Sunday in the Park with Occupy Wall Street

The legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky popularized the idea of taking rent protests to the suburban homes of slumlords. Alinsky, whose influence reached a peak in the 1960s, believed that embarrassment was a powerful tool in changing the behavior of businessmen who wanted to keep their work life separate from their private life.

I thought of Alinsky on Sunday when I joined the Occupy Wall Street protest taking place on New York?s Upper East Side near the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Sunday?s protests were not, I knew, going to make Bloomberg?s wealthy neighbors see him in a new light. The protests were, nonetheless, important. They let everyone see that the November 15 attacks authorized by the mayor have not brought Occupy Wall Street to a standstill.

As for Bloomberg?s neighbors, if the friends I have who live nearby are to be judged, he has plenty of disapproval from those who, like him, belong to the nation?s richest 1 percent.

As a college professor, I don?t come close to being in the top 1 percent, but any number of my college friends do, and when they look at the world in which their sons and daughters are struggling to get a foothold, they find themselves agreeing with Occupy Wall Street?s message that the economy isn?t being run in a way that gives people a fair shot at success.

My friends are, to be sure, traitors to their class by the standards of those who regard the Occupy Wall Street protesters as naive radicals, but they also have their feet on the ground. They remind me of our parents in the sixties, who were not activists themselves but who still gave their approval to those of us who went South during the civil rights movement or joined demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

In the early evening hours, the noise from the drums was deafening. The only way to talk in the small space on East 79th and Fifth Avenue that the police allotted to us was to shout. To make matters worse, for those reporting on the demonstration, the person who got the most attention while I was there was a woman in a glittering gold dress and pink hair who kept vamping for the cameras.

In the end, though, neither the drumming nor the vamping was enough to undermine the value of Occupy Wall Street bringing its protest to the mayor?s doorstep. The movement made clear, in case the mayor doubted it, that no place in the city is out of bounds for protest.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.