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Occupy Wall Street gets a desi flavour

Last updated on: November 1, 2011 15:55 IST

Occupy Wall Street gets a desi flavour

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Social activism is in Prachi Patankar's DNA. Even as she came to the United States aged 16 from India, she had been aware of the power of citizen activism, mainly learning from her father who was fighting against water pollution and issues related to the construction of dams in western Maharashtra.

After receiving her BA from Swarthmore College in 2000, she went back to Maharashtra where she established a school for children of people displaced by dams.

She is a founding member of the 3rd I New York collective, a monthly film and music salon that showcases the works of South Asian independent filmmakers.

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Image: Everything is connected to Wall Street, says an activist.

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She has also worked with media-focused non-profits like POV and Youth Channel, as well as those focusing on social justice issues such as Witness, Chhaya and Drum (Desis Rising Up and Moving).

But nothing she has done excites her as much as her solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its fifth week.

Though only about a few thousand people are involved in the movement inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world, and much of the focus is on Wall Street, Patankar also knows it has been drawing hundreds who are fighting for ecology, better health care, better nutrition and against the military power of the West, especially America.

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Image: The protests are also against the military power of the West.

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"Everything is connected to Wall Street," she says.

She is carrying a message against American intervention, she says, going back to the 1950s starting with the Korean War.

"People here are talking about the war against Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya," she continues.

"We also talk about it, but American intervention has a very long history. We start with the 1950s though there have been many interventions before that.

"And we discuss how these wars are in the interests of the corporations, and we have produced literature and illustrations to show the connection between bombs and budgets."

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Image: Activists are seeking a better world.

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Occupy Wall Street gets a desi flavour

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At the park near the New York Stock Exchange which is occupied by some 300 protestors - many of who sleep there, and who call it Liberty Park - some signs proclaim: Wall Street Is War Street.

It is a very curious collection of people and it has drawn a diverse set of supporters and sympathizers - like Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, known for her leftist politics, and dozens of yogis who say they have no political agenda.

During the day time, the attendance often swells to 1,000; some are spectators, many are sympathizers.

The pushcart vendors often sell bagels and burgers to the protesters at reduced prices.

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Image: Susan Sarandon at the demonstration.

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Some protesters said an Indian woman got them dozens of organic apples, saying, 'Eat healthy, eat vegetables and fruit, and you can fight better because you will be healthier.'

And then there are the Gandhians, and the Om chanters.

There are youngsters and oldsters, radicals and liberals.

And there is at least one man who believes in capitalism, but is upset over monopoly capitalism and the vulgarity of greed that leads to annual compensations running into millions of dollars even to those executives whose companies are running at a loss or have received bailout money from the government.

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Image: Protests have attracted a diverse set of supporters.

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Some of the activists remember Sumit Pannu, who works for a multinational giant and who flew from San Francisco to show solidarity with the protestors.

He went back, protestors say, with his belief in capitalism unshaken, but convinced that it requires drastic surgery.

"I have never seen such commitment anytime before," Patankar says.

"Each day more and more people are joining the protests not only in New York but in many cities in America and Europe. People who were hardly activists are now finding themselves energized."

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Image: Protests have spread from the US to across the world.

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The movement has galvanized leftist South Asian activists across the country, be it the academic and bestselling writer Raj Patel (The Value of Nothing) in San Francisco or Pramila Jayapal in Seattle, who has expanded the protests by her organization One America against mass deportation of illegal immigrants.

Though activists like editor and essayist Arun Gupta, musician and teacher Sonny Singh and Prachi Patankar readily admit that the South Asian presence has to be stronger, they also say the community is visible in a few 'occupations' such as the one in Washington, DC, where Vasuda Desikan, a journalist and labour researcher, is a passionate leader.

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Image: The movement has galvanized many South Asian activists.

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Many of the over 24 South Asian activists including Singh and Gupta involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement were born and raised in America.

Others, like Patankar, who is a member of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative's organizing collective, came to America for their studies and have settled down in the country.

Patankar, who also has an MA from New York University in international education and communications, has managed Kitchen Conversations, a daily public dialogue program and the monthly immigration film series at the Tenement Museum.

There are concerns about the anti-Wall Street movement. Some critics say it is not focused and there are no specific demands.

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Image: Some critics say it is not focused and there are no specific demands.

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Occupy Wall Street gets a desi flavour

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But Arun Gupta, editor of the publication Indypendent who also produced the Occupied Wall Street Journal to boost awareness about the movement and offer strategies for more action, says not having a list of demands is a blessing.

If there are specific demands, he says, the media especially the rightwing press, will pounce on them and criticize them endlessly, and take the spotlight off the expanding movement.

He points out to a statement by the movement and says his faith in the movement is expressed well by it: 'Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions'.

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Image: A journalist says not having a list of demands is a blessing.

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'The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the one per cent.

'We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of non-violence to maximize the safety of all participants.'

In a way, it is a very Gandhian movement and a tribute to the power of militant non-violence, many South Asians say.

Gupta says he has noticed how the media initially did not show interest in the protests.

The early reports derided the activists, he adds.

Suddenly, Wall Street activism leads the nightly newscasts and is on front pages, but he feels the stories have to be told from the activists' viewpoint.

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Image: In a way, it is a very Gandhian movement.

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Hence the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which he launched with the help and inputs from many, including the controversial documentary filmmaker/activist Michael Moore.

The other day, a handful of young men, who said they were not champions of capitalism, wondered loud if the movement could lead to anarchy and finally to the tyranny and devastation of life found in many former Communist countries including Russia.

They were not forgetting, one of them said, of the millions of victims of famine and political terror in Mao's China.

Sonny Singh, who says his activism is strongly influenced by the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, has thought over the question.

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Image: Some wonder if the movement could lead to anarchy.

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"What is important to recognize," he says, "is that the decision-making process of this movement is based on consensus and direct democracy.

"Many of us in the movement - myself included - don't believe there is any hope for social and economic justice in capitalism, a system based on exploitation; but that doesn't mean that what we are fighting for is a repressive Communist state."

It is important to learn from history, learn from the mistakes and successes of the past, he adds.

"I can't imagine this movement ever supporting an authoritarian, all-powerful state at all, whether it is based on a capitalist or socialist system," he continues.

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Image: Activists say the movement is based on direct democracy.

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"This is something different. This is direct democracy. This is true people power. We want redistribution of wealth and we want economic equality.

"But we are fighting for, and creating, something radically different than what exists right now. And as one of my heroes, Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, states, 'We make the road by walking'."

As unions join the movement, expect a stronger presence of South Asians when the taxi drivers led by Bhairavi Desai and Biju Mathew will have a sustained presence at the Liberty Park.

Or when Drum brings its core activists.

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Image: Protestors say they want economic equality.

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"I would like to go there every day but my Green Card is on the way," says a cab driver who does not want to be identified.

He has just dropped an investment banker, who also happened to be a desi.

"I feel with so many police around, someone might want to report me and get me into trouble," the cabbie adds.

"I am not against capitalism but this greed, people getting too much of money, Allah not like."

But, he adds, there are many Green Card-holding taxi-drivers who are from Bangladesh, and who have fought for many social issues, who could join the protest.

"At least," he says, "they can give a free ride to elderly protestors."


Image: Activists want fair redistribution of wealth.

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