On Wall Street

Keith Gessen

When the protesters started occupying Wall Street, I was busy (sort of), and, to be honest, reluctant. I hate this stuff. I hate standing in the same spot, hemmed in by police barricades, shouting stupid slogans. ‘No justice/No peace’: really? ‘Whose streets?/Our streets!’ Well, yes and no. The futility too is a little frustrating. I have attended protests against the bombing of Kosovo; the bombing of Belgrade; the invasion of Afghanistan; the invasion of Iraq. I wish I had some more local protests to cite, but apparently I only come out when they start scrambling the F-15s. No, that’s not true. I protested outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000. I thought Gore was too centrist. I guess that one we won.

In Russia, where I have also protested against various things, it always felt different – there was something about being outside, usually in the cold, showing your face to the police; showing them you weren’t afraid. It seemed worthwhile. I’m not sure it was. The police almost always outnumbered the protesters. There were never enough of us. This winter, when nationalist soccer hooligans swarmed in Manezh Square, beneath the walls of the Kremlin, it was a different story. They massively outnumbered the police: that they did not overpower them merely showed that they did not want to. If they’d wanted to take the Kremlin that night, they probably could have. (Instead they assaulted non-Slavic passersby.) It made every protest I’d attended in Moscow over the past four years seem brittle, petty, pathetic.

There must have been at least 10,000 people yesterday in Foley Square. It took your breath away. The neoclassical façades of five courthouses face onto the square; they usually give the place a desolate look, like you’ve suddenly been dropped into Washington DC. But with all these people on it, it felt … European. There were plenty of middle-aged union workers; there were representatives of community organisations from across the city; but there were also plenty of the sort of interesting-looking, serious-looking and (you secretly suspect) totally frivolous people more or less your age who you see walking around the city. Comrades, it turns out.

I hadn’t thought of it in a while, and yet I wandered back in my mind to a protest we had all missed. I remember it from television: a group of young Republicans, men and women, in business attire, chanting outside a school cafeteria (I think it was) where the Florida recount was taking place, urging it to stop. The Wall Street Journal would celebrate them a short time later as a spontaneous ‘bourgeois riot’; in fact, they were congressional aides flown down to Florida by the Republican Party. But where were we? We sat it out, while the bourgeois mob delivered its message: if the votes are counted and the results reversed accordingly, there will be civil war.

Yesterday it took the entire crowd two hours to walk six blocks to Zuccotti Park, where between 50 and 500 people – students, anarchists, anarchist students – have been camped out for three weeks. The first impression of the park is that the population of a different park – Washington Square Park – had transported itself here wholesale. But it was Washington Square weaponised. On the west side of the park, a drum circle pounded away. In Washington Square this would be the soundtrack merely of your wasted youth; here it was the drums of war. A good portion of Zuccotti Park was occupied by sleeping bags, many of them covered by blue tarpaulin to fend off the rain. (Tents are illegal without a permit in New York City, to keep homeless people, and now protesters, from getting too comfortable outdoors.) At the centre of the park is a makeshift buffet, with people standing in line and piling donated pizza and pasta onto their plates. No one seemed to be taking any apples from the big box. Nearby was the ‘media center’, a group of about a dozen young people hunched together over their laptops, with a small generator and several power strips hooked up to it, and wifi.

The occupied park is around the corner from Wall Street; it is across the street from the giant construction site at Ground Zero. Goldman Sachs’s new headquarters is on the other side of the foundation pit. There is a Brooks Brothers to one side of the park, and a Men’s Wearhouse on the other. Bankers have had to walk through the park; one camper, a young oilman from Alaska, told me he’d hardly slept the night before because, first, one of the occupiers was making a lot of noise, and then the bankers started walking by his sleeping bag on the way to work around 5.30 a.m. If they were heading for Wall Street itself, they would have found that the security precautions established after 9/11 were bolstered by a series of police barricades, to prevent the spontaneous seizure of the plaza in front of the New York Stock Exchange by a sleeping-bag-toting mob. I don’t know that bankers have become any more uncomfortable in New York in the past few weeks than in the past few years, but maybe they have. It’s one thing to get berated by bearded Paul Krugman and irascible Barney Frank; it’s another to be told to shut up (‘Money talks … too much,’ one poster read) by an ever growing group of nice-looking kids. For banking to stop siphoning off some of the brightest people around would be a good start; that Goldman Sachs built its new headquarters without putting the words ‘Goldman’ or ‘Sachs’ on the exterior of 200 West Street is, at least, a little telling.

