Originally published in The Copenhagen Post - October 14, 2011
On September 17, a group of activists descended on New York City’s Zuccotti Park, just around the corner from Wall Street, to protest against the growing economic inequality in the United States, what they view as America’s broken political system, and the institutions responsible for the global economic crisis.
The protesters, inspired by the Arab Spring and populist movements in Spain and Greece, set up camp in the park, and word of the movement quickly began to spread via social media sites Twitter and Facebook.
Known as Occupy Wall Street – or #OccupyWallStreet in Twitter lingo – the movement was largely ignored by the media despite the large numbers of people taking to the streets and the incredible amount of online activity.
It wasn’t until the occupation entered its second week when it began to garner mainstream attention. On September 24, thousands of protesters marched to Union Square. Over 80 were arrested by the New York Police Department (NYPD), and online videos surfaced of police using excessive force against the protesters, including a particularly troubling incident in which an NYPD deputy inspector was caught on camera pepper-spraying a group of young women who were standing defencelessly behind police netting.
Video of the arrests and police behaviour spread like wildfire online and brought significantly more attention to the movement, swelling the ranks in New York and leading to the creation of similar protest groups across the United States. In a later incident, nearly 700 marchers were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and mass arrests have also been reported in US cities ranging from Boston, Massachusetts to Des Moines, Iowa.
Now in its fourth week, the original New York protests have been buoyed by the support of several organised labour unions, and occupy groups are active in well over 60 US cities. The movement has also crossed the Atlantic into Denmark.
Here, the group Occupy Denmark began as a show of sympathy to the American protesters. But, like in the US, it quickly spiralled into something more.
“This started for most of us as a way to express our solidarity with what is going on in the United States,” Tomas Vogter, one of the individuals behind Occupy Denmark, told The Copenhagen Post. “We then had a meeting to determine if we would just be a solidarity group or if we would address some of the issues that we have in Denmark. After a seven-hour meeting on Sunday, we determined that we would address domestic issues as well.”
It didn’t take long for the local group to pick up steam. When I first contacted Occupy Denmark for this story, it had roughly 200 ‘likes’ on Facebook and hadn’t made a blip in the media. Since then it has been the subject of features by DR, TV2, Information newspaper, and others, and as of Tuesday had over 1,500 Facebook followers.
“Our movement is growing and now it’s too big to ignore,” Vogter said. “The press has finally realised this isn’t just a group of unwashed hippies.”
Still, questions remain about the parallels one can draw between the situation in Denmark and the United States. Can a populist movement find success in a country like Denmark, where the gap between the rich and poor doesn’t match that of the US, where some of the American protesters’ recurrent complaints – the prohibitive, and sometimes crippling, costs of healthcare and higher education – are negated by a welfare state, and where a progressive tax rate ensures that the wealthiest members of society contribute significantly to the country’s coffers?
“When you look at salaries, we don’t have the kind of gap you see in the US, but it is starting. And the gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially,” Vogter said. “Over the last ten years, the government, for ideological reasons, created poverty. They determined that the unemployed should have an ‘incentive’ to go to work and so they instituted a ceiling on social welfare. A lot of people got into a situation where they had to choose between buying food or paying their rent. You also now see a tendency where the poor here are getting stigmatised.”
In many ways, the Occupy Denmark group can be seen as a microcosm of the movement as a whole. There are divergent views and a lack of one coherent message. The four primary organisers behind Occupy Denmark, Vogter said, represent different political and social backgrounds, making it a challenge to set concrete objectives. That was clear to see when the group posted its proposed manifesto on Facebook, setting off an intense debate among supporters.
“Put very simply, we are demanding decency in the Danish democratic system,” Vogter said. “Denmark has often looked at itself as a forerunner in equality, a forerunner for a better world. We’ve always looked at ourselves as a small country who did things the right way, but for the past ten years, we’ve lost this position. So we feel we have good ground to change the system and change Denmark.”
The Occupy Denmark group is now actively planning its part in a “global day of action” on Saturday that will see demonstrations in over 1,000 cities worldwide, from the US to Australia, and from South Africa to South Korea.
In Denmark, there will be demonstrations in Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Odense. The local demo will take place in the town hall square, Rådhuspladsen, at 3pm. Following in the footsteps of their American counterparts, who have had a live video feed online since the first day of their Wall Street occupation, the Danish organisers plan to livestream the event to the world at livestream.com/occupydenmark.
According to a website dedicated to co-ordinating the various October 15 events, it is designed as a day for global citizens to speak as one.
“United in one voice, we will let politicians, and the financial elites they serve, know it is up to us, the people, to decide our future,” the site, 15october.net, reads. “On October 15, we will meet on the streets to initiate the global change we want. We will peacefully demonstrate, talk and organise until we make it happen. It’s time for us to unite. It’s time for them to listen.”
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