Wall Street was an actual wall once. In the 1600s, Dutch occupiers needed to keep out the natives, pirates, and unwanted dregs. You learned the Dutch stole the island for $24, but they really paid 60 guilders, which is over $1,000 in today-money. Still a steal, for Manhattan. In 2011, the rent is too damn high…unless you’re willing to sleep in the park.
I boarded a Greyhound in Buffalo on Friday night. Sleep didn’t happen. (It’s my theory that their seats are designed by cheap extraterrestrial laborers who have no knowledge of human anatomy.) Hopped the A train to Fulton St. and found my way, past the brightly lit WTC construction, to a rain-soaked Zuccotti Park by about 4 am.
Dubbed “Liberty Square,” the park is home to Occupy Wall Street. And it’s not a park. It’s got a few small trees and a couple flowerbeds, but not one soft blade of grass. The concrete was lined with roughly 150 mummified protesters, rolled up in tarps, ominously looking like a fresh crime scene. Cops in raincoats, walking the perimeter. The gatekeepers.
I don’t want to say this, but my first impression – after rolling up in my own tarp and failing to sleep for a few hours – was that the place looked, and smelled, like the parking lot of a Phish concert. Patchouli does not a movement make. And as much as I want to say reports, like this much-derided New York Times piece, have cast an unfair light on these young occupiers, they’re not entirely inaccurate.
My first contact was with a Chinese woman named Chris. “You want vitamin? You want chewable Airborne?” I took them, not having the heart to tell her that Airborne cold “remedy” does absolutely nothing. Was Airborne a perfect metaphor for #OccupyWallStreet? I cynically wondered.
Chris was a medic volunteer. The medic station is accompanied by the kitchen, the media area, the comfort area (dedicated to sleeping bags, socks, etc.), and the General Assembly. There are other volunteer duties, such as sanitation and security, which consist of walking around with a garbage bags and walkie-talkies, respectively.
You’ve no doubt heard about the General Assembly. It’s how the protesters communicate, organize, and reach something resembling consensus. “Mic check!” someone will call. “Mic check!” the crowd responds. They communicate this way because the police cracked down on the use of sound amplifiers. It’s an elegant, albeit annoying, solution.
The press has generally portrayed the protest as disorganized. Some protesters even expressed their frustration over the disorganization to me during the weekend. But without any sort of hierarchical structure, it’s amazing and inspiring that anything gets done at all. People are being fed, clothed, sheltered (as much as the no tent law allows), live-streaming speeches and Tweeting the latest developments, and receiving medical attention if they need it. It’s a real ground up grassroots thing, powered by personal responsibility to participate in the democratic process.
“The lack of focus is unfortunate,” a woman named Christine told me, “but I think if we stay here long enough, other groups will be pulled in.” That’s essential, and it’s happening as I type. Hippies thrive in protest environments, and they can even be useful in procuring humus, for instance, but the face of this movement can’t be obscured with dreadlocks. It’s what wonks call “bad optics.”
“It would appear to a lot of people that it’s disorganized,” said Mark Jacobs, the head of a nonprofit from Santa Fe, “but it’s not.”
The organic nature of the occupation makes traditional reporting nearly impossible. No one’s in charge; there’s no spokesperson; there are no agreed-upon talking points. And a lot of the time, people have no idea what’s happening.
“There’s a lot of misinformation,” a guy named Fumaini told me. “I heard that Blackwater was here.” That was probably my fault, as I was wearing a Blackwater baseball hat. Don’t ask.
“People are fed up,” Fumaini said. “They don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for an outlet.”
The crowd grew steadily all day, with less resemblance to a jam band concert every passing hour. The drums beat. The saxophone wailed. Tai Chi circle. Some sort of meditation. Lots of pizza. Too much pizza, really. “Free hugs!” offered by a Justin Bieber doppelganger. Woody Guthrie all over the damn place. The rain. Signs and tourists. The goddamn rain. And still, morale was high. After last weekends’ pepper spraying Bologna, the movement’s gained steam and a steady flow of coverage, but the day’s media presence was minimal – compared to what it would look like in 24 hours.
A little after 3 pm, the balloons arrive. A massive bunch of multicolored helium jobbers on a long string. This means the march is imminent. They’re also functional, giving those near the back of the parade an idea where things are headed. Today, the march headed down Broadway toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Several thousand strong. “Occupy Wall Street!” they chant. “All day! All week!” More cowbell.
Across the street, I’ve scurried, limped parallel to the front of the procession. Back already in spasms, this clubfooted reporter gives up the chase, letting the dissenting throng pass by. A few minutes later, a sizable contingent of New York’s Finest hurry past, in what looks like an attempt to handle a crowd bottleneck, as the protesters proceed from the wide sidewalk to the narrower bridge walkway. But the cops don’t corral, and they don’t use the walkway. They’re walking on the roadway. Amazing, I think; with many protesters in tow, the cops are leading the march across the bridge proper. Have the gatekeepers opened the gate?
So I’m milling around the sprawling sidewalk area directly across from the entrance to the outbound, smoking and wheezing — not necessarily in that order – when I get a text from Trotsky. He’s a mysterious figure, who’s always on the front lines of the revolution. I last saw him in Madison, Wisconsin at the height of their continuing occupation. “I’m at Nazi Bankers,” it reads. “Where are you?”