Manhattan was built south to north, and the financial district, at the very southern tip of the island, is the oldest part of the city; Trinity Church, next door to Zuccotti Park, is the city’s oldest, and so is the tiny cemetery next to it. (Buried there is Alexander Hamilton, founder of the Federal Reserve.) There is something grand, if also creepy, about the financial district. Paul Strand’s famous 1915 photo of the bankers walking to work in the morning dwarfed by a giant building that seems to have been constructed for some other, larger race, still captures what it feels like, especially after the closing bell on the Stock Exchange has pushed the workers out of their offices and onto the train to New Jersey. There’s never been much occasion to visit here; nothing happens here; but now there is.

The day before yesterday, the day of the big march from Foley Square, we left before a much smaller group of activists made its way further downtown and tried to storm a police barricade onto Wall Street itself. I saw it that night on YouTube: a police officer swinging his baton like it was a baseball bat and connecting with human flesh. The next day, occupations of civic spaces began in Philadelphia, Austin, Washington, Los Angeles – even Boston.

I was back in Zuccotti Park that evening for the daily General Assembly. I had expected some tedious discussion of the ideology and demands of the protest – passage of a revivified Glass-Steagall Act? – and was delighted to find that the meeting was mostly concerned with logistics. About 80 people listened to (and repeated, via ‘the people’s mic’) reports from various highly practical ‘committees’. The young man from Internet reported that a new website was on its way and also proposed to put to a vote whether the west side of the park (the drum circle) should get an internet connection; Legal reported that more lawyers were on their way and that the department would be reorganising into a series of sub-departments. Public Relations asked whoever was making harassing phone calls to Associated Press to cut it out. ‘Our goal here is not to attack the press; it is to manipulate the press into spreading our message across the world.’ (He further asked that anyone planning any actions against the press come talk to PR first, for advice.) The Arts and Culture Committee announced that ‘the poetry of the Revolution must be unforgettable,’ informed everyone about an upcoming art show, and promised a big surprise after General Assembly – this turned out to be the rapper Talib Kweli. Community Relations gave a sobering but optimistic report: they had attended the local community board meeting, and heard the concerns of local residents – they had been through 9/11, the residents said, when life in the neighbourhood was badly disrupted, and now found their lives being disrupted again. The tall buildings around Zuccotti Park created a cascade of noise, and some of the barricades erected by the police to keep the protesters off Wall Street were also keeping the local residents from streets they ordinarily used. For the moment, the young man and woman from Community Relations reported, the residents had decided not to pass a resolution against the protests – but CR urged the occupiers to continue being as neighbourly as possible. Without the support of the local population, the occupation would be on much thinner ice. It was clear that the occupiers’ must only demand to remain where they are: our office on Wall Street. Let the other occupations make the other demands. The first occupation’s goal is to stay where it is.

To that end I especially enjoyed the report from Sanitation, which, with every line repeated twice by the volunteer criers who made up the people’s mic, sounded like the most lapidary clean-up schedule I’d ever heard. ‘Tomorrow,’ the young woman said (‘tomorrow, tomorrow,’ echoed the people’s mic), ‘we are doing a clean out of the entire area. So everyone’s who sleeping here, if you could pick up everything you’ve brought in by noon, so we can take away all the trash and mouldy cardboard, that would be awesome.’

7 October