Floated Along in Flood Wall Street: A Vassar Student’s Observations

The ideology of Flood Wall Street was valiant, and it was sound. It was touted by its organizers not as an isolated event, or as only a part of the string of that week’s climate protest, but as a movement. On September 22nd, 2014, wearing blue, rallied by speakers including Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges, two thousand people flooded down Broadway, a main artery in the financial district, and eventually sat down in the street around the iconic Charging Bull statue. The effort was to identify where the onus of climate change should lie: with the financial institutions that compose and foster a system, broadly speaking, where immense profit can be made from environmentally destructive behavior. Protest was taken to the doorsteps of the financiers that turn the earth’s existing pockets of petroleum, coal, and natural gas into a 20 trillion dollar Easter egg hunt. Elaborated nicely in Wen Stephenson’s “Let This Earth Day be the Last,” the global financial system will ultimately be the reason the anthropogenic world comes to an end. For this reason, many signs, stickers, and slogans, and much of the vocalized intent at Flood Wall Street is directed towards the dismantling of said system. With the presence of what looked like hundreds of people from both mainstream and alternative media, including CNN, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera, the message was heard loud and clear.

By the end of the day, police had arrested about 100 people and pepper-sprayed a dozen or so. The Wall Street bankers’ taxis may have had to divert their route, and the bankers themselves might have heard about a protest a block away that was telling them to stop doing their jobs that make them hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars annually. A lot of people were loud and impassioned, many confused, and a significant handful were upset—at the oppressive system, yes, but also at how that oppression expressed itself in the human make-up of the protest. Who was it that was able to attend this protest? It started at 9:30 a.m., and went as late as 8 p.m., on a work day. Who was it that was able to “risk arrest”? Why were there a handful of men trying to change the proceedings and the strategy of a protest organized primarily by women? In the course of the day, many of us looked down at our hands and realized that we and those around us were primarily white. There were indeed people from “front-line communities,” indigenous people, and people of color—and I want to stress their presence as to not erase it—but the crowd on Broadway was really mostly white. The protest was mainly comprised of people who have benefited from the system that they were protesting against.

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This was epitomized when a woman from a first nation people in Alaska wanted to teach everyone a chant of her people, whom she said is a “warrior people.” In a language that definitely none of us understood except for the woman leading it, a bunch of mostly white, mostly liberal arts grads emphatically repeated a chant that was undoubtedly weird to be coming out of their mouths. In this awkward illumination of the protest’s demographics, we all saw that it was not indigenous peoples, one of the demographics of people most affected by climate change, insisting on the destruction of the capitalist system in that particular time and place. There is certainly widespread agitation among indigenous people all over the world for the subversion of the dominant political economic system, towards its upheaval and towards other sorts of revolution, but not on that Monday on Broadway.

To make up for this fact, the sentiments of more than a few speakers, communicated via human mic, implored us to “acknowledge our privilege” and situate ourselves in the matrix of – isms that we all learned about in our social science classes. One particularly impassioned person echoed this from the roof of a vendor booth on the sidewalk, a place where he apparently was not allowed to be—in a kind of spectacular way, he jumped off and ran from the police for a good 50 feet before he was tackled by 10 or so cops, who were then swarmed by about 30 people with cameras. His image ended up representing the protest on a number of news media websites. Despite the words of solidarity towards those with less privilege who were not at the protest, those who flooded Wall Street were inescapably similar to the people working within Wall Street’s financial catacombs.

Ultimately, this protest’s goal was to disrupt the systematic practices that are hastening climate change, something that is both the ultimate equalizer and the most effective exhibitor of inequality. It will destroy us all eventually, but for now it is destroying the lives of the most disadvantaged people first. Those with means to move above the metaphorical storm surge will do so, for the time being, and the rest will be left to drown. At barely any feet above sea level, the “front line community” of New York’s financial district represents a geography of irony, as does the flood of privileged protesters onto its streets. In the crazy milieu of climate change, those that are able to come out relatively unscathed are the ones that are able to do the direct action that tries to stop it. And this really makes sense in the system that they are both chanting to overthrow and bolstering by doing so.

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