Roving thoughts and provocations

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Occupy Wall Street Turns a Corner

AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in Zuccotti Park after marching around Wall Street in New York, November 17, 2011

At around 1 AM Tuesday morning, police arrived to evict the occupiers from Zuccotti Park. It was a surprise attack, planned with impressive secrecy, and launched from Peck Slip, a relatively desolate stretch of the city, under the FDR Drive between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. For more than a week, hundreds of blue-shirted police officers—the force’s proletariat rank and file—had been receiving training in crowd control. Monday night, they were told to report to lower Manhattan with “hats and bats”—riot helmets and batons—without being informed why. The action was so unexpected that, after lamps from dozens of Emergency Service Unit trucks flooded the encampment with light and officers swarmed into the park dragging occupants out of their tents, members of the protesters “self-defense team” didn’t have time to chain themselves to the locust trees, as planned. Commissioner Raymond Kelly was photographed in a dark business suit and pink tie, watching the proceedings from the edge of the park like a solitary commander.

For weeks Kelly had been meeting on a daily basis with Mayor Bloomberg as part of the mayor’s unofficial protest task force, which also included the fire commissioner, Salvatore J. Cassano; two deputy mayors, Howard Wolfson and Caswell F. Holloway; and the head of the city’s Law Department, Michael Cardozo. The occupation seemed to be dictating life at City Hall. According to The New York Times, many evenings, Bloomberg would call Wolfson or Holloway for an update before going to sleep.

Off-site protesters, alerted of the raid via Twitter and text messages, were unable to get within two blocks of Zuccotti Park, and found themselves floundering around Foley Square to the north of the park, scattered and cut off. Most of the subway stations near the park were shut down. Reporters were pushed away from the area—eight were arrested—which partly explains the dearth of objective eyewitness accounts of the action. Kenan Rubenstein, a blogger for the political group ACT Now, writes that doormen in the area were instructed to keep residents from leaving their buildings. “I just spoke with the CBS News desk and they were told to leave the airspace above Zuccotti Park by NYPD,” Anthony DeRosa of Reuters tweeted.

Various protesters told me of the use of pepper spray and freewheeling beatings with batons. Retired Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Karen Smith, acting as a legal observer at the park, told the Daily News of “a black woman standing next to me…frantically telling the cops her daughter was in the park and she wanted to make sure the girl was okay. All of a sudden, a cop takes his baton and cracks her in the head. She hadn’t done a thing. Then they started chasing people down the street.”

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who tried to get to the park after the raid had started, was arrested with blood flowing from a gash in his forehead. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and by Tuesday night he had yet to be arraigned or permitted to see his lawyer. And so the tenor of the eviction could be pieced together.

At 6:30 AM Tuesday morning—just hours after the police removed the last protesters from the park—lawyers for Occupy Wall Street had managed to wake up Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings, a former ACLU lawyer, who signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from “preventing protesters from re-entering the park with tents and other property previously utilized” until the city could show cause for the eviction. The case would be argued later in the day, in front of another judge, Michael Stallman, who had been chosen randomly by computer. In the meantime, despite Judge Billings’s order, police kept the park barricaded and closed.

More than two hundred had been arrested during the raid. The rest of the occupiers crashed in friends’ apartments or at Judson Church near Washington Park, a traditionally progressive institution whose minister, Michael Ellick, had become an active supporter of the movement.

In fact, organizers had been in talks with some of New York’s religious leaders for at least two weeks, negotiating support for the movement around the city. On Tuesday, coincidentally, they had been planning “a move” as one organizer put it to me. “The clergy would give us [an alternative] space to de-concentrate Zuccotti, to lessen the need for Zuccotti, to diminish its importance.”

According to Ellick, 1,400 “faith-based leaders in and around New York” were throwing their support behind Occupy Wall Street. When I asked him what defined a “leader,” he answered, “anyone with a constituency.” But what did support mean? For Ellick and John Merz, an Episcopal priest at Ascension Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it meant opening church kitchens and giving protesters a place to shower and sleep “even though we’re not a shelter.” It would involve public support as well, talking to the press and urging parishioners to join the protesters in their various anti-corporate actions.

