Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, North America

U.S.: “Leaderless” Protest Movement Continues to Snowball

WASHINGTON, Oct 6 2011 (IPS) - “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you – then you win,” a middle-aged man yells into the microphone from a makeshift stage erected at the far end of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC.

The crowd at Freedom Plaza on Thursday afternoon was over 1,000-strong, a mass of colourful posters, T-shirts and homemade flags. Credit: Amanda Wilson and Rosemary D'Amour/IPS

The crowd at Freedom Plaza on Thursday afternoon was over 1,000-strong, a mass of colourful posters, T-shirts and homemade flags. Credit: Amanda Wilson and Rosemary D'Amour/IPS

Eighty years later, the words of the great Indian freedom fighter Mohandas K. Gandhi have found their way to the U.S. and still resonate as strongly as they did during India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule.

Only now the words are bellowed by disenfranchised working class people who are gathering in swarms around the country to protest the alliance between politicians and corporations, tax burdens on poor people, and the capitalist system in general.

The crowd at Freedom Plaza on Thursday afternoon was over 1,000- strong, a mass of colourful posters, T-shirts and homemade flags carrying every declaration from “Veterans Against War” to “We are the 99 percent!”

The last is a slogan borrowed from the burgeoning “Occupy Wall Street” encampment in New York City, whose ranks swelled to an estimated 30,000 protestors Wednesday as the movement pulled in hoards of union members, students and a growing number of disgruntled job-seekers in what is quickly becoming the longest sustained protest in the U.S. since the civil rights era.

Take Back the American Dream?

From Monday to Wednesday this week, over 1,000 organisers, union leaders and advocates representing well over 10 million people gathered in Washington D.C. for the annual progressive conference of the Campaign for America's Future, this time under the banner 'Take Back the American Dream'.

Inspired in part by former White House advisor Van Jones's campaign to 'Rebuild the American Dream', the conference was directed at re-uniting the often divided "left" in the U.S. by linking immigrant rights coalitions with LGBTQGNC struggles, fusing green activists with the labour movement and connecting youth advocates with racial justice groups.

Speaking at the opening plenary earlier this week, Jones urged greater solidarity between the diverse forces of the progressive movement, adding, "[We] have seen tougher times than this – I don't see lynching ropes yet."

Jones stressed that the unifying banner needs to be "portable and patriotic" so that any of the movement's foot soldiers could walk into a laundromat in the conservative "red states" and have everyone inside it know "who we are and what we're about".

But while there is great potential in an organised and disciplined 'Tea Party for the Left', many have criticised the concept of the American Dream, a racially loaded and historically exclusionary concept carrying baggage that might be hard to shed.

"The middle class exists at the expense of ecology and indigenous peoples, including those that were brought from Africa against their will," Ray Tricomo, a mentor at the Kalpulli Turtle Island Multiversity in Minnesota, told IPS.

"The (organisers) of the American Dream movement need to realise that without an ecological and indigenous foundation we are truly sunk. It saddens me more than deeply that so many people of colour and women have bought into the middle class (promise) of the 1950s," he added.

"We need to rebuild society from below the ground up and we need to do it yesterday," Tricomo told IPS.

In three weeks, the leaderless, organic movement has put out shoots in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, drawing hundreds, more often thousands, to protest the 2008 financial crash “caused by bankers and cleaned up by taxpayers”.

In fact, the World Bank estimated that an additional 64 million people are living in extreme poverty, on less than 1.25 dollars a day, as a result of the global recession, which hit the U.S. particularly hard.

According to Tracy Van Slyke, co-director of the New Bottom Line, ” (We were left with) 11 million jobs lost, millions of foreclosed homes, billions in pensions wiped away and tens of thousands of vacant bank-owned properties littering neighbourhoods from coast to coast.”

The U.S. is currently nursing a youth unemployment rate of 51.1 percent, while attempting to deal with a population of 46.2 million people living under the poverty line.

At the same time, reported, a popular progressive blog in the U.S., the top one percent of U.S. citizens takes home 24 percent of national income, owns half of the country’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, but owes only five percent of the nation’s personal debt.

This top one percent, which includes CEOs of the country’s wealthiest and most influential companies like Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobile and Bank of America – widely believed to have been “bailed out” while the average working person got “sold out” – is taking in more national income than at any other time since the 1920s.

The protests gain traction as more and more people trace these links between profit and politics.

“I’m here today because corporate lobbyists pay politicians enormous amounts of money, essentially putting democracy into the hands of businesses,” Gerry Martini, a protestor at Freedom Plaza, told IPS today. “This connection has to be severed so that we, the people, decide what’s best for the country.”

A veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, who made the trip to D.C. to show his solidarity, added, “This country seems to thrive on perpetual war and the profits of the war economy. That needs to change.”

“I’m here to mourn the innocents who have lost their lives in these for-profit wars, but also to stand beside those who are out here defending the environment, the economy and democracy,” he told IPS.

As in lower Manhattan, many were drawn to Freedom Plaza out of sheer curiosity.

Richard, a veteran civil rights organiser who has not protested since the 1970s, is hopeful for the movement, but feels its diffuse targets and disparate demands might slow it down.

“People are out here demanding an end to everything from resource wars to human rights violations to environmental destruction to corporate control,” he told IPS.

“But compared to the struggle in the 1960s, there seems to be a lot less passion about the soul of what you’re attempting to change,” he added.

“This movement has potential as long as it is willing to be patient,” he said. “It’ll take time to change what’s happened over the last 50 years, and I wonder if people can last that out – we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification, but that won’t win us a long- term victory,” he added.

But Howie Hawkins, a 2010 Green Party candidate for New York Governor who campaigned as the progressive alternative to Andrew Cuomo’s cuts to schools and public services, was more optimistic.

“People are inspired by students in Cairo, the unemployed in Tunis, workers’ strikes in China,” Hawkins told IPS.

“There is a growing understanding that the capitalist system does not work the way it does in textbooks with individuals competing on equal ground – this is a system of monopoly capital and it has to come down.”

The protests have also shed light on the limits of the two-party system, he told IPS, adding that the Democratic Party has failed to be a reliable representative of the people.

“The Democrats were supposed to be on the side of progressives, environmentalists, peace activists, blacks and immigrants and speak on our behalf (like) the human microphone tactic being used at Wall Street,” Hawkins told IPS.

“Except the Democrats don’t repeat what we say, they water it down, they change it up and then they compromise our demands,” he added.

“This needs to change, and it is changing,” he concluded.

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