Occupy Wall Street’s Environmental Turn

Melinda Tuhus

I took the train from New Haven, Connecticut, to New York City on October 5, for the big rally called Occupy Wall Street (OWS) that’s supported by labor unions across the city. On a picture-perfect fall day, thousands gathered in Foley Square near City Hall. While OWS organizers and union leaders exhorted the throngs, I just walked through the crowd interviewing folks who were holding up signs expressing their feelings about various manifestations of corporate capitalism.

Actually, I met my first interviewee on the train, when I spied a young man sitting alone with a sign eschewing corporations as people. Marty Peters said he was overjoyed that finally, “somebody is doing something” to protest the dire economic situation he finds himself in, along with millions of other Americans. Peters, a newly minted college grad, said he couldn’t find a job in his field. “I got a job, luckily, through my mom, but for now I’m just living at home, trying to save money and pretty soon I have my [college] debts to pay off.” He’s working part-time, but says he’s better off than many of his friends who have no job at all. Once we arrived at the demo, signs demanding relief from college loan payments were abundant.

Peter Foley was one of several members of New York’s Transit Workers Union holding their banner aloft. He said his union tried and failed to get an injunction preventing New York City cops from commandeering buses to haul arrested protesters to jail, as they had done the week before when 700 were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. The Occupy Wall Street movement is sometimes criticized for not articulating specific demands (at least early on), but when I asked several people to name one specific demand, most immediately stated their priorities. Foley said, “Me, I want to see a stock transaction tax and I want that to be used to rebuild America and put people back to work.”

Paul Armstrong, a union ironworker who’d come out from Los Angeles to take a job doing ornamental iron work, stated his top demand: “Corporate lobbyists out of Washington. I don’t care if they’re Republican or Democrat, it seems to me that all politicians are in somebody’s pocket and it’s not right that working class Americans have no say anymore.” This seemed especially apropos in light of revelations about the Obama administration’s cozy ties with officials from both the Keystone XL pipeline project and now-bankrupt Solyndra. Bush administration ties to gas and oil companies were notorious.

While environmental messages were not so abundant as anti-corporate ones, Ben Schreiber, a tax analyst with from Friends of the Earth (FOE), was on hand holding up the big green “O” symbol of FOE. “We’re out here in support of all the progressive causes,” he said, “but we’re also out here because our spending has a massive impact on the environment. We’re hearing that we don’t have enough money to afford environmental protections. The truth is that the Bush tax cuts, the massive giveaways to some of the richest Americans, are the reason we’re broke.” He said FOE supports that financial transaction tax Foley mentioned. “The other thing we’d like to see is a tax on carbon, on pollution—making polluting companies, some of the richest companies in the world, pay for the damage they’re doing to the American people.”

Given the gridlock in Congress, and the particular animus Republicans have for the Environmental Protection Agency, he’s not optimistic about that happening any time soon, and added, “Unless we come out and organize and we make this a top-tier issue, then no, we don’t see an opportunity, but that’s why we think movements like this are so important.”

Benny Zable is an artist, originally from Australia. He attracted a lot of attention with his costume, which he said depicts “the march of greed. It’s an attitude of extraction—of taking—rather than to share and give and to take care of one another. Work! Consume! Be silent! Die! I rely on your apathy!” he shouted. “It’s costing the Earth.” The need to take care of each other was probably the most common sentiment I heard that day.

United Against Fracking

The one environmental issue that stood out was a strong sentiment against hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” With a major public meeting coming up October 21 in Trenton, New Jersey, about whether shale drilling for gas will be allowed in the Delaware River Basin, many protesters were encouraging people to come out and be heard. The watershed provides drinking water to 15 million people, including New Yorkers.

Amy Roholt is a member of the Sierra Club’s Atlantic (New York) chapter’s natural gas drilling task force and one of the those who was promoting the meeting. She also mentioned that she was arrested on the final day of the two-week Keystone XL tar sands action in D.C. in early September—the same day I was. Totally randomly, I ran into two others who had been arrested that day; it was like a mini-reunion. “So,” Amy concluded, “it’s all about taking back power from large companies that want to plunder the earth, and they haven’t given us a vote in any of this. The country’s being led by corporate interests, and we’re no longer going to tolerate it. The people want to lead. We’re looking for big change.”

After milling around in Foley Square for an awfully long time, the police finally let us march down the approved route. We marched noisily but peacefully several blocks from city hall to Wall Street—accompanied by several brass bands with a New Orleans flavor. Along the route I saw a woman standing under a street light with my favorite sign of the evening: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”

We walked right by Liberty Park to Wall Street, where most of the marchers dispersed after being blocked by police barricades and being threatened with arrest. When some tried to cross, they were pepper sprayed and clubbed and two dozen were arrested. I don’t understand why the cops have to use pepper spray and smash people’s heads, rather than just arrest those who try to cross a barricade (although one wonders why peaceful pedestrians can’t walk wherever they want to). Don’t they realize that such behavior only increases support for the cause?