Monday, September 19th, 2011

A Report from the Occupation of Wall Street

Zuccotti Park is a well-manicured, block-long park in the heart of New York City’s financial district that, for the past two days, has been home to a few hundred squatters, anarchists, activists, students, a few drug addicts, several undercover cops and one lone man in a suit. Alternately calling themselves Occupy Wall Street or Take Wall Street or the 99%, they have set up camp, spending the night on rolls of cardboard, yoga mats and bare concrete, as a protest against the abuses carried out by various financial institutions and banks against the people of this country.

The protest, loosely organized by Adbusters and the internet activist group Anonymous—although as groups of non-hierarchical activists tend to do, many protesters claimed no group affiliation or leadership—began on Saturday. Give or take, 5000 protesters marched down into the financial district banging drums and carrying signs, chanting “Wall Street, Our Street!” The group then set up camp in Zuccotti Park—a compromise, according to one protester, between the NYPD, protesters, and private owners of the park, so that the group did not just set up camp in the middle of the actual Wall Street. They spent Saturday and Sunday night in the small square, feasting on donated peanut butter, salads and cheese. On Sunday night, supporters of the protesters ordered the group pizza—so much pizza that the nearby pizza shop announced it would have to stay open until 1 a.m. just to fulfill orders. On Monday morning the group marched down Wall Street proper, beating drums and blowing whistles, and broadcasting a live stream of the whole thing on their website.

And on Sunday afternoon, protesters gathered in small groups to scrawl slogans on spare pieces of cardboard. They lounged on benches and congregated around the mountain of cans of Skippy that dominated the free food table. A line of protesters stood silently holding signs at the front of the park, somewhat peacefully facing off a gathering of cops. There were a few police vans surrounding the park, as well as officers milling around, but they seemed, for the most part, content to watch—making sure no one was smashing the windows of Starbucks or setting anything on fire, but otherwise staying out of the way.

The group then held its “General Assembly,” the aggressively equitable open forum they use to make decisions. Five people with megaphones sat on a wall in front of the group, and encouraged the entire seated crowd to share ideas and contribute items to the agenda. The process was lengthy. It began with a review of the agenda, then suggestions for additional possible agenda items, with a chance for those who did not agree with the agenda items to dissent. Then it moved to discussion of the actual agenda items, and a conversation on whether items were to be decided by the entire group or moved to a smaller, subject-based work group that would bring their decision to the entire group, to then be further discussed. The process ensured that every single person had the chance to have their voice heard. It also meant that it took a very long time to get anything done.

“My neighbors are being pushed out of their homes through predatory lending and foreclosures, they’re having their heating and hot water being turned off, and my friends in college are so deep in student debt that they won’t pay it off for 20 years,” Justin told me. He is a fairly clean cut 25-year-old who had kicked off the megaphone portion of the day. He was monitoring the group’s food donation page on his iPad. “What we’re trying to do is trying to establish even more than we did yesterday, our encampment here, so we can achieve our ultimate goal, which is to occupy Wall Street and make our demands heard.”

Halfway through the General Assembly, a rowdy group of protesters, led by a man in tie-died spandex pants, approached the park. They were pounding drums, blowing whistles, and chanting “Wall Street, Our Street!” Their energy dissipated as they approached the more somber General Assembly, then in the process of discussing whether they should discuss a common name, if they should have a police liaison and how they could best formally recognize the disproportionate privilege of many of the protesters. Then a cry of “Welcome them!” came from the General Assembly, and the cheering, colorful band of marchers was added to the mix.

“Me personally—I don’t want to speak for everyone—but for me, it’s about getting money out of politics,” Benjamin Hitchock told me. He's an 18 year-year-old college student who had driven down from Maine for the weekend. “It’s about getting the influence of money out of democracy. Because democracy was not made to represent the distribution of dollars, it was made to represent the distribution of beliefs.”

They had all been spending the night in the park, without tents or shelter, some more comfortably than others. Flip, a 23-year-old Queens resident with an acoustic guitar, told me that he’d forgotten a blanket the night before, so had been cold, but that everyone else had helped him get through.

“I just feel like I need to be here, you know?” Flip said. “I feel like the world is becoming a different place. That’s how it works, I guess.”

Some came from far away—Robert, a 20-something self-described professional activist who was lounging on cardboard with his girlfriend Caitlin, had hitchhiked across the country from California just to be there.

“What we’d like to change is to at least draw more attention to and hopefully phase out the financial system’s involvement in the political system,” Robert told me. “It kind of diminishes the voting power of individual people, it limits your choice to two candidates that have already been vetted by large contributors.”

Robert Segal, who said he was a 47-year-old former Wall Street employee and definitely was the lone protester there in a suit and tie, concurred. “No corporation should take home a senator for their mantelpiece, and have a congressperson on either side. When you throw money at a candidate you’re essentially casting a vote. And people should vote. Corporations shouldn’t vote. That’s a starting point.”

