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In Zuccotti Park

John Minchillo/AP Images
The computer center for the Occupy Wall Street protests, Zuccotti Park, October 2, 2011

It was impossible, of course, not to be swept up in the explosive rapidity of events. And there was little time to adjust to them. By the weekend of October 8, the tenor of the press coverage of the protest had become noticeably more respectful. And the protesters themselves, living for weeks in an inhospitable city park and withstanding police abuse in the name of ending corporate excess, had taken on to some of the public an aura of heroic innocence.

Seeing me take notes, a tall, elegant, rather knowing man who looked to be in his late forties approached me. He surprised me by introducing himself with his full name—Bill Dobbs. (His e-mail address was “duchamp,” a clue to his mindset.) He told me he had been an AIDS activist in the late 1980s, and for Occupy Wall Street he was involved in “outreach to the press.” When I asked him to characterize the protest, he answered, “It’s an outcry, pure and simple, an outcry that has cut through miles of cynicism.” He knew, he said, that in the absence of identifiable leaders, I could talk to anyone in the movement and that they, in turn, could represent themselves in any way they wished without accountability. This worried him, but only slightly. It was one of the drawbacks of direct democracy, which, “as you can see for yourself works beautifully here on the whole.” I mentioned Proposition 8 in California, an instance of direct democracy that overturned a state supreme court ruling that had legalized same sex marriage.

Bill nodded bleakly. He seemed unexcited about the union support. For years the unions had been organizing demonstrations that both the news media and the government yawningly ignored. The unions stood to benefit from the publicity at least as much as Occupy Wall Street. That this might in some way help the hospital workers, for example, did not seem something he had considered.

He seemed particularly scornful of the Democratic Party, elements of which were currently courting the movement. Paraphrasing Gore Vidal, he said, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party, and it has two right wings, Republicans and Democrats.” How, with this view, he expected to get people into positions of power he did not say. He insisted that the only way to run an honest movement was to staff it strictly with volunteers. “As soon as you have not-for-profit organizations their main concern becomes how to keep themselves going. For us, it’s different. No grants, no donors, no worries.”

At 7:30 PM, near the People’s Library, the General Assembly convened. There were about five hundred of us and, as far as I could tell, we were all members for as long as we hung around. From their perch atop the wall on the northeast section of the park, two young women moderated the meeting. “Mike check!” one of the women cried, and with a unison roar the crowd repeated her words. This was “the people’s mike,” used in lieu of bullhorns, megaphones, or other amplification devices that were prohibited because the protesters had no permit. When the crowd has to repeat every word, it shows; for example, during a speech by the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, things slowed down. But in the large crowd the repetition created a kind of euphoria of camaraderie. It also put you in the oddly disturbing position at times of shouting at full voice something you neither agreed with nor would ever have thought on your own.

On the agenda was the march to Foley Square the next day, but first the moderators wanted to know “if there are any concerns about our process.” For newcomers, the process was patiently explained, each phrase shouted back at the speaker as if to cheer her on. Anyone can submit a proposal to the General Assembly. To pass it must have 90 percent support judged by a show of hands, at which point it may be published online or in The Occupied Wall Street Journal. We were coached in the hand gestures that are the silent coded language of the protest. If you raised your hands over your head and wiggled your fingers like a partygoer in a group dance, it meant you agreed with what had just been said. Other gestures conveyed ambivalence, disagreement, and finally the blocking signal—a severe locking of forearms that, we were instructed, should be used only if you had “serious ethical concerns” with what was being proposed.

Speakers came and went, the unsynchronized human microphones throwing back the words in garbled waves. Everyone could feel he had spoken, even if all he had said was what was on another person’s mind. There was no possiblility for inflection; everything came in one volume and tone. Stuart Applebaum, head of the retail workers union, expressed his support with the air of a man paying tribute to an ally he was not sure he trusted or understood. His statement was brief and he rushed out of the park. To a grand wiggling of upward-held fingers, it was announced that “one hundred transit workers are now refusing to transport arrested protesters.” A woman recited the preamble to the Declaration of Independence until the assembly, in a collective groan in the form of the gesture for “wrap it up,” urged her to step down. A young man asked if acts of civil disobedience were planned for tomorrow’s march and was met with a hard silence. After a pause, a woman with a red bandana hiding her face said, “We are too smart to take the bait and answer this. Don’t give the NYPD what they want.”

