They said it could never happen in America. At the foot of Wall Street, in the belly of the beast of aggressive market finance, two thousand, mostly- young protesters demonstrating against corporate greed are attempting to push through a police barrier and occupy the iconic street. The NYPD are beating them back with mace and batons, one white-shirted officer lashing into the crowd indiscriminately with his nightstick.
Participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests demonstrate on Wall Street,
in an attempt to disrupt pedestrian flow for financial workers to get to work,
in New York. Hundreds of demonstrators have been living outside the
New York Stock Exchange since September 16 to protest corporate greed,
bank bailouts, foreclosures and high unemployment. Their main slogan,
'We are the 99 percent,' calls attention to the fact that marchers are not
part of the 1 percent of Americans who hold a vast portion of the nation's
wealth. Pic/ AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand
The air tastes of pepper spray, and there are screams from the crowd. "Who the fuck are you protecting?" they chant. The Obama generation is beginning to receive an ugly answer to that most basic of political inquiries.
These protesters are part of a breakout march from the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan's Liberty Plaza, which has now been in place for almost three weeks. Copycat demonstrations against economic injustice are springing up in cities across the United States, and many thousands are involved. Two hours earlier, under the glowing windows of Wall Street's palaces of finance, I stood in the middle of a crowd of 20,000 students, labour members, activists and angry citizens chanting over the sound of drums: "the people, united, will never be defeated!"
"Thank god for unions, man," says Lauri Faggoni, a filmmaker, standing next to me in the crush.
Labour unions, enthused by the energy of the protest, have been swift to come out in support of the occupiers, and have joined them for a march and rally in Foley Square, taking up their mantra: "We are the 99 per cent" -- the majority of the American people who have been cheated out of their share in the nation's wealth by the remaining
"1 per cent". As night falls, drums beat on the steps of Liberty Plaza, where it's standing room only. "We are here to thank you!" a worker involved in the strike against Verizon tells the excited crowd. "We have to take back this city, we have to take back this state, and most important of all, we have to take back our democracy."
The process of taking back democracy, however, is rarely painless. As the cry goes up to "march on Wall Street" and a group breaks away to do just that, the cops begin to move in. To date, 23 arrests of peaceful protesters have been recorded in New York. On Broadway, at the intersection of Wall Street, demonstrators are dragged out of the crowd or off the pavements, roughly cuffed and taken away by the police.
One of them is a young white woman on her own, who I see being hustled along the road by a number of police officers. "I was just standing on the sidewalk. Apparently that's illegal now, just standing on the sidewalk," she says, as the cops twist her hands behind her back and shove her into a car. I ask what her name is. "Troy Davis," she says, naming the man who was controversially executed by the state of Georgia last week. "Troy Davis. Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King."
Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain has denounced the protests as "un-American," but in the crowd, a cardboard sign reads "this is patriotic". As I watch the crowd of mostly young people pushed back from Wall Street by lines of police, an extraordinary thing happens. A young man begins to shout the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," he begins. Instantly, using the "human mic" technique that the occupiers have developed to carry their voices, a thousand others chant it back to him, condemning the NYPD for "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
As protesters take to the streets in cities across the US, they are right to understand themselves part of a global movement -- but there is something curiously American about it.