Tom Morello Leads Occupy Wall Street Anniversary Concert

'The mistrust and resentment toward the status quo hasn't gone away,' says rocker

Tom Morello
Jessica Lehrman
Tom Morello
By |

Demonstrators returned to Lower Manhattan on Monday to commemorate the day protesters took over Zuccotti Park one year ago and launched the Occupy Wall Street movement, erecting tents, banging drums in solidarity and sustaining a presence in the heart of New York's Financial District until their forcible eviction in November. Spread across "three days of education, celebration, resistance" over the weekend, the anniversary celebration featured a Sunday afternoon concert in Foley Square with performances by Tom Morello and other musicians, including Das Racist member Kool A.D., Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra and the rap trio Rebel Diaz.

Morello's half-hour set as the Nightwatchman with the Freedom Fighter Orchestra included a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and an instrumental run-through of Rage Against the Machine's "Sleep Now in the Fire. The concert energized a relatively subdued crowd of a few hundred outside the U.S. Court House, some holding signs with messages like "Still Here" while others shared a joint in the park.

Photos: The Occupy Wall Street Anniversary Concert

Conventional wisdom has it that the Occupy movement's message and spirit were irreparably fractured when authorities cleared demonstrators out of Zuccotti Park. But while the crowds at Occupy events have dwindled, the movement's longevity hinges on the global conversation it started a year ago. (The "We are the 99 percent" slogan has been replaced with a new one: "We owe you nothing.")

"The one thing that Occupy has been very successful at is forever changing the dialogue around the great, unspoken five-letter word in American politics, and that's 'class,'" Morello told Rolling Stone. "The people who were in the streets – whether it was 100,000 people in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, or the months-long occupation of Zuccotti Park – those people haven't gone away. Their ideas haven't gone away. The mistrust and resentment toward the status quo hasn't gone away. How it manifests itself in the months and years to come will determine the ultimate success or failure of the movement."

Das Racist's Kool A.D. told Rolling Stone he'd expected a relatively low turnout for Sunday's concert given Monday's anniversary plans. "It was almost a formality of a rally while training stuff was going on," he observed, adding that the movement a year later "is in a new form, but it's still a bunch of dedicated people that are trying to sort of guide it a little more, make it more specific."

Some of those dedicated include the journalists behind the publication of Occupy!, which states in its fifth and latest issue that, one year on, "something is infinitely more than nothing." As he distributed copies to those occupying Foley Square, Eli Schmitt, one of the gazette's editors, defended the relevance of continuing to document the movement's progress.

"When I'm handing out these books in public places, people are like, 'Oh, Occupy? Is that still happening?' And so since that's diminished somewhat, these other forms of less visible – and in some ways possibly more effective – activism have taken off," said Schmitt. Event organizers also passed out a 122-page booklet, The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual, offering guidance on how to repair one's credit and avoid defaulting on student-loan debt.

While not one Wall Street player has seen the inside of a jail cell since taxpayers bailed out the banks four years ago, New York police arrested more protestors over the weekend, bringing the arrest total since last September to 1,938, according to data tracked by the nonprofit activist group St. Pete for Peace. Nationwide, that number stands at 7,435 arrests. The most arrests in a single day anywhere in the world happened last October, when police booked 700 demonstrators as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.

"We have somebody joining us from Orlando, Florida, who is going to get arrested with us tomorrow," said protester Nadina LaSpina, a former teacher and lifelong disability rights activist whose legs were amputated due to polio. LaSpina and her partner of 20 years, Danny Robert, have occupied Wall Street together in some fashion every Sunday since last October as representatives of the movement's disability caucus. "If they cut Medicaid, then they threaten my life," said Robert, who suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Asked why media reports have declared the Occupy Wall Street movement all but dead, Robert replied, "We're not dead yet. We're awake, and we know what we have to do. And we're going to do it."

"This sort of idea of this grotesque economic inequality and this remorseless poverty that much of the world has sunk into – the idea that that's not OK was put on the front-burner by the Occupy movement," said Morello. "And so in that regard, it's been ideologically successful. Now, has it been physically successful at sort of changing the axis of power? That's still to come."