Report From OWS: The Global Conversation Begins
Inspired to share the good news of Zuccotti Park, Chloe Cockburn, a young Civil Rights attorney and mother, decided to get the word out to her friends and colleagues so they could appreciate the vibrancy of the new Occupy Wall Street movement. She began with a simple email description of her first visit, but as the interest of the recipients on her list grew, and as her own fascination with the dialogue, organization and sheer humanity of the movement deepened, the emails began to take on a dutiful character. The personal depth and descriptive detail of these informal records reveals an aspect of the Occupy movement that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, while the fragmenting tendencies of social media convey it poorly. RS has reproduced all sixteen of the messages, in chronological order and with minor edits, in hopes that this dimension of Occupy, a community-oriented and deeply participatory human dialogue, can be more broadly appreciated:
*Note- most names have been changed to protect anoymity
Report from OWS # 1 - September 30
After being startled by the realization that the Occupy Wall Street gathering was still going on several days after the initial marches, and after reading a great column by Glenn Greenwald that called out those on the left who have been diminishing the protest for being too much of this and not enough of that, I decided that I needed to go take a look for myself. So, tonight I met up with friends at the Occupy Wall Street zone in Liberty Plaza around 5:30. In the hour and a half or so that we were there, I was captivated by the open conversations, evolving infrastructure and overall freshness of the atmosphere.
The mood was festive and musical, with lots of drumming, singing and clapping weaving amidst the organizing meetings and political conversations. A ton of police were present who seemed calm and congenial. My sense is that they have decided that pepper spraying is not the way to go. There were people of all ages and colors there, though mostly young, and mostly white by a fair margin. I saw a few small children.
The plaza itself is a wonderful location, kitty corner from the WTC site and across the street from a Bank of America. I want to say its about 250 feet by 125 feet but that's only a rough approximation. The space is home to numerous pavestones, some small trees, and an array of tables and steps which create excellent structures to organize around. The occupiers are not allowed to set up structures of any kind, so there are no tents or shelters. There are, however, a fair number of mattresses and tarps, and they are clustered into one area so that there is plenty of space to stand and move about elsewhere. Piles of backpacks are strewn about, but kept track of, and separate areas are designated for food, media, and even a library.
Since the police do not allow amplified sound, the occupiers have created what is called the "people's microphone." When one person is speaking and needs to be heard by many, others at a certain distance will listen and then turn behind them and repeat what was said to the people behind them. The process continues until the message is disseminated throughout the plaza. I didn't see it in action, but I heard that it works pretty well.
Several events take place at scheduled times each day, and marches occur twice a day at around 9 AM and 1 PM. When not in use, the protest signs are spread out on the ground so the messages can still be seen. During a march, people will just grab those signs and go. Twice a day at 1 and 7PM there are large check-in meetings attended by most of the occupiers in the square. Announcements are made, structures of the camp are described ("this is how it works here") and then there is a big discussion of what people thing the gathering is about, what is going on, etc. Everyone can speak. I think there is a talking stick, time limits and so forth. I didn't see this in action, but it sounds like it's well organized. Each meeting lasts for two hours or so. At the end of it, people break off into committees like the media team. Anyone can take part and take ownership. I saw a media team meeting in action. About twenty-five people were huddled around discussing how the message should be formed, how it should be disseminated, and who the media contacts would be, etc. The movement is growing so fast and they are trying their hardest to keep up with it. The camp also has teams that take care of basic logistics like picking up trash and organizing food. It seems well run overall. A big white board contains the day's schedule, announcements, calls for supplies and such.
I spent about forty minutes talking to a member of the media organization team. He's been involved with independent media for several years and worked on various lefty campaigns. He currently teaches design at an upstate community college and took a week off of his classes to check out the manifestation, camping out there for three days thus far and planning to stay for the rest of the week. He told me that he was interested to find, upon arrival, that the people whom he knows from the anarcho-leftist community in New York were not really present at this thing. Instead, a great deal of the energy is coming from young people without much organizing experience. But enough seasoned veterans are around that the newbies in the crowd appear to be learning rather than fracturing. He explained how excited he is to witness this space in which people can converse (for upwards of sixteen hours a day) about what is going on in this country and what kind of change they would like to see. Rather than trying to change everything itself, a role this protest can't assume, the site is operating as a place where people can come together for critical thinking and discussions that will provide the conceptual framework for further organization on a larger scale that will change things. After being in the square for three days, he has a lot more hope than before that the movement will grow to cause fundamental change.
I found the overall experience to be extremely positive and would have stayed longer were it not for pre-existing obligations. I feel as if I would like to talk and build ideas with many of the people there. The occupiers have a big map of the United States littered with stars marking each city that has started it's own Occupy movement. This seems like something that has power to grow and sustain itself. Some have naturally expressed the view that a few hundred people in the square can't directly change anything. That is true. They can't change laws, and they aren't going to make corporations change their practices either. However, I think that what they are doing is put their bodies on the line for these ideas that we have all been talking about. They are there, sleeping overnight in uncomfortable situations, committed to sticking it out until they figure it out. That puts some pressure on the rest of us to step up our game. If they keep at it, those who CAN lobby to change laws and change corporate behavior will join them. Their physical presences say to us, 'now is a time to put some concerted effort and concentrated thought into what exactly it is that we think about what is going on (corporate capture of politics, banks sucking the people dry, etc.) and take some action.' A friend who is a media strategist told me that he went to Union Square yesterday and talked to each group of people in the park about whether they were happy or not with the way things are and telling them about Liberty Plaza. Every single group engaged with him but one. He wasn't just some random guy with a political message, he was an ambassador from Liberty Plaza. That gave him some legitimacy, something to tie his message to, something to focus attention on. I think that this gathering, where people have put their bodies on the line, can be like a center of gravity for all of these conversations. When people all have these conversations at the same time it builds momentum. I am curious to see where it goes next and will try to get back there when I can. You should check it out too.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS # 2 - October 12
It's been almost two weeks since I last wrote about Occupy Wall Street. I have been down there in the interim, but haven't had a chance to write. On October 2, I took my child to visit Liberty Square and then became part of the march up to the Brooklyn Bridge. I had heard reports of the park being full of dirty hippies so I wanted to show my support as a mother and a professional. After a long walk up Broadway on the sidewalk, the march moved towards the bridge. I stayed on the City Hall Park side, watched it proceed, and then headed down into the subway. I later heard that many of the people I saw pouring out onto the bridge with the police seemingly permitting it were kettled (trapped in big orange mesh) and arrested. My legal observer friend Kate was on the scene, frantically documenting names and dates of birth.
Back to the present. Tonight I attended a very chilly General Assembly (group meeting at which decisions are made by consensus) at OWS. The large GA, attended by several hundred people, managed to conduct business despite a construction project across the street involving a jackhammer (really, at 7pm at night?). There seemed to be total buy-in to the process of consensus discussion and decision making, which involves various hand signals that are taught to the group at the beginning of each GA so newcomers can participate. The meeting persisted through chilly misting rain and included many reports and announcements by the working groups, who are working on a range of issues from the safety of women in the camp, to entertainment (Rage Against the Machine is playing tomorrow), to ongoing policy discussions.
Several large budget items were on the agenda and the GA approved an expenditure of $25,600 for computer gear to facilitate the maintenance and improvement of videoconferencing in anticipation of the worldwide march this Saturday, and to cover for the wear and tear by the weather on existing equipment, as well as the loss of gear that walked away over the past month. This proposal had been submitted by the evidently well-organized media committee, represented by an extremely energetic and good-humored guy who was somewhat overwhelmed by the peoples' mic. There was a comment from the finance committee, who supported the project, saying that OWS has upwards of $150,000 in funds available to it (though they must be approved and disbursed by their fiscal sponsor, Global Alliance for Justice). That's huge!! Media said that they have been able to secure many free premium accounts on livestream worth tens of thousands of dollars. The stream and the archives are available online here. That means there is some serious infrastructure building going on here. The media team works under the principle, which I think is correct, that the strength of this thing is in the solidarity it can build by projecting its actions and messages around the world. It's exciting to see that solidarity grow and take root ahead of the winter. OWS will need lots of stored energy to survive the cold. Also approved by the GA was about $2500 for a generator to power the camp, which will run on bio-diesel made from local restaurant oil.
The food, info, and media stations hummed along as the camp was completely full of people tonight. But due to the rain, everything in the camp was covered in tarps. It looks to me like the dampness is going to make a tough night for people. I slept in the park overnight on Sunday night with two friends, and even though it was sixty degrees out and totally dry, I felt incredibly uncomfortable. The ground slopes slightly throughout the entire park, I didn't have an air mattress, and people were packed in tightly since it's such a hot spot to sleep these days and so there is very little room. A great deal of ambient light and sound pervade the park, which, in combination with the fact that one is OUTSIDE IN NEW YORK WITH EYES CLOSED AT NIGHT, makes it very difficult to sleep. I got up at 6 AM, aching and aggravated, to go and sleep on a couch at my office in Tribeca. I am so impressed that people have been doing this for weeks straight.
Momentum continues to build for OWS, but the weather is closing in at the same time. I hope that the march this Saturday will ratchet things up to a new level. An announcement was made tonight that plans are in the works to find an indoor space for the occupation to continue through the winter. I'm curious to see what that might look like. My first reaction was that it wouldn't make sense to me since this thing is all about taking over the public space, but then I realized that it would be awesome to have this giant forum for discussions and organizing to continue happening. Surely the tenor of the gathering will change when people won't just be wandering in off the street. But I think the word about this movement has spread out there enough so that people may still be motivated to rally in a different type of space. I'm curious to know if other occupy protests are on the same track…
I strongly encourage those of you who are spending more time at the various occupations and who are more directly involved to post about your daily experiences. It makes a huge difference when someone you know gives a direct report. The whole thing comes alive.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #3 - October 14
On Wednesday night, just before the General Assembly, Bloomberg came to OWS and announced that the park would be "cleaned" on Friday morning at the request of Brookfield, the entity that owns and operates the park. At 10:30 AM Thursday, I wrote an email to various camp organizers at OWS asking whether any response was planned and if they needed legal support, explaining that the National Lawyers Guild would need to be asked for their help and could not just make that suggestion. I worried that Bloomberg was going to pounce on and crush OWS and anxiously awaited some reply. I went so far as to call someone on their way to OWS and ask them to speak to organizers to see if they knew what was coming. It turns out that these people are professionals at direct action and were handling it just fine. I heard mid-day from my NLG friend that NLG lawyers and OWS people were having an emergency meeting to figure out legal options. Starting at around 3 PM, I then began receiving e-mails from many organizational lists, including the Working Families Party and other "petition signing" e-mail lists, culminating with the big MoveOn and DailyKos push, which had the following message: 'come to Liberty Square at 6 AM and show your support, defend the park.' My anxiety turned to excited anticipation! I then received word that there was a massive cleanup effort going on at the park to remove Bloomberg's excuse for clearing the square. So I decided to leave work early and head down to Liberty Plaza to help out.
I arrived at around 5:30 PM and presented myself to the sanitation crew, who are extremely affable, well organized, and hard working. They appear to gain a sense of purpose in life from keeping the ship running. Someone announced that they needed help carrying flowers so I joined five people waiting on the corner for a car coming with new plants to replace ones that were damaged in the park garden. When the station wagon pulled up we quickly removed about a dozen plants, which were then planted in less than ten minutes by people who happened to be professional gardeners. Then I went back to sanitation, where someone handed me a stiff broom, a bucket of water, and told me to start at the east end of the plaza and scrub the ground to pick up all the dirt, moving west and downhill with the water. We were encouraged to make sure that the cameras caught what we were doing. I spent the next hour and a half vigorously scrubbing the pavement, working alongside dozens of other people. Much of the stuff that had been littering the plaza had already been cleared away, and neat piles of tarps with peoples' stuff on them remained, between which we scrubbed and mopped. I learned that there was a severe shortage of water as the police cut off a water source so people were going to nearby businesses and begging to fill up their buckets. Everyone in the plaza was totally on board with the clean up and moved out of the way. For a while I was moving to the rhythm of an excellent banjo player. After scrubbing I went back to sanitation and got the job of taking out the trash from trash cans and putting in new bags. As I hunted the plaza for trash cans I took in the scene of hundreds of people engaged in discussion, music and commentary.
Trash work done, I met up with friends and climbed up on the wall behind the speaking area for the GA. I watched the speakers lead the crowd through the process, which includes educating people on the different hand signals they can use to demonstrate that they do or don't agree with what's going on. Even though lots of people there have obviously heard it many times before, they enthusiastically followed and shouted along. I did my best to shout on the announcements to my corner of the gathering (with the people's mic). The Direct Action team announced that the plan for the morning, when the Brookfield cleaning crew arrived, was to hold two-thirds of the square at any given time, ceding one-third of the square for the cleaners. This seemed problematic to me, since it would be so easy for the police to move in and secure the one-third that had been cleaned and not allow people to return with stuff. Direction Action asked everyone to stay in the plaza overnight and keep a vigil (with glo-sticks!) and to be prepared for the police to come as early as 4 AM to start clearing out the park. They announced that there were varying roles available to be played, each entailing different degrees of risk of being arrested. Each person could then choose to be involved at their own comfort level. At a certain point I got tired of the GA and left to help the sanitation crew carry many large bags of "comfort" (blankets and sleeping bags) to the truck awaiting to take them to be laundered and put in storage until the status of the occupation and Bloomberg's assault was resolved.
