My Night at Occupy Wall Street

17 Nov

On Tuesday night, I went down to Zuccotti Park.

For a while I had been voicing my support for the movement, but only on stage and in conversation. Part of my support was fueled by my agreement with the sentiment: I feel the government no longer actually works in a way that supports the best interests of the voters, specifically because the two-party system has reduced politics to a simple binary that has only serves to polarize both politicians and voters alike. Part of my support was also fueled by my reaction to the smug sanctimony of the critics who simply want to call all of the protesters lazy hippies, but then complain when people characterize Republicans as greedy, racist lunatics. Part of my support was also fueled by my general like of protests. I had felt for a long time that progressives, in the face of Obama’s failure to really enact the change he promised, and also people at large, had been seized by apathy. But now there are feet on the streets, I feel stuff’s always more likely to happen if they call attention to their grievances publicly, rather than impotently comment on the internet about it. Maybe it’s a function of my age.

For the nearly two months of the protests existence, though, I had not gone down to join it myself. Maybe it was because I did wait a while to see if this was serious and long-term, and wouldn’t just fizzle out quickly. I can give into cynicism myself, sometimes. However, after I saw it was going to be around for a while, I perhaps felt too comfortable that it was going to stay there, and that I could join when it was convenient for me. In other words, I was being apathetic, and a hypocrite.

Then, on Tuesday morning, I saw the news: At 1 AM, with no prior notice, police were sent into Zuccotti Park to forcibly evict the protesters, with no prior notice given. Belongings were seized, books were taken away. Journalists (yes, journalists, as in reporters for the Times, not just bloggers) were kept from seeing what was going on; some were arrested for trying to do their jobs.

From that moment on, I became a full supporter of the occupiers. Now, I can concede perhaps there were some legitimate arguments about public health and sanitation concerns in the park. I don’t need to simply dismiss them as a pretense, because, even with those concerns, do you not find something a little sinister about coming in the middle of the night, and excluding the press? If they came at night because that was when it was “least disruptive,” don’t you think, in an attempt to not seem completely horrible, that someone from the NYPD should have come at, say, 11 PM, possibly an equally un-disruptive hour, to say “You have two hours to vacate the premises or you will be arrested and all personal property will be confiscated?” Just give them a bit of advanced notice so, at the very least, those who would peacefully comply would do so, and then you could reasonably demonize those who still resisted even with two hours notice? Maybe?

For the entire morning and afternoon (during breaks at my paid job, thank you very much), I could think of nothing but Occupy. I was checking CNN, Huffington Post, Twitter, and Facebook for updates and eyewitness reports. My sense of comfort about the protests being there for me to join at at my convenience evaporated. A sense of immediacy kicked in, and I knew I had to do something to show my support. I knew I couldn’t beat up the whole NYPD by myself, since I only have the strength of ten men and there were at least twenty policemen surrounding the park, but I could go down to where the protesters were and show solidarity, maybe practicing what I preach, for once.

My political beliefs aside, I also realized I had a responsibility to go down and at least witness what’s going down there for history’s sake. Media reports could be spun, eyewitness accounts could be falsified, but the truth was something was happening just a few miles from me and I needed to go down there and  experience it for myself. I had an odd sense of embarrassment at imagining being asked my my grandchildren, “Were you in New York during the Wall Street Protests?” and meekly responding that, yes, I was, but I sat at home observing from the safety of my computer.

So I went, after I got off from my paid job, thank you very much.

I got to Zuccotti Park, and I can tell you, the most scary and intimidating thing was not the supposedly violent and sociopathic protesters, but the incredible police presence. There were several blocks barricaded off I had to walk through to get to the park in the first place,and then the park itself was surrounded by a barricade with police deciding who got in or out. I didn’t see any riot going on in the park, yet there there the cops in riot gear. Everyone who was occupying was pretty peacefully minding their own business. So the armed guard felt less like something to guarantee safety and more like a bear trap waiting to close its jaws.

They were not allowing in any big bags or boxes, presumably to keep anybody from bringing in tents, sleeping bags or camping gear, since those were the new rules of the park after protesters had been let back in. I had a back-pack with me, and I purposefully opened it to show cops without being asked, because I wanted my entrance into the park to be as without incident as possible.

When I got in, it seemed like an ordinary run of the mill protest. There were people with signs, there were chants, there was a drum circle or two. But I will admit that I had been a little conditioned by the critics to expect white guys in dreadlocks and people who looked like they were merely privileged enough to feel outrage. The truth was the exact opposite: this was about as diverse a group I could have ever seen. Everyone ran the gamut of ethnicity, gender, and dress style. There were those who were in collared shirts like they had also just gotten off of work (thank you very much), while others were more casually dressed, and plenty indeed looked rather poor. Also, from my point of view it almost looked like there were more women than men, if not a 50/50 split. Based on that group, it would be really hard for me to draw you a picture of what a “typical” Occupier looked like.

As I spent more time there, I got a more thorough impression of the general attitude of the protest. For one, I saw that as a whole, occupiers are dedicated to looking out for each other. There was a medical station, which actually had people who were trained doctors, to care for anyone, even police officers, who were injured. Then there was also a kitchen, which provided food for both protesters and even homeless people hanging out in the park. There was no feeling on exclusivity anywhere to be found. Everything was shared, everyone was looked after, even in the aftermath of the demoralizing eviction that morning. In fact, outside the police barricade, there was a guy who had a big crate of rain ponchos, who wanted to give them out to those who needed them since it was going to rain that night. I took a few handfuls and helped distribute them. He was expecting no compensation for this.

