Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal

Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT

If the purpose of re-imagining the city is to stimulate understanding and appreciation of what the actual possibilities might be for a city of heart’s desire, and to move the uncommitted to join in the struggle to achieve such a city, then perhaps there is a very concrete and visible activity that might provoke action in that direction.

The concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement is specifically to foster action, and the adoption of “Occupy Wall Street” as its name indicates the movements analysis of the road-block to success: Wall Street, as symbolic of the power of financial institutions and the 1% they coordinate over the lives of the 99%. But the name is meant symbolically; at the most, the movement has occupied spaces already largely public, near the financial district but not displacing any financial activity by its presence. At best, demonstrations on Wall Street itself have been limited, short-lived, and tightly controlled by the police. And this is perhaps as far as, today, realistically, the movement can go in actually, literally, “occupying Wall Street.”

But why not spell out what actually “occupying wall street” might look like, as a way of highlighting what the alternatives to it are. Why not use imagination in fact to picture what a street like Wall Street might look like if it were actually occupied by the 99%, if what was done there was replaced by activities better serving the broad public interest? Imagine the buildings of Wall Street as they are now but devoted to advancing the goal of a city of the heart’s desire. What would they be like?

Well, why not have a design competition to answer that question? Suppose the assignment were to imagine the trading floor of the Stock Exchange as the meeting place for the General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Imagine if the offices in the Stock Exchange were to be allocated to Occupy Wall Street’s many Working Groups and spin-offs. Imagine the lobby and accessible spaces turned over to Occupy Sandy as a storage and distribution center for food and blankets for the victims of Sandy, and kept as a an available resource for other disasters?1 Imagine the incredible high-speed computers of the stock exchange made available to civic organizations for social networking and information on present campaigns and planned actions. What would Wall Street, and the Stock Exchange building, look like when put to these different uses?

But why limit the re-imagination of existing city spaces only to Wall Street itself? Why not reimagine 1 World Trade Center, the erstwhile “Freedom Tower,” and make it truly representative of our vision of a free and just society by converting it into supportive housing for the homeless, changing it from use by the richest and most powerful members of our society to a symbol of our concern for the least well off and most powerless? Perhaps, if the homeless were all thereafter provided permanent homes elsewhere, Wall Street might serve as a publicly-supported giant hostel or family hotel for visitors to the city who cannot afford the luxury hotels abounding elsewhere in the district – reflecting the concerns we have for the strangers in our midst?

Goldman Sachs has just finished building a $2.4 billion building in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center site, as its investment banking headquarters. What is worked on there will undoubtedly have a major impact, not only on the financial sector and the economy as a whole, but also on public policies affecting both the 1% and the 99%. Suppose the building were re-imagined to serve the purposes of participatory decision-making by all segments of the 100%? Suppose rooms and office sites were assigned to community groups, groups advocating for the poor, minorities, the powerless, as well as to business and trade groups, to think tanks for groups across the political and ideological spectrum? Suppose executive dining rooms were to be eliminated, and instead cafeterias were provided for workers from all the different offices – perhaps with tables designed to maximize meeting strangers? Perhaps a health club, similarly designed? Perhaps the Chase Manhattan tower would offer another similar opportunity, if the demand exceeded what the Goldman Sachs building could accommodate – although Goldman Sachs alone is to accommodate 11,000 workers in 43 floors? Universities are constantly struggling for space for expansion. How about a competition for turning the new Bank of America building on 42nd street over to the City University of New York, and inviting other educational institutions from around the five boroughs to share the space?

One could imagine this as a design competition, along the lines of a conventional architectural competition, with a prominent jury, a foundation-donated prize, wide-spread publicity and exhibitions and conferences on the results. If star architects are too involved with clients who might not appreciate the effort, perhaps schools of architecture and planning might be hosts to studios and projects to be entered in the competition, and the as yet unconstrained imagination of students marshaled in its execution?

And, theoretically, it could not only be a competition for physical designers, but perhaps also for economists and sociologists and planners. And not only as to the new uses imagined for the places, but also as to the impact of displacing their present uses. Economists might consider how investment decisions could be made if we didn’t have a stock exchange, political scientists how public decisions could be made absent the power of mighty lobbyists. Sociologists might explore what the resultant mixing of users might suggest and how it might be made most productive.