“After 2008, I expected wow, people are actually going to gather and go 'what did you just do to us?'" he said. "'Why did you think you’re so vital, why don’t you take a hike? We don’t need you!' But instead there was a resounding amount of non-noise.”

The most eventful part of the day was when a Big Apple Tour Bus pulled up, and tourists began to excitedly snap photos of the protesters in the park. At one point, a protester donned a Guy Fawkes mask—the signature of many members of Anonymous. A police officer walked up to him and, quietly, asked him to remove the mask. Wearing masks in New York City was illegal, he explained, and if the protester continued to wear it the officer would end up having to arrest him.

“I’m honestly shocked that there aren’t more people from the right,” Robert the hitchhiker said. “I’m surprised there aren’t more people from other sides. This is being spun as a very left-leaning cause, but ending the financial system’s stranglehold on our democracy is something everyone can agree on. All over the country in the Midwest, in red states, good old boys alike.”

“I know I’m making a difference,” Benjamin said. “The people who come and see this and walk by and think about it, whether it be good or bad thoughts. Plus,” he said, “If I wasn’t here, I’d just be sitting in my dorm room doing homework.”

Erica Sackin is a reporterer.

39 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

"but for me, it’s about getting money out of politics"

Interestingly, this goal is identical to that of Wall Street banks. Although probably with an alternate definition of "out."

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

Good report!

You say that "The group then held its 'General Assembly,' the aggressively equitable open forum they use to make decisions." Well, were any decisions actually made, here? Many of the protesters consider collective decision-making to antithetical to their personal autonomy or somesuch. Is there anything like a list of "demands" to which the activists want a response to?

@Werner Hedgehog : The old Paris '68 graffito "We demand the right to contradict ourselves" is still pretty hilarious / trenchant.

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose "Be reasonable, demand the impossible!" &c.

tropical icey (#49,740)

@Werner Hedgehog They were using Consensus Decision Making, where every member of the group has to agree to a decision that affects the whole group before it's made. If someone disagrees or "blocks" the decision, it's changed until everyone consents. Once a point's been discussed people don't really block that much, they're more open to compromise than you might think. There's a whole wikipedia page on consensus if you're interested.

Before the thing started I know Adbusters had people voting on a single demand through facebook. Last I checked "end corporate personhood" was winning. Sounded pretty good to me.

@tropical icey : Yeah, it does sound pretty faffing and liberal-hippie-college-y when spelled out like the above article does, but it actually is a reasonable method of group direction (not the least, because it enables the necessary "my-story"-ing while actually forcing closure on the process).

As far as corporate-personhood, I'm going to blatantly steal a good line and go with "I refuse to believe that corporations are people until Texas executes one."

tropical icey (#49,740)

I'm really surprised that this is getting media attention at all, when I first heard about Adbusters organizing this thing I assumed it would come and go and I'd never hear about it again. I'm really proud of these kids for being fairly organized, smart enough not to get their asses arrested, and for doing the most important thing a demonstration like this can do: get attention. I'd pretty much given up on the ability of anarchists to do anything on a large scale.

Thanks for writing about this in a really thorough and fair and interesting way.

@tropical icey : Agreed. These kids (and suit-wearing dude! yay suit-wearing dude!) seem like they've got their act together, and good for them. From what I see, there's a strong indication of a Good Protesting Model here : goals-oriented, consciously coherent with its methods, open while maintaining control, and sensitive to optics and the side effects of group actions. Good for them.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Crazy, and certainly something these kids' ears would bleed to hear, but what Palin and Bachmann are (maybe unintentionally and cynically) stirring up now with their crony capitalism crusade is dovetailing perfectly with this protest.

@Abe Sauer You know, I asked a few of them if they were the left's version of the tea party, and many of them actually said that, in general, the demands were similar! Leave it to anarchists to disregard labels.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Abe Sauer Wasn't ending cronyism one of Palin's signature issues in Alaska? Whatever her other flaws are (and obviously there are many), I do at least give her some credit on this issue.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@SeanP Well, ending obvious cronyism.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Ham_Snadwich I guess so.

deepomega (#1,720)

How do you keep corporations from putting money into politics while still allowing the members of the corporations to do so? (In other words, is it better for CEO of MegaBank, Inc. to be able to put MegaBank's name on the donation?) Sincere question! I'm not sure what the answer is here.

@deepomega That is a really good question! One I'd like to figure out the answer to actually. Maybe no donations over a certain amount, or public financing for all.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Well, deepo, the answer to your question lies in a consideration of the…hey, that dog has a puffy tail!

deepomega (#1,720)

@boyofdestiny Puffy tailed dogs don't deserve to vote.

liznieve (#7,691)

@deepomega I think it may have more to do with the relatively unrestricted indirect financing from PACs, often sponsored by corporations, rather than the highly regulated individual donations? IDK, though, just a stab in the dark.

