My first visit to Occupy Wall Street was about a month ago, and it was brief. I happened to be walking up Lower Broadway in Manhattan and passed a bunch of people holding cleverly worded protest signs. Most of the demonstrators I saw were young, wearing dirt-colored clothing, and looked like they had come from hopping freights or living out of the back of a VW bus.
Zuccotti Park, now renamed Liberty Plaza, is only one short block wide and one crosstown block long, and I only saw the short end of the block, so I couldn’t tell how many people were there. They had not yet hit the mainstream media, but I had read about them on Facebook, so I knew they were gathered to oppose corporate exploitation and the disparity in wealth between the rich few and the poor many.
Walking between the sign-holders and a line of tense-looking cops, I didn’t feel inclined to stop. In fact, there were cops all over the place. As I walked into a deli on the next corner, a cavalcade of police cars came screaming down Broadway. I was eating a tray of sushi when a girl came in and told her cell phone, “I’m not getting arrested.”
It occurred to me to go back and see what was happening, maybe take a few pictures, but I didn’t. I kicked myself the next day when the cover of the Daily News was plastered with a photo of several cops restraining a pretty young woman, one of hundreds of people arrested in the action that brought the Occupy Wall Street movement to the attention of the world media.
When I finally went back to Liberty Plaza on Friday, October 21, it was crammed with all kinds of people, espousing all sorts of political agendas, and the mood was effervescent. There were still lots of signs, including one over a table at the head of the park, reading “This is not a protest; this is AN AFFIRMATION of the vitality and idealism erupting from underneath the present AMERICAN NIGHTMARE.”
A middle-aged man with a baby in a carrier on his chest is leaning over the table, saying “I was at Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Berkeley this week. I told them hello from Wall Street.” He asks the woman behind the table what will happen when it gets too cold for people to stay in the park.
“I don’t know,” she says. “They’re working on it.” Later, Lizzie and Aviv, recent graduates of Bard College, report a rumor that organizers are seeking to move OWS indoors for the winter.
A young man on the corner is playing a guitar and singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.
A vigorous man with white hair is wearing a piece of cardboard that says “Why do Arabs hate us?” A knot of people are arguing with him or with each other, not angrily but earnestly. “You’re doing a disservice to the Jews,” insists one man. A dark-skinned young man asks for a copy of the guy’s flyer, skims it, and then says, “I agree with most of what you said, but I’m an Arab, so I’m biased.”
All this activity is happening on one crowded block of sidewalk. I go down the steps into the park and check out the library, which consists of plastic bins of books labeled by topic. People are sitting on chairs, reading. One row of boxes is marked “Reference — Please do not remove from library.” I glance at some of the titles: Chomsky Reader, The Riverside Shakespeare, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, Beat Reader.
Emma McCumber of Reading, Vermont, asks me to sign her petition in support of the Zapatistas. She’s 23. While an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, she studied social movements in Mexico for three months and was impressed with the Zapatista revolutionaries. Of OWS, she says, “It’s fascinating, exciting, a chaotic movement still under development. I see a lot of horizontal structures forming, a lot of radical new ways of organizing society that are equitable and ethical. People are ready for a new way of organizing society.”
“Would you like to notarize your vision for the future?” asks a woman.