Such a competition, or competitions, should not be so difficult to organize. And if one is serious about wanting to bring about a better world, one of heart’s desire, why not concretely imagine what it would look like with the physical spaces that we have already built up in our cities?


1. Occupy Sandy might be asked about their space needs. They have put out a request for help:
“Occupy Sandy needs a new multi-purpose space to be used similarly to how Jacobi and 520 have been used for the past month. Please use your networks to help us expand our options. The needs are: roll-in/out capability, meeting and intake space, proximity to transit, accessibility to recovery sites, internet access or potential to install, key access, office and communications hub space, bathrooms, positive community relationships, parking/wide streets, clean, safe and healthy. Please respond immediately with any leads about spaces. Contact is:”

#3. Occupy and the Provision of Public Space: The City’s Responibiities


The occupation of key public spaces by Occupy Wall Street, as a means of calling attention to more basic problems, raises questions of the role of public spaces that need to be urgently dealt with. The basic questions about the organization of society, democracy, inequality, social justice, public priorities are deep-going and require long-term answers. They should not be pre-empted by the immediate needs for space, not should any space be fetishized. But spatial issues need to be dealt with immediately and urgently.

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The need for, and the function of, public space, raised by the Zuccotti Park affair, is an issue that should be confronted directly as an issue in democratic governance. While other city departments are also necessarily involved, the focus here is on the appropriate concerns of the City Planning Commission and its staff, as one entry point in its consideration.

It is axiomatic, we believe, that the concern of city planning is not only promotion of the efficient use of the city’s built environment and the health and safety of its users, but also the extent to which that environment, and generally planning for and allocation land uses in the city, furthers the interests of democracy and participation in the affairs of the community.

The Zuccotti Park affair, and similar forcible evictions of protestors from public spaces in cities across the country, reveals a deficit in the provision and management of public space. The courts may ultimately rule that the constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right peaceably to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances implies a constitutional duty on states and their cities to make such assembly possible through the provision of public space for its exercise. Until there is a change in the composition of the U.S. Supreme ‘court, however, it is left for other branches of government to accept that responsibility as a matter of good democratic policy. The following discussion suggests the possibilities in New York City.

The occupiers of Zuccotti Park clearly had a message they wished to convey to the wider public, one that concerned issues of governance, social justice, public policy, the conduct of the affairs of the city. It was perhaps a controversial message, one affecting a wide range of subjects. There is widespread interest in at what the occupiers have to say, both pro and con. They have found Zuccotti Park a feasible location in which not only to express their opinions but to discuss them, look at alternate formulations, educate themselves on the issues, and in the process develop a model of discussion and transparent decision-making that is itself of significant potential value to the development of urban democracy. They claim the right to occupy a particular space not simply on First Amendment grounds – they do not wish simply to yell and scream for its own sake, but to participate in the democratic governance of the society in which they live. They are in a notable modern tradition of the use of central spaces for democratic action, going from Plaza de Mayo to Tahrir Square, including in the U.S. spaces such as the mall in Washington D.C. An even older tradition goes back to the Athenian agora and the medieval cathedral square (as St. James in London today). Their availability for political use is generally taken for granted, if sometimes limited by undemocratic regimes or used for repressive purposes, as with Nazi plazas and Soviet squares.

In a city as dense, and with the kind of market-dictated property values it reflects, there is a real need to face the lack of such spaces directly and to plan for their use as part of the essential city planning process and governmental regulation of land uses. The Zuccotti Park affair highlights the urgency of the need to act.

We believe that the city government should, in confronting uses such as those of Occupy Wall Street, welcome their initiative for public involvement and consider carefully how the city’s planning process might promote the occupiers’ ability to participate, actively and peaceably, in the city’s public life

How might this be done?

