A week ago, NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed 23 year old Jeanne Mansfield and two other women in the face in a now notorious incident in the unfolding story of Occupy Wall Street. Videos of the macing have gone viral, and Mansfield and her companions are suing the NYPD.
Mansfield had not intended to write about Occupy Wall Street. A recent graduate of Boston University, she had been following the movement on the Internet for a few weeks prior to visiting New York. She said that she had decided to stop by because the participants were saying things “that I had been thinking about the banks, about the politics, about the media.” When she relayed her experience to her editors at the Boton Review, they insisted that she write an op-ed.
Occupy Wall Street is a grassroots populist campaign that has relied heavily on publicity generated by Facebook and Twitter. It began three weeks ago when a small group camped around Wall Street to protest the role of financial institutions in the economic crisis, unemployment, and corporate lobbying. It has since spread to the Los Angeles City Hall, downtown Boston, and outside the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. The idea, according to its website, was to camp out for weeks or months to replicate the Arab Spring protests.
On the group’s website, they describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.”
The unspoken one percent refers to corporations, banks, and the insurance and mortgage industries. The 99 percent refers to everyone else.
The demands of the movement are difficult to pinpoint, and—though this may change as protests spread to cities as disparate as Memphis, Baltimore, and Hilo, Hawaii—its imprecision has made it vulnerable to characterization as a shallow imitation of the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. Also, as with many post-Reagan left-wing protests, Occupy Wall Street has been leveled with charges of hypocrisy (Andrew Ross Sorkin, a financial columnist for the New York Times, wryly noted protesters using a Bank of America ATM).
However, the movement has clearly tapped a vein of disgust with the current state of political affairs, and has brought together seasoned civil rights advocates, crusaders against capitalism, and young people frustrated by steep student debt and lack of job prospects. It remains to be seen whether Occupy Wall Street—a movement that rejects leadership—will have staying power.
After being pepper sprayed, Mansfield insisted, “I love cops… but the experience only makes me wish I’d done something more to deserve it.”
Independent: Could you provide a brief summary of what happened when you went to protest at Occupy Wall Street?
Jeanne Mansfield: So we went down intending to find the occupiers in tents, or maybe playing guitars and making anti-corporate signs, but we didn't even make it to Wall Street because we joined the march in progress. It was about 500 people I'd say, though hard to estimate as we were toward the back of the group and couldn't quite see the front. We reached Union Square and [then] we set off again back to Wall Street. At this point the police presence intensified and became aggressive as they unreeled the orange crowd-control netting and began scuttling us into side streets. The cops began making violent arrests in the street, incensing the crowd contained on the sidewalk. After a minute or so of loud shouting from the crowd the cops grabbed kids out of the group to arrest. One police officer in white strode up to the front and maced three girls [including myself] directly in the face.
Indy: Are you going to press charges?
JM: The girls who were maced directly in the face are suing the city of New York for violation of civil rights. I'm in contact with their lawyer and have decided to join their suit, both to help their cause and try to bring about some sort of policy changes within the NYPD.
Indy: Do you see yourself or the other two becoming figureheads for the movement?
JM: I definitely would not see myself as becoming a figurehead, and I haven't heard much else from the girls themselves. I think the great thing about the movement is that it doesn't need figureheads, it's surviving and thriving on the lips and in the minds of every American citizen who sees what we see: a wealth and influence disparity that is subverting the democratic process. I think as the days and weeks wear on, we will be seeing more and more people coming out in solidarity with the movement.
Indy: Do you plan on continuing your activist work?
JM: Yes. Definitely. I'm not sure how comfortable I am being called an "activist", mostly because I feel there are so many people participating in this more "actively" than I am. But the Occupy movement has certainly been a constant presence in my thoughts, and I will continue to help the Occupiers any way I can, even if it's just spreading their message.
Indy: What would you say to writers like Ginia Bellafante (author of a New York Times piece published last week that was critical of the movement) who imply that the movement is more spectacle than substance? She wrote that the participants were "pantomiming progressivism rather than [practicing] it."
