Demonstrators at Duarte Square ©Susan Bernofsky

The one month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – on Oct. 17, 2011 – was all about celebrating the public support that protected the encampment at Zuccotti Park after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to raze it: more than 2000 people turned up at 6:00 a.m. on Oct. 14 to create a human shield around the park. The two month anniversary was marked by outrage over the violent clearing of Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night on Nov. 15, when a militarized New York Police Department turned lower Manhattan into a war zone; over 30,000 people demonstrated in front of City Hall on Nov. 17 in protest. The eviction from the park forced Occupy Wall Street to go in search of a new modus operandi. The three month anniversarythis past weekend saw the now homeless movement continuing its work under much more difficult circumstances.

Before Bloomberg – like other mayors across the country – employed violence to destroy the encampment, Zuccotti Park was a sort of village square that thousands of people visited each day to get information, attend meetings and satisfy their curiosity about the movement. Every time I dropped by, I saw tourists arriving to gawk and leaving armed with leaflets and ideas to bring back to their own communities. It was a place where strangers immediately started talking to strangers—not small-talk about the weather but serious conversations about topics of genuine concern.

People talking—and listening—to other people has been at the heart of the movement from its inception. This is supposed to be the basis of political representation as well: Since there are too many of us to be heard individually, we elect representatives to speak in our name. But the political system in this country is increasingly bankrupt, and the votes of most of our politicians are more or less up for sale to the highest bidder, and so other forms of representation are needed. Occupy Wall Street with its open-access model based on discussion and consensus has been doing an excellent job of amplifying individual voices. One suggestion for a conversational model I saw written up somewhere in the early days of the occupation: “What do you need? What do I need? How can we work together to get these needs met?”

Bloomberg’s raid on Zuccotti Park was a brilliant piece of strategizing. It probably wasn’t legal for him to clear the park, and certainly the weapons he instructed the NYPD to use – pepper spray, tear gas, a bulldozer that crushed protesters’ personal property and even killed a dog that had been tied up in a tent while the dog’s owner begged to be allowed to rescue the animal – were inappropriate for use against peaceful protesters, which is no doubt why Bloomberg also had the NYPD drive all journalists from the scene, beating and arresting even fully credentialed reporters who attempted to film the raid. But Bloomberg calculated that if he created a fact on the ground by clearing the park, protesters would have little immediate recourse, and in this he was quite correct. A court order obtained by the National Lawyers Guild to keep Zuccotti Park open the day of the raid was flouted by the NYPD, and the current legal challenges will no doubt take some time to move through the court system.

The purpose of Bloomberg’s action was to attack the movement in a sustained way by making its day-to-day operations more difficult, and to remove it from the public eye by removing it from its public home. So far he has largely succeeded in these aims. Because there is no longer an open outdoor space where people can drop in to learn about the movement, it is easy for the major media outlets (which have been increasingly reporting the news as the corporations that own them wish to see it reported) to spread misinformation. The Washington Post ran the headline “Occupy Wall Street Is Over.” The New York Times regularly runs stories that misrepresent OWS actions. The latest this weekend was the 12/17 headline “Occupy Wall Street Protesters March Against Trinity Church” – a very distorted view of Saturday’s protest – which one day later at least was amended to read “Arrests as Occupy Movement Turns to Church.”

Dec. 17, Duarte Square ©Scott Lynch

The lack of a permanent home creates other ongoing problems as well. At the heart of the OWS mission is the General Assembly, the daily public meetings that anyone can attend and participate in. General Assemblies are still held daily at Zuccotti Park at 7:00 p.m., but the park is now a militarized zone guarded inside and out by the NYPD and private security guards. The entire block is ringed with metal barricades of questionable legality, and to enter is to walk a gauntlet of police, who regularly stop people, conduct bag searches, and deny entry to many. Persons carrying backpacks containing food, a blanket, or extra clothing are generally excluded from the park, and thus most of the protesters who traveled from other states to participate in OWS – a majority of those who were camping in Zuccotti Park – are now shut out of the assemblies there.

It is also difficult and expensive to keep protesters housed and fed. Certain local churches have been generous about taking in occupiers, allowing them to bunk down on pews, but some of these churches are located far from downtown Manhattan, have early curfews that make it difficult for protesters to participate in evening meetings (most OWS meetings are held in the evening), and charge for their services. Last I heard, OWS was paying a total of $400 per night to two churches as a contribution toward utilities. It is also difficult for these protesters to get access to the large quantities of food that have been donated to OWS on their behalf. The OWS Kitchen used to provide regular meals in Zuccotti Park; now the kitchen is itinerant, and the food doesn’t always reach the occupiers most in need of it. These are just some of the day-to-day difficulties that Mayor Bloomberg no doubt hoped would eventually wear down the movement and lead to its death through attrition.

Meanwhile, though, Occupy Wall Street is still very much alive, both nationally and here in New York City, and it is still carrying out stunning, powerful actions (such as the Occupy Our Homes action to seize foreclosed homes back from banks that used unethical if not illegal business practices to render homeowners homeless). But the major media are conspiring to render the movement invisible, and so it is more crucial than ever for OWS to acquire a physical home base that members of the general public can visit. It should be either outdoors or in an easily accessible storefront location, ideally in Lower Manhattan, since this is the seat of economic power that is the central target of the movement’s efforts. The space can be rented, donated or occupied. But there needs to be a there there.

In the paddy wagon Dec. 17, 2011 @cbcb2000

This is why the three month anniversary was celebrated this past Saturday with a demonstration about the need for space held beside a location protesters were hoping for permission to use: a small vacant lot owned by Trinity Church beside Duarte Square, at the intersection of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. A number of local religious leaders spoke out asking Trinity Church to let OWS use this space; even Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a public letterto this effect. But Trinity has remained adamant in its refusal, and so the movement will no doubt have to look for other solutions. It might have been possible to occupy Duarte Square by sheer force of numbers, but not enough people showed up to make such an action feasible, and so the symbolic breaching of the fence by a number of protesters—including several religious leaders in full regalia—remained largely symbolic, and the police soon handcuffed these protesters and took them away.

Occupy Wall Street is a people’s movement, a new model for political representation. Mayor Bloomberg and the largest banks and corporations whose interests he represents are doing everything in their power to keep OWS tiny and silent. What can make OWS large and loud? That would be you, your neighbors, your family and friends. If you are reading this, please make sure that everyone you know understands that OWS is alive and well and continuing the struggle to help us get back to this thing we were supposed to have all along: A government by the people, for the people, and of the people. All are welcome. Please come. It is OWS’s goal to be as inclusive as possible. The more people join us, the more inclusive the movement will be. If OWS isn’t yet what you want it to be, come help shape it.

The best way to keep abreast of Occupy Wall Street activities is via the website www.occupywallst.org, which is kept up-to-date with announcements. Also check out www.nycga.net, which is used for internal communications within the movement but open to all. If you create a login there, you can sign up to follow the communications of any of the OWS working groups that interest you. The NYCGA site also features a useful calendar of upcoming meetings and events.


One thought on “Occupy Wall Street at the Crossroads

  1. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street at the Crossroads · phiffer.org

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