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“Occupy Wall Street”: Thousands March in NYC Financial District, Set Up Protest Encampment

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Demonstrators are marching on Wall Street today on the third day of a campaign dubbed “Occupy Wall Street,” which began on Saturday when thousands gathered in New York City’s Financial District. Inspired by the massive public protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square, hundreds have slept outside near Wall Street for the past two nights. We play a video report on the protest by Democracy Now!'s Sam Alcoff and get a live update from the streets from Nathan Schneider, editor of the blog “Waging Nonviolence.” We also speak with David Graeber, an anthropologist who participated in the activities. “If you look at who showed up, it was mostly young people, and most of them were people who had gone through the educational system, who were deeply in debt, and who found it completely impossible to get jobs,” says Graeber. “The system has completely failed them… If there's going to be any kind of society worth living in, we’re going to have to create it ourselves.” [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 19, 2011David Graeber: The Debt of the American Poor Should Be Forgiven
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today President Obama is set to unveil a deficit-reduction plan that includes tax increases as well as cuts to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The cuts are meant to reduce government spending by more than $3 trillion over the next decade. The plan also calls for $1.1 trillion in savings from winding down the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the United States facing record levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, Obama’s plan will include higher taxes on the rich.

In his weekly radio and video address Saturday, he talked about his jobs bill and said everyone would need to help reduce the U.S. deficit.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It will create new jobs. It’ll cut taxes for every worker and small business in the country, and it will not add to the deficit. It will be paid for. On Monday, I’ll lay out my plan for how we’ll do that, how we’ll pay for this plan and pay down our debt, by following some basic principles: making sure we live within our means and asking everyone to pay their fair share.

AMY GOODMAN: According to White House officials, the President will announce a new tax rate for people earning more than $1 million a year so they pay at least the same percentage of their earnings in taxes as middle-income Americans. The proposal will be called the Buffett Rule, after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times last month called “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” Republicans yesterday criticized the idea of a minimum tax rate for millionaires, accusing President Obama of “class warfare.”

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the Financial District in New York City was flooded by protesters. Democracy Now!’s Sam Alcoff was there and filed this report.

SAM ALCOFF: On Saturday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of downtown Manhattan for what was described as an action to “Occupy Wall Street.” Inspired by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring and the European anti-austerity movements, Adbusters, a Vancouver-based culture-jamming magazine, put out a call for Saturday’s protest on Wall Street in July. The goals were various, from limiting corporate contributions to political campaigns, to auditing the Federal Reserve, to challenging all of global capitalism. Protesters included 71-year-old Mary Ellen Marino of Princeton, New Jersey.

MARY ELLEN MARINO: I came because I’m upset with the fact that the bailout of Wall Street didn’t help any of the people holding mortgages. All of the money went to Wall Street, and none of it went to Main Street. Now, we’ve just learned that Geithner was actually asked to split up the Citibank, and he didn’t do it. And Obama didn’t do anything about it.

SAM ALCOFF: The plan wasn’t simply for a one-day protest, but an ongoing and creative occupation of the Financial District itself. Organizer Lorenzo Serna.

LORENZO SERNA: The idea is to have an encampment. Like, this isn’t a one-day event. Like, we’re hoping that people come prepared to stay as long as they can and that we’re there to support each other.

SAM ALCOFF: But on Saturday, after hundreds arrived, the NYPD shut Wall Street down itself, barricading activists off of Wall Street and forcing a move to the nearby Zuccotti Park. Despite sometimes tense standoffs with the police, hundreds slept in the park and have maintained that they will stay until their demands are met. Prominent backers of the effort to occupy Wall Street included comedian Roseanne Barr.

ROSEANNE BARR: These are the people who decimated our economy and caused all the problems in the world, there on Wall Street.

SAM ALCOFF: Like many others, Marino says she took to the streets because of how the financial crisis has devastated her own family.

