As it reaches the end of its second month, the Occupy Wall Street protest appears to be at a critical juncture. Both the weather and the living conditions at Zuccotti Park have grown harsher. On October 29, the occupiers endured their first snowstorm. There was much anxiety—heating generators had been deemed a fire hazard and confiscated by the fire department the day before—and the park had the look of an arctic encampment. (Protesters eventually adapted to the loss by employing stationary bicycles to charge batteries that could then be used to power heaters, kitchen appliances, and computer equipment.) The nightly General Assembly, usually a sprawling affair, had no more than forty shivering participants shouting into the freezing rain. A bedraggled man who had arrived that day from Hawaii announced his candidacy for president and asked for the movement’s blessing.
Then a member of the “arts and culture work group” proposed the staging of a Halloween funeral “with caskets for all the things we cherish: civil rights, equal opportunity, affordable health care….” The packed media tent, like an army officers’ barracks, was closed to protesters who didn’t work there, and the rudimentary “comfort center,” also a tent, was a reminder of comforts that couldn’t be had. Two men who obviously had nothing to do with the occupation aggressively shook me down for a “contribution.”
The weather wasn’t the only challenge. An organizer involved in protecting the safety of the space told me that police were directing to the park (and in some cases escorting) released prisoners from Rikers Island who had no place to go. Not surprisingly, the encampment had become a popular destination for the homeless and mentally ill—the roving men and women who are a permanent feature of New York street life. One homeless man, digging into a plate of steamed vegetables and macaroni and cheese, remarked that the food was better than at the soup kitchens and “the people are nicer.”
Rather than recoil from these new campers, the protesters did everything they could to include them in their tiny, model society. Katie Davison, a filmmaker in her early thirties who had been active in the occupation since its inception, told me that she had expected people from the bottom of society eventually to find their way to Zuccotti Park, even without the encouragement of authorities seeking to disrupt the protest. She and others had arranged for drug counselors and social workers to offer their services on site. “We decided we wouldn’t marginalize these people like the rest of society does. I guess, we’ve created our own welfare state, and I mean that in the best sense of the term.”
It was part of the movement’s overall effort to show the world a better, more humanitarian form of democracy, and to do so on…
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