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Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Review: Occupying Wall Street

Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America by Writers for the 99%
OR Books, 2011
Paperback, 200 pages

In July 2011 the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters put out a call for readers to "flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street." This "campaign" in the anti-consumerist rag is well known, as is the September 17 start of what became a two-month "occupation" of Zuccotti Park (formerly known as Liberty Plaza Park or Liberty Park, what the occupiers call it and what I will here) in Lower Manhattan, but the steps leading up to occupation and how it actually worked is not information as readily available or known. Hence this book by an assemblage of writers that lived and/or spent a great deal of time at Liberty Park as part of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is required reading for those interested in the change this and other occupations has affected on the self-proclaimed 99%. Published on demand by OR Books, the book is also an example of the expediency of publishing in the digital age, where newsworthy topics can be covered in depth and printed on paper (or in bits for ebooks) while a topic is still fresh.

The book works chronologically for the most part. First it traces the roots of OWS to protests in North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011 and the coordinated May 15 Movement in Spain; the last is cited as giving OWS its basic structure of General Assemblies and working groups, which facilitate reaching decisions through a consensus-based process. These components of OWS are described in detail in a later chapter and are one of the most important parts of this book. The GAs in particular are at the core of the occupation and are probably the main reason demands are not part of the occupation; this knowledge defuses one of the main criticisms of OWS based on lack of demands, as if they are taking Liberty Park hostage for some sort of ransom that would solve the cumulative injustices they are fighting against. OWS is democracy in action, a honing of problems and working out of solutions via consensus, all in response to the inequality that is expressed through the 99% label.

Subsequent chapters, among others, detail the events on the day of occupation on September 17, discuss the movement's "second home" in the atrium of 60 Wall Street, describe "living in the square," and of course detail the November 15 eviction, at which point the book ends, but obviously not the movement. The longest chapter, and to an architect the most relevant, is the one about living in the square. Aided by a very helpful map at the beginning of the book that locates the various components of OWS in Liberty Park (assembly area, library, medical, kitchen, etc.), this chapter described the physical and social reality of the most overt and distinctive aspect of the movement: its actual occupation of a semi-public space. From the beginning the fact of occupation was important. The movement could not be merely a march, weekend protest, or some other such temporary expression of free speech; it had to take hold of a place to make itself known, bring people together, but most importantly to provide a spot for the GAs to happen. With the forced eviction at the hands of the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg's orders, OWS has lost this key ingredient (they are able to protest in the park during the day but must leave at night), but the occupation's first two months has done more to solidify the movement and make it politically legitimate than if it never occupied the space, even as it works towards finding solutions through the democratic consensus that holds all people equal...or at least 99% of them.

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