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As Unions, Students Join Occupy Wall Street, Are We Witnessing Growth of a New Movement?

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As the Occupy Wall Street protest enters its 20th day, New York City’s most powerful unions are set to march today from City Hall to the movement’s encampment in the Financial District. The demonstration will be bolstered by the walkout of potentially thousands of students at major public universities in New York City, where tuition rates are on the rise. Meanwhile, similar “occupation” movements are springing up in cities around the country. On Tuesday, the Greater Boston Labor Council, representing 154 unions with 90,000 workers, supported the Occupy Boston encampment for shining “a spotlight on the imbalance of power in our nation and the role that Wall Street has played in devastating our economy.” We host a discussion about whether the Occupy Wall Street movement is sparking a diverse, grassroots movement for economic change. We’re joined by Kai Wright, contributor to The Nation magazine and editorial director of ColorLines.com, where he wrote “Here’s to Occupying Wall Street! (If Only That Were Actually Happening).” We also speak with Arun Gupta, an editor of The Indypendent and of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a newspaper affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, where he published an article titled “The Revolution Begins at Home.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Here in New York, the city’s powerful unions are set to join the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, now entering its 20th day. Their march to City Hall will be bolstered by the walkout of hundreds, potentially thousands, of students at major public universities in New York City, where tuition rates are on the rise. The movement received a boost Monday when the SEIU 1199 healthcare workers union issued a statement of support for the protest, promising to send nurses to train those providing first aid at the encampment.

The healthcare workers union joins the Transport Workers Union, which runs the city’s subway and bus system, in supporting the growing movement. On Monday, attorneys for the TWU attempted to obtain a temporary federal restraining order to prevent the police from commandeering buses operated by its members to ferry protesters who are arrested. Over the weekend, the NYPD used at least three city buses to transport some of the more than 700 protesters arrested attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tony Murphy is an activist with the Bail Out the People Movement.

TONY MURPHY: The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg has to keep their hands off Occupy Wall Street, stop harassing them, stop with the mass arrests. Liberty Plaza, which is the center of Occupy Wall Street, is a stone’s throw away from Goldman Sachs. If they want to arrest somebody, they should go down to Wall Street, down to the Stock Exchange, and arrest the people who are busy clearing out elderly people from their homes, hurting people’s pensions. These are the people who are really hurting people and should be arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, similar “occupation” movements are springing up in other cities around the country, from Austin, Texas, where several thousand are expected to attend Occupy City Hall Thursday, to Knoxville, Tennessee, Chicago, Denver, some two dozen other locations in Florida and California and elsewhere. Protests have also been organized internationally in Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico and other countries.

In Boston, as many as a thousand demonstrators gathered in Dewey Square last Friday, where they’ve been permitted to set up tents, many planning to stay indefinitely. On Tuesday evening, the Greater Boston Labor Council, which speaks for 154 unions representing 90,000 workers, praised Occupy Boston for shining “a spotlight on the imbalance of power in our nation and the role that Wall Street has played in devastating our economy.”

To talk more about this movement, we’re joined by Kai Wright. He is editorial director of ColorLines.com. His latest piece there is titled “Here’s to Occupying Wall Street! (If Only That Were Actually Happening).” He writes for The Nation magazine, as well.

We’re also joined by Arun Gupta, a founding editor of The Indypendent. He helped put together The Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper, affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. He wrote an article there called “The Revolution Begins at Home.”

Arun, is this a revolution that we are seeing?

ARUN GUPTA: It’s not a revolution, but it is the remarkable nucleus of a revolt, because what has gone on is they’ve been able to seize this territory in the heart of global capitalism, right near the New York Stock Exchange, and hold it now for into its third week. And what this has done is create a political space, a radical, democratic, popular space for organizing. And that’s why we see so many groups signing on to it. We’ve seen all these unions sign on to it. There’s now a call that’s going out for an antiwar march on October 15th. Various food justice and environmental movements are endorsing it. It’s really remarkable how you have just this broad swath of progressive organizations that are joining in and supporting it, because they are—the occupation has essentially become this giant megaphone for the rage and outrage against a failed system, against the failed economy, failed political leaders, failed mainstream media, and the failed policing system.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Wright, have you been spending time there? What are people’s demands? How do you assess what you’re seeing now?

