Monthly Archives: November 2011
It’s been an unprecedented week of an unprecedented movement. The ideology of Occupy Wall Street is nothing new, but the methods- applying a leaderless, direct consensus democracy – have not been seen on this planet since ancient Athens. Most revolutionary though, is that this is a truly global movement: technologically coordinated in ways that were impossible even just 5 years ago.
In just two months, an experiment of a handful of people, in a small park, has reached massive proportions. On November 17, in a global “Day of Action”, tens of thousands took the streets in cities across the world. On the West of the U.S., bridges were disrupted, and buildings were occupied throughout the country.
Here’s how I witnessed this historic week from the streets of the movement’s cradle in Lower Manhattan:
November 14 –
Over the past week or so, I’d noticed a growing presence of extremist “fringe” elements at the encampment- More and more overly sloganistic rabble-rousers, some darkly unhinged. The core of the park was definitely still exuberant, focused on pioneering new ways of thinking and acting. The kitchen and library were larger and more organized than ever, there was now a more fully equipped first-aid tent; and there were open forums tackling an ever-expanding array of important issues. I was concerned that the extreme contingent would only serve to distract from the optimism, and might turn-off much of the “99%” for whom the movement is supposed to include.
As I walked from Zuccotti Park during the evening rush, there was a feeling of foreboding in the air – an increased police presence on the surrounding streets, command-post trailers that had not be there before, and a greater number of undercovers. During the night, of course, the encampment was forcibly evicted from the park. In a way, it was a good thing- the park had become a bit too insular and was perhaps starting to stagnate. It seemed to be a step in the right direction to turn the park into a symbol and to start a broader dialogue with the 99%
November 15 –
The morning after the eviction of Zuccotti Park. A group marched to a park privately owned by Trinity Church (one of NY’s oldest parishes) and attempted to take it- climbing over a wall and unlocking the gates. The pastor and clergy from the church arrived, negotiated, and, in the end, denied access. Most left the park. Others stayed and tried to barricade the gate with benches. Very quickly after, riot police moved in and arrested the remaining protesters, with their usual finesse.
Afterwards, everybody converged back to Zuccotti Park, which was barricaded by police. Protesters surrounded the square until evening, when the court ruled that the park should be reopened, under the condition that no one set up structures or sleep there.
November 17 –
Definitely the biggest day of the global movement, with coordinated protests around the world – Bridges shut down, buildings taken, crowds turning out en masse.
NYC, as the movement’s birthplace, was the center of the action. The goal of the morning was to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, or at least to disrupt it. By some accounts the opening bell was delayed by 15 minutes. Police barricaded the entire surrounding area, cutting off marchers and dividing them. Despite the failure of the NYSE takeover, business was disrupted throughout the Financial District. Small, colonial streets shut down, and Lower Broadway crippled. Multiple marches throughout the area were trying to keep one step ahead of the police, whose presence was a bit stretched. Many office workers watched from lobbies and windows – a few shouting taunts, but many applauding and holding signs of support. Finally, the protest turned its attention to taking back Zuccotti Park.
In a triumphant scene, the park was stormed and the barricades torn down. Riot police moved in, but protesters used the barricades to push them back. They eventually had to back down. Emboldened, the protest again marched down Broadway to Wall Street, which was entirely blocked with multiple barricades. The scene on the protected side of the police line was eerily silent, considering that it is one of the epicenters of the global economy. There was a something of a stand-off in front of the iconic Trinity Church. For a moment, it seemed that there might be a rush on the police guarding Wall Street. Eventually, however, the marchers went back to Zuccotti. The police returned in triple strength, and surrounded the park, but did not attempt to clear it. However, there were a number of police beatings on the periphery. At any chance they were able to, the police unleashed their violence on countless, shameful incidents.
Things calmed as a light rain started to fall around lunch time.
The biggest triumph of the day, undeniably, was in the evening, when up to 40,000 turned out in Foley Square for a mass rally and march over the Brooklyn Bridge, from which messages were projected onto skyscrapers.
Since 2001, as the official WTC Memorial was debated, planned, and constructed, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a de facto house of commemoration and remembrance.
Built in 1764, it is the oldest active church in the city – Two and a half centuries is not a terribly impressive lifespan in most places. However, for it to have survived unfazed in New York, whose physical past is most often deleted, is something of a miracle.
It was built when New York was little more than a village at the very bottom of a wild and rocky island – an outpost on the very edge of the known European world.
– In 1776, a great fire (possibly set by patriots fleeing the town upon the retreat of Washington after the Battle of Brooklyn), destroyed as much as a quarter of the town’s structures- including the iconic Trinity Church. (rebuilt in the 1840’s)
Somehow the fire completely passed over the chapel. The area surrounding St. Paul’s remained charred for the duration of the American Revolution.
When Manhattan burned again in the 1800’s, the church was again spared.
In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed across the street, but only an old sycamore tree in the churchyard took damage.
In the weeks following the 9/11 tragedy, St. Paul’s was a place of succor – giving recovery workers spiritual strength and beds to rest upon. Artifacts from that time fill the ancient building- firefighter helmets, prayer cards, and homemade banners of encouragement and remembrance sent from across the world.
St. Paul’s is something of a living ghost. Next to the pew where George Washington prayed before his inauguration sits an array of patches of fire departments whose men and women sacrificed safety and even life.
St. Paul’s and its Colonial-era graves have thoroughly watched the city grow around it. Somewhere in its spirit, it must recall the unpaved, muddy, filth-ridden streets, the wood-fronted houses, red-coated British soldiers, the rich, poor, the glorious, and the ragged.
It must remember the mighty skyscrapers that, in its neighborhood, began their thrilling rise a century ago.
Surrounded by the anonymous, frenetic masses of modernity, it must remember the close-knit village that hosted it- a New York when everyone was a small-town neighbor.
Today, St. Paul’s stands quietly, completely surrounded by massive towers, including those of the resurrecting World Trace Center. In its yard, the worn, decaying headstones of the first New Yorkers bear mute witness to the passing of generations they helped to define.
If only the graves could rise and see what has become of their village. If they walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, I’m sure their minds would be totally blown. – Absolutely nothing recognizable remains- except the street names, and their layout.
But I like to imagine that they’d be happy to know that at least one thing they built is still left behind- standing in modest pride.
During the summer I posted on the World’s Fair Grounds which hosted the worldwide exposition in 1939 and in 1964:
These are some photos from my most recent excursion:
I first went to Occupy Wall Street on its Day 9. Inspired, I covered it. It was just a smattering of people then, barely even acknowledged by most New Yorkers. Over the past 6 weeks, however, it has bloomed further than many would have ever expected. There are now more than 1,000 occupations in more than 85 countries. What began in a lonely square in Lower Manhattan has spread far and wide- Though the movement is still in its infancy, its fervent global participation is unprecedented. Fantastically so.
Zuccotti Park, increasingly known as Liberty Square, has become the modest epicentre of an aspiring global revolution. There’s nothing there now that is actually much different from 40 days ago. Volunteers supply the food, the general assembly convenes, much is discussed, the library thrives, sanitation is well maintained. The cold New York winter is ahead, and tents have gone up and supplies are being gathered in preparation. The community has become more organized. The worldwide community is becoming more connected.
These scenes are a slice of November 2, 2011 at OWS: