Okay, but here’s what you don’t understand about Occupy Wall Street. Whether the coverage you’ve encountered has skewed positive or negative, the Occupiers portrayed as unruly hippies or hard-working middle class Americans who can’t get their fair shake, their aims disparaged as vague and impracticable or dangerous and subversively anti-capitalist, there is a central aspect, an organizing principle, a unifying theme that hasn’t been explained to you, about which, unless you’ve witnessed it in person, you are probably unaware:
I say this with no intention to diminish the herculean successes of its organizers, the validity of the movement’s foundational grievances, or the very real, very physical danger in which protesters have been willing to place themselves for their cause. But come on: they’ve built a functioning, self-contained model city within a single city block in the middle of lower Manhattan. It boasts a large residential neighborhood, where dwellings fashioned of tarps and sleeping bags accommodate hundreds every night. It has a kitchen where thousands of meals are served each day, to post-doctoral candidates and homeless veterans alike. There’s a medical tent, staffed by off-duty nurses and occasional doctors, in which even the uninsured receive treatment (medicine is primarily holistic, but insulin shots are given and donation-funded prescriptions written). It has a preposterously well-stocked library of donated books, complete with reference librarians. Its press produces The Occupied Wall Street Journal, an old-school broadsheet, in English and Spanish. It has its own sanitation department, and a legal team, and an “entertainment guild” down in its arts district, where signs are made, drums danced to, and messages disseminated.
But what really earns Liberty Square (returned by protesters to its maiden name after a brief stint as Zuccotti Park) the status of citihood, what marks a discernible difference of place between the encampment and the other city within which it is nestled, is its unique set of customs, its distinct culture, its immediately apparent idiosyncrasies. You’ve likely heard of the “mic check,” developed in response to the hastily devised prohibition of amplified sound imposed upon the protest at its outset, in which the words of any person are repeated by everyone in her vicinity, so as to be audible to everyone in theirs. Born of necessity, the invention has had the auxiliary effect of democratizing the very notion of the microphone, traditionally a tool that allows a single person to be heard, and everyone else, merely to hear.
The value of this system presents itself regularly. A few nights ago, someone shouted “Mic check!” and, having received the customary reply of “MIC CHECK” from those nearby, announced that the NYPD had entered the plaza to remove the medical tent (which violates a prohibition on tents within Zuccotti Park). Protesters quickly locked arms and encircled the tent. As it turned out, they weren’t the only ones the message reached:
Out of nowhere, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson swooped in and briefly spoke face to face with the NYPD as officers continued to amass on Cedar Street. A demonstrator asked him to join the “human barricade” to which he immediately agreed. She took his hand and led him over to the tent, which he then proceeded to guard, locking arms with others who formed a circle around it. After a few tense minutes, the police dispersed and the crowd cheered.
“The people’s microphone,” as it is appropriately and winningly known, facilitates a continuous processions of teach-ins and meetings and guest-speakings (among them, Naomi Klein and Slavoj Zizek) and announcements throughout the day, not to mention the occasional marriage proposal or zany rant. Even if your neighbors dislike your words, they will repeat them, and in so doing, take them for a spin. It’s hard to feel that you haven’t been heard, or your words not given adequate consideration.
This principle, that people have the right not only to speak, but to be heard, is the bedrock of the encampment’s self-governance. Yes, it has not only its own governing body but its own system of governance, one much more closely resembling the ideal of a direct democracy than could be found in any other American city. Tasks are divided among dedicated “working groups” (“Media,” “Community Outreach,” “Sanitation,” “Arts and Culture,” “Direct Action,” etc.), which are open to all comers (although some, like the “Legal” and “Finance” groups, require training). Proposals that will effect the broader community, or require access to the encampment’s general funds, are brought before the General Assembly, a regular congregation of New York activists that has expanded into the protest’s daily open meeting. Decisions are made by an internationally-rooted resolution process referred to as “consensus” but which is in fact something more like a super-duper majority (clear enough to be discernible beyond a reasonable doubt by a show of waving fingers) that can be blocked by a dedicated dissenter.
