March 31st, 2014

Features | October 27th, 2011
Three Days Occupying Wall Street
Written by Molly Swain

“Welcome to Zuccotti Park Zoo,” says the sign, duct-taped to a tree at the edge of the newly-renamed Liberty Park, the heart of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). “Please ask before taking photos. Do not photograph the sleeping residents.” The sign is light-hearted, but its message is strangely appropriate; Liberty Park, and OWS more broadly, has become a New York City tourist destination. Sightseeing companies have modified their routes to include a drive down Broadway Street, allowing passengers on their massive double-decker buses a glimpse of the action on their way to Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry. The tourists rove outside the camp – ringed by dozens of NYPD officers, media vans, and food vendors selling cheap coffee and pizza. As a rule, they ignore the sign on the tree. I woke up on my first morning to discover a photographer pointing her lens not ten inches from my neighbour’s sleeping face.

As the swarms of tourists attest, OWS has stimulated the imagination of millions of people worldwide. The Occupy Everything movement has become a locus for those looking to address the economic disparities between the richest and poorest in society. One week after the mass arrest of 700 occupiers on the Brooklyn Bridge, and one week before the beginning of Occupy Montreal, I decided to head down to New York to see for myself whether OWS had the staying power necessary to affect lasting change in the U.S.

The first thing you notice about Zucotti Park is how organized everything is. As I settled in, I came to understand that, whether or not Occupy’s long-term goals are achieved, the community provides a functioning model of non-hierarchical and anarchist organizing principles.

Many people arrive at Liberty Park with little or nothing, either because of poverty or homelessness, or simply because they dropped everything to make the trip. Mandy Earley, a Ph.D candidate in Management at York University in Toronto, is one of the latter. “I was a little nervous about camping out. I was afraid that I’d be sleeping on the cold, hard pavement…but it worked out so amazingly well. They pretty much have everything you need here. People are donating everything: stuff, time, skills. I’ve been warm and cozy.”

The camp’s Comfort Station provides for the material needs of the protesters. Sleeping bags, thermarests, shoes, warm clothing, and tarps that have been sent from around the world – Spain, Japan, Australia – are available for those who need them.

In the centre of the camp is the Kitchen, a constantly bustling open-air system which feeds hundreds of protesters everyday around the clock on ready-to-eat food that has been donated from as far away as Egypt. This can lead to some interesting meals. Breakfast my second morning in Liberty Park was a couple of Oreo’s, some bread with jam and a piece of cake. The “Occu-Pie,” a cheese and pepperoni pizza, has become famous at OWS as the “food of the revolution.” It is delivered directly to the Kitchen from pizzerias in the area, paid for by supporters from across the globe via online billing.

There is a huge library set up against one wall of the park, which carries books on everything from anarcho-syndicalism to science fiction. There’s also an internet cafe, nestled unobtrusively in the sleeping area, where a Wi-Fi connection and outlets are available for people with laptops.

Other entertainment needs have been thought of, too. At the east end of camp is an ever-present drum circle, which includes everything from old buckets to djembes to full drum kits. When I was there, they provided a steady rhythm, almost like the heartbeat of the movement, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, only dying down during quiet hours, which the occupiers negotiated with the surrounding community. (The surrounding community has since soured on the drummers, who have agreed to limit their thumping to between noon and two p.m., and four and six p.m.)

Meanwhile, copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal are handed out to everyone passing by. The paper has released one Spanish and two English-language issues thus far. It has full-colour photographs, time lines of populist revolutions, and a poem written by Lupe Fiasco dedicated to the occupiers, along with articles and a transcription of a speech given by Naomi Klein.

The north side of the camp is the home of the Arts and Culture working group. (Working groups are voluntary cells that take on responsibilities as small as organizing a morning yoga session to something as enormous as the 24-hour media relations operation). Boxes of art supplies are stacked beside a carpet of painted cardboard signs saying things like “Industrial Civilization is Murdering Life on Earth,” “I Can’t Afford a Lobbyist – I Am The 99%,” and “Native Women: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.”