The organizer I spoke to was keen on the alliance, not only for the material support it offered, but also, and mainly, because it confirmed the movement’s ethical position. Ellick, Merz, and other like-minded clergymen would reinforce Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent tenor. “If a more violent contingent splinters off during a demonstration and things turn nasty, it would be only a small part of the story. We wouldn’t be tarred for the actions of a few.”

Trinity Church, the historic Episcopal church located a block south of Zuccotti Park, had been cautious in its support of the occupation, allowing protesters to hold meetings on its steps and, on occasion, use its bathrooms. Trinity is one of the largest landowners in the city, and its main business is the management of its properties, among which is a large open space on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. The space abuts Duarte Square, a half-acre city park. Organizers had been in negotiation with the church to expand their encampment to the Canal Street space. Despite pressure from more radical Episcopal priests from other parishes in New York, Trinity ultimately decided to forbid access to its land. One priest I spoke with who preferred not to be identified, was indignant at Trinity’s decision—“Its meekness,” he called it, “its fear of antagonizing authorities who are responsible for upholding so many of its privileges. Let’s face it,” he added, “they’re more a corporation than a place of faith. They have fewer parishioners than I do.” He said that meetings at Trinity had been heated. “This is a basic challenge to our values. If we don’t support Occupy Wall Street, what do we stand for?”

By 9 AM Tuesday morning, protesters had gathered at Duarte Square. Trinity’s property was fenced off, and padlocked. Two young men cut the locks and protesters streamed in. Soon they were met by police in riot gear who surrounded the area. After withstanding a couple of dozen arrests, about a thousand protesters began marching south on Broadway, back to Zuccotti Park.

Ellick stayed on at Canal Street, talking to a small cluster of people that had gathered around him. He had put two fallen maple leaves in one of the button holes of his pea coat which seemed to encapsulate his demeanor: committed, exhausted, and modestly adorned. “Occupy Wall Street has re-radicalized us,” he said. “We’ve become protest chaplains again. If we’re going to shape the movement, we have to join its horizontality. This is not a 20th century movement. There are not a lot of rules.” Like the protesters, he seeks to “move beyond traditional words and concepts” towards “a new Christian vocabulary for a post-Christian world.” He refers to the Gospel as the “macabre, science fiction Enlightenment.” According to the Judson Church website, “he currently lives in Greenwich Village, where in his off time he contemplates time travel, the prophetic interactive mythology of comic books and zombie films, and churches as potential American Mystery Schools for the 21st Century.”

On Tuesday’s march from Canal Street down to Zuccotti Square, some protesters appealed to the police as fellow members of the 99 percent, while others cursed them as mercenaries employed by a criminal army. “We know that you are on our side,” said a young woman to a line of stone-faced officers, who seemed as exhausted as she was. She told me that she was a senior at NYU, majoring in “cultural diplomacy. If people can express themselves with their voices, they won’t become violent with their bodies,” she explained. Nearby, a man with a bandanna around his head was urging protesters to “kick over the barricades” when they reached the park. “We have a right to be in Zuccotti. Are you read to stand them down?” (Late Thursday morning, after a tense demonstration near the stock Exchange, protesters did pull aside the barricades, fed up with the way police were controlling access to the park.)

Despite the rising level of frustration, however, the protesters remained peaceful. Many clutched a copy of judge Billing’s temporary restraining order, showing that people in positions of established power were behind them. Perhaps the order could be brandished as a kind of passport for reentry into the park. “This is a peaceful country!” they chanted as they moved down Broadway, scuffling with police almost as if it were a game. And then, “The whole world is watching!”—a warning to police that their every moved was being recorded.

Reaching the park, they found themselves bottlenecked on the perimeter. The chrysanthemums had lost their flowers, the leaves of the locust trees had turned golden, and the naked, power-washed park was held by police and private security guards from Brookfield Properties, the company that owns the park. The security guards wore green neon vests. Straining at the barricade, protesters peered in at them as if they were offensive objects in a museum. It was the opposite picture of the last two months, when occupiers filled the park and the police watched from the outside.