At a meeting on Thursday, October 13th, the Sanitation Working Group requested the release of $3,000 from the General Assembly’s coffers for cleaning supplies to supplement donated mops and detergents, as well as to purchase flowers with which to replant some of the more distressed beds. Zuccotti Park is one of our city’s plague of privately owned “public spaces,” and its management company, Brookfield Properties, had been demanding the city employ the NYPD to clear the park so it could be properly cleaned. Bloomberg himself had visited the Occupation the day before, to assure protesters they would be allowed back into the park just as soon as it was up to code. But the city also planned to begin enforcing a raft of newly-drafted restrictions, including prohibitions on tents, tarps, sleeping bags, “lying down,” “personal property,” “coverings,” and other such vagaries, effectively ending the encampment while at the same time announcing it would be permitted to stay as long as it liked.
The Occupation wasn’t buying it. The same pretext, they noted, had been used to end the Bloombergville encampment outside City Hall over the summer. If they really cared about sanitation, it was argued, the city wouldn’t have denied organizers’ initial request to bring in portable toilets. Protesters concluded their universally distrusted “billionaire mayor” was trying to bring a quiet, indirect end to an immensely popular public protest without the P.R. disaster that an explicit eviction backed by a show of force would create. The “cleaning” was scheduled for 7AM Friday, by which time the park would need to be cleared.
But the 99% was not about to make things so easy. No one I spoke with doubted the NYPD’s ability to empty the plaza of peaceful protesters, but they were determined to make them do so before the watching eyes of the world, and to make themselves, and by extension, the movement they represented, as sympathetic as possible. To that end, they resolved to invalidate the city’s rationale by cleaning the park their damn selves. The United Federation of Teachers would check protesters’ rolled-up belongings into storage in their headquarters across the street while volunteers scoured the place, and requests for supplies had been answered with generous donations. But the plan would only work if they did it right, which would require professional equipment they still didn’t have. Hence the need for $3,000.
The initial response to this proposal was overwhelmingly positive, but despite warnings that time was short and a decision needed to be reached quickly, there were points of clarification and/or concern. What exactly would the money buy? (Power washers, a rented flatbed truck, detergents, and if possible, a professional cleaner or two to lend some expertise.) Could we be assured that only environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies would be used? (We could.) How much money did the G.A. have on hand? (Over $150,000, all from donations (a number which has since doubled.)) Could some of that money be used to hire a licensed health inspector to certify their work in a manner “the powers that be” would have to acknowledge? (good idea.)
A vote was taken and a sea of rolling fingers emerged. Consensus reached, the funds were released, and even as the meeting proceeded, areas were cleared and protesters began mopping, scrubbing, scouring, chiseling dried gum from the steps. The legal team got to work drafting a letter to Brookfield, explaining that park cleaning was being attended to in-house, and offering to open good-faith negotiations. The Direct Action group (by far the most formidable and least adorable) began the first of several nonviolent resistance training sessions in preparation for the imminent confrontation.
One expects this process to be impractically arduous; the criteria for approving a resolution are far more stringent than the supermajority rule that has ground the United States Senate to a halt, and the massive assemblies are conducted with the people’s mic, often in concentric ripples three or four echoes deep to convey speakers’ words to the outermost participants. But given the diversity (ideological, economic, demographic) of the Occupiers, the whole enterprise has thus far proven shockingly functional. Marches have been organized, park cleanings funded, a self-regulating “good neighbor” agreement negotiated with Community Board 1, a reorganization of the entire encampment undertaken (in preparation for Friday night’s “family sleepover“), and a nation’s media narratives drastically redirected, all in the time it’s taken the Senate not to vote on the American Jobs Act.
One morning, as the encampment was only beginning to stir, I sat with my sketchbook on the edge of its “Sacred Space,” a non-sectarian (but distinctly South Asian-flavored) area designated for meditation and reflection, comprising an eclectically-decorated tree/altar encircled by stone seating. The barefooted keeper of this makeshift cathedral was sweeping its environs when he stopped abruptly, staring at the ground beneath his broom with a puzzled expression. “Oh man,” he said quietly, “that guy took my shoes.”
An early-to-rise pilgrim, apparently aware of to whom “that guy” referred, pointed where the accused had last been seen retreating, and the friar padded off in that direction. A few minutes later, he returned, shoes in hand, feet still happily unshod. “He’s schizophrenic,” he reported sympathetically. “I just told him I really needed my shoes, and he gave them back.”