The politics of the occupiers are surprisingly eclectic, running the gamut from small-government conservative to Communist. You can find protesters holding signs addressing everything from the bank bailouts and immigration to calls for “9/11 Truth” and endorsements of the libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul lining the sidewalk.

The south side of the camp contains the main sleeping area. Blue-tarped bundles of various sizes lie neatly along the sides of the footpaths, unattended and untouched. At night, these will be unrolled, with their contents – sleeping bags,  blankets, and backpacks in every condition imaginable – laid out and crawled into for the night. The constant influx of people into the camp means that the use of space must be renegotiated every night, a cause of tension for a lot of the campers, especially the “old-timers” – protesters who have been inhabiting the park for more than a week. This area is also one of the main thoroughfares of the site, with the more adventurous tourists using it as a starting point for their journey through the camp, and the residents using it as an avenue to drop off or pick up personal items, or to try to catch some sleep after a night shift with their respective working groups.

Or after being released from jail. Sitting and chatting with a group of protesters from the Bronx in front of their elaborate tarp shelter, my conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Jason*, fresh out of prison. “Hey guys, I got parole!” he said, to much rejoicing. After a round of hugs and high fives, Jason grabbed a blanket from inside the shelter, lay down, and immediately fell asleep.

The arrest of some 700 protesters the previous Saturday was a huge topic of conversation in the camp. When I asked residents about the most outrageous thing they had seen since arriving, I expected to hear about the woman dressed as Marie Antoinette telling everyone to eat cake, or the guy who tried to lure a member of the 1 per cent to the camp to discuss the economy. Instead, without fail, I was told about the “Brooklyn Bridge arrests” and the police brutality that people had either witnessed or experienced since moving to Liberty Park.

Carl Messineo, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a Washington-based law group, was collecting the names and contact information of those who had been arrested on October 1. The group had just filed a class action law suit against the NYPD with the goal, in Messineo’s words, to “get an order from the courts prohibiting the trap and arrest tactic here in New York.”

Some looked for silver lining in the arrests. Brian*, from Connecticut, voiced the opinions that many had in regards to the intentions of the police on the bridge: “the good thing is that this [the Occupation] was not in the news until that happened. Thousands of people in the streets and you couldn’t find it on any news, television, or radio stations. That put it on the news. Even if it was unfair or entrapment, it was probably one of the better things that happened in terms of exposure.”

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund is just one small part of the overall organizational structure of the Occupation. Just beyond is the working groups’ hub, there is an information table with a full daily schedule of events, a “wish list” of items needed by the camp, and a “to do” list of tasks and positions that need to be completed in order for the various working groups to function. Newly arrived campers and protesters are usually directed to one of the several information tables scattered throughout the site to get their bearings.

The Medical Centre, run by the Black Cross Health Collective – motto: “fight the power, do no harm” – is staffed 24 hours a day and has a presence at every march and demonstration. Medics are also walking through the camp at all times. Independent from the medical team is the Community Herbalist, Lezlie*, a trained herbal health practitioner with a backpack full of plants, ready to treat those for whom the constant police scrutiny and sensory overload are overwhelming. “When I come down here,” she says, “what I’m seeing is folks doing a lot to care about each other…but there are also a lot of people who are really stressed and strained. It’s really important that healing is not seen as this wussy thing where you need to come and martyr yourself and your body for the movement, but that it’s central to racial and economic justice, and that people who have really high quality health are generally people that are really privileged.”

Leszlie’s herbal medicine is supplemented by a small, cordoned-off area devoted to spirituality. It holds a community shrine with constantly burning incense and is one of the locations where guided meditation and prayers are held at least once a day.

Still, in any large-scale setting with people living and working in such close quarters, there will inevitably be conflict. Instead of relying on the surrounding NYPD to resolve these conflicts, OWS has developed an Internal Police. They are comprised of members of the Security sub-group in the Safer Spaces working group, and are trained in de-escalation techniques and non-violent conflict resolution. Halo*, a deputy, described his role as part of a larger community “immune system where people who are overbearing or confrontational tend to leave, just get ejected from the space – they’re not given fuel. There’s a culture of respect here, a culture of non-violence.”

