This afternoon, partially due to rumors floating around the Interwebs that Radiohead would make a surprise appearance, I went on down to the Fulton Street 4 5 stop to check out day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes, to see who these people were and how serious and unified, or not, they were.
Obviously, by day 14, a lot has already been written about this demonstration— hell, I even did a link round-up already (we might add Glenn Greenwald’s sharp article on Salon now as well). If you want to read a much more thorough young-person account of what’s going on, with real facts and actual interviews, look no further than Zoe Schlanger’s piece for NYU Local. I’m also a terrible photographer, equipped only with my iPhone 3GS (gross, right?) But what the heck, let’s give this a shot.
I arrived about 3:15 pm on Friday (the 30th). It was a perfect 73 degrees, but a tad overcast. I approached Zuccotti Park, the undisputed center of this thing at this point, from the Northwest, walking past the corporate skyscrapers that apparently housed the problem. Fittingly, I first saw the crowd and the park from the raised outdoor skirt of one of these metallic buildings (maybe One Liberty Plaza). Zuccotti Park, much as I had imagined on the way there, was half-filled with people, food, signs, and tarps.
Here, on the steps of the west side of the park, was the drum circle. Young men used sticks to beat on garbage cans, bongos, congas, and old drum set pieces. A handful of more crazy looking people (mostly sweaty men) danced in front of the drummers, and the majority of people involved just watched or took video on their iPhones or SLRs. Of course some held signs— the one pictured reads “Say Yes to Class War.”
I’ve witnessed one or two drum circles in my day— mostly at Bonnaroo— and so I can say with slight bit of confidence that this was a very coherent, orchestrated affair. At one point a “leader” attempted to stop all of the drummers, each in their own state of trance, all at once, but failed. Later in the afternoon they would nail such a conductor directive.
I should probably note that on the outside of this drumming area, at the far west of the park, stood 7 or 8 uniformed police officiers, watching the goings-on without much pleasure, agitated even, as if they had an itch they couldn’t move to scratch. I would learn eventually that, while I never saw police within the park, they had it pretty well surrounded. More on this later on.
From there I wandered in to the park’s interior. Here, it was much quieter and actually peaceful. Protesters and their supplies were placed around circles of untouched flowers.
They displayed their cardboard signs and read or listened to music. Their “stations,” at best, consisted of full-sized mattresses wrapped in massive plastic sheets. Tarps on top of these waterproofed mattresses apparently served as blankets. I could only guess how many protesters crawled on to these around midnight, and how many of them had been strangers that morning.
View #occupywallstreet map in a larger map
About midway into the park is the kitchen. I had seen the first map above, so I knew they had some place to feed the folks living there. I was pleasantly surprised by how well run the operation turned out to be.
Plastic tables formed a rectangle around a decently-organized stash of donated foodstuffs and dry goods— peanut butter, bread, bagels, lettuce, soup. Four or five people were inside the rectangle, preparing food or sorting new donations. A cardboard sign urged passer-byers to “HELP OUT!”
A few were preparing 10 or 12 tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Other signs listed most-needed supplies and an “updated” version of today’s schedule (what, no Radiohead?).
East of that I found what I learned was called the media center: a smaller circle centered around two or four permanent tables and chairs. Rather than chess games between two old men, these tables were now filled with MacBooks, printers, modems, surge protectors and all the technology required for something like this.
At the entrance to this area— which, as I watched, was sectioned off with orange tape— was guarded by an gray-haired, intense-looking gentleman in a tight black t-shirt. On his left breast was a strip of duct tape with the word “SECURITY” scrawled on it (that’s his tattooed right arm above). He seemed extremely capable at his job— idly chit chatting with hippie bros that clearly wanted to help with this, the sexiest part of the protest, but couldn’t be admitted to the brains of the operation for practical reasons.
Those actually on the inside of this area (and I also watched them tie strips of the same orange tape around their left arms— a badge of authenticity and responsibility to the cause) all seemed either very busy or enjoying a much needed break to survey all they had created through their tweets of blog posts.
The north side of the park housed the “signs” area, both the producing and displaying. “Greed kills,” “End Capitalism,” “Criminals used to rob banks, now they run them.” Shit like that.
