Latin American Social Movements and the Occupation of Everything
Massive buildings tower over Wall Street, making the sidewalks feel like valleys in an urban mountain range. The incense, drum beats and chants of Occupy Wall Street echo down New York City’s financial district from Liberty Plaza, where thousands of activists have converged to protest economic injustice and fight for a better world.
As unemployment and poverty in the US reaches record levels, the protest is catching on, with hundreds of parallel occupations sprouting up across the country. It was a similar disparity in economic and political power that led people to the streets in the Arab Spring, and in Wisconsin, Greece, Spain and London. Occupy Wall Street is part of this global revolt. This new movement in the US also shares much in common with uprisings in another part of the world: Latin America.
This report from Liberty Plaza connects tactics and philosophies surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement with similar movements in Latin America, from the popular assemblies and occupation of factories during Argentina’s economic crisis in 2001-2002, to grassroots struggles for land in Brazil.
Latin America: Economic Crisis and Grassroots Responses
Almost overnight in late 2001, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to one of the weakest. During this economic crash, the financial system collapsed like a house of cards and banks shut their doors. Faced with such immediate economic strife and unemployment, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old. Poverty, homelessness, and unemployment were countered with barter systems, factory occupations, communally-run kitchens, and alternative currency. Neighborhood assemblies provided solidarity, support and vital spaces for discussion in communities across the country. Ongoing protests kicked out five presidents in two weeks, and the movements that emerged from this period transformed the social and political fabric of Argentina.
These activities reflect those taking place at Occupy Wall Street and in other actions around the US right now. Such events in Argentina and the US are marked by dissatisfaction with the political and economic system in the face of crisis, and involve people working together for solutions on a grassroots level. For many people in Argentina and the US, desperation pushed them toward taking matters into their own hands.
“We didn’t have any choice,” Manuel Rojas explained to me about the occupation of the ceramics factory he worked at outside the city of Mendoza, Argentina during the country’s crash. “If we didn’t take over the factory we would all be in the streets. The need to work pushed us to action.” This was one of hundreds of businesses that were taken over by workers facing unemployment during the Argentine crisis. After occupying these factories and businesses, many workers then ran them as cooperatives. They did so under the slogan, “Occupy, Resist, Produce,” a phrase borrowed from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), which has settled hundreds of thousands of families on millions of acres of land through direct action.
In 2008 in Chicago, when hundreds of workers were laid off from the Republic Windows and Doors factory, they embraced similar direct action tactics used by their Argentine counterparts; they occupied the factory to demand the severance and vacation pay owed to them – and it worked. Mark Meinster, the international representative for United Electrical Workers, the union of the Republic workers, told me that the strategies applied by the workers specifically drew from Argentina. In deciding on labor tactics, “We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers’ movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options,” Meinster said.
Many groups and movements based in the US have drawn from activists in the South. Besides the 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, movements for access to water in Detroit and Atlanta reflected strategies and struggles in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where in 2000, popular protests rejected the multinational company Bechtel’s water privatization plan and put the water back into public hands. The Take Back the Land movement in Florida, which organized homeless people to occupy a vacant lot and pairs homeless families with foreclosed homes, mirrors the tactics and philosophy of the landless movement in Brazil. Participatory budgeting in Brazil, which provides citizens with direct input on how city budgets are distributed, is now being implemented by communities across the US.
These are just a handful of movements and grassroots initiatives that provide helpful models (in both their victories and failures) for decentralizing political and economic power, and putting decision making into the hands of the people. In the face of corrupt banks, corporate greed and inept politicians, those occupying Wall Street and other spaces around the US have a lot on common with similar movements in Latin America. Besides sharing the same enemies within global banks, international lending institutions and multinational corporations, these movements have worked to make revolution a part of everyday life. And that is one of the most striking aspects of about what’s happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement right now.