“Nazi Bankers” was a large sign held by a man at Liberty Square – in accordance with Godwin’s Law. A few texts back and forth. More cigarettes. The passing throng. Another large wave of cops casually huddle up, and stroll down the outbound. I don’t think much of it at the time, but I now realize this was the second line in a variation of a pincer movement. It’s a trap!
While some 700 people were being arrested on the bridge, I was abdicating my journalistic responsibility, shooting the breeze with Slate reporter and MSNBC contributor Dave Weigel. “You going across?” he asked.
“You’re going to have to move,” a cop told us. We couldn’t see what the hell was going on down the bridge, but the cops were clearing the line-of-sight just the same. Although it was a public sidewalk, we didn’t put up a fight and walked back to Liberty Square, terrible reporters we are. I kid. I sort of talked him out of going because if he went I’d have felt guilty. And fat – more fat.
Weigel mentions that he just got tossed a Paul Ryan interview on the side, and I told him to ask Ryan why he’s such a douche. So look out for that #gamechanger. “All these assignments are just killing time until Romney becomes president,” he says, “and the Obama ‘Hope’ poster becomes completely ironic – officially ironic, more so than it already is.”
“Jesus,” I say. “You really think he’ll win?”
“Yeah,” he deadpans. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was joking.
The funny thing about reporting, on the ground, from a modern movement is that people all over the world knew what happened on the bridge before I did via Facebook and Twitter. And even if I’d dragged my gimpy ass across the span, I’d of had no way of reporting the event live, anyway. I take the bus; I don’t have an iPhone; I am the 99 percent – the 60 percent, really.
I hooked up with Trotsky and his friend Emily. She was in town for the Slut Walk that took place in Union Square, but decided to check out the occupation, too. More goddamn rain. And it’s getting dark. The police presence at the park thickens, and the protesters who’ve stayed behind to hold the fort look skittish.
“$h!t’s about to go down, man,” one guy frantically tells me. “You can just feel it!” Tactically, it would have been a good time for the cops to clear the park, but they didn’t. They just stood there, while news of the arrests reached Liberty Square, silent, arms folded. Gatekeepers.
Deliriously tired by this point, and up to my eyes with urine (where the hell do people in Manhattan pee?), I engaged in a vicious, diuretic cycle of Starbucks coffee, bathroom, coffee, bathroom. Corporate coffee is definitely not in line with the spirit of the occupation, but sometimes a dude just needs a pee break.
The lack of public restrooms surrounding Liberty Square seems to this small-bladder blogger the biggest obstacle to success. I’d been on a de facto fast, despite easy access to free pizza, for a very tangible threat that I might crap my pants. I’m sorry, but those were the facts on the ground. And unlike the Times coverage of the Battle for the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m sticking to the facts. There will be no rewrite, dear readers.
The rain. Damn the damn rain. Damn. Rain. I found the closest thing to dry cement I could, grabbed an empty water bottle (if nature called, yet again), and crawled into my sleeping bag, silently cursing the goddamn hippie jerk who’d lifted my tarp while I was gone.
During the night, some anonymous occupier had wrapped me in another tarp – tarp 2, and left several miniature candy bars near my head. A large cheer rang out through the park into my dreams. Why is that field of sunflowers yelling at me!? Oh, their friends who were arrested, by evil squirrels, have been released. Of course.
I stubbornly, sorely woke up, ate the candy bars, and discretely filled the water bottle (don’t judge me!) before realizing I was surrounded by hundreds of splayed out signs and even more protest tourists snapping pictures. It was noon. And I’d shamefully entered hobo territory – faux-bo territory.
And then Geraldo Rivera’s mustache walked by. It may or may not have been attached to Geraldo Rivera. I was too groggy to tell. A CNN van was parked across the street. Press passes dangled. Notebooks were open. Pens writing. Microphones listening. Quotes demonstrating the immoral nature of the American kleptocracy were being taken, soon to be made into news. The press was suddenly interested in Occupy Wall Street, and the oligarchs who’ve been robbing us all blind. And it only took several hundred arrests to get their attention.
The crowd was a respectable thousand or so. It wasn’t a Phish concert. It was like Kenny Rogers was in town. I saw flannel and gray beards – and not just on pizza-seeking homeless gentlemen. A group of teachers were occupying the Northwest corner of the park. This was good. I hung around a while, talking to older people from all over the country, sipping coffee, erasing my tired cynicism, singing Woody Guthrie. My work here was done.
The Occupy Together movement has spread, organically, spontaneously to a growing 125 cities worldwide, most in the U.S. And it all started with a whimsical Adbusters poster, and a little marketing help from Anonymous. Even about 50 people showed up to Niagara Square in Buffalo while I was busy having back spasms in Manhattan. The last time I was in Niagara Square, I was unlawfully arrested, for filming a gatekeeper. Next Saturday, I’ll be back with my camera – maybe a guitar, too. That machine kills fascists, I hear.
The rules of essay structure now dictate that I tell you, Wall Street is still a wall. In a lot of ways. The very structure of our economic system is meant to keep out the poor, and make more of them, so the wealthy can skim all the cream. Our democracy’s been usurped by the ultra-wealthy to serve at the behest of the same – to the point that their risk has been socialized, absorbed by the taxpayer. The widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots has become too large to ignore, and with this comes the slow realization that the have-nots have all the power. If we just stick together, persist, and demand that things change.
Frankly, they should have expected us.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy, but that’s just how it goes. For all the negative press the occupation has gotten, and how sloppy it truly is in some respects, it’s important to remember the wise words of Donald Rumsfeld, “Democracy is messy.”
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