But there was undoubtably a sense that this was, or could be, an artform. Paints were shared and smooth strokes executed to display anti-greed sentiments. One older white man sat crossed legged and barefoot next to a dreadlocked young black men, each of their heads down, painting their respective signs, all while passing a ever-shortening cigarette back and forth.
At this point I was getting a decent feel for the demographics represented here— something I wanted to see with my own eyes. Yes, there were a lot of people my age. The men wore beards and cargo shorts, the women, just as at Bonnaroo, wore their practicalness more gracefully— long skirts, bandanas around their hair. Most were white (in fact, one white man held up a sign that read “There are too many white people here”) and I heard the term “over-educated” a few times. Numbers-wise, during the three hours I was there, I’d say the number of people (now, of course, many were just here on rumors of a free Radiohead show, and plenty others, like me, were really just observers) went from 2,500 ish to 3,000. This of course was boosted by an arrival of the Transit Workers Union, who were greeted with park-wide applause.
Many people were conversing with strangers about the ever-evolving topic: why are you here? Some of these had an element of “this is our generation’s time” (usually an older, hippie looking man talking to a younger person, the younger person nodding solemnly, ready to say something about Twitter or something). Others, of course, talked arm-chair economics. It seemed to be agreed upon that the top 400 richest in the nation have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. I only saw one or two Guy Fawkes masks, and both times I overheard those near me speaking ill of the symbol.
What I loved the most and really took away was that there was indeed a sense of community here. Those who had supplies in backpacks seemed to be comfortable leaving them out in the open, or at most under a tarp. There was a medical center staffed by capable-looking people wearing latex gloves. They talked, they shared essentials, they exchanged stories and contact info, they discussed future protests.
Making my way all the way to the east side of the park, I found an open, Athenian space where the famed General Assemblies must be taking place. One wall back here also housed the communal library.
This picture is terrible, as it doesn’t convey that this line of cardboard books (lovingly labelled fiction and non-fiction) stretched on a ledge for 20 to 25 feet. (Here’s a better one.) Many of the donated books were labelled “OWS” or some variation thereof across the top of the pages— a high-brow souvenir. Selection-wise the OWS Library offers a good mix of socialist literature, Greek philosophy, and novels like Brave New World.
On my way back to the west end, walking now on up the south side, I found “Nick @ Nights Tobacco.”
If I’m the only person to have blogged about these bros this will all have been worth it. (Well, there is a video of them silently rolling). Basically, Nick, and perhaps a companion, has been sitting at a plastic table behind this sign, rolling cigarettes with donated tobacco and giving them away for free for five days.
At the time of this picture, both the “normal” and “menthol” plates were pretty well-stocked. They offered three times in the two minutes I stopped to talk with them— they seemed to be the happiest people there.
Around 5:30 a solid group had gathered back at the General Assembly site on the east side. One speaker yelled from a centralized point, then relayers were yell the clause outward to the seated masses. At first it was a little sloppy, but as this series of speeches went on they got it down. A “human megaphone” of sorts: color me impressed. As for what they were saying— mostly vague calls for awareness. (I admit certain parts of this whole thing resembled scenes from PCU.)
On my way out I was confronted by a line of metal barriers and a row of police officiers. “Move along, move along,” they brushed us on. One “protester” then took out of a fishing rod with donut for bait, swinging it gently over the barrier between two officiers. This was the only time all day that I felt the least bit scared. Thankfully no police responded to the dumb taunt.
All in all the park was very peaceful this afternoon. Was there message unified? Not really. Greed seems to be the common enemy— that speculation was once a crime worthy of hanging. As a student of economics I cringed a few times while surrounded by this logic, thinking of all the positive contributions that complex finance instruments have made possible in this country and others. But I was generally sympathetic. These people are out there, doing something, etc. Seeing as there’s no end in sight (as long as donations keep coming in?), I wouldn’t be opposed to putting my Bonnaroo/K-ville skills to use and do a night or two out under the trees swaying in the New England autumn breeze next week.
Oh, and Radiohead never showed. They suck anyway.