A group of students launched into a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, to the disgust of an older protester who shouted, “Those bombs bursting in midair created this beast. The Star Spangled Banner is not our song. We will create a new song, a new anthem.” As if to clinch the argument, he added, “Wall Street was built by the Dutch to keep the Native Americans out!” Here, microscopically, were the two sides of Occupy Wall Street: those who believed they were reclaiming an American value that had been lost, and those who believed that there was nothing to reclaim, that an acceptable history did not exist and would have to be created from scratch after a revolution.

The wait for the decision from Judge Stallman wore on. A man impersonating Billy Graham, a popular figure in the movement with his thick platinum hair, clerical collar, and white jacket and boots, advised the crowd to exercise “radical patience.” At around 5pm tweets and text messages came in with the result of Judge Stallman’s ruling: the park would be reopened, but no sleeping bags, tents, or lying down would be allowed. Cleverly, the city defused the anger, almost immediately reopening the park, giving many protesters the illusion of victory and reoccupation. Thousands thronged inside the barricades, conducting the largest General Assembly I had seen since October 5, the day of a large-scale march at Foley Square. The “people’s mic” had to repeat each speaker’s words in three waves in order to reach everyone’s ears.

On Wednesday, librarians returned to the park and briefly succeeded in reestablishing the People’s Library spot near the northwest corner with a few hundred newly donated books. An emblem of the protest’s civilized, cultural-minded purpose, the People’s Library had in previous weeks grown into an eclectic collection of approximately five thousand volumes, not including periodicals and journals, and had been housed in a tent with a professional cataloging system that can still be perused at LibraryThing. During the raid, the contents of the library had been thrown into Sanitation Department dumpsters and hauled—along with uprooted tents, computers, recording devices, personal belongings, battery-powering bicycles, kitchen equipment and medical supplies—to a sanitation department garage on West 57th Street. Photographs of these confiscated belongings told the story of a violent rout that in its aftermath had the look of a mass real estate foreclosure. (Fortunately, some of the computers and recording equipment belonging to Occupy Wall Street’s Media Group had been moved to office space near the park prior to the raid.)

As of late Wednesday afternoon, only a fraction of the books had been found, and many of those were damaged. More might turn up in the general Zuccotti garbage heap at the back of the garage, but they will probably be too soiled to use. In any case, by 7:00 PM Wednesday, the police had confiscated the newly donated library as well.

Still, the immediate feeling about the eviction and its aftermath, was that they provided the perfect set up for actions planned for Thursday, Occupy Wall Street’s second month anniversary. The actions—which had been coordinated with similar activities in other cities—involved a march to shut down the stock exchange in the morning and, later in the day, a gathering at Foley Square, followed by a night-time march across Brooklyn Bridge. The marches now seemed more urgent, a test for the movement as it entered a new phase. After the dramatic events of Tuesday, a large turnout was expected. Labor unions were exhorting their members to show up. Deputy Mayor Wolfson said that the city was bracing for “tens of thousands” of protesters. In the end, despite poor weather, thousands of people did take to the streets to march with the core of protesters, in what seemed to be a powerful show of resilience. And although there were some scuffles with police and close to 200 arrests were made, many reported that the march proceeded peacefully.

In the days since the eviction, the protesters have seemed by turns stunned, exhilarated, enraged, defeated, and newly determined to press on. An organizer insisted that the eviction was “a major victory.” It has restored the protesters’s image as decriers of economic injustice, putting an end, for now, to damaging news stories about drug addicts and sexual offenders in their encampment. It has also relieved the movement of having to materially support the occupation, which had become a draining responsibility. Prior to the eviction, the nightly General Assemblies had been drawing fewer participants, often no more than thirty-five or forty, indicative of the growing sense of activist burn-out.

But Zuccotti Park had also been an effective stage, the movement’s symbolic nerve center, “the flagship occupation of an international franchise,” as one organizer wryly remarked. The lack of communication between autonomous groups within the movement had been a constant problem. Some organizers fear it will deteriorate further without their central forum. Others feel it opens the door to a new, more effective structure. The larger question the movement now faces is whether, without Zuccotti Park (and dozens of other occupation sites around the country that have been similarly raided) it will be able to hold the focus of its supporters. The movement has been re-energized. It has turned a corner. But to where?

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