Everyone I interviewed spoke of this culture of respect, and I experienced it several times myself. The absolute lack of theft in the camp was astounding. I left my backpack, with all but the most essential of my possessions, completely unattended in downtown Manhattan, sometimes for more than ten hours at a time, and could confidently return at night to find it completely untouched. All the resources in the camp were available for everyone to use, so visitors’ and residents’ needs were all being met, so no one needed money to obtain anything they desired. It was a kind of perfect syllogism of non-capitalist economics.

People were also just really nice. Within an hour of my arrival at Liberty Park, I was “adopted” by two North Carolinians, Loren* and Mandarrr*, who showed me the ropes and gave me a tour. Once, a group of over three hundred people who had gathered for a special session of the General Assembly, put the process on hold to use the People’s Mic to find the father of a young child who had gotten lost in the crowd.

The People’s Mic is a human amplification system – the speaker says half of a sentence, which those within hearing distance repeat as loudly as they can to the surrounding group, ensuring that everyone in attendance can understand what is being said. In a large crowd, this practice must sometimes be repeated several times, sending out ever-larger concentric circles of sound, known as “generations.”

Nowhere was the pervasive respect and tight organization of the Occupation better embodied than at the General Assembly. The GA has become something of a legend in non-hierarchical organizing circles for its use of consensus-based decision making, and the People’s Mic. The People’s Mic came about as a response to the city’s prohibition of any form of electronic amplification. Even the famous speakers who have made appearances at OWS – Slavoj Žižek, Bill McKibben, and Pete Seger, to name a few – use the People’s Mic. This, of course, requires diligent organizing on the part of the facilitators, who make sure discussions stick to the procedural guidelines of the GA. It also means that GAs can last upwards of three hours.

People can air concerns at the GA with a combination of hand gestures: wiggling your fingers upwards means you agree, while wiggling them downwards means you disagree; a triangle means the speaker’s point is not immediately relevant; and an index finger held in the air means you have a point of information to contribute. Sometimes, a proposal is brought forward that the majority seems to agree with, via a “temperature check.” Finally, an individual can halt consensus by “blocking,” which they do by crossing their forearms. Blocking is considered a very serious step in the GAs procedures: it is to be used only when an insurmountable moral or ethical issue exists in a proposal, and that, if your amendment were not adopted by the assembly, you would leave the movement.

The assembly operates on a progressive stack model. A ‘stack’ is similar to a speaker’s list, and a progressive stack takes into account social inequalities such as gender, race, ability and sexuality, that can lead to white male voices being over-represented – women and people of colour, for example, will be bumped to the top of the stack if the previous speakers have been predominantly white men, in order to ensure a plurality of voices is being heard. Facilitators and stack-keepers are given training and are constantly rotated.

Consensus-based decision making only works well if those in attendance are all working towards a shared goal, and want to see the movement succeed. By focusing on the bigger picture, the nit-picking and bickering that can seriously slow down or halt progress is avoided. Not every individual will get exactly what they want with every proposal, but through sharing concerns, asking questions, and fine-tuning drafts, a decision is reached that is in the best interest of the community as a whole, without ignoring or alienating a minority. This kind of empathy is at the core of why OWS has managed to be a successful movement, despite being without a centralized leadership or written laws. Every occupier is personally invested in the continued success of the Occupation, and, with their basic needs provided for (and in helping to provide those needs to others), they can focus on creating the change that brought them to Liberty Park in the first place.

Relying on donations as heavily as it does means that OWS will not be able to last indefinitely. The occupiers view it as a first and vital step towards a radically different political and economic system, and, while there are many different viewpoints and strategies that people want to see put into place, ultimately they all have a unified goal: change. But change comes in many forms: if OWS were to end tomorrow, crushed by the repressive system it seeks to overturn, and every occupier went back to their respective cities and states, they would still be left with the knowledge that they can shape society. There are alternative methods of organizing, interacting, and engaging with the people around you, and if each occupier takes even a fraction of the passion, energy and knowledge they gained in Liberty Park back to their own communities, then the movement will not have failed: the people of the United States will realize their ability to shape their own society. Maybe then the devastatingly unequal, corporatist society they live in will die the slow death of irrelevancy, instead of the quick death of revolution.

*Names have been changed

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