Flood Wall Street: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Culture-Jamming

Matthew Rimmer

Image: Flood Wall Street

The People’s Climate March on the 21 September 2014 in New York was followed by a dramatic protest outside Wall Street called Flood Wall Street on the 22 September 2014.

The organisers of Flood Wall Street explained the objectives of the event. Michael Leon Guerrero of the Climate Justice Alliance said of the event: ‘We are flooding Wall Street to stop its financing of planetary destruction, and to make way for living economies that benefit people and the planet.’ The Flood Wall Street event was designed to ‘target corporate polluters and those profiting from the fossil fuel industry.’

Flood Wall Street featured Naomi Klein, Chris Hedges, and Rebecca Solnit as speakers. Naomi Klein commented: ‘Two years ago, Superstorm Sandy literally flooded New York’s Financial District — but it didn’t faze Wall Street and their drive for the short term profits that flow from the cooking of the planet.’ She observed ‘Which is why we’re going to flood them again.’ Bill McKibben from 350.org also attended the event.

The protest was a rather more rebellious companion to the People’s Climate March. Jonathan Smucker and Michael Premo considered the contrast between the People’s Climate March and the Flood Wall Street protest in The Nation. The pair noted that a few were critical of the popular, inclusive march: ‘The People’s Climate March was cast as a depoliticized, corporate-friendly sell-out, in contrast to more militant direct action, which Flood Wall Street soon emerged to organize.’ However, Smucker and Premo maintained that the events were complementary: ‘The emergent climate justice movement is stronger now because of the People’s Climate March, the Climate Justice Alliance and Flood Wall Street — and because of the overall positive interplay between these complementary efforts.’

Flood Wall Street was of a different character to the People’s Climate March. The event was designed to highlight the role of Wall Street in fuelling the climate crisis. The event certainly had echoes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Michael Premo, an organizer of Flood Wall Street and a Brooklyn-based artist, commented:

‘Many of us were also involved with Occupy Wall Street. Just like the financial crisis, the climate crisis is a product of an underlying political crisis. It’s the result of policies that serve the short-sighted interests of the few over the survival and well being of everyone.’

The Flood Wall Street protestors also engaged in civil disobedience. There was ongoing contests between the protestors and police over the space surrounding Wall Street. Dozens of protestors were arrested.

Flood Wall Street employed art, music, and theatre. The event appeared to be a carnivalesque of culture jamming. The protestors wore the colour blue as a symbol of climate change induced flooding. The New York Times noted: ‘Many of the demonstrators dressed in blue to symbolize a wave of water — water that could engulf the low-lying streets near the New York Stock Exchange, as the storm surge from the East River and New York Harbor did during Hurricane Sandy.’ The protest was festooned with an array of colourful art works. There was also street performers in a fascinating array of costumes. There was a marching band, and over-sized puppets.

Flood Wall Street was notable for a number of striking surreal spectacles, worthy of surrealists like Magritte and Dali. There were spectacular visual propos, such as a huge banner, bearing the message: ‘Capitalism = Climate Chaos = Flood Wall Street.’ One of the protestors, Laurel Sutherlin observed:

‘We’ve just deployed a 300-foot banner right next to the iconic bull in downtown Manhattan. And today, 125 heads of state from around the world are arriving in New York City. And we’re here to tell the people of the world that we stand with them, and we’re willing to take radical action to bring about the drastic changes that are needed to have a healthy and liveable future for our children.’

The protestors at one point released an inflatable Carbon Bubble. In an action defying irony, the New York Police deflated the balloon on the horns of the Wall Street Bull.

Carbon Bubble at Flood Wall Street

Flood Wall Street also featured a protestor as a Polar Bear. The New York Police arrested the protestor dressed as a Polar Bear, and led him away in handcuffs, still wearing his costume. Two women dressed as Captain Planet were also arrested at the event.

The event received significant media attention. There was significant coverage of Flood Wall Street by The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, and Democracy Now!.

There were also significant street tussles between the Flood Wall Street protestors and the police down Broadway. In the wake of the action, there have been legal disputes over those protestors who had been arrested during Flood Wall Street. The New York Police Department officers had arrested 100 participants who blocked the intersection between Broadway and Wall Street. The protestors faced charges of disorderly conduct, blocking the street, and refusal to disperse. Most of the protestors pleaded guilty.

Eleven of the protestors refused to plead the guilty, and have been pleading a necessity defence:

‘We could have taken the State’s usual script for people who engage in civil disobedience — dropping the charges in return for a promise to be quiet and not directly inconvenience capitalism for six months. Given that our “leaders” have failed to seriously address climate change since it was first brought to public attention a quarter-century ago, we collectively decided to continue our action in court by pleading “not guilty” and pursuing a necessity defense. Standing up to those who threaten our existence is not disorderly, but a responsibility as citizens of this planet. The corporations who are perpetuating the climate crisis should be on trial not the people who try to stop them.’

The protestors face the maximum penalties of 15 days in jail and $500 in fines. The New York Court is due to hear the matters in February 2015.

The legal dispute could be seen as part of a wider trend of legal disputes in respect of climate change and civil disobedience. There have been notable legal battles in the past in respect of The Yes Men culture-jamming The United States Chamber of Commerce; Tim DeChristopher — Bidder 70 — going to jail over his protest; Keystone XL Pipeline mass sit-ins; and blockades against fossil fuel projects. There are significant legal questions over the Fossil Fuel Resistance in respect of legal offences, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and civil disobedience.

Biography

Dr Matthew Rimmer is a Professor in Intellectual Property and Innovation Law at the Faculty of Law in the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). He is a leader of the QUT Intellectual Property and Innovation Law research program, and a member of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre (QUT DMRC), the QUT Australian Centre for Health Law Research (QUT ACHLR), and the QUT International Law and Global Governance Research Program (QUT IL GG). Rimmer has published widely on copyright law and information technology, patent law and biotechnology, access to medicines, plain packaging of tobacco products, intellectual property and climate change, and Indigenous Intellectual Property. He is currently working on research on intellectual property, the creative industries, and 3D printing; intellectual property and public health; and intellectual property and trade, looking at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Trade in Services Agreement. His work is archived at SSRN Abstracts and Bepress Selected Works.

Matthew Rimmer, ‘Flood Wall Street: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Culture-Jamming’, Medium, 15 August 2016, https://medium.com/@DrRimmer/397d199ea526