At 7PM came the even that helped solidify my initial impression: The General Assembly. Some detractors have criticized OWS as an anarchical, disorganized, chaotic bunch, but I, honestly, have never seen a more organized and unified mass of people in my life. That was exemplified by the very method they used to communicate: “The People’s Microphone.”

I don’t know if this technique came from necessity because the police forbade any electronic amplification equipment, but it works like this: You say something, and the immediate crowd around you echoes what you said so everyone around you can hear. It sounds simple, but the amazing thing is it worked. I would have expected the chaotic murmur of everyone too far from the speaker to hear or who wanted to shout their own opinions over others to make this completely impractical, but the moment any one person shouted “mike check,” the way you ask permission to use the People’s Mike, the immediate crowd echoed back “mike check!” and everyone actually shut up and allowed the person to speak! People listened, and allowed others to be listened to.

During the General Assembly, the amplitude of people actually required several layers of the People’s Mike. As in, a speaker spoke, the immediate surrounding people echoed, and then those a little farther back echoed them, so that way everyone in and around the park could hear what one person was saying. Again, somehow it worked. Between each round of echoing, there was silence. The General Assembly’s words swept over the crowd like waves, but the water returned to perfect calm in between, not deigning to stir, until a new wave was sent.

And again, this was not just everyone listening to a SINGLE person speaking. The General Assembly had a specific agenda and a very thorough process. A lot of it at the beginning had to do with recovering after the eviction. There was an update on how many were in jail, when they would be arraigned, where to meet them when they get out, and where to reclaim any property confiscated by the police. Then there was an update about “The People’s Library,” then an update from the medical team., etc. Then there was an announcement about Thursday being a big day of action, with marches and occupations to take place at several locations around the city.

Finally, after talking about what had already been decided, they needed to talk about what was going to be decided, and they solicited the opinion of the masses: they asked the entire crowd to break into groups of 10 or less and discuss what actions the movement could take and what directions it would move in from here. Once again, amazingly, it actually worked! A literal crowd of thousands actually broke up into groups and discussed! I remembered being in middle school and how hard it was for the teacher to get a class of 30 seventh graders to break up into groups and work. I was shocked that there wasn’t one guy going “Fuck it!” and doing his own thing, or a group of people just restarting their drum circle because they were oblivious and didn’t care. People started talking to each other because they cared about what was going on and care about the process.

I was in a discussion group, and again, it was diverse, and I think more women than men. The unifying thread was that they were all very educated. A couple were still in college, one guy was in law school, and one was someone who was already really active in non-profit social organizations. I didn’t get too much of their personal stories because we went straight into discussing what was going on.

Of course, there wasn’t an immediate unity of opinion from everyone in the group. Some suggested we try and back our own political candidate. Some suggest we resume support of Obama. The person who was already involved in the non-profits drew attention to the fact that perhaps since OWS was able to set up these systems of taking care of each other and voicing our concerns, we could live WITHOUT the politicians, or at the very least our reform of the system should start with taking care of our own choices. But again, people listened, and let others be listened to. The argument never devolved into voice-raising or name calling. They cared about the value of the discussion itself. We were able to come to consensus about a few ideas we were excited about and write them down and hand them to the people leading the GA.

It was then that I learned there was already a bit of hierarchical organization within the GA. There are “working groups,” essentially subcommittees, of volunteers focusing on different areas of the movements needs, like developing and refining visions and goals, spreading the message and relating to the media, securing housing for protesters who traveled to NYC, etc. Then there was the process of getting “on stack,” which is where any individual could get in line and take his turn to voice his concerns and make suggestions, of course being duly amplified by the People’s Mike. Everyone who wanted to say their piece could do so and be heard.

Everybody that was there at Zuccotti Park was working and trying to put something in to help, and that’s what impressed me the most, because, originally, so much of the criticism was about it lacking a clear, coherent message and being about nebulous, abstract ideas. The occupiers, though, are more aware than anyone of that criticism and the need for those specific aims, and has developed, completely internally, mechanisms to take all of these individual concerns and figure out how best to address them and come up with a unified voice, which is an ongoing process. If anything, the movement up until now has been in a larval form, and continues to evolve and metamorphose.

I left about an hour after the GA, since it was getting late, and I needed to get up the next day, but I left with not just a renewed support for the movement, but a renewed faith in humanity, as the whole experience was characterized by compassion, civility, determination, intelligence, and optimism.

In the interest of reporting the complete story, however, I will say that after the GA I was asked by another protester if I knew where to get weed. To be fair, though, I was wearing my rainbow tie-dye hoody. Even though I couldn’t help him, who else WOULD you ask for weed if not the guy in tie-dye?


P.S. I don’t intend this blog post to be so much of a political editorial as just a report, which is why I left most of my personal opinions at the beginning of the post and focused on the attitudes and processes of the protest. I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind, but at the very least would hope to prevent dismissive generalization about the protesters themselves. Except for the weed guy, he was totally begging to be generalized.


One Response to “My Night at Occupy Wall Street”

  1. d.smolinsky 11/17/2011 at 10:06 pm #

    You know, I don’t think I’ve seen an actual news report that’s just described what the protesters do day to day (e.g. how the GA works), which you’d kind of think would be a thing they’d do, what with being the news and all.

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