An open and democratically-motivated city leadership might provide communications facilities, radio and TV access, sponsor public fora, have transparent discussions on the issues being raised in governing circles, call for open and imaginative and constructive supportive conduct by city officials in all matters related to the occupiers abilities to make their voices heard, encouraging a public debate around their views. But even short of such actions, making space available for such activities is a primary need that should be addressed by the City, a need that requires it to examine the possibilities for the use of space within the city to encourage democratic activities. The demands of the First Amendment set a minimum threshold for the exercise of the right to free speech, but what is needed is not the ability to speak freely out in the desert, inaccessible to most and heard by few. Rather, what is needed are publicly available spaces that can fulfill the functions of the traditional agora, places where free men and women can meet, debate, speak to and listen to each other, learn from each other, confront issues of public concern and facilitate their resolution.

Zuccotti Park was not ideal for the purposes of speech and assembly, but by almost heroic effort it was made into one in which such uses thrived. The City could have supported them: it could have done things as simple as provide sanitary facilities, as it has in other parks; it could have provided sound systems that would both facilitate wide participation and minimize disturbance to neighbors; it could have consulted on health and safety measures, provided fire extinguishers, safe connections to power lines, even efficient sources of heat and protection from the elements. Facilities for the provision of food and water could have been provided, as they are in other parks. It could have arranged with the occupiers that they could speak and meet in safety and security. The availability of spaces such as the atrium at 60 Wall Street might be a model. But the City did nothing along these lines at Zuccotti Park; it did not even explore their possibility.

But it is not too late to recognize the problem and plan for its immediate amelioration and long term solution. We could learn from Zuccotti Park what is needed and plan how to provide it. The city has developed other plans which include provision of public spaces, and has had them since the city was founded. But those plans need to clarify further what those publicly available spaces are for what, purposes they should serve, where they should be located, how they should be designed and equipped. We have plans for the spaces and the facilities that have been shown to be needed for other purposes. We have waterfront plans of which we are proud, transportation plans, environmental plans, social service plans, recreational plans; we need public spaces as part of a democracy or public participation plan, one which would look at the spaces and the facilities needed to make a healthy democracy thrive. We are able to plan and make space available for ticker tape parades, community gardens, street fairs, farmers’ markets, political rallies; we provide for commercial and recreational use of parks; we even arrange for seating for large numbers in the middle of times Square in the heart of the city’s busiest intersection at the peak of rush hour. We build and/or subsidize convention centers and sports arenas for large crowds. We plan special restrictions and special opportunities for various holidays. We provide office space and meeting space in numerous locations for the transaction of city business, from Community Board meetings to public hearings to electoral events, and we rent space in municipal properties and on public sidewalks to all kinds of activities, public and private, and at all hours of the day and night.

Further, the City through zoning regulations, building codes, tax and subsidy policies, anti-discrimination laws, environmental controls, infrastructure provision, transportation policies, and the exercise of other normal governmental functions, has substantial control not only over publicly-owned space but also over privately-owned space. Many of these deal explicitly both with restricted and with favored uses, whether negatively as with nuisances or positively as with theaters or community facilities or spatial bonuses for open spaces and public facilities. Spaces for public uses may be publicly owned, or privately owned and subject to public influence and regulation; it is the use, not the bare ownership, which is the issue. A Public Spaces Plan concerned with the spatial requirements for the exercise of democratic functions should deal with both. .

For many of the city’s spaces there are already appropriate time, place, and manner regulations governing their use, and such regulations, if reasonable, may be applicable for spaces appropriate for democratic assembly and speech, keeping in mind the constitutional importance of the particular uses involved and their adoption through open procedures consistent with democratic decision-making. The issues involved in dealing with Zuccotti Park are all within the City’s power to manage, and relatively easily. In Newark, for instance, “the city’s police chief… said she would waive the permit ordinarily required to assembling in Military Park, telling protesters that her officers’ task was ‘to make sure you’re safe.… members of the city’s Municipal Council said they supported lifting the 9 p.m. curfew that typically governs the plaza.”

Should we not plan ahead to do the same kind of planning as we do for other spaces in the City to provide space for the functioning of the democracy to which we are constitutionally committed? Should not the imagination, the technical skills, the design experience, the collective experience of the diverse body of our citizenry and our guests, the knowledge of our educational institutions, the competence of our business community, the creativity of our artists, be now harnessed in that effort?