Sitting next to me was an intense, exhausted man from Ohio who had been living in the park for eleven days. In a muted voice, he told me of the proposal he intended to present at a future General Assembly meeting. He hoped it would be added to the Declaration of Occupation, the closest thing to an official document the movement has published thus far. “I call it the Declaration of No Party. It’s meant to chase away speculators and opportunists who come down here and try to co-opt our movement.” He opened a spiral notebook and read:

We are not Left, we are not Right. We are the 99%. We are leaderless. Just stay away. We are here to end corporate influence in government. We don’t want to be like the Tea Party which was started by Ron Paul and co-opted by the Republican theocratic Right.

At Foley Square the next day, the unions delivered what they had promised: a large-scale demonstration denouncing corporate malfeasance. We were corralled into the square and gazed out at the police walking along the wide empty street, as if we were watching them on a stage. After a short conversation, a man handed me a sign: “Minor Literary Celebrities for Economic Equality.” A woman complained that there had been no leaflets advertising the march in her neighborhood on the Upper West Side. “Where’s the outreach, for crying out loud.” She obviously wasn’t on the contact list of Anonymous’s online flash mob. In any event, she was concerned that the march would hurt Obama—making her precisely the kind of Democrat some of the Wall Street protesters regarded as obsolete, fretting over the prospects of a President who, they believed, had sold them out but who, as it happened, said of their movement, “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel.” I ducked into a bar with a group of Verizon workers who had nothing but good things to say about “those terrific kids in the park.”

At dusk on October 5, people were pouring into Zuccotti Park, drums pounding. The protest had reached its apotheosis. A girl sat on a sleeping bag feeding trail mix to a squirrel with a rope tied around its neck. A Billy Graham impersonator mock-preached into a megaphone, apparently unaware of the no-amplification rule. Two men held up a sheet projecting the movement’s Facebook page where the number of messages of support ticked higher by the second: 24,842 and rising. Cameras were everywhere—recording, broadcasting, feeding—and the people at the computer hub were hard at work, streaming it all live. The movement was a digitized global brain, a strange melding of the virtual and the actual, one a mirror of the other, both unspooling simultaneously in real time. The filmmaker Michael Moore arrived (it was the third time I had seen him in the park in two days), standing near the di Suvero sculpture, his voice drowned by the echo of the people’s mike, his face lit up in what seemed to be a state of ecstasy. “This movement has come together. Not because of a douche bag organization, but because the people wanted it. Let’s keep it like this. Do not let the politicians co-opt you!”

Protesters compared notes on the New York jails they had been in, sharing the latest rumors about Anthony Bologna, the deputy inspector who pepper sprayed three girls during a march on September 24, launching the movement’s rise. News that Steve Jobs had died circulated. He was the rare one-percenter whose demise provoked a moment of sadness in the park, no matter that Apple had recently surpassed Exxon as the American company with the highest market value.

A handful of protesters scuttled out of the park and headed toward the Stock Exchange on Wall Street. By 8:30 PM, hundreds of police had arrived, setting gray metal barricades along the Broadway entrance to the park, squeezing the crowd back inside. Several protesters slipped out and were immediately handcuffed and hauled into waiting wagons. The protesters inside the park pressed against the metal gates, some wanting to dare the police and charge out toward the Stock Exchange, that mythic fortress two blocks away in the dark. In a panicked voice, a woman attempted to find a consensus, using the General Assembly procedure, opening debate on whether they should cross the line. “We can’t let ourselves turn into a mob!” she shouted.

The face-off ended mildly, with twenty-three arrests; an hour later the park had thinned out and most of the police had dispersed. Remarkably, the mums had not been trampled. There was no graffiti anywhere, only handmade signs. In my time in the park, I didn’t see any drugs or alcohol, except for a man discreetly drinking beer from a plastic gallon milk jug.

It’s impossible to predict what will happen to the movement. It seems a delicate, almost ethereal process, designed for small groups, though new General Assemblies are constantly being established—as of October 9, protests had spread to 150 cities. Protestors are continually coming up with new ways to get their anticorporate message across: on October 9, a group of clergymen paraded through Zuccotti Park with a giant papier-mâché effigy of the biblical golden calf, modified to resemble the famous statue of the charging Wall Street bull. Until now, the movement has seemed protected by public opinion. The police have been reluctant to crack down on a group that, incongruously, has won expressions of sympathy, with suitable cautiousness, from President Obama, Ben Bernanke, Nancy Pelosi, and Vice President Biden. Still, in response to Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement on October 12 that the occupants would have to temporarily leave the park for it to be cleaned, confrontation was likely as this article went to press.

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