JM: She clearly hasn't been down there for much more than 20 minutes. And she clearly talked to only the craziest people she could find, people who would fit the stereotype she had already decided to write about. I think Bellafante also is manifesting the civic cynicism that characterizes many of those from the generation that had the misfortune to "come of age" during the Reagan administration. [Occupy Wall Street] is more truly, honestly progressive than anything else going on in American politics today. We will not make the same mistakes of 1968. The very things Bellafante says she did not hear people saying—worrying about "finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out," demanding "the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry"—are the very things that I am hearing daily from the people down at Occupy Boston.
So I suppose to the skeptics I'd say "Come talk to the rest of us, not just the naked ones." If you're only looking for spectacle you'll find it.
Indy: A lot has been written about how Occupy Wall Street doesn't have a cohesive message. Do you think this is true? Do you think it matters?
JM: Every time someone says that, a little piece of me screams […]. There are a lot of different people down there with a lot of different agendas: there are anarchists, there are libertarians, there are union workers, there are teachers, there are people who've been foreclosed upon. There are people who are bankrupt or defaulting on student loans, or can't feed their families, or have too much education and no jobs, [who] just want Congress to pass the American Jobs Act—all these people have different goals and demands, and the idea is to focus on what they have in common.
Indy: Which is what?
JM: What they have in common are two things: one, they are frustrated with a financial system that values greed and influence over hard work and honesty, a system that rewards super-wealthy criminals and punishes the poor, [and] two, they are willing to stand up and be counted. They find some solace in going outside and talking to anyone who will listen, because they feel there's nothing left to do […]. This is what democracy looks like when it's broken, when all the traditional channels of politics and media and civil public discourse have failed and broken down and the only thing left to do is, as Howard Beale says in The Network: "Get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'
Indy: Why do you think that the press has been relatively dismissive of the movement so far? Based on what you saw when you were protesting, do you feel like it will gain momentum?
JM: It will definitely gain momentum, and already is [sic.]. I'm not sure I'm totally on board with the Arab Spring parallels—mostly because I think the issues we're fighting are too different, and we're not being murdered in the streets or under the thumb of a brutal dictator—but I think what it does have in common is the snowballing process of any movement that taps into what the people are thinking and feeling. I think the press will have no choice but to pay attention and I think we're already seeing that come about. Their reasons for being dismissive I think all stem from the assumption that this is a temporary thing, a brief blip on the radar screen of the 24-hour news circuit. But the bigger it gets, the more wrong they become.
Indy: Do you think that Occupy Wall Street has the potential to become the left's "Tea Party?" (Van Jones, head of the American Dream Movement, told E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, “we can learn many important lessons from the achievements of the libertarian, populist right. This [Occupy Wall St] is our “Tea Party” moment—in a positive sense.”)
JM: As much as I resist that parallel (emotionally, just based on the "ew" factor), I definitely see how one could make that comparison. I think a huge difference that can't be ignored is the difference between what really is a grassroots leaderless movement, and an astro-turfed outreach project of the super-wealthy to convince [the] average Fox News viewer that their purpose on this earth is to tear down anything with the word "progress" written on it. I certainly can't speak for everyone, because again, as I say, there are a lot of people down there thinking in a lot of different directions, but I think the influence the Tea Party somehow attained just by showing up in public and being upset is actually somewhat encouraging, so [in that sense] I would accept the Tea Party vs. Occupiers comparison.
Indy: If you could send a list of demands to the Obama administration and Congress, what would they be?
JM: The beautiful thing is that specific demands are not what is binding us together. It is the camaraderie that comes from standing up and being counted. We are taking care of each other, in a way that the free market can never do, [and] we are practicing real democracy in a way that the government is currently incapable.
Personally, my list of demands would include passing the American Jobs Act and the millionaire tax, and wanting to see at least some of the people responsible for the financial crisis—who got bailed out and then gave themselves bonuses with American tax dollars—brought to justice. I want to see them treated like the criminals they are, and not like the kings they believe themselves to be.
Kate Welsh ’12 is not just a naked one.