Notes From an Occupation

It was kind of nice to be at a protest and, instead of marching and shouting, to be talking about ideas. It felt like the script had changed, and that was a revelation. As 7 PM approached, my friends and I left thinking the cops would clear everyone out in no time. When they made it through the night I began to give them more credit, so I dropped off a bunch of blankets and provisions later that evening.

It was kind of nice to be at a protest and, instead of marching and shouting, to be talking about ideas. It felt like the script had changed, and that was a revelation.

Wall St. protest, Saturday, September 17, 2011. From JamieNYC at flickr.com.

Several hundred young people, their numbers swelling and subsiding each day, have camped on Liberty Street, near Wall Street, since September 17. Their point seems to be that Wall Street belongs to us—the citizenry, or the People—and someone needs to make that visible, even by sitting there.

If you’re in New York, or planning a trip (especially to the September 11 memorial), we recommend you visit. It’s fun, low-key, and also profound. It needs people joining, stopping by, emphasizing our right to be there, and proving that Wall Street is a popular possession. You can sit and chat with people. The main group has formed committees and holds a twice-daily General Assembly, to judge what it is they are all there to say, and also to do the practical work of keeping the protest together and at peace with the police.

Oldsters of all persuasions (say, over 22) will find it a good way to spend a night, a day, a few hours, or every afternoon. Below are some observations from two such oldsters, to give people a window on Zuccotti Park, and encourage you to visit our brave occupiers. (The occupiers also accept pizza, blankets, and money.)

Saturday, September 17

Astra: The first day I arrived and, surveying the scene, was totally dispirited: same old same old, and not very substantial. Because the authorities had locked down the area in anticipation of the day’s events, demonstrators were dispersed and outnumbered by police. But then I followed an impromptu procession into the park where they are now encamped. I hooked up with a group of friends and we had an “assembly” with a bunch of strangers and talked economics for two or three hours. It was kind of nice to be at a protest and, instead of marching and shouting, to be talking about ideas. It felt like the script had changed, and that was a revelation. As 7 PM approached, my friends and I left thinking the cops would clear everyone out in no time. When they made it through the night I began to give them more credit, so I dropped off a bunch of blankets and provisions later that evening. The number of folks seemed to be steady despite the rain.

Mark: It was a nice day. I came to meet a couple of friends, and we ran into people we knew through n+1, met up with Astra and her friends, and then ran into people from Dissent and from The New Inquiry. We joined up, sat down, and did what the organizers asked, which was to discuss which proposals or demands were most important to us, for this collective gathering. These would be put to the General Assembly for public discussion, so this large group of strangers could figure out what its purpose was. Our circle attracted more visitors and strangers. After a series of votes and debates, the desire that brought most people in our group together was this: to restore government to citizen control, regulate finance for the common good, and get banks out of the business of buying legislators or influencing law. We talked about debt and mortgage relief and the destruction of Glass-Steagall and McCain-Feingold, and what it would take to save their purpose. We’d need the country’s agreement that freedom of speech belongs only to living citizens, not corporations—to overcome the Citizens United ruling—probably by a movement for a constitutional amendment. That was our proposal! We shared email addresses and resolved to learn how to start. It wasn’t till later that I realized it was Constitution Day, the 224th anniversary of the signing, before it went to the States for ratification.

Sunday, September 18

Astra: I had a Zipcar tonight and was going into Manhattan, so I dropped off some provisions/supplies with the protesters. About the same number in the square, bedding down for a second night, and the scene was more raucous than yesterday, the occupiers more confident. “They read some books in college and now they think they know how to fix the world,” one tired cop told some tourists as I walked by. A good many were assembling again as dusk fell, looking fervent, almost pious (“We need to talk about why we are here!”) while others basically partied around them.

Wednesday, September 21

Astra:  All these people complaining the occupiers don’t have a clear agenda, a criticism that goes back to the Seattle WTO protest (and maybe beyond). Economic justice is the point. Doesn’t their being on Wall Street say that? There is plenty of Tax the Rich and get corporate money out of politics messaging going on. That’s part of the “We Are the 99 percent” frame that the protesters are actively pushing. It’s annoying that one topless lady can distract so many reporters, and also that 400 other people can’t or won’t just tell her to put a shirt on.