I left the site at about 9 PM to take care of some things at home and figure out what my plan for the morning would be. Later that night, I heard that the unions had added their support and planned to send eight-hundred members who were prepared to be arrested to help hold the plaza at 6 AM.
I woke up at 6:15 AM and biked over to help support OWS in the face of the removal efforts. En route, I received a text explaining that Bloomberg had backed down and they were not going to clear the square. The text said that there had been a massive and awe inspiring GA at which huge masses of people came together to hear the announcement and cheered wildly for it. By the time I arrived, there were several marches in progress. I joined one, toting my bike along, and then began two hours of walking with different marches. We went from the plaza to the stock market bull sculpture, back up Broadway again, around the block, got broken up, reinforced with marching bands, then encountered police and had to re-form as new marches after the disarray and shouting caused by arrests. There were marches going north and marches going south. It was jubilant and hectic. At one point, a rumor spread that the city was going to clear the plaza after all, but it didn't happen.
Over the course of the marches I saw two tense and troubling situations with the police. In the first, the march I was in turned up a narrow street that was almost like an alley. That made me nervous since it's much easier for the police to surround you in that situation. At the end of the street there was a line of police directing people to walk up a narrow area of sidewalk which caused a lot of congestion. I was really nervous so I took my bike and backed out of there and around the block where I saw that the march did make it through rather than being subject to a mass arrest in the manner I had feared. Second, when at one point the march took to the middle of Broadway to march down the street, a line of police officers on giant motor bikes drove into the crowd at about 5 miles an hour. That was certainly fast enough to cause some damage if people didn't move out of the way. I could not see what was going on, but there was a tense confrontation heating up. Then a marching band came down the sidewalk and just continued on past the police officers, leading the ground onward. The lesson there is that sometimes it's better to keep moving than to take a stand against the police, since the point of the day isn't really to have conflicts with police. I later learned that a young NLG observer was pushed to the ground by a police motorcycle, possibly in that same incident but behind people so I could not see. The bike sat on his leg for many seconds (documented on video) while he writhed in pain and finally kicked it off, and was then arrested. It's pretty clear where the NYPD stand in this. Nevertheless, everyone I have seen participating on the occupation side act with restraint and nonviolence. I know there are anarchist kids in the group, but the mass of it is dominated by people adhering to nonviolent models.
After all that I made my way north to recon with the rest of the crew and went to hang out at the park for a while. Even when so many people had left to go marching, many remained in the square. It's a constantly bustling home base, a zone of conversation and organization, (with no police - they stay on the outside) and it's a place worth defending! Let me just say that all yesterday and today, I am totally drawn to that square. Its gravitational force is growing on me. I like that I can now associate all of my idea packets surrounding this movement with one geographical location where I have formed specific emotional memories. Powerful stuff.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #4 - October 15
This is a continuation of my report from yesterday as there were many things I did not have time to get to. I'll share some of the more personal stories that I have been hearing.
When I arrived in Liberty Park after marching around on Friday 10/14, I saw a girl named Sasha who I had seen several times earlier in the week. I don't know where she's from, but she reminds me of people I know from Boston. She has dyed blond hair and beautiful tattoos of vines and flowers on her arms and carefully done eye make-up. The first time I saw Sasha was on the Sunday night of the previous week when I was camped out in the plaza with two friends. I had noticed a circle of women at the top of the steps who were supposed to be getting ready to go sleep out on Wall street and get arrested. When I walked up the group was instead talking about the fact that there had been a lot of unwanted sexual attention and some assaults in the camp. They were discussing how to empower themselves and how to notify the group that this was not acceptable. Sasha was leading the discussion. The eight or so women in the circle all looked under twenty-five, incredibly fresh-faced and determined, and most if not all were participants who had come to the occupation alone. I listened for awhile, learning about the dynamic of the group and hearing the women think through how they might make and enforce rules of respect for women and identify the few problematic elements without countermanding the OWS commitment to inclusion. Just as I felt ready to speak up for the first time and was half way through a comment about the importance of letting strangers know that it's ok to help you, a stocky guy about my age strode up to the group and leaned over it. Without introduction or asking permission to speak, he launched into a speech on how the needs of the larger OWS group were not served by their actions, how they had to consider the image of the movement, how he was a Marine and was working security and how he had been part of the movement from day one, how getting arrested was not fun, etc. (he thought that we were talking about sleeping on wall street). I thought it was hilarious that just as we were discussing the aggressive male behavior in the plaza and what to do about it, an aggressive male strode up and started telling us what not to do without even finding out if we were planning to do it. I told him that he needed to step-off because he didn't know what he was talking about, as he didn't bother to listen to what the circle was saying.
After the Marine left I followed him across the plaza and confronted him about his approach, explaining that he should listen more. He insisted that people in the plaza talk too much and that they need rules and structure and organization in order to function. His only model for coordinating people was the military with its commands and obedience. I suggested to him that there are other models, those of self-organization whereby people can buy into rules of conduct without needing a rigid hierarchy. I tried to convey to him the notion that we could put people into the mindset of saying, "this is my house. You don't steal/harass/throw trash in my house." He seemed to get something from that and said he would try to incorporate it. I went back to my sleeping zone and spent the next four hours trying to sleep but could not. I wish I had just stayed in the women's circle to talk it out with them.
The next time I saw Sasha, she was working at the sanitation center. That's at the north side of the park where there is a low platform of cement cut out of the thick, low park wall. There are mops and brooms in a large trash can, gloves, soap, scrubbing brushes, trash bags, recycling bags, buckets for water, sponges, scrubbing brushes, and whatever else is needed. It was Thursday evening and I was looking for assignments for camp cleaning. She was organizing a bunch of newly donated supplies and started to sing a jazz tune. A camera popped into view and recorded her, which she said was all right. I asked her whether the women's group had gone ahead with making a safe sleeping place for women, and she said that there was a women's space, but she didn't know anyone in it. Instead she was camping with the sanitation crew, and that they all got up together in the morning to clean the camp. She said they were all growing very close by working together.
I saw Sasha a third time on Friday after I got back from marching on the day the camp did not get evicted. She was sitting on a big leather suitcase near the sanitation center, looking distraught. I asked what was wrong, and when she started talking I saw that she needed sleep badly. She was trembling and unfocused. On the verge of tears, Sasha explained that the media kept shoving cameras in her face and she just wanted to be left alone, wanted to focus on keeping her camp clean and beautiful because it was her home. She said the moment anyone ever started to show emotion in the park, the cameras were all there to exploit it. Sasha wanted everyone who wasn't part of OWS to leave so they could live in peace. In response, I expressed the notion that a lot of why this is happening in this public space is so that people can see everything that occupiers are doing; we are all performance pieces for the movement right now.
As I was standing with Sasha, an old friend from the neighborhood, whom I haven't seen in three years, Theo, walked up with a laptop that was live streaming. Theo's dog used to play together with mine, and he ran the collective bike repair shop around the corner. He said that he had been at OWS for several weeks, that he had stopped working as a carpenter at the marina so that he could devote himself to it. He was now coordinating a lot of angles of the OWS media tech, including acquiring and repairing computers, coordinating live streaming of the entire occupation and the room of people off site who sit all day figuring out which streams get published at any given time, and also improving the protective casing for all the gear to withstand the elements. Theo is the person who put together the giant list of gear needed whose $26K purchase was approved during the Wednesday GA. It was so good to see him again and great to learn that I have a good friend who's been playing such an integral role at the organizational level. He told me some more interesting information about the camp, like the fact that they can't have an open flame so food is cooked off site in donated kitchens, and the fact that various companies have been giving them big discounts for things like Chrome bags and memory cards for computers. It's interesting to see the extent to which some companies are very friendly to OWS and some are very hostile.
That's all for now. I'm planning to go to the marches later today and will report more then!
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #5 - October 16
At the request of some of the readers, I have made an effort to speak to occupiers in Liberty Park (or Zuccotti… square or plaza… I'm never sure what it is) and ask what it was that drew them to the place and kept them there. This is reflected in the following:
I arrived at Zuccotti yesterday around 8 PM, looking for people with stories to tell, and sat down with my dinner next to a guy about 30 years-old in a black pea coat sitting on one of the marble benches. He was a comedian from San Francisco who flew out two weeks ago upon hearing what was going on. He brought some clothes with him as well as a book of transcripts of Bill Hick's stand-up performances, arriving with a job interview in place and the money for the deposit on an apartment in Queens. The apartment fell through so he began sleeping at OWS out of necessity as well as interest. He said that he planned to stay through the winter and as long as it took to make a change. When asked what kind of change, he spoke about the general selfishness of our political and social structure and how a lot of people get left behind. He loves living in the OWS community, where everyone takes care of each other. When he is not at OWS, he's working at his new job as a telemarketer in Brooklyn making calls for an organization that seeks money to compensate families of slain police officers. He also does comedy gigs at night. I asked what inspired him to come east for this. He explained that a few years ago his sister had mercury poisoning and so he got to doing a lot of research on environmental contamination and began to realize just how corrupt the process of corporate regulation is. When he heard about OWS, he realized that he'd been waiting for something like this for eight years. There was no question he would join.
Then I wandered into a circle discussion between a photographer and two Iraq vets in uniform who were brothers. A crowd of people were listening. The vets said that they were at OWS because they had been sent to fight a vicious war in which they murdered civilians and destroyed an entire country for nothing. When they got home, they couldn't even find work. One brother had a tattoo of the New York skyline with the Twin Towers. He said he joined the service because of 9/11, but also because he had no other option. He was living with his parents and couldn't afford college. He spent a year an a half on tour, returned in late 2006, and hasn't been able to find steady work since. Many of his buddies got jobs as police officers, but he said that he could never be a cop. He had been down to OWS a few times, previously out of uniform. Some of his old buddies came down with him; many are in the same boat. That conversation is a good example of the nature of public discussions at Zuccotti. Often times two people will start talking and others simply stop and listen, so the people step a little further apart and raise their voices. There is no expectation of private political discussions. People feel free to listen in and speakers accommodate that. It's interesting to watch people adapt so easily to that mode, perhaps because in New York we are always eavesdropping while pretending not to.
Next, I made my way to the South end of the square and saw a girl spray painting stencils on T-shirts that said things like "Revolution, 99%, Eat The Rich," etc. She turned out to be an New York University student in the midst of a course of independent study on what constitutes 'public space.' She said she first visited the square as a photographer on assignment for her student blog (on day 9 of the occupation) and was so inspired she started coming down all the time. She is still living in her dorm, but spends most of the rest of her time at Zuccotti. She said she had previously studied anthropology and was really interested in the encampment from that perspective. In particular, she found the people's mic very interesting as a way, not only of transmitting information, but of reaching consensus by having everyone repeat everything that is said. She explained that when you have to speak what you hear at the same time as everyone else, you become much better connected to the group around you (I have experienced this too). I asked her what was inspiring her to keep coming down, and she said that the community is what compels her. She is so excited to be a part of the self-emergent organizational structure. When I pressed her a bit more, she said that the problem of no jobs and massive student loans were also a big concern for her, but she was unclear on how the occupation was going to relate to that. In addition, she reports that N.Y.U. students are largely in support of the movement and galvanized at this point.
I returned to the center of the park to recon with my friends and was approached by a reporter from New York magazine (Tim Murphy) who is doing a story on the logistics of living at OWS - the kitchen, sleeping, sanitation, etc. We all mused for a while on life in the park, what Occupy was about, and what had brought us all down there. While talking to him, we were approached by a young guy taking donations to buy gluten-free breakfast for the celiacs in the camp. The scene was congenial.
One reason Liberty Plaza is so appealing on a personal level is that it's a place where people welcome discussion with strangers. In my experience you can walk up to anyone there and ask them what brought them there, what they think about what is going on in this country and so forth. One senses a spirit of shared purpose and looking out for one-another. It's a lot like Burning Man in that way. I think that's why visiting the square is a bit addictive. Every time I go down, there's different people to talk to, though I often run into those I've met before too. Over time we will all become friends. I'm not sure of what kind of a relationship exists between the reality of the occupation and the mission for financial reform, but even if the square is physically occupied by people who are there for more personal, utopian, or community-oriented reasons and the phenomenon then provides a focal point for other organizing around the financial issues, then I think it works. Certainly, many people are being politicized at the moment through exposure to the action around Liberty, whether by attending the General Assemblies, participating in a march, or by encountering people from other walks of life and learning what their motivations are. This seems very positive.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #6 - October 16
Here is an account of my OWS experiences yesterday:
I was unable to get to Manhattan for OWS activity until after 3 PM. I knew there had been a gathering at Washington Square Park at 1PM, but was not sure where it was going or where it had gone. A friend texted me that two dozen people had been arrested for trying to close their bank accounts at… I believe it was Citi-Bank, but may have been Chase. Based on later reports, it looks like the bank employees freaked out (possibly due to crowds outside) and called the police who trapped the people in the bank and arrested them all, including, it seems, an innocent bystander. While on my way into the city, I then got word that the march from Washington Square was on the move. The destination was Times Square, where there was a celebration party scheduled for 5 PM.
