system as it is.

As Matt Taibbi pointed out:

“I would imagine the end game of any movement against Wall Street corruption is going to involve some very elaborate organization. There are going to have to be consumer and investor boycotts, shareholder revolts, criminal prosecutions, new laws passed, and other moves. But a good first step is making people aware of the battle lines. It sounds like these demonstrations have that potential.”

The continuing protests are a question to us all. Which side are you on?

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.