MARY ELLEN MARINO: My particular interest is not this big picture, but it’s the little picture. I have two daughters. Both of them have Citibank mortgages. And during this two-year period, when they were supposed to be helping people that were in danger of foreclosure, they did not refinance these mortgages, either one of my children, and one of the children at a house that was then worth half of its original value. She had put down a $45,000 down payment to buy this condominium, and it was worth half of what she paid for it. And so, when she lost her job for the second time during this crisis, she had to abandon the house. She’s now without a house, without a job. My other daughter and her husband are struggling very much to maintain their mortgage. And I’ve had to go back to work. I’m going to be 72 in October, and I’ve had to go back to work full-time in order to help my children.

AMY GOODMAN: That report by Democracy Now!'s Sam Alcoff. Special thanks to Democracy Now!'s Ryan Devereaux, Deena Guzder and Jon Gerberg, all on the Democracy Now! team covering the Occupy Wall Street protest.

We’re going to go right now live to the protests. We’re joined on the phone by Nathan Schneider, editor at the website “Waging Nonviolence,” joining us several blocks from Wall Street.

Nathan, what’s happening as we broadcast now?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Actually, the protest is currently on Wall Street, coming up to the corner of William Street. There are probably a couple hundred people marching along the sidewalk behind police barricades, and they’ve been going up and down Broad for a few minutes, and now they’ve been led down Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: And their demands? And their demands, Nathan?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: The demands have not been articulated in any concrete way. They’re carrying signs saying “Wall Street is our street,” “Hungry, eat a banker,” “Smash capitalism.” It’s a broad range of demands and slogans. But the general idea is that they’re fed up with what Wall Street has represented in this country, and they want a change.

AMY GOODMAN: And the police presence right now, already it’s intense throughout the city with the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama in town today. What about Wall Street now with the protesters?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: The police presence has been strong, though mainly out of sight. During the night, the last couple of nights, there have been maybe 20, 25 police visible from the park where they’ve been sleeping. But there are police all around. And it’s clear that, if necessary, they could mobilize a large number at any time.

AMY GOODMAN: You slept overnight with the protesters in the park just above Wall Street. How many people were there? And what are they chanting as you’re talking to us now, Nathan?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: The chants that they keep coming back to during these marches in the last few days is “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street.” I’d say about—maybe between 100 and 200 spent the night last night—it can be hard to tell sometimes—in sleeping bags, on newspaper, on cardboard. No tents.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan, thanks for being with us. We’re going to be checking back with you through the day. Nathan Schneider, editor of the website “Waging Nonviolence.” When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by Dave Graeber, one of the people involved with this mass protest on Wall Street, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on this Occupy Wall Street protest, we’re joined by one of the organizers, David Graeber. David Graeber is author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He teaches at Goldsmiths at the University of London, teaches anthropology.

You’re in the United States right now. Welcome. You were part of the protest, stayed there overnight. Talk about how this all got organized, David.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, it was originally a call from Adbusters. It was just sort of thrown out into the blue.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Adbusters is.

DAVID GRAEBER: Oh, Adbusters, the magazine based in Toronto, so they’re quite far away from Wall Street. They had this conception, and they thought they could bring it into being. Bunch of us showed up, you know, relatively unprepared for what to expect, on August 2nd, when they called a general meeting. And after a little bit of uncertainty, we sort of started putting together a process. We decided to model it on the idea of the sort of horizontal direct democracy they had in Europe. And in a way, the Wall Street action was one focus, but the very idea of building a kind of general assembly movement was a lot of what we’re really about.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean by “general assembly” and exactly how the process started on Saturday.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, what people are doing in Europe is essentially trying to reinvent democracy. The idea is that, you know, all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves. They’re all essentially bought and sold by the financial elite that’s created this crisis. There’s no possibility of their actually coming up with a solution. And sometimes you have to start over. People have to, like, go into their public squares, meet each other, start talking to each other, and start brainstorming of ideas. I mean, essentially, the idea is the system is not going to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves. So, we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people turned out?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, at first, we were a little worried at Bowling Green, but more and more people kept showing up. So I ended up helping to facilitate a meeting which was at least 2,000 people.

