Last weekend, November 12th and 13th, my son and I went to Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan New York, where the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement had established its epicenter. We were lucky to get a hotel room just around the corner from the park and spent a good part of two days mingling among the occupiers, talking to them about the movement and learning more about the people involved. The first thing you noticed when you came around the corner from Nassau Street towards Broadway and Zucotti was the huge array of police that surrounded the park. It seemed likely that there were more police than park mainstream OWS residents, though by then the resident population of the park had reached about 1600 (see Jeff Sharlet below). The police had huge communication trucks and many different kinds of squad cars; I couldn’t tell if Homeland Security was there, and while I didn’t see any cars bearing that label, there were many unmarked cars in the police car mix. In the post-9/11 world, getting Homeland Security involved means that the movement (like the events we saw for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008) had reached threshold for a national security threat, but so far, it didn’t seem like that had happened. Of course, as we know, Homeland Security funds and trains police departments to serve as their proxy and many police departments have paramilitary squads that are prepared to carry out lethal assaults. It was clear that the huge police presence surrounding the park was not going to allow the OWS movement to get up and walk towards Wall Street without a serious confrontation. Two days after our visit, the police shut the park down, evicted the occupiers and confiscated or destroyed their belongings. Last night (Thursday, November 17) a crowd estimated at 32,500 by the NYPD occupied major blocks of the city, including the Brooklyn Bridge and simply overwhelmed the police. This morning Mayor Michael Bloomberg might be wishing he had left the movement in Zucotti Park where it seemed joyfully contained and a picture of industry.
I had a hard time thinking of Zucotti Park as a park when I first saw it–it is tiny. Located one block from the World Trade Center, it is currently owned by Brookfield Office Properties, a commercial real estate firm, headquartered in New York. When the building was first constructed in the 1960s by US Steel, they built a 50 + story structure at One Liberty Plaza. They agreed with the city to provide a publicly accessible space, available 24/7 (this was one of those trades where the corporation gets to add more floors to a building and create a park to compensate the city). Originally it was named Liberty Plaza Park, but later renamed Zucotti Park after John Zucotti, former chair of the City Planning Commission and current chair of Brookfield Properties. It was badly damaged in the 9/11 attack and served as a launching site for the cleanup. The renaming came after they remodeled the park, post-9/11. But because it is not actually a public park, it doesn’t carry with it the restrictions of public parks in New York, one of which bans tents without a permit. You can read more about the history and dilemma of Zucotti Park here.
How it all began: Jeff Sharlet of Rolling Stonehas written a fascinating account of the OWS movement and its early history. From the first paragraph of his article:
- “It started with a Tweet – “Dear Americans, this July 4th, dream of insurrection against corporate rule” – and a hashtag: #occupywallstreet. It showed up again as a headline posted online on July 13th by Adbusters, a sleek, satirical Canadian magazine known for its mockery of consumer culture. Beneath it was a date, September 17th, along with a hard-to-say slogan that never took off, “Democracy, not corporatocracy,” and some advice that did: “Bring tent.“”
The OWS movement members often refer to this space as “Liberty Park.” At first glance, the park looks like a wall to wall space of a crowded tents, some of which were made by joining colored plastic sheets, while others were of the small conventional variety that you use for backpacking or camping. Many people stay all night and some people are invited to spend the night, either as a small group or as individuals. At the time of our visit, many were talking about the need for a well-insulated winter sleeping bag and a much better tent to replace their makeshift plastic sheets; most were confident that public donations would solve that problem (the site where I donated had already raised over $500,000 for the cause). Police did not allow generators to be used, claiming that the noise level would be too high. But, to charge batteries, the Zucotti Park residents used stationary bicycles connected to an electronic arrangement that allowed recharging of computer and cell phone batteries and those willing to peddle for a while for their contribution to the workload were always welcome. In general, it was a very friendly environment and if you entered the park with some apprehension about your compatibility with the protestors, you could immediately relax. After all, just about everyone is a member of the 99 per cent and thus a colleague to those in the movement. And you are generally treated in that way. This group wants to grow.
Around the periphery of Zucotti, there were a few quacks, hyping some distorted vision of the World, but they were not members of the OWS movement. I stopped to talk to one person who seemed very bright and articulate, but when he started advocating that the people in Zucotti were too lazy to work and then began quoting from the Bible, swearing that the earth was only 6000 years old and that evolution couldn’t be true because turtles always seemed to be turtles and if anyone needed to evolve it was surely turtles. As I politely parted company with the young man, it occurred to me that he was a victim of Ronald Reagan, or Reaganism, because it was Reagan who first advocated that creationism should be taught alongside science in the public school system (OK, we have the Scopes trial, but that was long ago and culturally far away: Reagan brought the issue back into our living rooms). Our culture has been dogged by this creationism/intelligent design/science dilemma ever since and this young man sounded like an unfortunate victim, not unlike what’s still going on in much of the country. Education is critical for a modern, civilized society and we seem to be losing our grip on this requirement. This too is part of the neoliberal plan designed to reduce the cost of labor, but it has reached a runaway toxic level of intrusion.
