Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Occupy Wall Street Divided But Not Conquered
Liberty Plaza—Immediately after the #OccupyWallStreet encampment was forcibly removed by the NYPD in a pre-dawn sweep, the ground lights were flipped back on. The now barricaded plaza has shimmered like an ice rink every night since, with Brookfield Properties’ private security guards in yellow vests manning the two entranceways and patrolling inside. Once in a while someone haggard-looking will risk putting their head down on one of the benches only to be jolted by one of the many security guards saying, “You’re not allowed to lay down here.”
While a handful of hardcore activists sit up in the park through the night, Brookfield’s new prohibitions—enforced jointly by the private security and NYPD— against “tents,” “tarps” and “storage” have effectively stymied re-occupation of the public space, but also eliminated the developing albatross that maintenance of such a camp represented. Without its 24/7 physical anchor the movement has lost exposure, but on the other hand protestors have proved themselves nimble. These circumstances naturally raise questions as to whether OWS protesters can rally and re-establish momentum or if the movement has already reached an end phase and can now only choose whether to burn out or fade away.
Far from giving up, many former occupiers promise they are not going away. Charlie Meyers, a 20-year-old who dropped out of college in his home state of Arkansas to be a part of the movement and spent 40 hours in central booking after being arrested during the sweep estimates that there are “between 500-1,000” OWS folks hunkered down locally waiting for “the next occupation.”
They’re revolving through churches, the New School “Occupation”—where Meyers’ is bed down—and the United Federation of Teachers building at 62 Broadway, which serves as OWS main storage facility. They’ve got their eye on permanently taking Duarte Plaza, a space on 6th Avenue and Canal owned by Trinity Church. But if that plan falls through, one thing is for certain. According to Meyers: “all these people have gotten a taste of a progressive utopian vibe and they’re not going home.”
Meyers himself can’t even go home if he wants to because his lawyer has advised him not to leave the state until the trespassing and obstruction charges he racked up the night of the sweep are dealt with. “I was thinking of going home to start the next semester but now I’m staying to August,” says Meyers. But money is tight and an occupation is the only way that the movement can attract the necessary donations to survive, because it “shows transparency.” He adds: “Without that we’re just like Greenpeace begging for money on corners.”
No one’s connection to the former camp was stronger than that of Gary Williams, an 18-year-old former foster kid who sports cornrows and hails from Queens “by way of Virginia.” Williams—a member of the long silenced drum-circle who still carries his drums on his back—had nowhere else to live but the OWS settlement for two months. That’s where he ate his meals. That’s where his friends lived. On the morning of the sweep he was handcuffed by the cops, then let go. Since then he’s been sleeping at a “church on West Fourth Street,” but as of Sunday night he said that’s no longer an option: “I don’t know where I’m going tonight.” Asked what he misses the most, he put forth a flurry of examples that the jury-rigged community represented a “time of sharing.” Asked if he’s optimistic as to whether OWS will survive, he gives it some thought and replied, “It definitely has slowed down, but maybe it’ll come back. But not as big.” Looking at the ground for a moment, he added, “If they let something like that fail it will be a shame.”
Despite the relative quiet, the plaza is still the hub of the OWS movement, if only because it is here that the General Assembly—the movement’s highly democratic main governing body—meets nightly to show business as usual. At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, the scene was a miniature version of the plaza in the freewheeling incarnation that led up to the eviction when it was estimated that between some 250 to 800 activists and hangers-on were sleeping here.
Gary Phenof—a bear-sized, fifty-something, self-described “Chinese-styled Communist” and Liberty Plaza staple since the occupation’s earliest days—railed from the street side of the barricades. To a fellow protester who attempted to tell him how he could get his Chinese flag into the park under the new rules, Phenof seethed, “You’re a fucking police collaborator and I’m going to expose you!”
Meanwhile 50-some protesters attempted to ratify a mission statement affirming OWS’ collective interest in abolishing “unchecked corporate power and unjust government,” in the interest of a “truly free democratic and just society.” It would seem like a shoe-in for a progressive group to sign off on a pro-democratic, anti-corporate governance statement that one activist calls “uncontroversial,” but it quickly got bogged down under the group’s critique. Some complained that the statement was too “flowery,” while others noted it omitted any mention of “institutional racism” and a few doubters even wonder whether it was keeping in the spirit of “true democracy” to have a mission statement at all.
After an hour or so of further discussion, points of procedure, friendly amendments and threatened blocks, the facilitator, Jarod Shelton, announced that further discussion of the proposal would probably have to be shelved until the following day because the group couldn’t reach the necessary consensus. “The process can be tedious but it’s worth it in the end,” he announced evenly.