Occupy Wall Street is defined as much by the cultural institutions it opts not to recreate as those it cleverly reinvents. Because it has (as yet) no police or peacekeeping force or body empowered to enforce rules, disputes must be settled peer-to-peer. There is no anonymous filing of complaints, and no entity to serve as proxy between warring neighbors. There is no judiciary to enforce the standards of the community.
Which is not to suggest the community lacks standards, or the will to enforce them. When a familiar neighborhood troll co-opted the protest’s growing media attention to promote his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, no one was happy. But by design, no one had the authority to revoke his permit, or concoct some cooky pretext like the urgent need to powerwash the slab of marble he was occupying. So protesters dashed to the arts pavilion and emerged with a counter-strategy, hoping to ensure his message could not be photographed or even seen without the community’s disapproval appended.
And yet this hierarchy-eschewing “horizontalism” is not without its limitations. At a meeting of the General Assembly almost two weeks ago, the outreach team proposed the good neighbor policy it had negotiated with the local community board. The occupation, a facilitator preambled, has no intention to antagonize the surrounding community; in fact, it aims to represent them as members of the 99%. And yet it had to be acknowledged that the community had been antagonized, on a daily basis, by the endless drumming of the drummers, “even though we fucking love those guys!” (“EVEN THOUGH WE FUCKING LOVE THOSE GUYS,” the assembled echoed in three cascading waves.) Thanks to the massive ongoing construction at the site of the once and future World Trade Center, local residents had been living with “a level of noise that is dehumanizing.” The neighborhood, it was asserted, was overwhelmingly supportive of the occupation (“They fucking love us”), but really, really hated all the drumming. And so community relations proposed to curtail drumming fairly drastically:
OWS will limit drumming on the site to 2 hours per day, between the hours of 11am and 5pm only.
The Assembly’s “temperature” was generally positive, but one participant raised a concerned “point of clarification”: how, she asked, did the community plan to enforce the restrictions on drumming? “We’re not the police (WE’RE NOT THE POLICE)”, the facilitator explained, “and we don’t want to be like the police.” Glancing back at the line of officers arrayed before One Liberty Plaza, he quickly added “in that way (AND WE DON’T WANT TO BE LIKE THE POLICE IN THAT WAY). So all we can do is approach them in good faith (SO ALL WE CAN DO IS APPROACH THEM IN GOOD FAITH), explain the situation (EXPLAIN THE SITUATION), and ask them for some fucking solidarity, man (AND ASK THEM FOR SOME FUCKING SOLIDARITY MAN).”
It is a disconcertingly beautiful and inspiring way to approach one’s problems. It also happens, in this particular instance, not to have been terribly effective. The drumming, while reduced, continues to exceed durations the neighbors find acceptable. It remains the primary point of contention between the Occupation and its neighbors, a conflict that came to a head at last week’s community board meeting. With community support rapidly eroding, the Mayor looking for a P.R.-positive excuse to end the Occupation, and another Community Board Meeting looming tonight, internal differences over drumming threaten to unravel the entire protest. Yet Occupy Wall Street has no apparatus to enforce behaviors.
Neither does it have many means to entice them. In addition to money, the sanitation working group came before the General Assembly to request manpower. “We’ve said from day one,” a representative proclaimed, “that everyone should be involved in Sanitation. Thanks to Brookfield Properties,” the aforementioned management company demanding eviction, “we’ve gotten our wish.”
Because no one is keeping track of Occupiers’ contributions, and everyone there benefits equally from the available services (like sanitation, food, space, educational events, etc.), and there is no market to add monetary value to unpleasant jobs, some remain undesirable. Who would opt to collect trash when he could be cataloging new donations at The People’s Library, or planning marches, or, you know, sitting around with friends, and a guitar, and a cigarette?
Some people, as it turns out. After all, there is a Sanitation Working Group. And if it’s not as large as its members would like, requests for solidarity are surprisingly effective in this community; volunteers for the cleaning operation presented themselves en masse, and there was not an extraneous mop or unused broom to be found.
