Occupy Wall Street – November 11, 2011
Zuccotti Park is chaos. It’s a zoo. It’s America.
First of all, calling that block Anybody ‘Park’ was delusional to begin with. It was never more than a couple of marble shelves with a few spindly trees in odd places; the real estate mogul whose name is plastered on it should be thrilled with the publicity he’s getting.
One whole side of the ‘park’ is populated by Hallal and Hot Dog vendors, doing a brisk business with the tourists and gawkers and media people. A large part of this crowd never ventures into the tent city, content to hover at the edges and strike up a quick conversation with one of the labor organizers, the college-age kid who catalogues all the evils of fracking, the girls offering hugs for change or the guy in the parka with a cardboard sign reading ‘Proud Veteran of Allenwood Penitentiary for Protesting the Vietnam War.’
Step down off the street and you find yourself in a tumult of tents in all colors packed so tight together you can’t imagine how anybody gets to the third row without collapsing the neighbors. You have tents with signs, tents with themes, tents with messages scrawled across the canvas or murals painted on the side.
The place is a mad collection of energy. The great majority of the inhabitants are either just out of college or around my age, veterans of the last mass wave of civil disobedience. They seem remarkably well-groomed and cheerful. There are a million signs posting various rules and advisories about being good neighbors and a responsible part of the community.
And of course, you find the artisans working handmade jewelry, the collection of partisans for particular causes and an amazing concentration of media: cameras everywhere, cellphone cameras (my own included—my apologies for the quality of the photography), professional videographers, amateurs with equally good equipment and more chutzpah, men in stocking caps lugging around Mac laptops with very expensive microphones, interviewing one and all. I definitely saw one member of the professional media photographing another interviewing someone who (hopefully) had something to say.
I participated in a discussion of new media and the next election—just five or ten people talking earnestly alongside the inevitable New York street chess game, handing a portable recorder from person to person so nobody’s great ideas got lost.
One thing that’s heartening is to see what a polite, sensible group of civil disobedients we’ve raised.
I remember planning Vietnam protests; those sessions were neither polite nor particularly open to divergent opinion. There was an awful lot of preaching to the choir and self-righteousness, enough to really turn me off to every part of the movement but the cause itself.
These people are much more serious, focused, civil and gracious to outsiders. They want to find answers and everything about them welcomes participation, even when they don’t agree with yours. When you see the number of people packed into this tiny space, you realize how much fuss has been made of a few incidents. The number of problems reported is tiny, all things considered.
Some walking impressions:
This guy was tattooed all over his face, like Queequeg in Moby Dick. When he agreed to let me take his picture, I had to add, “As striking as you are, it’s really the dogs I want.” He shrugged and answered, “I made peace with that a long time ago.”
There was a mad percussion session going on at the east corner of the ‘park.’ It banged on the whole time I was there, with a huge crowd of tourists watching. so I couldn’t help thinking local merchants should be benefiting from this, the Bloomberg Administration’s complaints notwithstanding.
This girl was dancing with her boyfriend. The picture didn’t do them justice but I couldn’t help thinking of the long line of memorable street dancers in my lifetime, from Ellington at Newport to Woodstock, Monterey and Bonnaroo. New York could do worse—and has.
These are the generators. The city (illegally) removed the gasoline generators just before the snowstorm a few weeks ago (no hidden agenda there, of course). So OWS replaced them with bike generators. A couple of guys were working to repair them when I came by. We shook hands, respect among geeks.
The Weavers aren’t dead yet! This impromptu group was making up lyrics to a song I knew vaguely, that ended with ‘and I won’t learn war anymore.’ ‘I’m going to lay down my student loans and…’
Meanwhile, across the street, a long line of very visible cop cars and TV satellite trucks, the one hopefully keeping the other honest. Everyone knows the police will be moving in sometime soon. Somehow this is too powerful a provocation for our power structure to tolerate.
We do have that pesky First Amendment, of course. But that’s the American paradox: we are a state born of a generation that didn’t trust states. We are the product of rebels who were determined to preserve a citizen’s ability to effectively resist government, once government no longer acted in his or her own interest. And that paradox is coming home to roost now, as America has turned complacent and power-hungry, like every other powerful nation.
OWS famously has neither demands nor leadership. All it has is a clear sense that the present system is rigged against the average citizen and fucked-up beyond recognition. And apparently that’s all it takes to really threaten the power structure of this country nowadays. What does that say about America?