I got out of the subway at 6th Ave. and 8th Street and emerged directly into the march. Everyone was confined to the sidewalk so it was a long line of people - I couldn't tell how many. The sun was shining (it's been unusually warm here) and people were in a good mood. There were a lot of young-looking student types, but also a wide range of people of different ages. There were a lot of professionally printed 99% signs, and then a lot of cardboard and other handmade signs all about the financial crisis (though there was one on free Puerto Rico). There were various drumming groups, some with real drums and some with big cans. I got next to a group with some good rhythm at the front and met up with two friends, one in a suit for the occasion. We walked and danced festively. About ten blocks further into the march, a cheer burst forth from our side as we saw another march going up the other side of the street. At this point OWS is consuming the whole sidewalk on both sides of 6th Ave., making us even more visible than we would have been in the street. Each passerby and car had to take stock. Many people watched from buildings, with lots of thumbs up and clapping. I later heard there were others shouting "get a job" and other derisive phrases. It's funny that they, A) think we don't have jobs despite the fact that everyone I've met has a job except for one, and B) think that this is a relevant thing to yell at us. It's such an outdated '60s retort. This group is not trying to tune in / turn on / drop out. It's trying to reshape the system so that people can access opportunities and economic mobility again, something that has been severely eroded in the past generation. Many people in this country would like to "get a job," but it's not so easy.
Several more blocks along, my husband and child joined me at the front of the march. For a few choice photographs, our child was the face of the movement. Then the marchers asked that we move aside and back a bit so their sign could be in front. Reasonable, I suppose, though I do think it's important for people to see parents and children involved. On and on we marched, slowly and steadily up thirty blocks. For a while I marched with the mini-march across the street, which was conducted by a dapper young African-American man in a blazer, making sure we kept even with the main group. The energy of the march was buoyed by the increasing number of pedestrians on the sidewalk as we marched, more and more people watching and perhaps some joining, though I couldn't tell from my vantage point.
The mood intensified as we approached Times Square after what seemed like hours of marching. It was sometime after 6 PM and the drum circle and stilt walkers had been there for over an hour. Arriving near 46th Street, we met up with some friends and their kids and made a clump in the street as the crowd was too full to go any further. Twilight was upon us and the massive advertising screen on the side of the building was basking everyone below in its lurid glow. A group near us had a guitar and started a good "This land is your land" sing-along. I've been feeling a lack of inspiring music in these events and I am pushing friends to step-up and make some more music and better chants, since the five we have going are getting repetitive. At some point the police started clearing out the street and we saw riot police on horses enter the square. We retreated. A friend texted that the police had penned in a large number of people that included a huge group of reporters, including those from Reuters and New York Times, and the police were not letting them leave. The reporters were furious and were yelling, "You are so done!" to the police. I haven't checked to see if the coverage reflects that yet, but I doubt it.
After the march, the spouses and children of our group went home while three of us headed back down to Liberty Plaza(which we have also been calling Zuccotti, somewhat reluctantly, but it's distinctive). The GA was smaller than usual, as many people were still in Times Square or were mobilizing at Washington Square Park. I found it pleasant to be a part of a more relaxed and concentrated gathering. People reported that the GA the night before had taken five hours. The one this night was less than an hour long. Here are some of the announcements of interest so you can get a flavor:
- A representative from the Black Urban Farmers League spoke and invited people to come to their meeting at the camp to discuss the general importance of growing our own food.
- A person announced that he is organizing a national General Assembly to take place 4th of July next year with delegates from each congressional district around the country, and wanted to meet with people to discuss ideas for the project.
- Someone announced there will be a meeting of the history of social and political movements theory group Monday at 8 PM at the red sculpture in the corner of the park to discuss the historical context for what is going on.
As usual, the people running the meeting were women, one African-American and one Latina. Thus far the facilitation group (who runs the meetings) has been good about foregrounding traditionally marginalized voices.
After taking my fill of Liberty, I made my way to Washington Square park by 10:30 PM, where there was another General Assembly in progress. It had only been announced that day but many people still attended (maybe 1000?, I am bad at estimates). The fountain is drained for the winter so it was completely full of people. The speakers stood in the middle and others gathered around the edges. It was an effective location, a natural amphitheater for projecting voices through the peoples' mic. The topic was whether or not people should Occupy Washington Square that night and why. First up, an N.Y.U. student gave a rousing speech about how his university would help protect the occupiers and was generally ready for action. This was followed by comments from others who questioned the rush and suggested waiting to get a permit. (I don't think there actually is a way to get a permit to be there unless the City Council passes some kind of law on it, since the park has a curfew of midnight) Others pointed out that there was not enough sleeping gear or other tools to establish an effective occupation, and the numbers were yet too few (only about thirty people raised their hands to say they were be prepared to occupy). The meeting went on for over an hour, at which point the police were massing outside of the park, which closes at midnight. An officer walked around with a megaphone making an announcement that the police would "do what they had to do" to whoever was left in the park at midnight. When it got very late and there was yet no consensus, the GA was adjourned until the next day at 7 PM. I made my way home and later heard that a small march of about a hundred people set out from Washington Square back down to Liberty and were observed by a wildly disproportionate number of police who lined the streets the entire way. Why are the police so aggressively overseeing this? In San Diego, the police chief came out in favor of the Occupy Movement!
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #7 - October 16
I have a third report for you today… more stories of people in the park:
Before I begin, I want to return to a comment I made earlier today. I said that OWS is similar to Burning Man in the way that you can approach just anyone. I misspoke. OWS is a thousand times better than Burning Man, since not only are you talking to strangers, but those strangers manifest a truly diverse range of people (unlike Burning Man) and the subject of the discussion tends to be themes like solidarity, momentum for social change, politics, policies, models of democracies, the future of the left… in other words, the most interesting conversations I can imagine. While those conversations happen at Burning Man they occur in the midst of excess; excess of lights, sound, partying, costumes, self indulgence… all of which has its place. But there is something very satisfying about engaging with people in the more austere surroundings of Liberty Park. And it is not possible to create insular structures in the park since the whole place is overrun with people day and night. You either get to know your neighbors and really engage, or you leave. That is the whole point of being there. I love it.
My first stop upon arriving at Liberty today was a poetry slam happening on the east steps. There was a guy and a girl, him flowing, and her singing beautifully. It was politically conscious hip-hop that was really fun. Next door to that on a different segment of the steps, Eve Ensler was sitting in the middle of about twenty-five women on the steps surrounded by another thirty people in the crowd. She was conducting an incredible people's mic enabled story telling session that lasted for hours. One powerful story after another. A man from Guyana stood up and told a story that went something like this: (I'm reproducing it with short lines, which is how things are spoken using people's mic, with pauses between lines so everyone can repeat what is said):
I come from Guyana
which if you don't know
is a small country
in South America
next to Brazil and Suriname
I arrived here 8 months ago
My father lives here
he went to N.Y.U.
My sister lives here
she got an Ivy League education
I came here to go to school
but when I looked at the price tag
why does does it cost so much?
I'm not doing that
I don't want to be in debt my whole life
When does it end?
my father said
This is America!
You will make the money back
I said, Dad
you are 63 years old
You went to school years ago
and still you are $40,000 in debt
My sister with her Ivy League education
Has a hard time maintaining a stable job
and is very stressed
No offense to anyone here
but I thought to myself
Americans are idiots
How could you let them take so much from you?
So I decided to go home
without telling my father
I was about to leave the country
I bought my ticket
and then I came here, to this place
And I was so amazed
I fell in love with this movement
I fell in love with you all
I have come back every night
Thank you for being here
Thank you for what you are doing
After that story, my son was getting very fussy (I was holding him in my arms) so I went to the bagel truck to get him some food. The guy in the truck, which is right on the edge of the square, turns out to be the son of Egyptian immigrants and lived in Egypt for eight years. I asked what he thought of the occupation, and he said the occupiers are doing the right thing. I suggested that he must have a pretty interesting perspective on all this, being that he is Egyptian. He agreed, but I got the sense that he was not keyed up for a deep conversation on the subject. I left him, but may try to hear more from him another time.
I ran into a sanitation working group friend who I've seen several times, but whose story I still don't know. He introduced me to an information booth organizer who is only there on weekends since he attends agriculture school in upstate New York during the week. I asked the agriculture student about the proliferation of working groups and whether or not there is an effort to consolidate them. He said yes that there is, though there is also resistance. For example, there are three arts and culture groups going, all working on different projects, and who don't want to meet together. The amount of information coming in is often too much for the information booth to keep up with. They are working hard to keep track of all the activity in the park and to ensure that all of the contact information for everyone is current. Figuring out how to build and sustain that network is a key objective of the occupation, even if people don't realize it.
I took a stroll around the park, past the long line of people waiting to get shirts silk screened with "99%" slogans, past the long line for evening food, and heard ambient sounds of music, conversations and drumming from the end of the park (a source of consternation among the occupiers…. no the drumming is not extremely high quality, yes it does look like a big hippy jam circle and all that entails). I wove my way through the tarps and bags and chairs that are densely laid out at the west end of the square, far from the public discourse at the east end steps. At the bottom of Liberty Square, on the corner that faces the WTC site, I saw a large banner that read, "The Left is Dead. Long Live the Left," and was signed by a group called the Platypus Society, in front of which an earnest group of students was discussing the future of the Left. A fiery young woman said that rather than being reactionary anti-capitalists, we need to think about how to create opportunities for more to partake in the benefits of capitalism, benefits like having the ability to travel to another city to see a medical specialist. The slender blazer-wearing boy next to her said that we need to overcome capitalism rather than being reactionary anti-capitalists. Again, the child got fussy so I moved on.
Returning back around to the front, I said hello to my N.Y.U. friend with the spray-painted stencils. Then I came upon a guy holding up a large canvas with a painting that illustrated the words, "WE OCCUPY." I asked the 43 year-old artist holding it what all this was about for him. He told me that he's from Queens, and though he hasn't been sleeping in the square, he comes as often as he can. The artist was first drawn to Zuccotti when he heard about the pepper spray incident and thought to himself that something here must not be right. He was part of the march onto the Brooklyn Bridge and noted that the police did nothing to stop people from walking onto the bridge and the roadway other than make an announcement with a bullhorn that most could not possibly hear. They could have easily set up a line of policemen to block people but did not. The artist was inspired to make a painting that represented the Occupy movement to him. Originally from Norfolk, VA, a huge Navy town, he had protested in favor of the Gulf War years ago. He was a kid then and didn't know any better, he explained. Then he started reading and learning and getting educated. When I asked what he thought of the kids in the square, he said they were so smart for doing the protest in the way they are and for recognizing what is going on. It took him a long time to figure those things out. He is inspired to come out every day because the big bankers are still getting massive bonuses and severance packages while everyone else is hurting. He has a baby on the way, due in March, and is worried about the economic future of his family.
Making my way back into the center of the discursive heart of the square, I caught sight of the young man who yesterday was leading my half of the 6th Ave march up to Times Square. He is a tall African-American man with a corduroy blazer and a white scarf wrapped tight around his head. I went up just to say hello and thank him for being a good marching leader, but conversation caught on so I sat and talked with him and his lady-friend (whom he met in the park when she first came down who weeks ago). The young man, Duncan, was one of the first five people to occupy the square back on September 17. He got off the train and wandered around the park looking for "it." He came across four guys with two signs and said, "Where is everyone?" They said, "it's just us!" He said, "All right then," and stayed. Duncan's been living in the park ever since and hasn't seen the other four people in a while. He told me how proud he is of what OWS has become, and stands at the top of the square at times, when he has a spare minute, to look it all over. Duncan is soft spoken, confident, gentle, and notably present. He is a conscious hip-hop, spoken word, and video artist and was about to make a film when OWS started, but he has decided to postpone that project and commit wholly OWS for now. He knows people who have quit their jobs and quit school to participate in OWS. He's been arrested multiple times in the course of the protests, including once yesterday for crossing the street on the cross walk with a walk signal (when passing from one half of the march to the other). The charge was "blocking vehicular traffic." He has an NLG lawyer working with him so he feels like it will be ok. Three of his arrests are for felonies, including "assaulting a police officer," when in fact he was the one assaulted. Though he is from the Bronx was familiar with police harassment and brutality prior to OWS, Duncan had never seen it with such frequency prior to this movement. He said that those who call themselves 'good cops' should be held to account when they watch another cop, one of their 'gang' so to speak, abuse someone who's not doing anything wrong. It is a heavy burden to face so much aggression from the police every day he said.
Duncan's lady friend, Celine, is a well-spoken college educated girl who is also from the Bronx. I didn't ask if she is working now, but she said that she's down at OWS learning everything she can in order to get an Occupy Bronx started. Celine explained that it's to get peoples' attention focused on the protest up there because everyone is so focused on day to day survival. Wall Street seems far away and disconnected to them. She is trying to relate it to peoples' daily experiences of economic hardship. In response to those who complain about a lack of demands, Celine says that this movement is building consciousness from the ground up, which takes time. "First you have to occupy your mind."
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #8 - October 23
It's been a week since my last report and though I haven't been able to spend as much time in the park, I do have some new observations about how the movement is growing, as well as new insights into the ways that different people are plugging in:
Last Tuesday, I attended a working group meeting at 60 Wall Street, which is a large public lobby attached to a bank. The space is beautiful, with 50 ft mirrored ceilings in a room about 100 x 200 ft square. Plenty of tables and chairs are available for meetings and discussion. When I entered, I saw about six large circles of people huddling together and discussing various working group matters in earnest. I passed the media circle, saying hello to my friend who was running livestream, and stood on the edge of the education and empowerment group, which, according to the facilitators, had grown by about forty people since the previous meeting. A large cross-section of people were in attendance, including those form different age groups, social classes, and varying levels of OWS experience. One female speaker was a UN economist and another was in the service industry, though I didn't catch which one. The group split into smaller circles, including one for newcomers to learn about process. I went to the logistics circle where we talked about the process of identifying spaces around the city where any OWS related educational activity might be able to take place. We now have a working google document with different locations, contact information, and notes on what spaces are available in what circumstances. I found all of that very exciting because it shows a path for OWS to sustain and expand despite the cold and beyond the confines of the park. I was also excited by the energy and commitment of the people at the meeting. People were still pumped at 9:30 at night.
