Occupy movement: from local action to a global howl of protest
Esther AddleyA month after its launch, more than 900 cities around the world have hosted protests affiliated to the Occupy causeGuy Fawkes masks have become the global face of the Occupy protests. Photograph: Frank Rumpenhorst/EPA
In Madrid, tens of thousands thronged the Puerta del Sol square shouting "Hands up! This is a robbery!" In Santiago, 25,000 Chileans processed through the city, pausing outside the presidential palace to hurl insults at the country's billionaire president. In Frankfurt, more than 5,000 people massed outside the European Central Bank, in scenes echoed in 50 towns and cities across Germany, from Berlin to Stuttgart. Sixty thousand people gathered in Barcelona, 100 in Manila, 3,000 in Auckland, 200 in Kuala Lumpur, 1,000 in Tel Aviv, 4,000 in London.
A month to the day after 1,000 people first turned up in Wall Street to express their outrage at corporate greed and social inequality, campaigners are reflecting on a weekend that saw a relatively modest demonstration in New York swell into a truly global howl of protest.
The Occupy campaign may have hoped, at its launch, to inspire similar action elsewhere, but few can have foreseen that within four weeks, more than 900 cities around the world would host co-ordinated protests directly or loosely affiliated to the Occupy cause.
The exact targets of protesters' anger may differ from city to city and country to country. But while their numbers remain small in many places, activists argue that Saturday's demonstrations, many of which are still ongoing – and are pledged to remain so for the foreseeable future – are evidence of a growing wave of global anger at social and economic injustice.
"This is not a battle by youth or Chilean society," said Camila Vallejo, a Chilean student leader who has become a key figure in that country's protests, and who this week travelled to Europe to forge alliances with protest movements there. "This is a world battle that transcends all frontiers."
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the global financial crisis was the trigger, adding: "What you are seeing all around the world, starting from Wall Street, people are showing their frustrations."
After a month of no more than expressions of lukewarm empathy for the movement's anti-Wall Street feeling, Barack Obama's spokesman adopted the protesters' own terminology in calling themselves "the 99%". "The president will continue to acknowledge the frustration that he himself shares about the need for Washington to do more to support our economic recovery and to ensure that the interest of the 99% of Americans is well-represented," said Josh Earnest.
The protests may have coalesced around the Occupy movement's suggested date of 15 October, but the wave of public anger did not, of course, begin in New York. Occupy Wall Street has acknowledged its debt to the Arab spring, and was inspired and partly organised in its earliest stages by the Canadian-based Adbusters campaign group. The Chilean and Israeli protests also predate the US campaign.
Spain's "indignados", or outraged, claim some credit for inspiring the protest, having begun camping out in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square in May, sparking similar long-term demonstrations around the country.
With at least 200,000 people coming out on to the streets on Saturday, the Spanish movement proved that it was still alive after a summer break in which many thought it had gone quiet. Protesters continue to occupy the "Hotel Madrid", which they broke into on Saturday, and a building in Barcelona.
The Spanish movement is focused on the 20 November general election when, with no little irony, opinion polls suggest the leftwing protest movement may help to eject the socialist party of the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, in favour of a government led by the rightwing People's Party.
Mariano Rajoy, the party's leader, seems set for a landslide victory and is expected to impose a heavy dose of economic liberalism and austerity on the country.
Each movement has its own local flavour. The Israelis complained about housing, high cost of living and "social justice". For Chile, education was the catalyst. In Greece, it was a backlash against austerity. For Filipinos, US imperialism was apparently the target. But there were unifying themes, too: tents, social media, the "human microphone" – where the crowds chant back phrases uttered by a speaker, and shaky "jazz hands" to indicate agreement.
In parts of the world where protest movements are longer established, agendas are widening. Chilean protesters have moved on from education to target banks over interest rates, and to protest against GM crops and a proposed dam in remote Patagonia. A general strike has been called for this Wednesday and Thursday.
The Israeli protests have incorporated demands ranging from lower food prices and affordable child care, to higher welfare benefits and curbs on the concentration of economic wealth and power in the hands of a few corporations. Exasperation with the state of capitalism and corporate greed was manifest at the weekend in cities around the world.
"The protest is continuing, though it is changing in its methods and targets," said Israeli activist Yuli Khromchenco. "We are moving to other spheres. Part of this is about our internal organisation, creating small teams and small events around particular issues such as education … we need to build structure, develop methods of direct action – and for people to gather their strength."
A comparatively modest march in Tel Aviv on Saturday followed much larger protests across Israel during the summer demanding economic reform. A tent city in the prosperous Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv, was cleared by the municipal authorities and police earlier this month with little resistance.
Other tent-dwellers have also packed up or been cleared, bar a few isolated stragglers. At its peak, the Israeli movement saw scores of tent cities across the country and galvanised hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take part in marches and rallies that had enormous public support – 87%, according to one poll.
There are even some signs of cross-fertilisation. Vallejo, perhaps the most charismatic leader of a still largely leaderless movement in Chile, popped up at the march in Paris this weekend.
Italian media suggested that many of the rioters in a protest in Rome at the weekend had trained together in the woods of the Val di Susa area, in north-west Italy, where protesters have been trying to block the construction of a new high speed rail line.
The Italian daily La Repubblica quoted one unnamed rioter on Monday saying that he and others had regularly travelled to Greece to get tips from protesters there.
Given its particularly parlous economic situation, Greece has seen the most focused public anger so far, in protests that dwarf the modest several hundred who turned out in Athens on Saturday. A barrage of strikes, work stoppages and sit-ins will peak with a paralysing two-day general walk-out on Wednesday.
The parliament will vote on Thursday on further austerity measures. "The biggest protests ever seen in this country will take place in the coming days," Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of Greece's million-strong civil-servants' union, Adedy, told the Guardian. "The whole of Athens will fill with demonstrators … the government's heartless economic policies have to be overturned."
In Berlin, police pulled down tents pitched in front of the historic Reichstag parliament building on Saturday evening and confiscated sleeping bags, mats and plates, as a permanent no-protest zone around the Reichstag outlaws all organised gatherings. On Monday afternoon about 40 protesters remained at Platz der Republik, the grassy square in front of the Reichstag. Watched by a small group of police officers, the assembled discussed the future of their protest, using the "human microphone" technique to amplify a speaker's voice for those at the back. Organic clementines were passed around as one young man, smoking a pungent pipe, said they were determined to set up camp there and not elsewhere in the city. He said OccupyBerlin was still in the "development stage" and they were trying to reach a consensus about how best to proceed. "It's symbolic," he said, pointing to the famous inscription above the Reichstag's grand entrance dedicating it to "Dem Deutschen Volke", the German people. "We are supposed to play a part in democracy," he said.Reporting: Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Helen Pidd in Berlin, Helena Smith in Athens, Giles Tremlett in Madrid, Tom Kington in Rome, Jonathan Franklin in Santiago
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