KAI WRIGHT: Well, I think I would agree that it’s an exciting moment. And I think the most exciting part about it is exactly this expansion that Arun is talking about. I think that what we’re seeing today, with the labor unions joining in, and importantly, with some of the existing, the pre-existing movements that have put—that have tried to put homeowners and the jobless and the communities that have been most impacted by this crisis, they’ve been working to put those folks back into the center of the conversation of our national politics. And I think what we’re seeing this week with the Occupy Wall Street movement is those folks coming together.

And, you know, they’ve been reaching out in cities around the country. There’s going to be some actions in Los Angeles this week, where the California homeowners’ groups are partnering with—are reaching out to the Occupy Wall Street folks. You’re seeing that around the country. And I think—

AMY GOODMAN: And the homeowners are…?

KAI WRIGHT: And the homeowners are largely folks of color. I think what’s an important part of this whole crisis for us to keep in mind is that this didn’t just happen. The crisis we’re in and the giant wealth gap we’re looking at didn’t just occur. It was the result of very specific decisions by key players in the financial industry and their cohorts in both Washington and in state government to prey upon working people, and, not for nothing, specifically working communities of color. And that was both the kindling for the crisis we have and the thing that’s keeping it alive, and importantly, the cause of the instability in the economy that has—that is affecting everybody. And so, I think our politics has to keep that front and center. Our politics has to name the villains and name the victims, in order for us to come up with a solution that’s really going to solve it. And so, what’s really exciting about this moment this week is that some of the movements that have been trying to put those folks back into the center of the conversation are getting involved and are coming together with this Occupy Wall Street moment. And I think the march we’re going to see today, for instance, in New York City is going to be an opportunity to really look at the—to really see the face of this crisis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, speaking of politics, I want to turn to a clip of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. For the first time yesterday, a reporter asked him if Obama is sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

REPORTER: Have the Occupy Wall Street protests reached a level the President’s engaged awareness? Is he sympathizing with the protesters? Is he concerned about the protests at all?

PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: I haven’t discussed it with him. I’m sure he’s aware of it, because he follows the news. I mean, I would simply say that, to the extent that people are frustrated with the economic situation, we understand, and that’s why we’re so urgently trying to focus Congress’s attention on the need to take action on the economy and job creation.

And as regards Wall Street, I mean, one of the things that this president is very proud of is the consumer protections that were put into place through legislation, that Republicans are now eager to try to dismantle. And we think that’s a bad idea. And we think one way that we could demonstrate, and Congress could join us in demonstrating, a commitment to the kind of protections that are provided within that legislation is to take up the nomination, and clear it, of Richard Cordray to head that agency, because, you know, these are commonsense consumer protections that would prevent the kinds of abuse that credit card companies engaged in against credit card holders, that would protect against the—some of the actions that were taken that led to or contributed to the financial crisis that we saw in 2008. I mean, these are measures the President felt were very important. And there’s a clear effort within the Congress to prevent the full implementation of that legislation by holding up this nomination. We think that’s cynical and a bad idea.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Jay Carney, White House spokesman. Arun Gupta, your response?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, I think it’s amazing that the Obama administration now has to acknowledge it, because the fact is, what they’re most proud of is coddling bankers and ensuring that the banks continue to reap billions of dollars in profits and that the bankers and executives continue to get their big bonuses. That’s what they have really fought for. And to act like some sort of vague consumer protections that don’t really amount to much, in terms of like credit card statements and fees, is acknowledging what the protesters are down there at Wall Street for is just a phenomenal disconnect. But it shows how this movement is growing, when the powers that be are forced to recognize it.

But I think the whole issue of demand, such as what Kai raises, is somewhat misinformed, because the reason that this movement is a success is precisely because it didn’t come in with any demands, because it was shapeless. Now, there are real limits to that, and they have to figure out how to get around that, but if they came in with demands, it would have probably failed, because then the media would have attacked the demands as being either inadequate or too “pie in the sky.” It would have limited the appeal of the protests, because you would have had various tendencies that would have gotten attacked by other groups. So this shapelessness is what really allowed it to grow and to become this vessel for all this rage and outrage against a failed system.