Smitros (#5,315)

@deepomega Tailist!

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@deepomega Limit donations to $x,000, only from individuals?

No man has ever been converted to a point of view by tiedyed spandex pants (save, perhaps, the view that the wearer of said pants is a blight on all things good). At least there aren't any huge papier-mâché puppets, because seriously URRGH BAD PROTESTOR. OK, got that out of my system.

julebsorry (#5,783)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Aww, my parent's neighbors are some of the folks that make those puppets! You couldn't meet a nicer couple. We're willing to forgive them the puppets…it's just their chosen form of expression (and, they also own a children's theater company).

@julebsorry : I know! I always feel so bad about hating those puppets because obviously they're made by good-intentioned people and a lot of love and organic papier-mâché went into them but seriously nobody needs leprous-looking 12-foot-tall Mother Earths with peyote-inspired paint jobs and massive flabby Loving Hands to convince them that War Is Bad. Shit gives me bad 70s-childhood flashback trauma, seriously.

I'm happy to see this report, especially after Gawker and its snark gremlins collectively took just one huge, cynical shit over the whole idea of any kind of popular mobilization in their coverage.

Yeah, you've got your usual-suspect undergrad anarchist contingent represented here and I'm not sure I can get on board with that scene. But it's funny how even on the left, the instinct is to reflexively dismiss this kind of thing as useless trustafarian/hipster/liberal yuppie posturing.

And as angry as I am about the national state of affairs, and also as a sentimentally dew-eyed red-diaper lefty from way back, the mere fact of this sort of protest is heartening. What would a left wing popular movement look like in a 2011 United States? I have no idea. The 15-M/Democracia Real Ya people in Spain and the Israelis in Tel Aviv hint at something.

It'll be interesting to see how this all develops. Perhaps I'll even stop by down there just to see what's happening.

SeanP (#4,058)

@ontologicalpuppy Yep. You get a lot of reactions to the effect of "yeah, that'll never work"; pointing and laughing, etc. As if pre-emptive surrender is so much more effective.

Sprague D (#3,732)

I read the whole article and I still don't know where they are going to the bathroom.

@Sprague D Comment of the year, IMHO

I'm sure this has been said; finally, action. I hope the ball starts rolling. The politicians will not do it, we must do it. Go for the gusto, the situation is dire.

TheRtHonPM (#10,481)

Good for them! But if I were down there, the "general assembly" would make me want to gnaw my arm off.

SeanP (#4,058)

@TheRtHonPM Me too – I dislike meetings in general, and I would probably fake a medical emergency to get out of one that required consensus from everyone.

theaterexpert (#91,896)

tonight rwm playwright lab previewed

prolific playwright larry myers'

"war on wall street : seize the future"

a poetic parable for the live stage

members of hem theater collective

acted with dr myers' global students

a guest speaker

a member of myers' rwm playwright s lab
( who worked with dr myers 2 decades ago

in his

san francisco

rwm playewrights lab

wrote about

the timely drama for his

theater arts blog

dramacritic (#91,916)

THE thrill of seeing a progressive playwright group actually write about an event as it s trahanspirig is quite inspiring. Prolific PLaywright Larry Myers who s won many awards runa a bicoastal dramatists ring! well the acting troupe is called
hem theater collective but
what it turns out to be
is a motley menagerie of marauders –trained actors — all types, all etnicities, all ages.They speak in post modern poetry


"war on wall street : seize the future

seizes our attention

A tentative audience sat spellbound

.All of this happpening at the center of the world — across the street from The World Trade Center.

Larry Myers' whirlwind of words harkens back to the Caffe Cino

as well as the German presentational Brecht theater.

It is literary and jarring….joke and poetry-filled

It s a surreality TV That Was The Week That Was

mixed with The Living Newspaper —

timely timebombs of monologues

and short staccato scenes.

Myers plans to double bill this

his soup kitchen epic for the stage —

"Rihanna Visits The Miracle Meatloaf Kitchen"

This exists on Avenue A and East Second Street.

In Dr Myers' atectonic, mystical meanderings
Rihana — whether or not it really is she — is both angel and intruder.

All this comes down on day Obama releases his tax the rich scheme.

Word is myers sent Obama his Obama play and got a fan letter.

@dramacritic : There's someone twenty commenter numbers below you that you just have to meet.

Oh, you have? You are?

Well, this is embarassing.

mouthof drama (#91,960)

in a time framewhen people are sondbit bitten & too many folks are clueless a stage work like playwright Larry Myers' new
'War 'on Wall Street : Seize The Future" isn t just "in your face" it is a wake up all punch in the face. colorful, opinionated desperate characters bark out dreams & pleas.