Occupying Wall Street
The organization and activities filling Liberty Plaza in New York are part of a working community where everyone is taking care of each other and making decisions collectively. During a recent visit, a kitchen area in the center of the park was full of people preparing food for dinner with donated cooking supplies. Other spaces were designated for medical support, massage therapy, sign-making and meditation. One area was for the organization of recycling and garbage; people regularly walked around the park sweeping up debris and collecting garbage.
A massive People's Library contained hundreds of books along the side of the park. As with the cooking, sign-making and medical supplies, the movement had received donated materials and support to keep these operations thriving. Occupy Wall Street also has its own newspaper, the Occupy Wall Street Journal, copies of which were being handed out in English and Spanish editions on nearly every corner of the park. A media center where various people sat around computers and cameras provided ongoing coverage of the occupation.
Within this community were pockets of areas with blue tarps and blankets where people were resting and sleeping, having meetings or simply holding home made signs on display. Singing, drumming, chanting, guitar and accordion playing were also going on in a wide array of places.
Ongoing meetings and assemblies, with hundreds to thousands of participants, dealt with issues ranging from how to organize space in the park and manage donated supplies, to discussions of march plans and demands. Police outlawed the use of megaphones, so people at the park have just been relaying what others say during these assemblies by repeating it through the layers of the crowd, creating an echo so everyone can hear what is said.
At the Comfort Station, where well-organized piles of clothes, blankets, pillows and coats were stacked, I spoke with Antonio Comfort, from New Jersey, who was working the station at the time. Antonio, who had his hat on backwards and spoke with me in between helping out other people, said that the donations of clothes and sleeping materials had been pouring in. People had also offered up their showers for activists participating in the occupation to use. While I was at the station someone asked for sleeping supplies for an older man, and Antonio disappeared into the Comfort Station piles and returned with an armful of blankets and a pillow.
“I’m here so I can have a better life, and so my kids can have a better life when they get older,” he said about his reasons for participating in the occupation. Everything at the station had been running smoothly, Antonio explained. “Everybody works together, and it’s very organized. We’ll be here as long as it takes.”
Adeline Benker, a 17-year-old student at Marlboro College in Vermont who was holding a sign that said, “Got Debt? You are the 99%,” told me that for her – like many other young students participating in the occupation in New York and elsewhere – it was all about debt. “I will be $100,000 in debt after I graduate from college, and I don’t think I should have the pay that for the rest of my life just to get an education in four years.” Benker said this was her very first protest, and her first time in New York City. When I spoke to her, she had been at the occupation for a few days, and would be returning the following week.
Down the sidewalk was activist Tirsa Costinianos with a sign that said, “We Are the 99%”. Costinianos said, “I want the big banks and the corporations to return our tax money from the bailout.” Costinianos had been at the occupation on Wall Street every weekend since it started on September 17th. “I love this and I’m glad we’re doing this. All of the 99% of the people should join us – then we could stop the stealing and the corruption going on here on Wall Street.”
Ibraheem Awadallah, another protester holding a sign that said “Wall Street Occupies Our Government: Occupy Wall Street”, told me, “The problem is this system in which the corporations have the biggest influence in politics in our country.”
These types of encounters and activities were happening constantly in the ongoing bustle of the park, and underscore the fact that this occupation, now nearly into its third week, is as much of a community and example of participatory democracy as it is a rapidly spreading protest.
As the late historian Howard Zinn said, it is important to “organize ourselves in such a way that means correspond to the ends, and to organize ourselves in such a way as to create the kind of human relationship that should exist in future society.” That is being developed now within this movement, from the leaderless, consensus-based assemblies, to the communal organization of the various food, media and medical services organized at the occupation.
Similarly, movements across Latin America, from farmer unions in the Paraguayan countryside to neighborhood councils in El Alto, Bolivia, mirror the type of society they would like to see in their everyday actions and movement-building.
As Adeline Benker, the 17-year-old student at the Wall Street occupation said, echoing the struggles from Argentina to the Andes and beyond, “We need to create a change outside of this system because the system is failing us.”
Benjamin Dangl’s new book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press) is on contemporary Latin American social movements and their relationships with the region’s new leftist governments. He is editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com.