Occupy Wall Street maps injustice with celebration

The sound rang out at exactly 4 p.m. last Friday: four measured chimes increasing in pitch. Ding, ding, ding, ding! Standing in concentric circles with clasped hands, protesters held the last note, and it echoed against the New York Stock Exchange. Tourists and workers stopped to stare as the people-powered bell chimed again. Inside, another bell was ringing — a mechanical, computerized sound marking the end of the day’s trading. Six months since the Occupy movement began, it was clear that the bell inside was losing its resonance, and the “people’s gong” outside was getting louder.

After last weekend, news of the “police riot” on Saturday night in Liberty Plaza made headlines. Yes, the NYPD beat, kicked and stomped on peaceful people, using the type of violence that the department unleashes daily on communities of color across the boroughs. Officers broke bones, dragged people by the hair and ignored a woman suffering from seizures induced by the attack. They did it again at Union Square early Wednesday morning — throwing medics down to the sidewalk, pepper-spraying dozens of protesters, sending many to the hospital and barricading a 24-hour public park that has stood open and unobstructed for the last 20 years. This week has been one of Occupy Wall Street’s most extreme encounters with the violence and intimidation meant to maintain order in a society characterized by extraordinary inequality.

Yet our actions were not about violence or anger. From Wall Street to Bank of America to the courthouse at 100 Centre Street, we demonstrated a renewed sense of creativity as we confronted sites of injustice with a sense of carnival.

Even after Saturday’s eviction from Liberty Plaza, we gathered outside the courthouse at 100 Centre Street on Sunday and Monday, tired but festive. More than 50 people brought coffee, cigarettes, sandwiches and their bodies to greet the 70 Occupiers who had been arrested and the others who joined our feast.

Last Thursday, hundreds marched to a Bank of America branch in Lower Manhattan. As the crowd gathered, the cargo doors of two U-Hauls flew open, revealing an entire living room set — including multiple couches, a coffee table, an armoire and a flat screen TV — that Occupiers quickly moved onto the sidewalk in front of the bank. The furniture blockade was part of a growing national campaign against Bank of America for foreclosing on hundreds of thousands of families even as it receives a perpetual taxpayer bailout: billions of dollars of low-interest loans lent through the Federal Reserve’s Emergency Lending Program.

“The bank foreclosed on our homes, we figured we’d move in there,” said George Machado, one of the interior designers who helped move a similar living room set inside another Bank of America branch last week in a YouTube video that has gone viral and already inspired similar actions in D.C.

Now that spring has come, the movement is once again using site-based direct action to show concretely how abstract concepts like “systemic inequality” manifest all around us. From Bank of America to Wall Street to the courthouse, Occupy Wall Street celebrated its six-month anniversary by mapping sites of injustice: a bailed-out bank that is robosigning away families’ safety and shelter, a barricaded street that is the epicenter of global economic inequality, a state with laws that are so unrepresentative that it must use violence to maintain its authority. And, after a winter filled with workshops practicing choreographed movements, learning new songs to sing and studying social movements from Chile to South Africa, we have started training ourselves to confront these sites of injustice with a sense of community and a spirit of play that is deeply destabilizing.

With each creative action, we drill a small crack in a system of interconnected power that is all-pervasive, a form of economic radiation that respects neither state boundaries nor human life. Every crack in capitalism that we create with our bodies and our performances helps tear down a system that we all know is unjust but are all afraid that we won’t be able to change. We “Occupy Everywhere” because the effects of this radiation are everywhere. Like the Zapatistas: “Walking, we ask questions.” We ask at each space, “Must it be this way?” Then, like Occupy Wall Street: Dancing, we imagine alternatives.

While making these cracks in capitalism, we are opening up wounds — revealing the millions living without homes, without enough to eat, in fear of state violence, and under constant discrimination based on race, gender and ethnicity. They are wounds because we are using our bodies, blood and voices to map this injustice, replacing fear and isolation with joy and community.

This weekend’s actions are only the beginning. Every Friday afternoon, Occupiers will gather for “spring training” marches on Wall Street to prepare for a spring of mass mobilizations. As Saturday night’s violence showed, there is much to be enraged about. Yet channeling this rage into creative energy at the very sites of injustice can be the most powerful and evocative response. Even after Tuesday’s “speak out” against police brutality — at which African Americans, Muslim Americans and other community activists testified about living under constant violence, about having their loved ones killed by the police — joy and song still won the day. As we marched past the courthouse at 100 Centre Street, calling for Ray Kelly’s resignation, the crowd burst into a version of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”:

You ain’t nothing but a bad cop, lying all the time. 
You ain’t nothing but a bad cop, lying all the time. 
You ain’t never helped the people and you ain’t no friend of mine.

Next weekend, we will gather once again — uniting with unions, churches and community groups for a mass mobilization against police brutality, marching from Liberty Plaza to Union Square on Saturday at noon, and then pitching tents outside the United Nations to protest dirty power and environmental degradation at 5 p.m. This spring, the city will be filled with carnivals of rage and joy. See you in the streets.

Video by Natasha Singh.

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