In implementing such a Public Spaces Plan, consideration must be given also to criteria for the management of such spaces. Tw o different groups or individuals cannot conduct two different activities in the same space at the same time, certainly not without careful prior understanding as to their rules of behavior. Developing or applying such rules is a common everyday task for those in charge of many spaces, both public and private; the examples above suggest the many situations in which such rules are already established and enforced as to public spaces, streets, parks, with relatively wide public agreement.

The Zuccotti Park experience suggests two points that require special notice. One is that in determining priorities among possibly conflicting claims on the use of a particular space, a particular priority should be given to uses which increase the ability of the populace to participate actively and with information in the democratic governance of the city. Detailed research would be useful to see how criteria are now framed in various cities for the regulation of various types of spaces. Transparency and ample opportunities to be heard should be a sine quo non for the adoption of such rules.

The Zuccotti Park case also shows the potentials of open discussion among users and affected non-users of public space to deal with arrangements for use. The agreements between the occupiers and Community Board 1 for the regulation of noise at the Park show that even in difficult circumstances discussion can achieve satisfactory results. The experience at Zuccotti also shows that the absence of discussion can have very undesirable results, as the clearance of the Park at by the City in the dead of night, without notice and or oversight, with substantial property damage and infliction of unnecessary personal hardship, demonstrates. Occupiers waive no rights by entering into negotiations over time, place, and manner regulations on their use of a particular space at a particular time in a particular manner. The rights of free speech can be adequately protected in such circumstances; the cases are legion. The City, on its side, should be sympathetic to the prospective users’ needs, and not meet them with expressed hostility. Agreement with their goals is not a requirement, but civility and common sense are.

There should be an end to the handling of the democratic outpouring we have seen at Zuccotti Park by forcible evictions and quasi-military police actions, and instead a forward-looking and responsible planning and implementation process for the flowering of a vital and constructive democracy in the City.

* * * *

Why, within city government in New York City, should the Planning Commission take a leading role here?

Apart from its purpose to plan broadly, comprehensively and long-term for the welfare of the city’s people, there is a realistic political argument for it to take a leading role in the matter. All political leaders have a vested interested in staying in power; it goes with the territory. The city’s current mayor has certainly demonstrated such an interest in the past. He has no incentive to tolerate protest, or certainly to encourage it, unless it may lead to a loss of voter confidence such as to threaten his continuation in office. The City Planning Commission, by contrast, is specifically created as a non-partisan commission, has very limited powers; its members are not dependent on their position on it for their livelihood or status. Those concerned about the uses of adequate space in the city for purposes that include political protest can attempt to persuade a sitting mayor that a negative attitude incurs a political cost to him or her. But directing their attention of the somewhat less partisan political Planning Commission may facilitate the beginning of constructive discussion.

[This piece has dealt with government’s responsibility only at the city level. But states can play a significant role here also. Simply requiring, as part of mandated municipal plans, provision for public spaces and their democratic use, is an example; examining the contribution state parks or other state-controlled spaces can make is another. The Federal government can also play a role, through its control of substantial space in urban centers, much of it open as plazas or otherwise. Even the UN could play a role, by laying out the meaning of the right of assembly as a human right. ]

#9. Occupy WallStreet – Claims, not Demands

#9. Occupy Wall Street –Targeted Claims, Not Limited Demands

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a basic response to a social system seen as unjust and inhumane, one which is killing people, leaving millions in poverty, destroying the natural environment, stifling and distorting creativity, undermining democratic participation in social decision-making, and creating an existential insecurity about the future throughout the land, and indeed throughout the world. All of its slogans, all of its participants, reflected in hundreds of interviews and media stories and learned analyses, confirm that understanding of what it is about.
Specificity: Demands vs. Claims

Yet there is a strong undercurrent in these accounts, including some sympathizers as well as critics, that the movement’s demands are unspecified, unclear, lacking in useful formulation, uncertain of actual and concrete goals.