My next interaction with the movement was on Friday, when my parents, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, did a teach in about their film American Casino. They were a little nervous at first since the ambient noise and crowd milling about didn't seem to provide a conducive environment to teaching a group about how the finance industry took millions of dollars in fees as they passed mortgages around and were then bailed out by the taxpayers. I assured my parents that if what they said was interesting, people would repeat it, loudly, and others would gather to listen. We did a mic check and suddenly forty or so people gathered around. The group swelled to sixty once my mother started talking.
She gave an incredible presentation about how, when making the movie, my folks traced the mortgages belonging to individual people in Baltimore who had lost their homes, through the loan agents who sold the mortgages, through the banks who securitized them by slicing and dicing the loans into repackaged products that were a terrible investment, through the ratings agencies gave those bad securities AAA ratings, through speculators who made vast sums by betting against those investments, and all the way to the end investors. The theme of the talk was that each of these actors made a ton of fees while having 'no skin in the game,' that is, nothing to lose if an individual investment failed, since no one along the chain actually owned anything except for the pension funds and other hapless institutions at the end of the chain. All along, she explained, the bankers were playing with money, taxpayer money, in a casino we did not know we were in until we had to start bailing everyone out to the tune of trillions of dollars. The audience was rapt.
Part of the reason why the teach-ins are so important and why I think we need more of of them is that people at OWS are long on passion, but short on facts at the moment. Some of the best things that those with the education and means who are in support of this movement can do are as follows:
1. Research what crimes the banks committed that have gone unpunished- such as selling a bunch of bonds and then betting against those bonds, which causes the price to collapse. We usually call this "fraud," but somehow in banking, it's allowed.
2. Research which regulations exist that could be used to control what the banks are doing, Dodd-Frank for example, and what focused policy shifts could be made that might dramatically improve the lives of people around the country, like making student loans dischargeable in bankruptcy.
3. Publish this information to people who are engaging with the movement. While myself and others reject the notion that OWS needs demands, I do think that there are some simple discussion that we could initiate that would terrify the financial industry. Everyone in OWS should be talking about these things.
After the teach in, I walked around the park to take in the sights. The weather was warm and hundreds of people bustling; it can be intimidating until you find a way in. Out front, facing Broadway, a line of people stood holding signs with different messages, as always. I saw two people chatting with one-another while holding Glass Steagall signs, and I met a woman who was making sophisticated audio recordings of the ambient sounds of the park and talking to others about their experiences in order to create a soundscape of Zuccotti for the future, when people are no longer camped there. The woman specializes in soundscapes of public spaces. Her site is here. A decent sized parade of Verizon workers circled the park with signs and slogans. A guy sat on the wall singing Bob Dylan songs while playing his guitar. One corner of the park, near the steps, was roped off for 'Parents of Occupy Wall Street.' The group had laid mats on the ground where tons of parents and children were doing art projects, participating in story time, and performing sing-alongs. Organizers wearing fluorescent T-shirts made sure that the kids stayed in while non-parents stayed out. The message here is that we need to sort out this social mess so our children can have a decent shot at living a good life.
Lastly, although I was not present for them, I did hear about two long GAs this week that addressed the decision making process for the movement. Here is the latest proposal that I am aware of for how it should work, the goal of which is to streamline the process and enable different working groups to intersect, discuss and approve budgets without having to go through the extensive types of discussions required for the large General Assemblies. This is one solution to the problem of scaling up consensus democracy.
The most striking thing about this sophisticated solution to the problem of large GAs is that it has evolved within one month of the beginning of the occupation. This rapid development and self-organization is amazing to witness. Something about the movement commands the sustained energy and focus of a massive cadre of people, people who are accomplishing miraculous things. This alone is enough to attract more participation. Who doesn't want to be in the place where miracles happen?
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #9 - November 1
I visited Zuccotti Park twice over the weekend. The first time was at 2 AM on Sunday. I arrived in my Subaru mom-car, backed into a convenient parking spot near a twenty-four hour news van, and pulled out two big recycling bags stocked with: three winter coats, some sweatpants, vests and sweaters, as well as a big plastic bin full of $127 worth of new socks. Saturday had been the day of giant wet slushy snow pouring out of the sky for hours, an improbable end to an unusually warm October. We hid in the house all day, and as I watched the cold sky I wondered how the people at Zuccotti were bearing it all. I'd heard that the police let tents go up sometime that week, but I had yet to see them for myself. At 7:15 PM, I received an email from a friend, explaining that there was an urgent call for supplies at the park. Then at 10 PM, another friend sent a status update from the Facebook page, which specified a need for shoes, towels, bins, and tents. The next message said that $12K had been spent on supplies that day. I didn't want to drive to the store and into the city on one of the worst weather Saturday nights if they had already bought $12k of supplies so I held back. Then, finally, at midnight I got a message from a friend who was staining in Zuccotti park, insisting that the occupation needed blankets, shoes, sweatpants, socks, and coats. Spurred to action by the on-the-ground message about specific needs did it for me. I got myself together, dug out some old coats from the basement, headed over to Duane Reade to buy an improbable number of socks, and drove into the city from Brooklyn.
It was cold and mostly dry by the time I arrived. I had on many layers, including my snow jacket. This was enough at first, but soon the cold started to work its way in. The park was totally packed with tents with hardly enough room to walk between them. Most people seemed to be asleep, but there were a few small clusters of conversation going on. I hauled the gear over to the comfort station, which is housed under a series of tarps strung up between trees. I was met at the doorway by a heavy-set bouncer looking dude who said we should take the stuff to medical (comfort is a bit of a mess since it lacks a giant tent to shelter house everything), who had been preparing to deal with hypothermia and other cold-related problems. As I was stepping away I caught a glimpse of Duncan, who I wrote about in an earlier report. I gave the supplies to a grateful medical person who was in the midst of trying to organize the clutter and stepped back to find Duncan and hear some of his stories. Finding him cold, I gave him with one of the coats I'd brought (it fit amazingly well!) and we settled onto the sidewalk to catch up. Here are some of the things he told me:
- The day before, Duncan had tea with MC Hammer who he had noticed buying one-hundred teas for people in the park. Hammer wasn't being loud about it, but he did have some body guards who gave him away. Earlier that week, he'd been hanging out with Q-tip and talking about building Occupy Hip-Hop. I don't even know what that would look like, but I love the idea of musicians coming down to the park to find out about how they can engage and amplify the movement with song. That also reminds me of what I love so much about Zuccotti park in general, it's so accessible. Just show up and you will find someone to talk to about the thing you want to do.
- The police have been following Duncan around. He caught one of them taking a photo of him as he came out of a cafe the other day. They have arrested him seven times since OWS started. The last time, they just reached into the crowd and grabbed him. The charge was disorderly conduct. They must see him as a 'leader,' and suspect that targeting him will affect the movement. It won't. He's laying off the marches for a little while since he's worried about being grabbed again and having to make bail (so far he's been given ROR). Everyone in the camp knows who he is; the last time they arrested him people made signs saying "Free Duncan!"
- The police have told people found drinking and doing drugs in public to head on down to Zuccotti and do whatever they like (this has been reported elsewhere). The west end of the park (downhill side) is occupied by these people. The police stay away from that end and don't stop them from doing what they're doing. The goal seems to be to harass the other occupiers, discredit the movement, and get some laughs. I think it's totally outrageous and something that the local community board should complain about. Duncan also said they had changed the Rikers drop-off point to be two blocks away from Zuccotti. I don't have confirmation for that, but it would be another super-low move. Why are the police so pointlessly adversarial in this?
- Duncan suggested that the shift to allow tents in the park might be motivated by the police wanting occupiers to settle in a comfort zone so they might grow complacent. He tries to stay alert. He's been there for six weeks now so I guess it's working for him.
- I asked why there is a barricade around the red sculpture that so iconically sits at the corner of the park (it is about 50 ft tall with three legs that hit the ground in a triangle) and has been such a frequent meeting place. He said that the police shut it down after someone climbed it. Then he said that some OWS people found the guy's wallet. Turns out he's from the Canadian Defense Force. I have no fact check for this but sounds interesting if true.
As Duncan and I were talking, a middle-aged guy in a nice suit wandered over with a donut in hand from the food truck and asked how we were doing. He was a pharmaceutical rep in town for a wedding who thought that the events surrounding the occupation were all very interesting. He said that a lot of his friends had lost their jobs and their standard of living was falling much faster than they could comprehend. Continuing, the visitor explained that he considered himself very fortunate to have work himself and completely understood why people are protesting. Pretty soon after that I packed up for home, jumped into my quickly warmed car and felt proud of the many people who are sticking it out in the cold.
I came back the next day with my child in his stroller. I was surprised to find that the tents were not taken down during the day- a shift from the earlier practice of really putting everything away in the daytime. That really puts a damper on the whole 'gathering place for conversations' aspect of the park that I loved so much. There were two big teach-ins happening on the steps and they were squashed by the tents that were set up so close. I mentioned this to Duncan over email and he said they are working on it at the GA. I think that it's great that so many people want to be out there but some should stand down if the tents are crowding out the discourse. Or, perhaps they should at least be taken down in the daytime!
Anyways, the teach in I was overhearing was a guy from a British university lecturing on capitalism from a Marxist perspective. He said the slogan the 99% was absolutely brilliant and so exciting as it captured how people who are employed and who are unemployed are all in the same boat, as they are both used by the owners of production for exploitation and to put pressure on each other. The crowd listening on was a bit tepid at first, but grew more engaged with time. I didn't manage to catch the speaker's name. The other teach-in was centered around a big sculpture of a bull with the title, "False Idol." That one was much bigger, but I couldn't work the stroller around the tent obstacles to hear it. Hence my irritation at the tents. Overall, I saw far less diversity of action around the camp, due to the tents. Lots of enclosed spaces, less places for interaction, and so forth. At the same time, the interactions outside of the park are continuing to increase, with large working groups meeting offsite weekly in various public spaces, very energetic e-mail conversations, google groups and postings on the nycga.net site. I'm sad that Zuccotti park is less of an open space than it was before, but I think the energy is still there and cool things are happening elsewhere too. And, the forces in the park who want it to be more open may yet prevail over the tent-people.
This week should be an interesting one for the movement on a national scale, as the cold tests the occupations, the Oakland strike tests its muscle, and new occupations form around the country. My current feeling is that momentum is building rather than falling, which wasn't what I thought a week ago. Could it be that the long moribund left in this country is waking up and rubbing its eyes? A Time Magazine poll conducted on October 9-10 indicated that 54% of Americans view the OWS protests very or somewhat favorably, 79% agree that the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large, 86% agree that Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, 71% agree that executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted, and 68% agree that the rich should pay more taxes. As Salon pointed out, it's an incredible achievement of OWS that the national conversation now favors wealth redistribution for the first time since the Great Depression. No idea how sticky these numbers are but I find them pretty exciting. Of course, election years change everything….
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS # 10 - NOVEMBER 14
This report is long overdue and reflects my visit on November 3rd. Please keep in mind that it’s over a week old, and conditions at OWS are constantly changing. I’m going to use this report to explain in some detail the process of the GA that I saw that night, since it’s a useful example of how a smooth and thorough consensus based discussion can be:
In the midst of several weeks of intense activity at my work, I made time to bike down to OWS from my Tribeca office at about 9 PM. I heard there would be a police raid, but everything seemed quiet. I later learned from my occupier friend Duncan that there is a raid scare about once a week. I found the plaza packed with tents as before. At the steps there was a small group of about fifty people engaged in the tail end of that night’s General Assembly. I was happy to have arrive at the GA in progress as it had been weeks since I’d seen one. I took a place on the steps and listened.
The group was in the midst of discussing a proposal by someone from the medical team to buy about $1100 of herbal medicines (context: I think OWS now has more than $500k in the bank). It was clear the GA had been going on for a long time, but the facilitators were doing a great job of keeping the energy going. I am so impressed by the patience, organization, and discipline of the facilitation team, who all seem to have been doing it for years despite the fact that I know that most of them are recent volunteers trained by the facilitation working group.
About a minute after I arrived the facilitators took a temperature check, asking the group how they felt about the proposal, and most people held up their hands in assent. There was one block from a woman standing at the side. She was a middle aged African-American woman who I suspect has a union background. The woman explained that she was blocking because she was worried that unwitting occupiers might take herbal medicines and have an adverse reaction, which would then leave the person dispensing, and perhaps even and Occupy itself, liable. The herbalist answered that there would be informed consent and that they do have insurance as medical providers, explaining additionally that Occupy can’t be sued (I’m not sure if this is still true – has Occupy attained some kind of non-profit status yet?). Another person blocked, saying that he felt herbal medicine has no value and Occupy’s money should not be spent on it. I think that he was confusing herbal medicine with homeopathic medicine, but I decided not to voice that in the moment.
Several people asked clarifying questions, which seemed directed at fleshing the idea out further in order to address the blockers’ concerns. One asked whether medical back-up would be available if someone has an adverse reaction. The herbalist responded positively, explaining that there are trained doctors and nurses on the medical team who have relationships with ambulances they can call to transport serious cases to the hospital. Another person asked if anyone had ever had an adverse reaction – the herbalist said no, he’d never seen one in the many thousands of people he'd treated through the years. Another person voiced the question that if the proposal didn’t pass, would the patients get treated with conventional medicines? The herbalist said no, but explained that those who refuse conventional medicines could be treated with herbal medicines paid for out of his pocket. Another temperature check, and the two blockers retained their blocks.