"War' is a play about yearnings and ^ earnings.

twm playwrightd lab doubled it with

Rihanna Visits The Magical Soup Kitchen":


leslie devries (#10,109)

Situationist drama always seems to devolve into incomprehensibility. I respect the consensual reality thing, but without concrete leadership it won't have enough of a focus to inspire fat & entertained Americans to show support. We need the courts back. We need an honest discussion of opening up the Fed. I wish they'd at least try asking for something, such as CEOs relinquishing pay or forgiveness of debts. Or make an attempt to levitate a building or something.

conniejean (#93,939)

So glad to see Moore and Barr there. Step up, famous people, artists and politicians. Now's the time. Wall Street is the logical place. Where do I order the pizza?

maker (#98,070)


255178454@twitter (#149,627)

The Wall Street protest has Americans struggling with just who these people are and what they represent. So, naturally, they are also questioning their true motivations. Many view OWS as a “spontaneous” extension of President Obama’s own war on the rich which seemed to have conveniently reached a crescendo just as the first protesters appeared on Wall Street.

Others suspect, along with many of the conservative pundits, that it is a George Soros-backed conspiracy to stoke the anti-capitalist flames. And, there are others who see it as a ploy by the unions to build up their stature and their ranks.

Due to the lack of a coherent message or rational demand out of this largely disjointed association of activists, Americans are having trouble accepting it as a pure, grass-roots movement with legitimate intentions. The circus like, and borderline violent atmosphere, as opposed to the serious Tea Party demeanor, raises skepticism that the Wall Street protest is nothing more than a ploy to distract the American public from the abyssmal job performance of the current administration.

Having spread from Wall Street to main street it has garnered much more media attention, but the focus is as much on its unruliness and non-conformity as it is on any cogent message it is trying to convey.

Whether it is real or not, opportunistic or sincere, it is bringing to a much brighter light what most Americans are already sensing – that the country is sinking further into economic distress and the last drops of optimism have evaporated into a dark cloud of uncertainty. That a small number of people, although misguided and largely misinformed, would stand up to fight for jobs and their share of influence over policy making decisions, doesn’t seem so extreme or radical to the average American.

No one would argue with the need for more urgent action to turn the economy around. And, you won’t find too many people siding with the very institutions that, through their incessant hunger for profits, were willing accomplices to one of the worst financial calamities in our history.

In fact, at their core, the grievances that form the basis of many of its demands are shared by people on both sides of the aisle. Even Tea Partiers find little to fault with OWS’s assault on crony capitalism and lack of accountability of Wall Street’s complicity in the financial crisis. They just believe that their anger is misdirected.

The Tea Party see’s the government and its designs on the people’s liberties as the root of all evil, while the OWS crowd sees Wall Street, the banks and corporate America as the evil doers. While there is enough blame to spread around, the reality is that, by targeting the private sector, the protesters are biting the hands that feed them – literally.

True, many of the protesters are recipients of government handouts – many are unemployed and a good number are receiving some sort of welfare. But, the government isn’t going to give them a job, and it certainly doesn’t produce the many products and technological innovations that they are now enjoying even as they mount their assault on capitalism. By disrupting the thousands of local businesses, the wall street protest are hurting the economies of dozens of cities which will only exacerbate the financial distress of their communities.

If instead, they joined hands and marched, peacefully, on Washington and targeted the politicians who perpetuate the crony capitalism they abhor, and who have broken their promises to “fix” Wall Street and get the lobbyists out of the White House, and who, through their actions or in-actions, are suppressing the ability of businesses to generate more jobs, they will have a much greater impact.

Instead of coalescing around an unpopular campaign (1% versus the 99%) to pit the rich against the middle class, it is only going to stoke the fires of the President and other leftist politicians who have been trying the same strategy without success. The people don’t want to hear it.

The problem for OWS, is that, with no clear leadership and no clearly articulated message, they have been, and are still in the process of being hijacked by every activist group or whacko cause out there, and now the unions, the Marxists and the politicians are co-opting the movement for their own purposes.

While all of the added support and encouragement from these groups has emboldened the movement and made its voice louder, all it has really done is made it more shrill and even more disjointed. Add to the soup, the infiltration by every homeless person, drug addict, ageless hippie and teen in search of a rave party, and you have a spectacle that few Americans can relate too, which is unfortunate.

Everyone from the Fed Chairman to Warren Buffet, from Hollywood liberals to conservative talk show hosts, from Tea Partiers to the President, agree that the anger is real, the outrage is justified, and that Wall Street and the politicians need to be held to account for the malaise in which we find ourselves. But the assault on the private sector and capitalism is misguided.

Capitalism has done nothing but create prosperity for all who actively participate in it. It’s the Washington politicians who, throughout history, have tried to control capitalism that have inflicted the damage. That’s where OWS needs to go right now. To comment or read more go here

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