Occupy Wall Street may be "leaderless," but it's far from directionless.
Less than three weeks after the protest movement began on Sept. 17, its "We Are the 99 Percent" message has exploded into a national rallying cry, inspiring not only a bustling mini-city in New York's financial district, but also an overnight network of sympathizers from Seattle to Miami. According to the unofficial umbrella group Occupy Together, some 500 cities worldwide will see "Occupy" events this week.
And while the nebulous campaign is focused mainly on economic issues, it has also strived for inclusiveness, winning the support of diverse groups ranging from teachers and college students to nurses, bus drivers and construction workers. When its momentum coalesced Wednesday into the Occupy Wall Street March, it included some 5,000 people, many of them from organized labor.
But Wednesday's march was also buoyed by another group of rabble-rousing upstarts: environmentalists. Fresh off their own nonviolent stand outside the White House — where they spent two weeks protesting the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline — the re-energized U.S. environmental movement has now found an even bigger, broader stage. And like most factions of Occupy Wall Street, it seems perfectly happy to share that stage with other interests.
"For too long, Wall Street has been occupying the offices of our government, and the cloakrooms of our legislatures," wrote Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, in an email to supporters before the march. "They've been a constant presence, rewarded not with pepper spray in the face but with yet more loopholes and tax breaks and subsidies and contracts. You could even say Wall Street's been occupying our atmosphere, since any attempt to do anything about climate change always run afoul of the biggest corporations on the planet. So it's a damned good thing the tables have turned."
"A few hundred" climate activists joined Wednesday's march, according to 350.org communications coordinator Molly Haigh, who says the Keystone XL protests have revived a latent zeal in the U.S. environmental community that's now dovetailing with Occupy Wall Street. "I think it's been really huge, in terms of generating a feeling of affinity," Haigh tells MNN. "Obviously, 1,200 people were arrested as part of the Keystone XL protests, so for a lot of those people it's amazing to see this sort of awakening happening so soon afterward. And some of the same folks who were at those protests are coming back out, so it's really exciting."
One of those folks is Justin Haaheim, a lead organizer for 350.org in Connecticut who was arrested Aug. 31 during the Keystone XL protests and also attended the Wall Street march Wednesday. "It was one of the most inspiring things I've seen in a long time in terms of the environmental movement," Haaheim says of the march. "I was surprised by how much there was a really common message among all the protestors. It would be really easy for something like that to have a million different messages, but it was encouraging to see that the environmental message was very widespread and very meshed in with the broader Occupy Wall Street movement."
McKibben and 350.org now hope to conjure some of that mojo in Washington — which also held its own "Occupy D.C." march Thursday — for "Occupy State Department," a protest to stop lobbyists from dominating Friday's final public hearing on Keystone XL. The State Department will rule on the proposed pipeline by year's end, and critics have accused it of "bias and complicity" in favor of the project. On top of that, Haigh says, many hearings so far have suspiciously become pro-pipeline pep rallies. "At previous hearings, corporations have hired people to stand in line and save space for lobbyists, and the effect was that a lot of landowners and people who would be affected by the pipeline got blocked out from speaking," Haigh says. McKibben aims to make sure that doesn't happen at Friday's hearing, which Haigh says will be "pretty extreme."
Afterward, Haigh adds, McKibben will head to New York and visit Zuccotti Park, home base for Occupy Wall Street. In addition to lending his star power to those protests, he'll likely also be drumming up support for a major Keystone XL protest planned for the White House on Nov. 6 — one year before Election Day 2012, a date meant to remind President Obama of his wavering support from environmentalists.
While Occupy Wall Street and the Keystone XL protests seem to now be merging, Haaheim says there has always been "a lot of solidarity between the two campaigns, and a lot of overlap." In fact, Occupy Wall Street's first "official" statement lists an array of grievances with corporate America, many of which are at least indirectly related to environmental and public health. Referring to corporations in the third person, some of its most clearly environmental grouses include:
- "They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization."
- "They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices."
- "They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit."
- "They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil."
- "They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit."
Of course, in the mashed-up spirit of Occupy Wall Street, these grievances aren't really meant to be split into separate issues. The five listed above are clearly born from frustration at environmental problems, but they're part of what many protestors see as one big, holistic problem. Whether it's the Wall Street bailouts or the BP oil spill, high unemployment or high CO2 emissions, Occupy Wall Street aims to defend what it considers a mistreated majority from a privileged minority.
"For me, there's a lot of continuity in all of it," Haaheim explains. "One of the central issues is that people need to be engaged, stand up and make their voices heard."
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