KAI WRIGHT: I just want to clear, though.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Wright.

KAI WRIGHT: I mean, I do—I agree that having a broad-based outrage is in fact the power of this movement, and that’s a great thing. I do also believe that, you know, race-blind politics creates race-blind solutions. And so, within the shapelessness—I’m not saying that there needs to be a series of demands. It’s a matter of building movements that put the people who are most affected by this problem in the forefront, so that the solution that comes out is—reflects their problems. And I think—and I say that because I think one of the key problems we’ve had in dealing with this crisis is that we have consistently—and I don’t think accidentally—the banking lobby and its friends in Washington have consistently pushed those folks out of the spotlight, in order to focus on the well-being of investors, the well-being of the President, the well-being of whoever, other than the people who are losing their homes and losing their jobs. And so, I think it’s really important that our politics put those folks front and center. And that’s happening. And that’s exactly what’s happening organically through this movement, and I think that’s fabulous.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s play some of the media coverage of Occupy Wall Street. First to Ann Coulter commenting on the protest on Fox News.

ERIC BOLLING: I’m reiterating a couple of — “corporate personhood,” “demolition of capitalism,” “If we learn to share, we can all live in prosperity.” What do you make of all this, Ann?

ANN COULTER: All of those quotes could have been said in 1789 France, before the French Revolution; or the Russian Revolution; or, with only slight modification, when the Nazis were coming to power; in Cuba under Fidel Castro; Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. This is always the beginning of totalitarianism.

AMY GOODMAN: “Totalitarianism.” That’s Ann Coulter on Fox News.

ARUN GUPTA: Well, she’s made her career as a blonde bomb thrower, so this is nothing new, to try and compare it to everything, to communists, to Nazis. But the fact of the matter is, is that there is a lot of kind of inchoate political organizing.

But again, what Kai is—the way he’s representing it, I think, is a misunderstanding of what’s going on there, because what they’ve done is they’ve created this political space, and they’re allowing all these different groups. Anyone who wants to come down there can come down there and organize. And if community groups aren’t coming down there and organizing, the onus is upon them. The unions are out there now. The antiwar movement is out there now. I have seen some community groups out there now.

And I do also want to say that I was kind of dismayed by Kai’s piece, where at one point he talks about that this has become, quote, “a roving, citywide” clash with police. And I was like, this is not anything approaching reality. In fact, all we’ve seen is that on one weekend, September 24th, the police attacked one protest. And then, the following week, Saturday, on October 1st, the police appear, and many protesters allege that the police entrapped them on the bridge when they arrested over 700. And I think these kind of misrepresentations of what’s going on do a disservice to what is really happening down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Kai Wright?

KAI WRIGHT: Well, again, like I said, I think that, one, there are existing movements, and I don’t know that I believe the onus is on them to join this movement. I think what’s great and what’s exciting is that the movements are coming together. And I think that’s the conversation we all need to be focused on, is how to bring the folks who have been out of the political conversation, whether it be a whole range of folks, whether it be the folks who originally showed up at Occupy Wall Street, or whether it be the homeowners and jobless folks who have been in the streets for years but being ignored by mainstream media—how do we bring them all together so that we can have a sustainable movement? And I think that’s fabulous. I think that it is easy for media coverage of the events to become misrepresented when you don’t have the people who are most affected by it involved in it. And that’s—and I think that’s the point I wanted to make in the piece that I was writing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to play a comment from one of the Occupy Wall Street activists, who argued this weekend’s mass arrest, 700 people arrested, was a way to intimidate those planning today’s labor mobilization. This is Yotam Marom.

