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.
One-day protests come and go, usually without much notice. In our world of continual distraction, these things are easy to gloss over – especially in the hands of an apathetic media. The strategy of indefinite occupation is far more effective – it is designed to create ever-increasing involvement and solidarity. As the word spreads, the movement is moving beyond fringe groups. This week has seen the picketing of postal workers and pilots’ unions before the steps of the New York Stock Exchange:
Today was the 12th day of the Occupy Wall St movement and it is growing in strength and in numbers, not just in New York anymore, but all over the country and world. (http://occupytogether.org/)
The optimism and determination at the Zuccotti Park encampment is fueled by this progress. It is palpable as you walk around- scattered about are small groups talking policy, tactics, by-laws, etc. Organization is being organized. Along Broadway, demonstrators appeal to the rush-hour crowds. Makeshift cardboard signs line the perimeter of the park – attracting tourists, shoppers, and businessmen – some of whom express support, others of whom have many questions, and, of course, those who pass with mocking laughter. The weather has been weirdly summer-ish; but more humid rain is coming – tarp-lined beds are being set up.
At the other end of the park, drummers and various other musicians have assembled in an improvisatory canon resembling the Terry Riley classic “In C”
And in true NY entrepreneurial spirit, a number of food carts have set up along the edges of the square – In a weird comingtogether, both protester and police have lined up to partake of their offerings.
The movement has attracted a number of high-profile figures, including Immortal Technique
Protest movements have always attracted harsh criticism and cynical mockery. People do not like their boats to be rocked. It is very easy to forget that many of the rights we enjoy come from a similar voice as that of the current expressions. Both the Progressive era of 100 years ago and the Civil Rights movement of 50 years ago attracted their fair share of scorn in their day. However – their outcomes are now a part of common American life.
From the stalwart of rugged individualism that was Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive, come these:
“A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.”
“The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”
“The liberty of which Mr. Wilson speaks today means merely the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. It means merely the liberty of some factory owner to work haggard women over-hours for under-pay and himself to pocket the profits. It means the liberty of the factory owner to close his operatives into some crazy deathtrap on a top floor, where if fire starts, the slaughter is immense….We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress. We stand for the limitation of his liberty not to oppress those who are weaker than himself” also T. Roosevelt (1912) http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5722/
More info: https://occupywallst.org/
In the last post, I wrote about the Equitable Building, the gargantuan block of a building looming over the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan.
Incidentally this architectural landmark overlooks Zuccotti Park, the homebase of OccupyWallStreet, a major protest action that began on September 17 (“Constitution Day”) and is to continue indefinitely.
With the world economy flagging, unemployment soaring, and promises continually disappointed, this has been a year in which people around the globe are finally empowering their voices and actions to facilitate fundamental change. It is a movement of anger at the broken systems of the world, but also a movement with the optimism that reform is a real possibility. And for the first time in history, unhindered by the selectivity of mainstream media, the world is truly watching itself. Earlier this year, we watched how the power of numbers and connections brought revolution to the Middle East, and the spirit of the Arab Spring is spreading to all countries.
In the United States, we’re experiencing pervasive unemployment, extreme debt, and the increasing inability for a huge portion of the population to sustain a decent quality of life. The OccupyWallStreet movement aims to represent the “99%” of Americans whose government, financial system, and wealth are determined by the remaining one percent.
Even the mainstay of the “American dream”, the middle-class, has been increasingly degraded. Decades ago, one could live a modest life in this country and still be able to own a small chunk of the earth. Under the current system of politics and business, this has become increasingly impossible for many of us. In a democracy, everyone must contribute their fair share to the functioning of society. It is evident that most of America is paying a greater share than those in control, those with the most influential wealth- wealth which is concentrated on Wall Street
And so for this, and many other related issues, OccupyWallStreet aims to hunker down in Lower Manhattan, draw as much awareness and support as possible, and present to the nation and world a basis and philosophy for change and a better society. There is great patriotism here, and the wish to return to the core principles and ideals of the Constitution – a nation truly governed by the people.
The occupied Zuccotti Park (just blocks from the NY Stock Exchange, which itself has been cordoned off to anyone except employees) is a city within a city- with a library, a media center, a “kitchen” which serves free food, a medic, and people sweeping and taking care of garbage. Sympathetic local businesses have allowed the use of their bathrooms (and of course appreciate the extra income). The occupiers meet periodically to rally and discuss policy, and at night sleep on the hard pavement, often in the rain. This is all under the watchful eye of the NYPD, which on Saturday overstepped decency with a number of arbitrary arrests and abuses, including the unwarranted pepper spraying of a woman already enmeshed in a net. And this sorry episode:
OccupyWallStreet is explicitly non-violent and the police response was criminally heavy-handed.
Day 9 of the occupation was far more quiet, the police kept their distance, and the vibe of a subdued Sunday afternoon took hold. It’s hard to say what the immediate future will hold, but it is clear that more and more Americans are starting to think outside of the broken, stalled-out Republican/Democrat system of false promise and self-interested money grabbing.
As we’ve seen in American history, democracy sometimes needs a little shaking-up in order to work for all.
For more: https://occupywallst.org/
More pictures of Day 9: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattron/sets/72157627754699192/
#occupywallstreet on Twitter