One of the facilitators explained that a block is a very serious signal, meaning that someone is willing to walk away from the movement if the proposal passes. His point was to stop people from blocking things based on ordinary disagreements since if that happened, nothing would ever get passed. Both people maintained their blocks, and made clear that they were not budging.
At that point, after giving the proposal a fair amount of discussion and with attempts to address the concerns of the blockers, the facilitators moved the proposal to a “modified consensus” vote of nine-tenths, where the facilitators take a hand count (I take it that the GA has previously agreed that this is the strategy to be utilized when proposals are encountering blocks). People voted by raising hands and the vote was something like forty-plus in favor to two against. People clapped. I was impressed by how the facilitators kept the discussion moving at a good pace while giving time for each person to voice thoughts and concerns, how the group gave respect to the blockers while also preventing the proposal from getting bogged down by them, and how the group moved to modified consensus when the proposal was stuck.
Next up was a big guy from sanitation (the sanitation working group – all volunteers, just like everyone) who had that martyr-esque long-suffering edginess shared by many on that team. They can be brusque, but they are absolutely essential to the well being of the occupation so they deserve a lot of deference in my book. He had an emergency request for $4000 to buy cleaning supplies, including trash bags, soap, gloves, etc., as the group was out of supplies and would not be able to clean the camp the next day without the money. He apologized for the late proposal since the usual process is for proposals to get posted the day before so people know what will be discussed at the GA and can attend if it’s important to them. He missed the previous day’s GA so couldn’t add it to the agenda. It was pretty clear that the GA wanted to give sanitation the money, but were unhappy about the last minute proposal and the fact that it wasn’t exactly clear what the money was for. Exasperated, the sanitation guy said that all receipts would be submitted to finance and could be looked at by anyone, apologized again for being late, and said that next week there would not be this problem since the Spokes Council will start meeting (that’s the new decision making body for logistics, budgeting and working groups – it’s a publicly accessible GA that takes place offsite. Learn more here. The proposal passed, and that was the end of the action items.
Next came announcements. Someone from Direct Action announced that in two days, there would be a demonstration in front of a major bank with a large puppet of Obama to protest his collusion with bankers. The music working group said that they were working on an “Occupy Lincoln Center” plan. I can’t recall what this was about, but information should be available online. After that, the GA was over, and then began the “soap box,” where anyone can say anything they want. By that point the group had dwindled to about twenty people. The first soap box was a girl from Occupy Portland (Oregon), who spoke about how impressed she is with the level of respect and organization of the OWS GA, and how she hopes to take some lessons home to Portland. Next, a guy from Occupy L.A. said basically the same thing, that their local occupations have a lot to learn from OWS. Then someone from Maine expressed their will to start an new Occupy somewhere, though I can’t remember what town, and said they might be the only person there for a while so folks should come visit.
A guy from the structure working group announced that anyone from other occupations that wanted to learn more about how OWS was functioning should come talk to him. I joined Portland and L.A. by the red sculpture, as I’ve heard from friends at other occupations that they’re having difficulties and wanted to know whether there was some way for structure to assist. He explained how the spokes council is working, and how it’s essential to coordinate working groups. I laughed, that’s totally a 'first occupy' problem; how to deal with too many working groups. In other occupations, organizers are struggling to figure out how to have a functional camp while overrun by people who don’t care about the movement and just want a place to camp out, all while battling constant police incursions (I saw that occupy Oakland was evicted again last night). At any rate, he said that the structure group would be happy to answer any questions about problems they have solved and solutions that have worked (email@example.com). I spoke to him more later and learned that he was part of the group of people who planned Occupy Wall Street. He can't live in the plaza on grounds of having a girlfriend and a dog, but he is heavily involved. He gave me a copy of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, which I’ve been keeping in my backpack.
Back under the red sculpture, I stood and talked to the girl from Portland for a while about what problems their occupation was encountering. We agreed that what worked wonders for New York City – taking over a public space in a radical way, holding that space, self-governing by consensus, and welcoming all who wanted to be involved – would not necessarily strike the same chord in Portland, where consensus decision making and outdoor camping are not so unusual. I believe each occupation can become a magnet for passionate committed intelligent people engaging in vibrant discussion and organization, but only if it responds to its local conditions and figures out how to feel fresh and relevant to the people around it. Since the Portland GAs have been so sparsely attended, I recommended that they invite people down for a long story telling evening (or a series of many such evenings), where people describe the circumstances they are encountering as a result of the financial crisis. Since stories are so inherently entertaining, I think that people would come down and listen for that. Once you have a group, you can start to spark discussions, and from that comes the energy that starts to transform the occupation into a center of gravity for public discussion of these issues. People aren’t just going to show up for a meager GA concerning tent placement. They want to go where the action is. Once they find that action, it’s electrifying, and they stay to help build the movement. That has been my experience.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #11 - November 15 (Early Report)
Here is my report from the night of the eviction:
At 12:54 AM, I received an e-mail from my NLG friend Kate who was getting emergency texts from people in Liberty Plaza that said it was being raided. I got on the livestream and saw dazed people standing by their tents as police barked orders. I decided I needed to get there asap. After emailing and texting everyone I could think of who might still be awake and have some way of influencing others to come down to help defend the park, and after clearing off my phone and bringing only my I.D. and $20 (prepared for arrest, though it was not my intention to get arrested), I biked down as fast as I could.
I stashed my bike a few blocks north of the park and joined the stream of people walking south on Broadway. Some had clearly just been evicted as they were holding sleeping bags and belongings and looked totally confused. I saw Duncan with his arm around someone who had just been pepper sprayed by the police. People were running around with water bottles to flush out eyes. It was a confusing scene. Police pushed their way up the street and there was a press of mostly young people in front. People ran back and forth as it became clear that the police were establishing a barricade further back and shoving people to get behind that line.
I ran east, south, and west again to get to the checkpoint at the south side of Liberty. The barricade was established there and about sixty people gathered. We could see bright lights and dump trucks working on Liberty a block and a half away. A medic behind the barricades (they didn't eject everyone from that block, so we had some reports from people who went back and forth watching what was happening and coming back to the police line) reported that the police were shoving everyone's stuff from the park - tents, the medical items, books, computers, chairs, tables, everything - into dump trucks. Many had left the park, others had been arrested, and others were sitting down and resisting nonviolently. I logged onto the livestream through my phone to see what was happening from inside the park. Two long lines of police divided the middle, and many people stood on either side. The tents were already ripped down. I stopped watching in order to conserve battery power and later heard that the kitchen group had been tear-gassed.
Someone announced to the group that everyone was meeting at the "fallback position." I decided to follow them and leave Kate to monitor the barricade. We went east and then north on the street parallel to Broadway, about two-hundred strong. I asked someone where we were going and he turned towards me skeptically to ask who I was. I reminded him of an interaction we had at the comfort station when I brought down the socks and coats and things. He nodded, gave me a hand, told me his name and said that we were headed to Foley square a few blocks away. Three-hundred people assembled in Foley square with large numbers of police arrayed in lines on the streets on either side. During the night the police presence was massive - many dozens of vans, many hundreds of officers- it could have easily been more than 1000. The night's activities must have cost the city millions.
A quick discussion via people's mic ensued to address the issue of whether to stay or to be on the move. Given the menacing amount of police, people agreed to march. About five hundred, perhaps more, people set out from the square and headed north on Lafayette. Police fell in beside us in the street. From then followed several hours of a shape and size shifting march that went from a large group of over a thousand to small pockets of fifty, marching in different directions to keep ahead of the police (standing still invites violent confrontation from them). Sometimes groups would converge, other times we would be forcibly split by police that suddenly block a crosswalk. Gradually (by going in circles) we moved north. Many times during the course of this marching I saw aggressive police activity. I saw multiple people arrested for doing nothing much at all. I saw police shoving people back and I saw batons swung menacingly. Rounding a corner, I saw police prevent a girl from walking down the sidewalk towards her apartment. She kept saying, I just want to go home. The police insisted, you need to walk in that direction, pointing the other way. At one point I was with a group of about fifty people completely surrounded by a hundred police on a sidewalk. They penned us in physically on all sides. It was terrifying to feel trapped like that, especially when they told us to keep moving, which was impossible. Some were shouting to the police that we were fighting for their pensions too. Eventually one side of police stepped aside and we moved again. I looked the officers in the eyes as we passed. Eventually my group was heading towards Union Square, but I decided that was too out of the way (and a bike scout reported it was empty) so I hopped in a cab south on broadway and made my way back to the fray. The cab driver was game.
As I neared City Hall Park I encountered another group of several hundred people marching south on Broadway. I got out of the cab and suddenly ran into my friend Jessica, whom I'd been looking for all night. The group moved south, now taking up the street on Broadway. Some marchers put trash bags in the street to stop the police cars from moving south, others tried to prevent them from doing that. Throughout the night I saw these kinds of clashes between people with different ideas about whether or not to up the ante. When we encountered a line of police near Liberty, the group turned east, then south, then west again to meet up with a group at the same barricade- the same one I mentioned earlier from the south side of the park. At that point the people in the crowd were not just young people, but all ages. Unfortunately no union strength was organized, only those people who heard what was going on and headed down individually were on hand. As we walked up the street to the barricade at Broadway and Pine (next to the large church), I had the distinct pleasure of being at the front of several hundred people rounding a corner and leading a chant as we marched up the street to join our team. People cheered as we arrived.
After that, discussion ensued as well as waiting, perching on cars and lampposts, and listening to reports from the park. It was mellow for awhile as I rested with my back on the graveyard fence, then the riot police fanned out and it became very aggressive. I saw them grab many people by force, I'm not sure why. The police rushed the sidewalk at one point and we all had to run, but we stopped before too long. Kate and Jessica were there. I heard that the NLG was rapidly putting together a court application for an injunction based on the eviction and the destruction of property. I spoke with a medic standing nearby who had been in the medic tent when the police invaded. He told me that he'd been living at Liberty since day one of the occupation. He was visibly shaken by the night's actions, and started to cry as he described how police had destroyed his medical station and his home. I met other medics who had been part of the team and who have bonded as a unit through previous weeks; a physical therapist, a nurse (5'2" who said the police physically threw her out of the park) and others.
Eventually I heard the report that the police were letting people back into Zuccotti. I went through the police line with the medics, past a cop who, strangely, insisted on checking that each person was going to Zuccotti before letting them through (who else would be out on the street in the middle of a protest at 5 AM?). I made my way to the front and saw for the first time the city sanitation workers water blasting the park, which was completely cleared out. Happily, the reports of bulldozed trees were false. It was so sad and surreal to look at the park empty again, after so many weeks of bustling encampment. I stood there with a cluster of people for a while until it became clear that the police were not actually letting people back in the park. I decided to leave and join the GA at Foley square, several blocks north of Liberty.
Then commenced an exceedingly frustrating twenty-five minute stretch as I tried to find any street that might lead me east or north. All were blocked. I walked all the way to the West Side highway and even tried to take a cab, but none would head in that direction. I made my way back to the church and then managed to get past a barricade that was not so tightly controlled. I walked north, then west again, back to my bike. As the early dawn chill was moving throughout the city, i hopped on and sailed up to Foley Square, finding a GA of several hundred people in process. Pink clouds scattered themselves across the sky in the unusually warm November air. It was a beautiful night. I listened for a while as the GA discussed what action to take; should we meet the unions at Canal and 6th, go to the court house in solidarity with the seven-hundred protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge all those weeks ago and whose court dates were today (incredible coincidence!), stay in Foley, or re-occupy Zuccotti. As the hour neared 7 AM, I decided I needed to leave to go take my child-care shift. I said goodbye to Jessica, who I'd lost track of earlier, but who popped out of the crowd when I arrived, then biked home.
The most recent information I have is that the judge issued the injunction requiring that people be allowed to enter Liberty Park and put down tents, but the police are ignoring the injunction and preventing people from entering.
Tonight I saw an incredible force of people spend the entire night running back and forth, chanting, supporting each other, updating each other, remaining peaceful, and organizing what actions to take next. Most were not in the park when it was evicted, but came down afterwards (an unofficial poll I took at the church barricade suggested about a 12:1 ratio of those who came to support vs. those who had been in the park and were still protesting). The 7 AM GA was still going strong when I left. It was full of people committed to reclaiming this public space we occupied, committed to keeping this community strong and pushing this movement forward. I am exhausted, inspired, activated and mobilized.
Thank you to all who have been watching and reporting in solidarity. Thank you to Oakland for holding space on the West Coast. This is the end of the beginning.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #12 - November 15 (Late Report)
This morning, after a long night of marching through the streets, watching police purposefully intimidate, harass, and attack nonviolent protestors, and feeling an acute sense of loss for Zuccotti, I left Foley Square shortly before 7 AM and went home to my family. I rested and put in an afternoon of work. Then, twelve hours after I left, I found myself locking my bike off Broadway once more and approaching Liberty Park. Oh what a difference a day makes! Whereas last night, it was barricades, pepper spray, tear-gas, hundreds of violent cops throwing people out of the park, crushed hopes and deep distress, tonight a massive confluence of a couple thousand people gathered in the park for the largest General Assembly I've seen yet. The entire park did people's mic for the GA. Waves of repetitions rippled all the way to the back. Not only were the words repeated, they were shouted. I could hear the sound echoing off of the buildings, drowning out my memories of dump trucks and sirens from the night before. Each kind of person was there. Those involved from day one, those who were just coming for the first time that night; young, old, black, brown, white, educated, uneducated, articulate, insufferable. When the announcement was made and the GA was about to start, the speaker said, "welcome home." I felt that, strongly.