Shelton’s statement to the crowd was just the latest reminder that with more than two months under its belt—months that have included several large-scale “days of action,” hundreds of arrests and the dizzying late night eviction—the OWS movement has yet to set out even the thinnest sketch of its collective ideals, never mind undertaking the more difficult task of outlining a set of political demands to take to the powerbrokers, who have loudly raised doubts over whether OWS is a force to be politically reckoned with. But for the moment, at least, it seemed that the slow wheels of pure, unfettered democracy had come to a screeching halt.
Riffing on the theme that Sheldon had touched upon while speaking to the group, Michael Gottsign, a 50-year-old protester who lives in Manhattan, remained positive. He said that the “slow” consensus-seeking process is necessary for the movement to gel around any ideas that stand the test of time. “If everyone doesn’t agree,” he said, referencing the consensus, “then they’ll be a split, which is antithetical to the movement.” Whether or not such a disparate group of voices (the original OWS contingent included liberals, socialists and anarchists) ever coalesced on anything, there are signs that despite the obvious idealism of Gottsign and others like him, the movement is already split.
The most visible split is between those affiliated with the movement who recall the encampment fondly and a more media-savvy contingent who saw it as a potentially ugly impediment to OWS’ progress and are happy it’s now gone. The latter group felt that the camp had become so disorganized as to render it politically impotent and the crackdown was the only thing to tame it short of an Oakland style tragedy. Going forward, the movement would have to rely less on a physical anchor and more on the grass roots appeal of its anti-Wall Street message and marches. Summing up this strain of thinking, liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias blogged on November 15: “getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park is probably good for Occupy Wall Street.”
On the day after the crackdown, Brendan, a sometime-facilitator with a shaved head and a ramrod-straight posture, said he was glad the NYPD had taken over even though he had lived there at times. “The tents were becoming a liability,” he said, careful not to make too much about the clear-cut problems the encampment had with crime, “and we were worrying about not getting through winter.” That same day, performance artist/activist Reverend Billy, resplendent in his usual white suit and black-upside down collar, said he was “more optimistic about [OWS] than ever.”
But in the ensuing days—especially on November 17 when at least 10,000 and likely many more rallied in Lower Manhattan—few in OWS could go on denying that the 800-strong encampment of daily bodies gave the movement a share of the public’s attention that it will have a difficult time otherwise filling. But for those sympathetic with the movement, the complaints against the encampment suddenly ceasing to exist are more heartfelt. After standing and listening to the mission statement discussion for a few minutes, a twenty-something man with longish brown hair and a “99%” shirt walked away disappointed. “Fucking bullshit GA,” he said, and wandered over to the empty side of the park.
There was some evidence on the Sunday before Thanksgiving that perhaps OWS is moving a degree or two away from the form of democracy that currently decides its fate while trying to remain true to its collective vision. In response to a question by a protester who worried about “not getting his voice heard,” one of the General Assembly’s facilitators replied that since the crackdown, the importance of “working groups” (such as the one that drafted the as yet un-agreed upon mission statement) and the “spokes council,” which meet at 60 Wall St. have grown in importance. Though there was an implication that this would mean the GA was losing some power within the movement. This would make sense: If the GA is seen as a natural extension of Liberty Plaza, its own future in the center of the movement is now in serious doubt. If the optimism of Charlie Meyers and his new friends is anything to go on though, New York hasn’t seen its last occupation.
Meyers says bluntly, “park people aren’t GA people.” But he adds that he appreciates that the GA is filled with “reasonable people” who have “four hours everyday to talk about stuff,” and the two groups should theoretically compliment each other. Meyers gives the GA credit for making decisions to allocate $3,000 for “Halloween costumes,” and even $80,000 to send a group of OWS “observers” to the Egyptian elections. “I would have never voted for those proposals,” he says, but it turned out the media attention generated by these projects attracted media attention that brought in an influx of donations far exceeding those amounts.
More poignantly, a 30-year-old woman in a black beret began to quietly cry after a few minutes listening to the speakers. Asked what’s wrong, the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she’s checking out the park for the first time after the sweep. She sobbed softly, “These people talking are all that’s left of everything?”
“Everything,” of course, referring to the tents and signage and general utopian vibe that the camp gave off in its finer moments—as when an unnamed woman living in one of the tents offered a white rose and “two empty spaces” to two men in suits who had claimed to have just been fired from Goldman Sachs 20 minutes before the eviction. Then, referencing the sweep, the woman, in a black beret, added, “That’s all it takes to make people go away?” That, perhaps, and 200-some arrests in the following two days would at least put a damper on the movement. For now.
A version of this story appeared in the November 24, 2011 issue of the newspaper Our Town Downtown but since they don’t have a website or something we made it better and posted it here Turns out they do have a website but it’s incredibly difficult to find, probably since they still think people want to read their stories on paper.
The video of #OccupyWallStreet below was made by Nicole Brydson, pulling video, photos and live impromptu band audio from Liberty Plaza and nearby demonstrations.