Occupy Wall Street

The Other Occupation: How Subprime Crooks Occupied America And Prepared the Way for Occupy Wall Street

Before anyone decided to Occupy Wall Street, another occupation was already underway.

Photo Credit: Nick Turse

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Twelve hours after Mayor Bloomberg’s cops evicted the Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park, the space had been scrubbed down and repopulated with police and private-security types, up to 150 of them. In essence, since September there had been two occupations in the Wall Street area and the second of them, the massive one the police were running, had now quite literally replaced the first. Odder yet, by mid-afternoon the police, barricaded in the park, were ringed by the returning protesters, awaiting a judge’s decision on whether they could again set up camp. It was as if in a single night the situation had somehow been turned inside out.

As Occupy Wall Street's website wryly put it: “NYPD Occupying Liberty Square; Demands Unclear.” That caught the strangely high-spirited post-eviction moment. But something else caught my eye that afternoon. The “park” itself, demonstrator-less, filled with bored cops, had morphed into a bare and pitiful space. It wasn’t a park at all, but a thumbnail slab of concrete with lights embedded in it, trees with yellowed leaves, and scattered, plinth-like stone benches, cold as death.

What more reminder did anyone need that the zeitgeist-inspired Occupy Wall Street protesters had brought a mythic quality to a postage-stamp-sized bit of privatized public property? They had made it, tents and all, larger than life, bigger than anything specific that happened there. They had somehow put it on a world stage. If they head elsewhere, that mythic quality goes with them. The police have now, as is their wont, turned the park into something like an open-air prison. It’s the only thing they evidently know how to do, just as they tried to imprison in metal barricades the giant march from Manhattan’s Foley Square across the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday night -- with far less success than expected thanks to the effervescent, surging power of the crowd.

As a crew, the OWS protesters are no slouches. By the afternoon of their park eviction, some were already carrying around signs that said: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” It’s a rousing instant slogan, and who can deny that there are ideas aplenty swirling around in the OWS ether? As for myself, though, I don’t think Occupy Wall Street is an idea. To me, it seems more like an embodied feeling, as hard to pin down, yet powerful and all embracing, as that 99% label.

Along with its hope and high-spiritedness, OWS has, I suspect, caught and crystalized an American feeling of loss, of a world going down (which always has the possibility of the new somewhere inside it). The outrage that it has transformed into activity is over those who are still living high and profiting off that world’s demise -- the privateers, looters, subprime hucksters, corporate grifters, Wall Street gamblers, and all those willing to take a buck to shill for them, to make sure in every way that they thrive as other Americans crash and burn.

All of this, by the way, was available for anyone to see in clear, even cartoonish, form in the crony-capitalist version of the occupation of Iraq with its urge to privatize everything, make money off Iraqi suffering while the going was good, and stick the Iraqis with a subprime “reconstruction” program so shoddy that nothing would work and no services would ever be delivered, while the companies hired to reconstruct took home the cash.

As it happened, while few Americans cared what befell the Iraqis, a subprime crook’s version of the occupation of Iraq was heading home. So here’s the truth of it: before anyone decided to “occupy” any park, we wuz occupied! And the truth of now is perhaps this: a feeling embodied is even harder to suppress than an idea, no matter how often you play whack-a-mole with its encampments. A feeling embodied, asTomDispatch associate editor and Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll makes clear in “ How the 99% Won in the Fight for Workers Rights,” can have genuine on-the-ground political power. It can deliver the goods.

 Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.

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