The facilitators (a rotating group of people who keep the agenda of the meeting and take the list of people who want to speak), an African-American woman with an incredibly powerful voice and a white man, both young, and who I recognized from prior meetings, asked everyone who could to sit down. We did, and the speaking commenced. They said: "Last night was very difficult. A lot was lost, and a lot of people were hurt. But we will only come back stronger. The police think that power is shouting orders. But we know that there is more power in consensus, when the whole group can be part of the decision. We have a lot more work to do. We need to gather ideas and strategies for moving forward."
Before discussing the movement, they addressed some key working group concerns. The kitchen is reconstituting itself with a new distribution center by Trinity Church, two blocks south of Liberty Square. More than three-hundred locations are available for people to sleep in, churches, hotels, houses, and other spaces in the city. The legal group announced that there were 220 arrests the previous night and at least 59 will remain in custody until tomorrow (there was later an announcement that the conditions in jail were very bad, especially for women). The facilitators went on to describe the effect of the court's order today, which states that the first amendment did not protect the right of people to have tents in the park. The decision was unclear on what exactly is permitted, whether people can sleep in the park (so long as there aren't structures), whether people can have sleeping bags and other sundry items associated with the occupation, etc. Those questions are ongoing. Evidently the police officers on the ground don't know the answers, which creates a useful opportunity to educate them, but it's also dangerous in that the police are more likely to do bad things when they are uncertain of their situation. Lastly, legal explained how people could get their property back that had been taken by the police. The depot will be open tomorrow and Friday, and in order to get the property people have to file a claim form, complete with receipts and/or photographs. Who is going to have a receipt for their sleeping bags? A photograph of the winter boots a friend gave to them? It seems to me like it will be unproductive madness. But some people lost a lot of important things, so they will try nonetheless. The library announced that its 5000 books were gone, but the librarian started the library anew with a few books of her own, and dozens more were donated this evening.
Stepping back from the GA, I want to say how striking it was to enter the park now emptied of the tents. The commons had returned and there were hundreds of conversations happening all around me. The voice of the GA was phenomenally loud, as there was nothing stopping a full press of bodies occupying the park. While the eviction was brutal and wrong, I think it presents a good opportunity to rethink what we're doing in the park and how we want to use it. On the negative side, the police have now erected barricades around the entire park, and have instituted two checkpoints on the north and south sides of the park where they ensure that no one is bringing in any illegal sleeping bags and other dangerous materials. I think that check point is vulnerable to legal challenge (much more so than the no-tent rule) and should be addressed asap. Guarding this fence are police, community engagement officers, and members of the private security force hired by the property owner to help keep things in check.
Next at the GA, we took time for breakout discussion groups. They asked us to assemble in groups of ten or fewer people and discuss ideas for moving forward as a movement and logistically as an occupation. I stood up and joined a circle of around ten energetic and intelligent people chomping at the bit to talk to each other about what was should happen next. I would say that I just got really lucky, but this has been my experience repeatedly when interacting with groups at Occupy. I have been so impressed by the quality of the people and the level of discourse in which they engage. At any rate, in our little circle, the first to speak was a short, powerfully-voiced, woman who makes corporate training films (she has also made some short films for Occupy). She said that she felt the tents had distressingly privatized the public space of the park, eliminating space for discourse and also valorizing homelessness in a time when people are being pushed out of their homes onto the streets in a bad way. She believed that the park should remain occupied but not with tents (i.e. no permanent in-group there all the time, but rather people rotating between the park and various inside spaces). The flip side of losing all the structures of course, even for those like me who don't love structures, is that there is much less going on to mark the space as "occupation" rather than "crowded place in New York," which is important. Occupy will need to think creatively about how to mark the space in a way that signals the project to newcomers.
Others in my circle jumped into a discussion about how to keep up the energy of the park and how to do more and better outreach into communities. Then, we were abruptly called back to order as the facilitators announced that another potential eviction from the park by police was imminent. Impressively, there was no giant groan or sigh, but just patience as people waited to hear what was going to happen. It was then said there were conflicting reports and that we might not be kicked out. Someone from the legal team said that as long as we followed the Brookfield rules (no tents, no large boxes, unclear what the other rules actually were as they were designed for occupy specifically), the park would stay open 24/7. We returned to our discussion groups.
I was so impressed with the vivid enthusiasm the group of ten neighbors displayed when we started talking that I got everyone's email addresses so I could add them to the Think Tank email list, and also, perhaps, convene a discussion group built around that circle of people. In addition to the filmmaker, I met a an unemployed bookkeeper/accountant who said he had been volunteering with the finance working group. They are well meaning, he explained, but didn't really know what they were doing. I responded by telling him that it sounds like they are glad to have him there. I got the sense that he felt his skills weren't being fully used. I'll check up with him to see if there is anything to be done and to make sure he is fully plugged in. There were many more announcements and speakers that evening. The air was totally charged, people brought a lot of energy with them, and the space, being totally open, was conducive to a range of conversations.
Two speakers stand out in my mind. One older gentleman with a giant white beard and shoulder length hair said, "I've been an activist for 30 years and you all really inspire me. By the end of the Vietnam war, we had fought for and achieved rights for African-Americans, rights for women, rights for gay people. We shut down nuclear power plants. We organized on a massive scale. I see this group making many of the same mistakes that we made. However, this group is also solving those problems much more quickly than we did."
The other speaker that struck me was a woman with a powerful voice who stood on a stone bench and turned in circles to project out into the crowd. She said, "We can't just wait for the GA to meet to have these conversations. We can't just rely on this park being open to do this work. The movement needs to make sure that this work is being done even after OWS. You need to talk to each other and then you need to go out and occupy the hood, and speak to the people there who have encountered grinding poverty and police oppression for a long, long time." The woman was fierce. She got a lot of support. I darted after her when she was done and asked her for her information. She was skeptical and asked why I wanted it. I said that while many people in the park would agree that the hood has endured dire suffering as a result of the same economic injustices that prompted OWS, it's not so easy as to just step out and occupy the hood. Most people in the park would not feel like they had the right to walk into those neighborhoods and occupy; the bridge needs to be built from both sides. She heard me, and gave me her email.
I stepped to the periphery of the GA and looked out over the crowd. There were hundreds of conversations happening in the park, many between strangers. The park was still quite full at 11 PM, after several hours of GA. In fact, I am certain that there are still people talking now. There's no question that the numbers are there to sustain the occupation into tomorrow.
I am so tired and must live to report another day, especially with Thursday November 17, the big day of direct action, coming up soon.
Take care everyone,
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #13 - November 18
This report covers several experiences over the past two days since Tuesday’s massive post-raid General Assembly:
On Wednesday night I took a break from Occupy for an evening to go have a meal with friends, but Occupy didn’t take a break from me. We were sitting at the Bowery Hotel restaurant (which is gorgeous by the way) talking about life, philosophy, and Occupy, and then my friend leapt up from the table to say hi to an old friend of theirs at the next table. She joined us and turned out to be from the media team, complete with official-looking badge. She said that things had been stressful since the raid, since a lot of equipment was lost and the team was having to re-supply with their own personal equipment. I asked about getting funds from the Occupy bank account, and she said it’s difficult since all that has to be approved by GA, which is meeting irregularly and doesn’t necessarily have time for budget items (given more pressing concerns like the massive police presence following occupiers wherever they go, people still in jail, reorganizing the structure of OWS following loss of its home, and figuring out where this movement is heading). I got her contact info to discuss further. Given the nascent state of the online infrastructure as well as the fact that meetings happening irregularly, person to person contact is important for staying up to date.
Also at dinner, I learned by text that the newly reconstituted People’s Library, which had a few dozen books at that point, was again seized by police. Food had also been seized. The media person said that when she was last at the park at around 9 PM, it was totally empty but for Brookfield security guards. Majorly depressing and outrageous. She also said that the Atrium, a public indoor space where many working groups have been meeting, may be closing to the public, which is clearly directed at suppressing the OWS activities there (unconfirmed). Conversation ensued at the table about the notion that what is desperately needed, and what has been severely threatened by the oppressive police response to OWS – not just throwing books and tents in the dumpster and dragging people out of the park during the raid, but also putting up gates all around the park and menacing people – is a place for people to talk to each other. Specifically, a place for a lot of people who may not already be friends to talk to one another. I biked home from dinner over the bridge wondering where this was all heading.
On Thursday morning, November 17, the big day of action that had been planned for weeks, I did not wake up at 5:30 AM and head over to Zuccotti to get kitted up for the planned action against the NY stock exchange. I don’t get enough sleep as it is, and I wasn’t really on board with the idea of trying to prevent the ringing of the morning bell. I woke up to reports that notwithstanding a massive police presence (whole swaths of the city must be devoid of officers due to their obsession with controlling Occupy), the occupiers had managed to block two (or more?) of the entrances to the building by locking arms, though they got there too late to prevent most employees from entering for work. At least a hundred arrests had been made.
At work, I pulled up the live stream video by Tim Poole, of the group “the other 99,” who had come online at 7 AM and continued streaming well into the night, narrating the events of the day as he followed the occupiers from Zuccotti to Wall Street, to marches, to Foley Square, and ultimately the Brooklyn Bridge. He deserves an award for his heroic endurance! Tim had followed occupiers out of the park (where many had reconvened following the early morning action) down Broadway to see what was still happening on wall street. At Broadway and Pine, by Trinity Church, there was a police check point; the NYPD were only allowing people with I.D. showing they worked down the street to pass. A young guy in a tie who wanted to access the subway station a few feet beyond the checkpoint was denied, likely on suspicion of being an occupier. People who were clearly not occupiers were not checked (this is documented on the stream, not just reported). I was appalled to find that it seemed quite normal to me that the police would do this. Someone on the livestream jolted me out of my stupor by saying, what country do we live in? Who is this police force? I’m being prevented from walking down a public sidewalk! Others said loudly, “show your papers!”
Back at Zuccotti, which had filled up with several hundred people peacefully talking to each other and preparing for marches later that day, Tim was on the scene when several people started to dismantle some of the metal barricades surrounding the park (the police had been pushing these closer and closer in, to shrink the space inside). The crowd cheered wildly as a few people pulled the links apart, lifted up several metal barricades, and stacked them neatly against each other. After police reinforcements rushed to that side of the park, one officer picked up a barricade and lunged forward with it, shoving back the crowd, knocking over a photographer in the process. On camera, Tim was briefly lifted up in the air as he was pressed from several sides and pushed back with others. Two people were arrested who appeared to be just standing there. Several people were forcefully thrown out of the way. The police replaced the barricades, secured them together with the flexible handcuffs that they use when making arrests, and resumed their oppressive vigil on the park. It was unclear whether the barricades were supposed to be keeping people in or keep them out. At times, the entrances were closed, though many just leaned over the fence and participated anyways.
It began to rain and get cold, but the park remained lively, so far as I could tell from the live stream). I saw a sign that read, “Arrest one of us, two more appear. You can't arrest an idea.” Tim wandered around and happened to meet the girl who was arrested in the early days of OWS for drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. She said she was staying away from some of the actions that day since she could not afford to be arrested again. Tim moved to watch a group of people using a pile of dismantled barricades as a trampoline. It was a good natured group, not a riot in the making. Nevertheless, an officer felt it was important to stride into the park and lift up a barricade while someone was still on it, knocking over that person and smashing another girl in the head. As an observer put it, the police are truly stressed out, which is a dangerous situation for everyone.
On my lunch break, tired of sitting glued to the screen, I biked down to the park in the chilly rain to check out the scene for myself. I encountered a thick, line of officers all around the park with a large clump at the corner entrance. An officer told me that no one was allowed in the park at the time (the people inside were standing around talking – nothing unusual, no reason to lock it down), but I found a break in the barricades by the red sculpture. I encountered live stream Tim as he was talking to several people by one of the wrecked garden areas (ravaged by the raid and by the cold). Those people relayed this account to Tim, which was confirmed by other witnesses I talked to: a kid named Brandon had been kicking out some of the barricades by a few inches here and there and most likely taunting the police. After one episode of this, he wandered into the crowd to the middle of a drum circle. Suddenly, several police officers leapt over the barricades and dove into the crowd after him, injuring two women in their mad press to grab him. They dragged him across the park to the garden area and ripped off some of his clothes (I saw and photographed his bedraggled pants, scarf, and one boot on the ground, along with his tobacco and what appeared to be blood). He either fell or was thrown to the ground, cracking open his forehead on the concrete, and began bleeding profusely. Some said he lost teeth. The police then carted him away. Many photographs were taken of him after he was picked up. I was horrified to read later reports that mentioned his injury but not the cause. What is the pathological aversion to reporting police brutality in the press? It’s been a real problem at OWS and the New York Times is particularly guilty.
After the flurry of police brutality, I settled in to speak with a few people before going back to work. I met a photographer with a young son in Queens (incongruously clad in a trash bag against the rain) who has just organized the Queens GA at Jackson Heights. They’ve imported the structure from OWS and the NYC GA website, but are otherwise focused on local Queens issues. That touches on something I’ve noticed about the Occupy movement that is a sign of strength – a kind of franchise model in which local occupations can spring up and take the basic framework from others, including the name, GA structure, website, chants, tone, coordinated national days of action etc., while also dealing with whatever local concerns matter to the people there. The upshot is that participants can address pressing community concerns while simultaneously feeling committed to and supported by a national movement.