Once you begin to move from the outside periphery to a more central region of Zucotti, you are more likely to run into people who have stories to tell and sensible solutions to propose. The OWS movement has been criticized for not articulating a set of demands and many within the group have tried to inject a demand strategy. But the movement has rejected such pleas and prefers to remain a group that is growing and is certainly content to say “hey if you want to announce your objections to the system, go ahead, you are part of the 99 per cent and we don’t intend to speak for you. We encourage you to speak for yourself.” It is a group that largely emerged from the arts and communications fields rather than from progressive academics or union types. In that sense they do not carry the traditional leftist point of view, though some individuals do harbor that sentiment. The OWS movement represents, in effect, a perfect democracy where everyone has a legitimate view and the right to express it. There are many who feel that the lack of a cohesive set of demands by the group will eventually be their undoing, but right now, they have a growing sense of confidence that they have tapped into a vein running through America and they intend to pursue what has so far been a successful strategy. It is quite astonishing to recognize that the movement is only two months old. Every person is allowed and even encouraged to express themselves. I saw one sign denouncing the communications giant Verizon for its corporate practices, but in Zucotti, there is more of a focus on Wall Street and the banks. Many in the park had signs specifying specific reasons for change and some cited historical events to make their point. Those that made specific points (the need for a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not people–surprisingly I think that that one might actually get through) are generally well informed about the subject and eager to converse. And everyone is talking and communicating and arguing. Virtually everyone was approachable and polite. I found that a common theme among those that have attended college is a heavy debt from student loans. In this respect, they have all been victims of corporate greed. But this is a group that has respect for education and many want to return to complete their degrees or get into graduate school. This is especially evident if you go to the wearethe99percent website and read the statements submitted by individuals. Members of the movement have also started a newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, which has received high marks for its journalistic quality.
A few paths through the park interior allow people to move through in single file, but most of the paths are all so narrow, that to me, they looked more like a representation of the extracellular space of the brain. In the middle of the park, there was a big food line. Food is free for anyone who enters the park and it mostly comes from donated food sources, manned by dedicated volunteers, many of whom have just arrived and are anxious to contribute. There was a library at the Broadway end of the park, consisting of a large tent with plastic boxes filled with donated books. You can check a book out and don’t need a library card. And because the area has no real public library facility nearby, neighborhood parents came to the library and checked out books for their children. It was a picture of industry and the OWS movement was proud of this additional effort for the cause. When the police came in and destroyed the Zucotti camp, early Tuesday morning (November 15 at 1:00 AM) the library books were confiscated or destroyed and the OWS movement is trying to get them back, as they look for a place where a new library facility can be established.
At the other side of the park, but still on the Broadway end, meetings are held in which discussions take place on matters brought up in the General Assembly of OWS, where meetings take place regularly, at which time they try to resolve issues about the focus and direction of the movement. They are also very big on behavior and want this movement to be non-violent. Once the General Assembly meetings are over, people gather in the park to deliberate on the issues that have been raised in the meetings. The police did not allow the protestors to have microphones and loud speakers, so they developed the art of the “people’s mic,” which is that when a single person raises an issue, they speak in short segments of a sentence and then wait until the entire group repeats the words, so that everyone understands what is being said. Very good if you’re hard of hearing. It works very effectively, with a couple of moderators standing in front of the crowd to help coordinate the effort. It’s a mechanism that seems to provide a bonding experience and errors for complex statements that were hard to repeat generally evoked laughter. It is through the General Assembly meetings and discussion of the ideas through the “people’s mic” where deliberations are made; anyone can speak, though it generally makes sense that you already attended the General Assembly meeting. They have hand position rules to reject, accept and listen to a speaker who has the floor. Sometimes contentious issues come up and various suggestions made at the Assembly are rejected by the group. The interior also has a First Aid tent and has some internal security. In addition, there was a large blue plastic tent that served as the communications center where people were broadcasting live feeds that you can watch on the OWS site.
Originally, the group only numbered about 60 people when they first met on September 17, 2011 and it was hard to see that they were going to get anywhere. V for Vendetta masks were quite popular but seemed to convey a more violent confrontation when what the protestors wanted was a non-violent beginning. Drugs and alcohol were not allowed in the park, though you certainly knew that pot was on the menu. Today the OWS movement has spread not only in America, but throughout the World. About 1600 different OWS movements are flourishing globally. By the time we went, OWS was serving more than 3000 meals a day and something like 1600 people were bedding down in the park each night.
The 99 percent versus the 1 percent is a very catchy and simple phrase. It also has meaning in terms of wealth distribution. According to Joseph Stiglitz, published in his article in Vanity Fair, the top 1 percent of our society bring in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year and in terms of wealth, they own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Twenty-five years ago, the numbers were 12 and 33 percent, respectively. Few would deny that we have a wealth distribution that is completely out of control and the neoliberal system we have been living under for the past forty years has proven to be too toxic and too radical for our cultural survival, and it is incompatible with the mounting threats we face for a healthy future for the planet we live on.
After being evicted from Zucotti Park, the OWS movement in New York and many other cities, created a massive turnout that overwhelmed the police, whose intentions were to brutally block the demonstrators from taking over things like the Brooklyn Bridge. I have heard a rumor that the OWS library was re-established on the Brooklyn Bridge, though it’s unlikely to have permanent residence there. This movement is strikingly different than anything I have ever seen. Though they do not have demands per se, there is little doubt that they will have an impact on the coming election of 2012 and they already have sent both political parties scrambling to come up with approaches that might ameliorate them and that, in and of itself, could have a powerful transforming effect on the future direction of our economic policies and our social safety net. These are people who shun the neoliberal emphasis on individual liberties and instead promote the idea that we are all in this together–we must create an interdependent society and move away from what imprisoned and impoverished most of us for the last forty years. It will get worse before it gets better, but the OWS movement has started the spirit of revolutionary excitement that may now be impossible to contain. That is what many of us are hoping for.
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