What Remains: The Wall St. Occupation
By Karen Malpede
Submitted to portside by the author
September 27, 2011
I'm standing with Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink,
Ynestra King who organized the two women's marches on the
Pentagon in the early 1980ies, and the first eco-feminist
conference, Women and Life on Earth, in 1980; and Ahmad and
Ann Shirazi, he, Iranian, she of Jewish descent, veterans of
many antiwar, and free Palestine marches of this the last
twenty years. A few hundred feet away the core members of
Occupy Wall St. are in the midst of their 15th General
Meeting since their occupation began eight days ago. And I'm
thinking of Em Jo Basshe. He was a progressive playwright
who wrote a dynamic epic play about Jewish immigrants to the
lower east side called The Centuries. "Bread for the living.
Shrouds for the dead," are the opening lines. His play was
produced in 1927 by the anarchist New Playwrights Theater, a
collective including John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos,
and funded by Jewish financier Otto Kahn. (I have just
benefited from George Soros funding for my new play, "Another
Life," about our torture program and post-9/11 madness.)
Basshe's play had a cast of 35 actors playing the entire
Lower East Side. He later went to Hollywood to write films
and then was black listed by HUAC and the McCarthyites. He
spent the final twenty years of his life in a depressive
stupor on his living room couch. His wife told me he "sat
up" when the Free Speech Movement erupted in Berkeley in
1964. Basshe was magically restored when he heard Mario
Savio fight for the right to shout "fuck you," out loud.
The New Left had risen from the ashes of the Old. And then
he was content to die.
So we in our small group are speaking about the young.
Behind us, the General Meeting grinds on. They are using a
"people's microphone" in the plaza where no sound equipment
is allowed. A speaker says three words, which a core among
the crowd repeats and so the rest of us can hear. Everything
takes twice as long. 'I'm thinking of Athens," says Medea,
"how did they do it?" I say, "Their only question was,
'should we invade.'" Ynestra says, "the microphone is a
strategic invention." But we are happy in our little group
of veteran protesters, though we lack the patience of the
young for this General Assembly and its endless community-
minded minutia. The woman who announces the post-meeting
meeting of the "non-male identified" occupiers of the square,
follows this by saying, "you can be in a male body as long as
you are not 100 % male identified," and the man who tells us
what the woman with pendulous bare breasts wants to say
because she has taken a vow of silence, and the young women
in hijabs, and the young (mostly) white men and women with
their dreads and tattoos, all this would have been impossible
but for the New Left, the Black Power and the Feminist
movements that happened before these young ones were born.
Our New Left devolved into Weatherman fantasies of violent
revolution, yet what remains forty years later are these new
committed pacifists, reminding each other in their General
Assembly to take their vitamins, stay hydrated and recycle.
They are gentle, non-hierarchical, non-doctrinaire,
completely committed to non-violence. There are egos to be
seen, but, so far, so good, there are no internecine fights
for dominance, no purges, no betrayals. They paint signs
with individualistic, often witty, always acute and
encompassing sayings: "if you lost your house, Wall Street
stole it from you," and they have a bucket collecting money
for their "adopt a puppy fund." Yesterday, a score of them
were brutally beaten and maced by New York City cops as they
walked up Fifth Ave. obstructing traffic without a permit.
Today, they speak of a committee that is reaching out to
local businesses to establish good working relationships.
They say that Wall St. workers are coming surreptitiously to
support them with funds. Free pizzas are being delivered.
After the General Assembly, if it ever ends, there will be a
I say to Ynestra, "Everything we fought for is here, now,
today." The antimilitarism, the nonviolence, the feminism so
accepted you simply see these young men and women working
together as equals without a second thought, the anti-
capitalist, pro-democratic socialist analysis, the anarchism,
their concern for nature, and animals, for the immediate
ecology of this place and the larger implications for the
So, I feel like Em Jo Basshe, woken from a long dark sleep by
the sudden emergence of these committed, radical young. I
wonder that they seem to have adopted as given the lessons we
struggled so, often with such acrimony, to learn ourselves.
I marvel that from all our madness, they seem to have kept
the good parts. A gentle strength pervades their occupation.
"They are so sweet," we say to one another standing in our
elders' tiny circle. "Where did they come from?" How,
without a draft, did they get here, so resolutely antiwar?
Well, there are no jobs. They went to school, graduated into
the empty prospects of the decaying empire. They looked
around: whatever had been promised them was moot. They
target Wall St. because, of course, it is the brutality of
unchecked, late free-market capitalist economy, brought even
lower by the wars, that mars their future. And they carry in
the marrow of their bones, an Old Left, a New Left and
whatever they have yet make of this, their one idealistic
youthful energetic wish to change the world: a New New Left.
A Newer Left. At last. Rise from your stupor, your cynicism,
your despair, as Basshe did, sit up and join them there.
They are our legacy, our children, and they are very much
[Karen Malpede is most recently author of the plays "Another
Life" and "Prophecy" and editor of Acts of War: Iraq &
Afghanistan in Seven Plays.]
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