Revisiting the early days of the movement, five years later.
The following is a previously unpublished account of the first days of Occupy Wall Street. Presented without hindsight, it serves as a reminder of the chaos and excitement generated by the birth of a new political movement in America. As an observer, I was present at the Zuccotti Park protests from the second day until the removal of all protesters two months later.
A call to action was posted by the Canadian magazine Ad Busters: Bring the Arab Spring to America. Occupy Wall Street.
On September 17th, 2011, a group of young protesters wearing black bandannas and Guy Fawkes masks descended on Zuccotti Park in the heart of New York’s financial district. Considering themselves an economically-disadvantaged majority, “the 99%”, and seeking to wrest power from America’s economic elites, “the 1%,” they announced their intention to stay until political change had been effected. Sleeping on blankets, blow-up mattresses, and benches, they are there still and their numbers are growing.
With no official leaders, “Direct Democracy” sessions are convened daily, in which anyone present may stand and address the crowd. 23-year-old philosophy graduate, Paul Moore, sees the process as a return to classical tradition, “In ancient Athens they would just pick a random guy off the street and put him in charge.”
With Megaphones banned by city law, the protesters have developed a system of call and response to amplify orators. The speaker will pause after every few words and the crowd will repeat back in unison what has been said. The effect is that of an oath being taken, a body of people in consensus, all speaking with the same voice. But a truer moment came during the daily anti-pilgrimage down to Wall Street. The protesters beat drums and chanted slogans together. At one point the crowd spontaneously and enthusiastically began chanting, “USA! USA!” before quickly being shouted down by members of the throng who stated, “Some of us are not on the same page here!” The protesters resumed their march to the less controversial refrain, “The people united will never be defeated!”
The acres of signs strewn across the park display the diverse views of the demonstrators:
“AMERICA: LAND OF THE FEES, HOME OF THE SLAVES”
“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one”
“SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT”
“HAVE FAITH IN HUMANITY”
“NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION”
“Free Enterprise is not a Hunting License”
“I CAN’T AFFORD A LOBBYIST”
“DEBT = SLAVERY”
“EAT THE RICH”
The dialogue is often controlled by fringe elements. Members of the media, run dazzled from one costumed character to another:
There is the topless Joni Mitchell look-alike and Moammar Gadhafi supporter, Zuma Tikka.
There is a man named Paiboon with a car crash scar from ear to ear, warning that Bill Gates is assembling a private army and that government sorcerers are responsible for recent natural disasters.
There is a struggling actress in a Marie Antoinette wig advocating for women to seize the government from men and establish a matriarchy.
There is Jeff Boss, self-proclaimed presidential candidate/witness to the NSA’s planning of the 9/11 attacks. He swore that if I wrote a good article, he would make me his press secretary.
There is Robert Fernandez, who promises free energy for everyone, once he can get the Tesla Coils he is building in his basement up and running.
There are also people like Henry James Ferry, a 31-year-old organizer. Calling himself “over-educated and under-employed,” he wears a collared shirt and black tie as he addresses a small crowd.
“The top 400 people in the country have the same wealth as the bottom 150 million. I mean, how much more money do they need? I want to have an open honest conversation about how to move the country forward, I want to talk about creating good American jobs, giving affordable healthcare to the nearly 50 million people who don’t have it, bringing our brave troops home, and investing in infrastructure and education for the next generation.”
“You can be rich,” he continued. “I don’t hate rich people. I don’t hate capitalism. People should come down to Wall Street and make money. But when they make that money, they should pay a fair tax rate back to the country that gave them that opportunity. Yesterday, I spoke with someone from Moody’s and someone from Goldman Sachs. We had a dialogue. Maybe that’s because I was wearing a neck tie too. But, we came to agreements on a lot of issues. We need more conversations like that.”
One of the signs that the non-religious Mr. Ferry had with him read:
“OBAMA IS NOT A BROWN-SKINNED ANTI-WAR SOCIALIST WHO GIVES AWAY FREE HEALTHCARE… YOU’RE THINKING OF JESUS”
Mr. Ferry, like many here, sees parallels between general objectives of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the objectives of many conservatives. Some of the statements from participants here could have been made at a Tea Party rally. There is a desire for a smaller federal government and greater local control. The founding fathers are often quoted and the Bill of Rights is regularly cited as the ultimate authority.
Many demonstrators see the administration of Zuccotti Park itself as a model of the kind of limited government they would like to see flourish in the rest of America. There are volunteer medics with red masking tape crosses on their backs, volunteer security forces in yellow vests, a volunteer legal department, a Care and Comfort Corps delivering blankets and daily necessities. There is a kitchen with free meals funded by donation. The kitchen workers wear rubber gloves.
A 20-year-old girl who has given herself the pseudonym Ash Ketchum lays on a mattress with her companion, a man in face paint calling himself Hasselhof. Ms. Ketchum states, “Everyone here has been wonderful. We take care of each other. I leave my phone and iPod out when I’m away and nobody touches them. Where else in New York is that possible?
Ms. Ketchum may be right about that, but the security effect of the massive police presence ringing the plaza is also significant.
The police and the protesters have settled into a steady routine. The protesters march down to Wall Street every day through a barricaded channel constructed by the police who line the store fronts and climb light poles to videotape. Now and then, someone in the plaza will raise a tent, and the police will enter and tear it down with no resistance. Periodically, protesters are arrested for wearing masks.
There has been a general tolerance on both sides except for an altercation last Saturday in which around 100 people were arrested, some of them after being knocked to the ground or pepper-sprayed. The incident was widely videoed and disseminated across the internet.
In perhaps the most well-circulated video, several women can be seen corralled by police into plastic orange netting. They are standing still and non-resistant. A white-shirted police officer walks up and sprays them at close range with a canister of pepper-spray. The women fall to the ground and begin crying and screaming.
I spoke with a woman calling herself Kay Yell, 24, a dark-haired, tattooed women from the video. “None of us had signs. None of us had instruments. We weren’t being violent or aggressive. We were just standing there.”
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has promised an investigation.
For all of its unpleasantness, Saturday’s altercation has been seen by many protesters as a turning point in their movement. “After what happened Saturday,” said Nicole, 20, “the media has suddenly started paying attention to us. They’re like sharks, you know, they smell blood. What happened Saturday was a gift. The cops gave us a gift.”
When the media arrived, they began asking around for the leaders of a movement that defines itself by being leaderless. Paul Moore explains how he became involved, “I was just standing around yesterday. I didn’t know anybody and there was a guy sitting at a card table nearby, you know, signing people up, handing out literature, explaining things. Anyway, he stood up eventually, turned to me and said, “You want to sit down?” and he just walked away and suddenly I was in charge, and Time Magazine and everybody else came by with their cameras and microphones and lights and asked me, “So what is this all about?”