YOTAM MAROM: And I think that was a clear message: “You know what? We’re going to arrest 700 people, and that’s going to scare unions, working families, people who are actually struggling with real issues, that can’t miss work, who have kids, who have—and they’re not going to come out on Wednesday, because if they do come out on Wednesday, that’s a big deal.” And I think that—I think that was part of a really clear move to try to keep this limited to, you know, young people who are militant and whatever, and keep it from being truly representative of people with real needs in New York City. And I really hope that the unions and community groups come out anyway, because not only would that, you know, disprove what the police are trying to do, but it also—it is the protection that we and they need. They can’t be arrested. And that’s why they’re trying to scare them away, because they really do give us the legs that we need to make this a serious movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kai Wright, your response?

KAI WRIGHT: Well, you know, again, I think the end there is a really important point, that this is the legs to make this a sustainable movement. And I think that it is true that, you know, not everybody can get arrested. And movements need to be built around the participation of everybody, and particularly those that are most affected. And so, again, I am excited by the fact that what we’re seeing this week is an expansion of the people involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’m excited that it sounds like folks involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement around the country are eager to plug in with existing movements of people of color and homeowners, who have been in the streets and are looking for more fuel for their cause.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! recently spoke to Frances Fox Piven, who was down at Occupy Wall Street. Bill O’Reilly of Fox later replayed our clip. He called Piven a “communist sympathizer,” who O’Reilly said was outed by Glenn Beck. Let’s turn to that clip.

BILL O’REILLY: As we reported last week, a few hundred protesters are roaming around New York City demonstrating against capitalism and the establishment in general. There is some money behind these people. Organizations like Anonymous, the National Lawyers Guild and Adbusters are supporting. The far left, of course, loves this.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: I think we desperately need a popular uprising in the United States. None of us know—I study movements. We don’t know the exact formula, when those movements erupt, but it could be. And if that’s true, then these people who are here are really wonderful, and I would do anything to help them.

BILL O’REILLY: Recognize that lady? That’s Frances Fox Piven, who, as Glenn Beck outed, is a communist sympathizer. She teaches at a university here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bill O’Reilly talking about Frances Fox Piven. I want to talk not just about what Frances Fox Piven said, but also how O’Reilly depicted her: “communist sympathizer.” Arun?

ARUN GUPTA: Well, of course, that’s typical of Fox News. But I think Piven is absolutely right, that we do need an uprising across this country. And, of course, when the Tea Party calls for an uprising, Bill O’Reilly calls them patriots and honoring the Founding Fathers.

But I do want to get back to what Kai was talking about, that the community groups—the onus is upon them, because this is an enormous opportunity. I’ve been going down virtually every single day. And on Monday, there were more than 25 television crews from around the world. There were nearly as many media there as the trial of Michael Jackson’s daughter. Any group would recognize that this is an amazing opportunity. If you go into this political space, this social space that they’ve liberated, you could do amazing organizing. You can get your message out to millions of people around the world. And there is no risk of arrest. Again, that is just simply a misrepresentation. Those arrests are happening on these unpermitted marches, which are very important for creating social space but are entirely different.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go, because we’re going to be talking about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., but I just wanted to quickly ask you, Arun, about The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

ARUN GUPTA: This is something that The Indypendent newspaper, which I work with, helped put together. We felt that there needed to be voices and stories coming out of the occupation. It’s not the official publication. It’s just a group of journalists who are sympathetic to what’s going on down there. There’s been an initial print run of 50,000 and another 20,000.

AMY GOODMAN: We were down there the other day. They were just bringing them out by the shiploads.

ARUN GUPTA: I mean, I think it’s an amazing thing. It’s been mentioned in media all over the world. One of the funny things that I think shows the resiliency of the system that we’re up against, that this is a free publication produced in a non-commodified space—it’s now being sold on eBay as a souvenir.

AMY GOODMAN: And have you tasted the Occu-pie? That’s the pizza pie that is coming in from pizza parlors all over, being ordered for the people in Occupy Wall Street from all over the world, as happened in Madison, Wisconsin, people from Egypt putting in orders so that the people would be fed at Occupy Wall Street. Kai Wright, thanks very much for being with us. Arun Gupta, thanks so much for being with us. The Occupied Wall Street Journal, Arun was involved in putting out, and Kai Wright, writes for ColorLines and for The Nation magazine.

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