I then met a young guy visiting from Occupy D.C. who had the neat and nerdy black outfit of a theater technical director (I didn’t ask). He was frustrated that OWS had gone somewhat off track, and firmly stated that OWS needs to focus on cleaving apart government and the finance industry, as most other problems stem from that toxic combo. He was concerned that the reporting on OWS was becoming a referendum on the protestors rather than about the issues, and said that’s what dragged down the '60s movements. I pointed out that the media were always going to focus on individuals who confirmed their assumptions, and given the inclusivity of the movement, that can’t really be helped. He didn’t think that stopping people from going to work at the NYSE, for example, made sense given that many of those people are part of the 99%. I suggested that he attend a meeting of the Direct Action working group and bring his concerns to them, since they designed the NYSE action.
In the midst of these conversations, the march to Union Square formed up and left the park- several hundred people at least. I had to get back to work, so didn't follow. A small contingent stayed in the park, which then had a discussion by people’s mic about whether they felt safe with such small numbers given the huge number of police. As people filed out for the march, one woman announced that people should try to stay in the park to keep up the numbers, to keep safe. I had to go back to work so could not help.
I have a lot more to report on the marches and rally of the late afternoon and evening, but since this report is already so long I will save that for the next.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #14 - November 18 (News and Information Edition)
I've been asked by some of you to point to some good sources of information and organizing so you can follow what's going on. There have been a ton of interesting news stories in the past few days. I'm going to give you some general organizing links first and then link to my favorite news stories of late so you can get the flavor. I discover these stories on Facebook, Reddit ,and Twitter. I retweet and repost a lot of them, so if you follow me on twitter (@chloecockburn) or follow my Facebook posts, you'll see the ones that I like. I'm sure more great stuff is out there, but this is what I just pulled together in the midst of everything going on right now.
Some general links:
The subreddit page for OWS with news stories by readers. A great place to check for aggregated OWS news:
The website of the NYC General Assembly, whose events page lists all the events and their locations and times, as well as coordinating pages for all the working groups and discussion forums for those groups, is: www.nycga.net
Another umbrella website is www.occupywallst.org, which is not officially endorsed by the GA but is a great clearing house to find out what's going on. That site had much better information about the November 17th actions than others, for example.
Here is the OWS Facebook page:
It has 328,000 "likes"!
Here is the think-tank Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Occupy-Wall-St-Think-Tank/181072138642179?...
This group is an OWS working group that hosts daily discussion forums with topics submitted by whoever is in attendance. I've been to some of these and they are vibrant, exciting discussions. For those of you in other places, I encourage you to form a think tank where you are! Write me for more info on how to get it going.
http://www.occupytogether.org/ "Our goal is to establish an universal and accessible database made up of documents related to peaceful civil disobedience and grassroots practices, spreading it physically and on-line to the very assemblies, occupations and groups around the whole world."
Some Recent News about OWS:
New Mexico House voted 65-0 to move the state's money to credit unions and community banks:
It appears the NYPD purposefully smashed laptops and stole things from OWS during the raid. Photos and account:
At the Brooklyn Bridge march last night, there was an incredible projection of OWS slogans on the side of the Verizon building. Here is an interview with the creator of that projection:
NYPD cop pushed a New York Supreme Court Judge into the wall when she asked him to stop hitting a woman who was asking about her daughter who was arrested. http://boingboing.net/2011/11/18/nypd-cop-pushes-new-york-supre.html
An interesting comment thread on Reddit urging people to focus on the many very positive things happening with Occupy rather than just the police brutality:
The NYPD continue to seize books brought to Zuccotti park by the custodians of the OWS peoples' library. Straight up censorship. http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ar/theshelf/2011-11-17/nypd_targets_occup...
Photo of books destroyed during the raid and recovered from the dumpster by OWSLibrary: http://pic.twitter.com/uRaJgnWG
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan admitted that cities coordinated the crackdown on on the various occupy encampments. http://bit.ly/rpRiIf
The FBI is said to have advised cities on how to raid the camps:
Here is a spectacular photo of retired police captain Ray Lewis getting arrested in NY during the November 17 action day:
News story giving a little background:
A powerful reminder of who the police are protecting: http://i.imgur.com/RGG1y.jpg
Some recent International Occupy news:
London Occupiers have taken over a vacant UBS building across the street from UBS's own officers: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/nov/18/occupy-london-protesters-ubs-ba...
Occupy Bahrain's Facebook page showing a huge march: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=318020778211874&set=a.30880462913...
(remember the country is tiny so this is a lot of people)
Massive strike begins in Greece: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iDxWIdKqH9xROvHjqMqkm...
REPORT FROM OWS #15 - November 20
This is a continuation of report #13, in which I described the events of the November 17th day of action up until mid-day:
After spending my lunch break in Zuccotti, I biked back to work and settled in with a project that I could do while also watching the livestream by Tim Poole (@theother99). It was mid-afternoon, and Tim had arrived in Union Square along with thousands of other people who were amassing at the north end of the square, where the farmers' market usually is. It was difficult to tell how many were there from within the crowd, but the estimates all seemed to be three to five thousand. Tim later encountered one person who said they had looked down at the rally from the top of the Barnes and Noble building and said they saw thousands, that the park looked full.
My husband, who had gone to the march with our child, reported from the square that everyone he met there was incredibly nice and thoughtful, making way for him and our son with the bulky stroller. He said that even though the atmosphere was festive and peaceful, and the crowd was pretty spread out with the sidewalks cleared, the police were walking around with their batons out in hand, ready.
At around 4 PM the march started organizing itself to move back to Foley square, where there was a planned 5pm rally with labor unions and other OWS supporters. It seemed like right away the people took to the streets to claim 5th Avenue. That led to a large confrontation on 14th St and 5th Ave., where the police moved large plastic barriers (shaped like the concrete construction ones) into place to block the entire street so the march could not move. My husband was moving towards that intersection as teams of police and police vehicles ran and sped towards the blockage. A lot of people were jammed up and stuck as the police stopped anyone from moving, though some spilled over and around on the sidewalks. The crowd quickly compressed and he ended up standing with his back up to a Chase bank, not able to move (irony). The few police on the scene were quickly reinforced by many vans and other officers to face the peaceful crowd. After a standoff of several minutes, during which the number of people behind the barricades swelled and all traffic was completely snarled, the police allowed the march to go on down the sidewalks.
On that corner of 14th and 5th, there is a building that houses the New School, from which students unfurled a large banner that read, "This is an occupied building, join us." It turns out that during the blockade, several students took over the student center and have remained there occupying the space since then. The president of the New School has been supportive thus far, telling the students they can stay as long as they don't interfere with classes, don't violate occupancy rules or other building rules, and don't make it hard for students to get around. The New School Occupy has been hosting meetings, forums, General Assemblies, and teach-ins since then, with students from many different schools participating.
Here is an excerpt from the president's letter to the school, which i saw in an email forward two days later:
"While the university takes no position in this or any movement, The New School supports free expression and the right to protest. Communities around the world are responding in sympathy to those who feel that their voice has not been heard. While it is not without cost, providing a space for those voices is part of our unique mission."
In writing this, the New School president sets himself apart from the university leaders who have emphasized exclusion of outsiders from Occupy protests (such as Harvard, which began requiring anyone entering Harvard Yard to show IDs after students occupied it), and from UC Berkeley and UC Davis, both of which have called in the riot police, which have violently injured and forcibly removed peaceful student protestors (see here for horrific photographs of UC davis police shooting pepper spray directly at students who were peacefully sitting down, here for an open letter from a faculty member calling for the Chancellor to resign, and here for a great piece on the context of the Berkeley pepper spraying incident).
University campuses are a natural home for occupiers as they weather the winter. Universities know that, and are probably twitching nervously as they remember what did or didn't happen on their campuses in the '60s (i'm just guessing). If they let students get entrenched, they might never get them out! Especially given the many tuition hikes considered by various schools right now, this is a very touchy subject. It's really great to see the New School president take a leadership role and courageously step out for freedom of speech and assembly despite the threat to compliant order that the student protests represent.
Back to the march: The movement toward Foley Square continued, but beyond the police barricades, the mass split into at least two groups, taking different paths southward. Tim the videographer was at the front of one body as it pressed resolutely down dozens of blocks, through the cold dark night. He recorded as people marched and chanted and kept up the pace. The marchers had to stay on the sidewalk, but of course the police took up the whole street so it's not like traffic was moving anywhere. They had their scooters and vans and other trappings of police power occupying all of that space.
Foley square was completely jam-packed with people even before the marches got there. The unions turned out in force. People had their banners and instruments and voices activated. There were speakers, though I did not hear them (they used microphones rather than the people's mic…) After watching all of that on the stream, I was finally able to leave work and get on my bike to go check it out. By the time I pulled up, people were moving out of the square towards the Brooklyn Bridge, the site of the infamous 700 arrests. I parked my bike on Broadway, just south of City Hall Park and tried to figure out how to join my husband and child at the base of the bridge, where many were converging to cross over. After being stymied by barricades on all sides (it seemed I couldn't cross the street from Broadway into the park at any point, and I knew that the march was not being allowed to go directly from Foley to the bridge but was forced to take the long route around the park), I found a place to pass by the middle of the west side of the park and wound my way around the bottom of the park again to the plaza-like area facing the bridge. These days there is a large Sol Lewitt sculpture there that is like a stretched-tall sugar cube ziggurat. Our child befriended some media people by trying to pull apart their camera equipment, and then announced in his own special way that it was well past time for dinner and sleep.
I helped my husband carry the stroller down the stairs into the subway, turned to walk upstairs, and met resistance from a police officer who said that no one could go up those stairs. In vain, I protested that I was there only two minutes prior. He said I had to go up the other stairs, which was very depressing as I thought I would be exiting north of the park on the west side and would need to make my way all the way around again through crowds and barricades. Lucky for me the occupation gods were smiling, and I emerged underneath that giant building that hosts civil weddings (including my own!). The way was open to cross the street onto the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian entrance ramp, which was fairly empty from that angle. I then had a front row view of the huge numbers of people - many thousands - winding their way from Foley Square, down Court Street, around the bend along the north side of City Hall Park, emerging again after a circuit around the park and pouring onto the pedestrian walkway (a large electric sign said anyone taking to the roadway would be arrested). I stood there awhile, taking stock. A few marching bands passed by and everyone was in a great mood.
Several news teams and news trucks were there filing reports, although by the next day there was virtually no reporting of the event available on the major networks. I find this shocking. The New York Times didn't have one single story on the marches and rallies. The coverage was mainly about how authorities had supposedly foiled the action on the NYSE. I did notice a desperate Wall Street Journal piece about Bloomberg, suggesting that the march didn’t really reflect OWS, but was instead an unrelated union march. Totally untrue! In fact, every chant I heard and every sign I saw was about Wall street, the banks, equality and democracy, money out of politics, etc. The unions may have brought bodies, but the message was all OWS. Here is a good post setting forth videos of the many actions of the day, and suggesting that it coverage may have actually been removed from the news websites by the next day.
After taking in the sights, I joined the flow of people walking across the bridge into Brooklyn. After the initial press the throng eased up and there was space to move around on the bridge. As I came up the ramp everyone stopped and pointed up at the Verizon building to the north, which has a large expanse of windowless wall on its east side. Projected onto that wall, with the brightest and most powerful projector I've ever seen, was a series of OWS slogans rotating every few seconds, "Mic check - Mic check - This is what democracy looks like - We are the 99% - We are unstoppable - Another world is possible - We are winning - Happy birthday Occupy - Occupy everywhere - Occupy Earth," and many more (November 17 was the two month anniversary of the beginning of the OWS occupation). People cheered and chanted along with the words as they appeared. Cars on the bridge honked in support and people yelled up at us and waved. It was an awesome sight, watching as major corporate real estate was appropriated for the Occupy movement by a projector placed in public housing. Stories about this project have been calling it the "bat signal." Here is a video by the creator showing what it looked like.
As I was coming down the span of the bridge into Brooklyn, I fell in beside my friend who does live streaming for OWS. He had only slept about two hours since Monday (yet was somehow coherent and able to operate complex technology) and had been in the park with his lovely dog when it was raided. He told me how the media team, by very quick thinking, managed to get some of its more valuable equipment out of the park, though a lot of computers and other gear were destroyed (this occurred not only by accident, but items were clearly bludgeoned, as has been documented by OWS librarians who visited the sanitation depot to reclaim books). His computer indicated that 5000 people were watching his stream, and were thus hearing my voice as we walked and talked. That's one reminder that for every body at an OWS event, there are thousands more watching. It's strange to think that my casual conversation was transmitted into thousands of people's computers all over the world. Technology is linking us together, though we rarely see each other's faces. That's one reason why meeting people in Zuccotti park is so satisfying. We find time and space to stop and connect with strangers and talk about things face to face in the park. Even earlier on Thursday, when people were amped-up, afraid of police incursions and the possibility that their friends might get hurt, conversations still pervaded the whole place. Wild how fresh and unusual such a simple thing feels to us...