AMY GOODMAN: During a radio interview, New York Governor—New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew a comparison between demonstrators in Occupy Wall Street and those participating in the Arab Spring.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: You have a lot of kids graduating college, can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, you know, in a way, he’s prescient, because if you look at who showed up, it was mostly young people, and most of them were people who had gone through the educational system, who were deeply in debt, and who found it completely impossible to get jobs. I mean, these people have felt—really feel very strongly that they did the right thing. They did exactly what they were supposed to. The system has completely failed them. And they’re not going to be saved by the people in charge. You’re just going to have—if there’s going to be any kind of society like we—worth living in, we’re going to have to create it ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about President Obama’s announcement of the Buffett Rule.


AMY GOODMAN: As we’re broadcasting now, he has not yet made that announcement. Chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, was critical. He said higher levels of taxation on the wealthy would reduce job creation and investment. Ryan was speaking on Fox News Sunday.

REP. PAUL RYAN: If you tax something more, Chris, you get less of it. If you tax job traders more, you get loss job creation. If you tax investment more, you get less investment. At a time when experts are telling us, including, like I said, the fiscal commission, we should lower tax rates on investment and job creation by getting rid of all the loopholes, so we can create economic growth. So we think this is going in the wrong direction. Let’s not forget that under current law, that the President has already passed, the top tax rate on individuals and small businesses in 2013 goes to about 44.8 percent. So, we have employers here in Wisconsin that pay that tax rate, who are competing against countries that are taxing their businesses from like 16 percent in Canada, to almost 21 percent going in England, 25 percent in China. The world taxes their businesses at about 25 percent, and he’s saying we’re going to tax these job creators at above 45 percent with this new tax. What it does is it adds further instability to our system, more uncertainty, and it punishes job creation and those people who create jobs. Class warfare, Chris, may make for really good politics, but it makes for rotten economics.

AMY GOODMAN: “Class warfare.” David Graeber?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, generally speaking, when you hear a Republican talk about class warfare, you know they’re waging it. I think that the easiest way to put what’s going on in perspective is to think the situation in the '50s under Eisenhower, who was of course a Republican president, when tax rates on the wealthiest were actually 90 percent. I don't remember the economy freezing up and falling apart in the 1950s. In fact, it was booming. In the '60s, the same thing. We're not talking about some radical proposal. We’re talking about inching back, you know, a tenth of the way back to where we were when America was at its wealthiest. So I think that rhetoric is just completely false.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Warren Buffett himself. Part of the White House deficit-reduction plan, aimed at ensuring people who earn more than a million dollars a year pay a minimum rate of tax that at least matches that of middle-class families, dubbed the “Buffett Tax,” the proposal is named after billionaire U.S. investor Warren Buffett, who wrote earlier this year rich people like him often pay less in taxes than those who work for them. Well, last year, Buffett spoke to ABC News and dismissed Republican arguments that letting tax cuts expire for the wealthy would hurt economic growth.

WARREN BUFFETT: I think that people at the high end, people like myself, should be paying a lot more in taxes. We have it better than we’ve ever had it.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: They say you have to keep those tax cuts, even on the very wealthy, because that is what energizes business and capitalism.

WARREN BUFFETT: The rich are always going to say that, you know, “Just give us more money, and we’ll go out and spend more, and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.” But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Warren Buffett being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour of ABC. This is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, speaking on Meet the Press Sunday, dismissive about the so-called Buffett Rule.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: If Warren Buffett would like to give up some of his benefits, we’d be happy to talk about it. I mean, I think that means-adjusting benefits is one of the ways that we’re going to have to solve at least the Social Security and Medicare problems, long term, for the next generations. With regard to his tax rate, if he’s feeling guilty about it, I think he should send in a check. But we don’t want to stagnate this economy by raising taxes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitch McConnell. Your response, David Graeber?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, I think the most obvious response is that this has nothing to do with economics at all. I think that for the last 30 years we’ve seen a political battle being waged by the super-rich against everyone else, and this is the latest move in the shadow dance, which is completely dysfunctional economically and politically. I mean, it’s the reason why young people have just abandoned any thought of appealing to politicians. We all know what’s going to happen. The tax proposals are a sort of mock populist gesture, which everyone knows will be shot down. What will actually probably happen would be more cuts to social services. The very fact that the rhetoric is about the debt, which is really a non-issue, is itself the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it’s a non-issue?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, again, American debt has been much higher than this in the past, and American economy boomed. In fact, people turned to the debt as an issue when it became obvious that the real problems faced by Americans—the unemployment, most obviously, and the state of the economy—basically couldn’t be addressed by the political system as current—as it currently exists.