Friday, September 23

Astra: It’s a very youthful event, and perhaps naive in a lot of ways, but I’m happy they’re doing it. That said, I’m always a bit irritated by the incessant emphasis on the youthfulness of the demonstrators, which is a way of infantilizing and dismissing them (silly kids, they’ll grow up and get over this dumb protesting stuff!) and also lets older people off the hook. Shouldn’t we all be out there, railing against the vampire squid? The fact is there are plenty of older people at “Liberty Plaza,” a good number of retirees mingling with the recent graduates. Our society, and the left especially, has this strange idea that young people are the revolutionary vanguard (In his famous “Letter to the New Left” C. Wright Mills made the case that youth had replaced the working class as the “historic agency”; Theodore Roszak calls this shift the “adolescentization of dissent”) but of course, being young, they don’t have all the answers (not that old people do either, obviously). Related to this, I find the lack of historical knowledge (about past movements and effective strategies and tactics) and institutions to pass such wisdom down so depressing—each wave of kids reinvents the wheel, believes they’ve fashioned it for the first time, and then there it goes, off the rails. I hope a fraction of them go on to dig in for the long haul and build some sort of infrastructure so the next generation isn’t left repeating this pattern . . .

I will say one thing for youth. Many of us who saw the crackdown on dissent after September 11 assumed the occupation would be impossible, that it wouldn’t last more than a day. Younger people, inspired by movements abroad, said why not? Why can’t we hold ground and grow a movement on it? The police had penned us in, physically, at the demonstrations but maybe we penned our imaginations after the fact. I’m inspired by the sense of possibility and reminded that things can change.

In any case, I’m trying to be less of a critic, or rather a constructive and sympathetic critic, because Zuccotti Park is a better place to air grievances then Facebook (I think so, at least).

Saturday, September 24

Astra: After dinner I meandered down to Wall Street. There were maybe 400 or 500 people occupying the park and tons of cops. Turns out that a good number of demonstrators had been arrested earlier today when they marched to Union Square. Here’s a video from this afternoon. Even though they had lost eighty people to the arrests and the police were in full intimidation mode, the square felt vital. They’ve managed to stay a week, which is something. And they really appreciated the zucchini bread and the mango juice, so thanks for the donations.

I’d love it if a fraction of my friends who have presented sensible intellectual critiques of the action, or who have said, “They have a good message but they are the wrong people to spread it,” showed up to Wall Street, since the implication is you want to see more people like yourselves down there.

Sunday, September 25

Mark: Nine days is nothing to sneeze at. I know people keep complaining that the occupiers don’t have a platform, but any real deliberative convention takes time, and these folks were strangers nine days ago. The idea of the occupation, to me, is to remind everyone that Wall Street belongs to the City of New York, the banks’ money belongs to the American citizens and people worldwide who have temporarily parked some of it with them (hoping they’ll do some good with it), and the rules they play by ultimately come from us. I wish the NYPD didn’t feel obliged to pen the protesters in away from Wall Street, though, and I hope Burger King on the northwest corner continues to be generous with its bathroom.

I made it to the General Assembly tonight. Weird for me, after so much suspicion in universities and professional groups, all my life, of order and parliamentary procedure and quick-running meetings, laughed away by saying, “Oh, since the Sixties we’ve forgotten all that stuff!”—to see an efficient assembly managed by kids, democratically, inclusively, and good-humoredly. I wish n+1 meetings ran like this. The left knows more than we think it does, as always. Noam Chomsky had sent a personal message by email. It was predictably long-winded; I wished people would make the “get to your point” sign. I was sitting close to the aisle of waiting speakers and I was surprised to watch participants whom I assumed knew each other well—since they were working together smoothly—whisper to ask each other’s names. They’re the most easygoing bunch I’ve seen at a protest, and the most calmly confident. Very gentle and not rattled by disruptors. Presumably that’s the confidence of nine days. Also the multiple confrontations that they’ve won nonviolently. The arrestees—including the man thrown to the ground and jailed for stopping to address a Chase Bank branch about its foreclosure on his parents’ house—came back and described the holding cells. . . . Can I add that they’re a stylish bunch? I was impressed by swimsuits under tanktops (probably very practical), stripes and colors alongside anarchist black, and good dancing. But a noble purpose makes everybody handsome. The mix seems to include a core that stays, fair-weather visitors (like me), older activists, hobos, and people who read as “students,” of all different ages. The drum circle was not intolerable. In fact, its main liability was probably my lame clapping. Power to the people!

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