After a long passage and after being funneled down some stairs at the end by police who did not want the mass getting off the bridge at Jay street, we emerged in Brooklyn onto a peaceful and darkened park, where a drum circle started and we were told by someone mic checking the path that there was a GA happening on the other side of the park. After the constant excitement and stress of the day I was relieved to be home in Brooklyn again, on friendly ground. I saw the GA taking place on the steps in front of the WWII memorial near the federal courthouse and briefly thought about joining, but the cold and the weariness won the way. I pressed on to Pequeña in Ft. Greene, which makes a mean mushroom taco. I heard later that the speakers were stirring, full of life and hope for what will come, and that they made many affirmations of commitment to building this movement.
People keep asking me what I think will happen now after the raid. I tell them that every manifestation of Occupy that I see is positive, powerful, committed, and engaged. Events are happening and full of life and ideas. Creative solutions are being found to side step the limitations placed on Occupy. This thing is not going away. At some point, more people need to realize this and begin to make the transition out of this headlong rush and into a sustainable mode. If you're sprinting for the finish thinking that the course is about to be washed away, it's not so easy to settle into a marathon. However, given the alternative of laying down to capitulate in the face of the oppressive greed and alienation that brought us here, I see people resolutely setting their sights on the horizon and lengthening their strides for the long haul.
(For those of you looking for some good analysis on Occupy, you really should check out Glenn Greenwald, who has published a terrific series of articles on Occupy, focusing in particular on the causes and implications of the brutal police response. For example, here is a good piece on the roots of the UC Davis pepper spraying.
- XO Chloe
REPORT FROM OWS #16 - November 25
After the huge day of action on November 17, I wondered what would happen next at Zuccotti. Would people keep going there to talk about politics and the economy? Or would it turn into a sad empty shell with a few Brookfield officers holding the fort against sleeping-bag-toting citizens?
So last Sunday (November 20) I packed up my son in the stroller and went to the park to check it out. I arrived at the tail end of a faith service conducted by the newly-formed "Council of Elders," a group of civil rights leaders and activists who have come together to share their knowledge with the occupiers. There were several hundred people clustered around the steps. An elderly African American man with white hair was telling the group that this is a new beginning, that what has started will not end with the eviction. He led the cheerful crowd in a sweet rendition of 'This little light of mine.' After that, the service was over and they announced that the elders would lead a march up Broadway to Washington Square Park for a large meeting at Judson church on the south end of the park.
I decided to stay in Zuccotti park and check out what was happening in the post-raid world. Amidst the hundreds of people milling around talking to one another, I saw a row of grannies on a bench knitting warm things for occupiers. I saw a group of people singing 'We shall not be moved' with two guitar players. A small silk-screening station stood upon one of the tables, most likely violating the new park rules. The security force has been blocking certain materials from entering the park; including food, books, water, cardboard, blankets and whatever the police determine to be a threat to their control over the space in that moment. Follow @OWSLibrary on Twitter for great updates and links on this. Two girls were taking a survey of elders in the park, asking them why they were occupying and what they thought of the current demonstrations in comparison to what they had seen before.
I spoke to a well dressed young African-American woman who was standing near where the elders had spoken. She had long braids and a friendly face, and she told me that she worked in the health care industry. I asked her what had brought her to occupy. She explained that the prospect of raising her two young sons as black men in this country was terrifying to her. Given the dismal statistics, she felt it was absolutely essential to participate in the occupy movement. Things look bad from every angle, she said. Her father told her that he had marched for her in the civil rights movement and that he is happy to see that she is marching for her children in this movement. She broke off our conversation to join the elders march.
I made my way back towards the checkpoint at the north side of the park to join the march, but stopped when I saw that my friend Aaron was conducting a session of the Think Tank, which meets every day from 12-6 PM (or close to that, depending on who is available to facilitate sessions). The Think Tank is a discussion circle for anyone who wants to join, with topics chosen by the group and/or the facilitator, focusing on matters relevant to occupy. The conversations are all recorded and the rules are the same as for any large group meeting at Occupy - the facilitator takes a stack of people wanting to speak, and calls on them in that order, except that those whose voices who have been traditionally marginalized are given priority. Also, people can skip the stack to respond directly to a point. Overall, people are expected to be respectful and peaceful in the discussion, all of which is enforced by the facilitator. In my view, the Think Tank is playing a vital role in propagating the occupation's spirit in Zuccotti Park, offering a structured space for political discussions that people crave and bringing together strangers who might otherwise never meet.
The topic of Aaron's session was how to deal with police brutality at Occupy without letting it overshadow the rest of the movement. The group started with about fifteen people and grew steadily over the course of the next thirty minutes. First on stack was a person who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Aaron politely told him that his views were welcome, but that his point was off-topic. I spoke next and said that the danger of distraction is real, but that we can overcome it by talking about police violence as a manifestation of larger problems that have given rise to the occupy movement, such as private interests co-opting public institutions. A woman, who as I later learned is a Vassar professor, responded directly, explaining that the police actions also reflect the criminalization of dissent, and that this goes beyond police violence to the issue of the curtailment of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The conversation continued from there, but it was hard for me to focus since my son was not interested in sitting still for political discourse. The only other thing I remember is discussion regarding whether or not the presence of cameras has any effect on police behavior. It appears that they do not, given the nonchalance with which police have continued to exercise violence despite being filmed. This is strange and disconcerting. If exposing their misconduct doesn't stop them, that means that the authorities are implicitly condoning their actions and refusing to punish.
As I got up to leave, I noticed that the Philadelphia police officer who was famously was arrested last week while in uniform had arrived and was sitting cross legged on the ground in the circle. His name is Ray Lewis, and he is a minor celebrity in Zuccotti at this point. Everyone knows him and is glad for his presence. Aaron later relayed to me that after I left, someone in the group challenged Lewis to address the adage that, "it's not the man, it's the uniform" when explaining away bad police behavior. The challenger, a fifty year-old African-American man from San Diego, said, "What kind of person chooses to do this job?" Lewis reportedly response was, "You're right, it is a certain kind of person who does this job." Then he explained how police departments engage in personality testing to screen out anyone who is too sensitive. The goal is to get officers who are tough enough to handle blood and gore, and also to carry out unpleasant orders. The result is that police departments are saddling themselves with lawsuits waiting to happen. Lewis said that he had spoken out about this and encouraged us to do the same. [I am repeating his words here, as reported to me by Aaron, because they were audio recorded with his permission.]
During the Think Tank session, there was an announcement that food was being served and helpers were needed. This happened on the barricades right behind Think Tank. As I walked out through the checkpoint I saw large trays of food balanced on the edge of the barricades. The servers were standing on the inside of the park giving food to those outside. I love that the practice of communal food continues. It's a great way to bring people together and it's a sign that the occupation persists notwithstanding the destruction of the library and the trashing of tents.
Jessica and I walked up the hill and stood at the top of the stairs outside the barricades to look out over the park. All the trees were decorated with Christmas lights, casting a gentle glow. Rectangular lights inset within the park pavement played off the tree lights. Hundreds of people stood around in clumps talking to one noter. One large cluster at the side was singing 'We shall overcome' with guitars and everyone held candles. As I walked away I heard one officer say to another, "What are they all doing there?" The other responded, "All just hanging out, I guess." I had to smile at that. Do they really think that with the tents gone there is no more Occupy? Did they miss the soulful faith service where old, but unbent civil rights leaders told us that the movement would march on, that we were fighting for justice and would not rest? Perhaps the police chose not to see those things as they did not fit into their mental model of what this thing is about.
Having delayed my departure for Judson church in order to hang with Think Tank, Jessica and I raced uptown on foot, using the stroller to plow through the Broadway shopping crowds and trying not to send people flying. On Prince and Broadway we ran into Kate, who had just been to a long NLG meeting about Occupy and was heading for a drink with fellow green-hats (those ridiculous neon hats that NLG observers wear). We forged on.
Arriving at the steps to the church twenty minutes late, I found Ernesto, a middle-aged Latino man who I'd earlier seen escorting one of the elder civil rights preachers in Zuccotti. I first met Ernesto when I brought socks and coats to the park the night of the big snow storm. He was manning the comfort station and sent me to the medical tent. I'd seen him several times since then too, including during the raid night when we were making our way to Foley Square as a fallback position from the police barricades. I said hello, and he reached out to hold my son, who was oddly fine with that. He's usually not open to strangers. Ernesto said he had five kids of his own, now 7, 8, 9, 13, and 15 years old (I cannot imagine). He said he remembered vacuuming the house with one strapped to his back and one on his front in order to help out his wife. The next time I see him I'll ask about his story. I'm interested to know how he got involved with occupy and how it is connecting to his life.
Figuring that no one was going to steal a stroller from a church, I stashed it in the entryway and climbed the steps to the large meeting hall of Judson church. The space is big, at least a hundred feett square, with a high ceiling and balcony. There are no pews, just movable chairs, so the space is flexible and breathes well. Hundreds of people sat in the meeting when we arrived with many more packed at the back, along the sides, and up in the balcony. The crowd was, as usual, extremely diverse, with a higher average age than I usually see in Zuccotti. I carried my son along the back row and around to the side where I spied some potted plants and the sound mixing station, which I hoped would keep him entertained. At the front was a long table with five of the elders seated, each with a microphone. The floor opened for questions just as I found a space.
The first person to speak had prepared a kind of protest poem call to arms. I couldn't tell whether it was an allegory or something that he really wanted to make happen. It described a circle of ninety-nine people of all stripes, from all over the world, standing in Zuccotti park around the clock, saying nothing and holding no signs. As soon as one person would step down, another would take their place. People listened politely to this vision, which lasted for several minutes, but did not respond to it.
The next speaker, who turned out to be from Occupy Outreach, eloquently thanked the elders for coming to the table and lending their gravitas to the movement. Then the priest in charge asked if there was anything he wanted to request of these people? Without missing a beat, the outreach person said, "yes." "We need space," he said, "Lots of it." He continued, "Space to occupy, organize, teach," and so forth. In response, one of the elders (I didn't catch the names) talked about recreating the "beloved community" described by Martin Luther King by transforming indoor spaces. I didn't quite understand what that meant so will need to look it up.
The next commenter told the elders that they needed help with outreach. He explained that as much as the movement has tried to be inclusive, large segments of the New York City community feel no connection to it whatsoever. "We need your help," he continued, "to reach out through churches and other organizations into these communities in order to draw them out and bring them in."
The elders spoke. One said, "You all need to realize how powerful you are. Don't diminish that. You have, in the space of two short months, changed the conversation in this country. That is an incredible thing. Further, you can know who you are by the power that is mobilized against you." He urged the group to consider the connections between Wall Street, prisons and deportation centers, suggested this as one way to work on reaching out to communities who have not yet joined this movement. He said that we should be looking to students as allies (this is certainly already happening), and that the elders are organizing a conference of civil rights leaders to come together in one year to work on these issues. I found that exciting, but also wondered why they are waiting so long.
Another elder emphasized discipline, saying, this is serious business. Each generation finds its mission. We need to be soldiers for the struggle. I recognized that language form the civil rights movement, but it seemed out of place here, especially given the commentary on the problems of militarized police and so forth. Some other metaphor for being highly organized, motivated, and focused is required.
The next elder said, "Each movement needs more than one tactic to survive. The tactics that work in one situation or even for one whole movement may not work for the next, and it's important to make sure to choose thoughtfully." He explained that, "The advice we give you here is based on our experiences from fifty years ago which may no longer be relevant to the situation you are addressing. The police are looking for a confrontation. Don't give them one. Don't get distracted."
During all of this time I was pacing my son who was crawling in and around the plants, along the wall, reaching for sound equipment wires, and playing with a hand cart, while occasionally clapping and/or yelping. After I grew tired of chasing after while also listening to the meeting and taking notes, I lifted him up despite his loud protests and carried him to the door. I paused again to catch a few more words when a nice woman with a peaceful sleeping baby offered me a toy to placate the child so I could stay and listen a little longer. Pausing for breath I said hello to Kate, who just arrived, and then to my cousin Laura Flanders, a progressive journalist and commentator who has been closely following the movement, who appeared at the doorway. I also saw Emer, a grade school social worker I met on November 17 just outside Zuccotti Park. I watched her bravely take on what was apparently an avid New York Post reader who was claiming to a news camera that the occupiers were all homeless people looking for handouts, and engaged her in conversation. I was happy to see Emer again and we spoke after the meeting about her work with at risk youth and her interest in exploring the psychological makeup of protestors.
Something that has impressed me about Occupy is the extent to which, once I meet someone there, I see them again and again. Ernesto and Emer are just two examples. This familiarity increases the pull of Occupy for me. Rather than being just one more atom in this movement, I am forming structures and networks with people. I also feel that OWS has spurred me to leave my 'house,' as in my social comfort zone, for the first time in years. I can't remember the last time I had this degree of sustained, meaningful conversations with strangers, many of whom I continue to stay in touch with. For these two reasons, being a part of Occupy has enriched my life beyond simply raising my hopes of a shift in political consciousness for the country. This personal aspect of the occupation seems key to sustaining it through the long winter.
I left the church and stepped out into the fresh evening and headed for home, passing a line of fifteen or so NYPD officers with heavy police motorcycles standing idle by the park entrance, ready to regulate the elders during their exit. As I texted my NLG friend in warning, the police looked mellow, but better to look sharp than be caught unawares. Happily, they did not spring into aggressive action. Later that night I saw a picture from a friend who joined the elder's candlelit march from Washington Square Park down to Duarte Park. In defiance of the limitations on structures, occupiers had posted tents on top of stilts with messages written on them. The tents were glowing with light. As far as I can tell, Occupy is still winning.
- XO Chloe