Is that criticism justified? I think not, with one exception. I think it results from a misinterpretation of the movement’s sources and has political consequences that undermine the movement’s potential for desired radical change.

Why does not the movement ask for repeal of the Bush tax cuts, implementation of environmentalists’ resistance to fracking, subsidies for alternate energy development, a moratorium on evictions for mortgage arrears, renewed restrictions on campaign contributions, closing of tax loopholes, a Warren Buffett tax on millionaires? Adequate Federal and State funding for education, repeal of mandatory criminal sentencing laws, ending mass deportations and inhuman immigration laws? These – just as examples – are all demands that virtually every supporter of the Occupy movement would endorse. Why not settle down, draw up a list of those demands, spell them out in enough detail so that there is no doubt of their meaning, figure out their budgetary implications, lay out a strategy for getting them adopted, and set about systematically developing a campaign around them?

Why not? Because that ends up playing the game, and the whole essence of the movement is to reject the game’s rules as it is being played, to produce change that includes each of these demands but goes much further to question the structures that make those demands necessary. The analogy to the heart of the Arab spring uprisings, to the civil rights movement, to the counter-cultural protests of the 60’s, are striking. They all believed they were operating under a system that needed to be changed in the way it functioned before their specific demands could be realized; their power lay in the evidence of the mass support they provided for change, the evidence that things could not go on as they were, that those that held the levers of power had to use them to implement deep changes or get out of the way and let others that would do so get at it.

In this sense, claims of rights, perhaps in the form of manifestoes, rather than political laundry lists of demands, are indeed the way to go: understanding rights as statements of principles, sharp enough to reveal concrete positions on broad topics, perhaps with examples, but not confined to specifics. Occupy Wall Street is not a lobbying movement, but a movement for social change. In the Arab spring, the core of the demonstrations was for fundamental change, with the ouster of a particular dictator is immediate target but not its only or ultimate goal. It could well be argued that limiting the demand to that one step needed to be seen as only one step, a first step, and that the hard work of more comprehensive change still remains its task. Certainly Saul Alinsky would argue that that any effective movement must have one or more immediate, realizable, demands around which to organize and demonstrate success. This might be the exception to the “claims for rights, not demands for programs” rule.” Perhaps pushing for the Warren Buffett millionaire’s tax might be such a demand for the Occupy movements, or possibly a short list for flexibility. The important thing is to see them as parts of a larger picture, means to broader goals, not ends in themselves.

Further, demands, as opposed to claims, implicitly assume a setting within the established order. They call for reforms of the status quo, rather than for rejection, for what Richard Sennett has called “different shades of capitalisms” rather than alternate methods of structuring a society. That is not to say that reforms are not important in themselves, nor to say that they may not be steps on the way to larger changes. There are reformist reforms, and non-reformist reforms. Many social movements that support claims such as those of the Occupy movement see their path to winning those claims as going through non-reformist reforms, and that route is not inconsistent with the one Occupy has thus far chosen. But it is not Occupy’s route. Occupy’s actions may in fact be the necessary underpinning for achieving real reforms, both reformist and non-reformist. But in the spectrum of resistance to the prevailing order, Occupy Wall Street represents a different approach.

Paul Krugman puts it this way:

It’s clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it’s really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details.

But it’s not only a matter of division of labor; it reflects the depth of the concerns of the protestors. Pressing claims is different from targeting demands. Occupy Wall Street not about detailing a political or legislative agenda for today. It knows at whom the movement is addressed, who is blocking the claims of rights in its manifestos, and it knows for whom it speaks, whose claims it is pressing. Its claims are not for pie in the sky, not simply hopes and desires, but the principles it is pursuing. Those in power need to surrender that power, need to change their ways. Let them start; the movement will watch, will say whether they are on the right road or not, whether they have gone far enough or not. The claims are addressed at a particular named target, and establish the criteria by which their actions, in response to any specific demand, can be judged.

Conflict vs. Consensus

Consensus is not sought; conflict is seen as inevitable. Perhaps at some deeper level everyone can be better off, but immediately some, the 1%, will be losers– not of everything, but of the unjust riches and power they have amassed. What is wanted is not consensus around concern for some amorphous declining “middle class,”, nor around a charitable concern for the very poor or the “underprivileged,” but a claim that there be no upper, middle, or lower, no privileges for anybody.