Consider also the “Comfort Station,” a society-without-currency’s answer to the general store, where donated sleeping bags and flannel outerwear and assorted toiletries are available, free of charge, to whomever needs them. Much to the amazement of my cynical heart, it’s always well-stocked. Residents actually take what they need, and a steady stream of care packages from around the country more than accommodates demand.
What’s more, the station stays manned. There is always a shopkeeper on hand to refill the shelves and advise you which plaid pattern best accentuates your eyes. There is always a self-appointed custodian roaming the plaza, picking up trash. There are always sandwiches being assembled and distributed. There is always music being performed (by constantly permuting outfits of musicians). Political actions are being planned, workshops conducted, water filtered. And people attend to these tasks simply to strengthen a community they are excited to have found.
Despite critics’ callous contention that the protesters ought to “get a job”, there is no end of work being done here. Jobs are in progress everywhere you look. And if no one is being compensated for her labor, neither is anyone going hungry, or in want of a place to stay.
If the efforts of ACT NOW and the hundreds of operations like ours, pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, turning out voters, and pressuring representatives is democracy at work, Occupy Wall Street is democracy at play. It is a chemistry set, an apparatus for experimentation, with which alternatives to a broken system are devised, tested, and refined. It is a summer camp, where we go to learn to be our own authority. It is a flower bed, where the seeds of things as yet unseen are planted and nurtured. Like kittens chasing each others’ tails, like children playing house in the house’s basement, the Occupiers’ preoccupations are preparatory. The Occupation imagines a world with fairer, simpler, better rules, where more people are represented, more voices heard, and more needs met, and manifests those imaginings so vividly that the Mayor, the Press, the President are forced to take notice. It is the realized dream of anyone who’s ever founded a kingdom in a sandbox, the kind of make believe that makes believers.
But play is not only for kids, and the Occupiers are totally not kidding. There is no hint of irony when they call Liberty Square their “home.” When they insist, in defiance of Brookfield’s regulations, that “this is an occupation, not a permitted picnic!” they do so with no awareness of the absurdity of claiming to have occupied a public park (after being forbidden from the one they really wanted to occupy).
But then, neither does the city nor its real estate partners acknowledge the absurdity of public spaces with private owners who set arbitrary private rules that they demand the public enforce against themselves. As I turned my camera toward the the exhausted, frightened police officers that portentously encircled us before dawn Friday morning, for whose overtime my tax dollars will pay, no one, not the commissioner nor the Mayor nor his girlfriend on Brookfield’s board, was smiling knowingly into the lens. Against these odds, self-awareness and humility are no defense. What but the unmitigated sincerity of dreamers hard at play can withstand such straight-faced cynicism?
The 99% may settle on a set of demands (but probably not). They may adopt a less direct form of representation to accommodate their growing numbers. They may finally be evicted tomorrow or tomorrow’s tomorrow; they may migrate elsewhere or move on to other tactics.
As the Occupation’s primary website puts it:
We are our demands. #OWS is conversation, organization, and action focused on ending the tyranny of the 1%. On Saturday we marched in solidarity against corrupt banking systems, against war, and against foreclosure. We discussed how to break up the “too big to fail” financial companies and end excessive wall street executive bonuses, we were arrested while trying to remove our money from the grasp of these dangerous institutions, we occupied the boardrooms of the 1% so they wouldn’t feel so sad and alone, we occupied foreclosure court rooms where they use a broken system to legally steal the homes of the 99%, rallied in front of military recruitment centers demanding an end to US wars, and tens of thousands of us marched into the times square, the neon heart of consumerism, demanding economic justice.
In other words, the play’s the thing. You are watching a movement in its precocious adolescence, an organizational wunderkind already out-performing the pillars of its day. To date they’ve caught the consciences of would-be kings and C.E.O.’s and media executives and press secretaries. What it will grow to accomplish when playtime is over, we can only wait and see.
- All images (except where noted) are mine, and may be used freely for non-commercial purposes under this creative commons license. More CC photos from my visits to OWS can be found on the BoyKenan flickr page.
- While the General Assembly keeps detailed minutes, the meetings described herein were called at special times under emergency circumstances, and seem not to have been documented. I’ve recreated them as faithfully as possible from my notes and memory, and believe them to be accurately presented. However, I can not guarantee the veracity of every word, and dialogue should be considered paraphrased.