AMY GOODMAN: How should unemployment and poverty and inequality be addressed?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, it has always been addressed in the past by further deficit spending, which will cause the economy to grow again, and then the money can be recouped. This has always worked in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how do you think President Obama is dealing with this?

DAVID GRAEBER: I think President Obama really has bought into the dominant ideology, which is essentially Republican. Finally, he has to wage an election campaign, so he has to make some gestures in the other direction, because he knows the overwhelming majorities of the American public are in favor of taxing the rich. And he also knows that it’s almost certainly going to be shot down. There’s nothing that the Republicans are less likely to put up with than a proposal like this.

AMY GOODMAN: David Graeber, talk about debt cancellation.

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, one of the things that I discovered in researching my book is that the kind of debt crisis we’re experiencing now, being a real debt crisis, which is a debt crisis that affects ordinary people, debts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. They’re not anything set in stone. It’s, generally speaking, when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable. In the past, though, there have been mechanisms, when things get to a point of real social crisis, that have always existed. And they vary by the period of history. In the ancient Middle East, often new kings would simply declare a clean slate and cancel all debts, or all consumer debts, commercial debts, between merchants were often left alone. The Jubilee was a way of institutionalizing that. In the Middle Ages, there were bans on interest taking entirely. There have been many mechanisms.

But whenever you have what I call a period of virtual credit money, when money is recognized not to be a thing like gold and silver, but a social relation or promise that people make to each other, which has become increasingly clear since the '70s, when we went off the gold standard—and I think 2008 really brought that home—debts can be renegotiated. They're not set in stone. Trillions of dollars of debt was made to disappear. We understand now that this is a political arrangement, and it can always be readjusted. And I think what the people coming to the squares—and Wall Street now included—are saying is that, well, if that’s true, if democracy is going to mean anything now, we’re all going to have to be able to weigh in on what sort of promises are made and what sort of promises are adjusted when you enter into a crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We hear about debt cancellation when we’re talking about developing nations. What about the United States?

DAVID GRAEBER: Well, the interesting thing is that most of the developing nations have actually pulled themselves out of the situation. Structural adjustment has come home to Europe and America. I think it would be a great idea. I think it would bring home that we really are in a different age, that money doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. And there are people who have tried it. Saudi Arabia, actually most dramatically, that was their reaction to the Arab Spring: they declared a debt cancellation. So there are precedents. I mean, they kind of don’t want people to know that they did it, for obvious reasons, but they did.

AMY GOODMAN: And the crisis now in Europe?

DAVID GRAEBER: The crisis now in Europe is an example of the same thing. The austerity regimes that are being imposed now on Europe and on America are remarkably similar to what happened—you know, what used to be called the Third World debt crisis. First you declare a financial debt—a financial crisis. You bring in these people who are supposedly neutral technocrats, who are in fact enforcing this extreme neoliberal ideology. You bypass all democratic accountability and impose things that no one ever possibly have agreed to. It’s the same thing. And one reason it’s happening to us now is that there was really successful mobilization around the world against those policies. In a lot of ways, the global justice movement was successful. The IMF was kicked out of East Asia. It was kicked out of Latin America. And now it’s come home to us.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. And how long do you expect these Wall Street protests, part of which you helped to organize, to continue?

DAVID GRAEBER: As long as we possibly can.

AMY GOODMAN: David Graeber teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths at University of London, author of several books. His newest is called Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

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David Graeber: The Debt of the American Poor Should Be Forgiven

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