Thus the Occupy movement is not after consensus, covers but is not limited to concern for the rights of the very poor, is not for the rights of the “excluded” to be “included” in the system as it is. Such rights are part of their claim, but the claim is for a better life for all. The 99% formulation is exactly right; the hope is “for all,” but the recognition is that 1% already has what they need and much more, and must give up their hold on the excess, over is fair in a socially-oriented society, in the interests of the other 99%.

Public Space vs. Private Territory

The use of space also reflects a particular approach to the recognition of the inevitability of conflict along the way to its goals. Public space is frequently seen as a necessary ingredient of a democratic urban field. It is seen as a place for communication, for diversity, And for protest, and the presence of settings such as Tahrir square or the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires or Hyde Park in London are seen as strong support for broad mass movements for change . Occupy’s spatial setting is different: it is the site of the power that is being challenged. It is, I this sense, direct action itself, not just a call for action. Just as protests at the Pentagon in Washington differ from rallies at the Washington Monument, picket lines in front of a factory differ from collecting signatures of support at bus stops. Centering action in Zuccotti Park is bringing the battle to the enemy’s territory.

While thus far the location in New York City is only symbolic, it happens that Zuccotti Park is a privately –owned space, coincidentally named after an aggressive real estate development lawyer who has been active both in governmental affairs and in private development. The park, actually a paved plaza and what is formally known as “privately-owned public space,” is owned by Brookfield Properties, in conjunction with its ownership of One Liberty Plaza, the adjacent high-rise commercial tower, which, in Brookfield’s terms, “is home to many leading financial and professional services firms including Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Zurich American Insurance and Royal Bank of Canada.” It is in the heart of the city’s financial district, only blocks from the Wall Street centers of speculation and economic power which the movement by its name challenges. In a sense, the occupation of Zuccotti Park is already the occupation of a small piece of Wall Street.” At one corner stands a 70-foot-tall, bright red metal sculpture by Mark di Suvero, perhaps fittingly called, for today’s purpose, “Joie de vivre.”

The location can be interpreted as potentially fitting in to the Piven and Cloward view of the role of disruption in the life of social movements.

Occupy Wall Street makes no small demands, but asserts a claim broadly to the rights of all men and women. How far it will get no one knows as of now. But it certainly deserves all the support it can get.

Personal note after the big march, October 5, 2011

I’m just back from the Occupy Wall Street march. It was massive; I would guess rivals in numbers some of the national Marches on Washington. Entirely peaceful, up to now; the police were polite but stupid, closed streets to traffic but confined the marchers to the sidewalks, etc. The General Assembly at the end of the march adopted a set of resolutions, quite democratically, amazing for a setting with thousands of people participating. And without any electronics. Speakers read short resolutions or made comments, the crowd that heard them repeated them in chorus so all could hear, approval was raising your hand and wiggling your fingers, disagreement was raising your hand with palm out flat – I wasn’t sure of the motions, but there seemed general understanding and consent.

Some of the signs were great — from” Piggy Banks,” to “I’ll believe corporations are people when they execute one in Texas,” to “Wall Street should buy stocks, not politicians” and “Marx was Right: Capitalism doesn’t work”. Substantial important support from key unions: Transport Workers, American Federation of Teachers, SEIU, CUNY”s Professional and Staff Congress, Retail Workers. And apparently some neighborhood groups also, although I didn’t see any under their own signs–interesting. I’ll find out more tomorrow. Apparently after it ended a split-off group in fact tried to occupy Wall Street, and was met with excessive force — pepper sprays, horses. The media seems more interested in what the police did than who the demonstrators were or what they wanted. Yet even the Chair of the Federal Reserve System says he sympathizes with the protesters. And the movement seems to be catching on all across the country. I think it’s tapped into a generalized feeling of discontent and despair that in a way also underlies the tea party’s spread, but is much more participatory and genuine (not financed by bigoted billionaire zealots). Maybe.