On Wall Street
On 14 September, students, faculty and staff at Pace University received the following email:
Monday, 17 September is the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. As a precautionary measure, NYPD will establish checkpoints throughout Lower Manhattan. It is important that employees and students carry Pace ID cards in order to gain access through these checkpoints. Locations of the checkpoints are still to be determined.
The notice quickly spread beyond the university. For months Occupy organisers had been planning three days of ‘Education, Celebration and Resistance’ to honour the movement’s first birthday. The events would culminate in mass civil disobedience that Monday morning – a human barricade of the New York Stock Exchange called the People’s Wall. We knew from previous protests that the NYPD was prone to overreaction, and worried that the lockdown of the financial district would scuttle our strategising; that subways and bridges might be closed so protesters couldn’t get downtown; and that the alerts would scare sympathisers into staying home for fear of being clubbed or peppersprayed or locked up. Some joked that we should just declare victory. The police were going to occupy Wall Street for us.
Last year, the city authorities hadn’t been so well prepared. Almost everyone was caught off guard by Occupy Wall Street, including me, and I was there the first day. I had set out for what I assumed would be a rather predictable day of protest, of marching and shouting. I figured I’d head home with tired feet, a sore throat and the nagging sense that we hadn’t accomplished much. Instead I enjoyed a long afternoon with one of the many small groups that filled the square. Movement veterans like the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and Marina Sitrin, the author of a book about horizontal organising methods used in Argentina, conversed with twenty-somethings freshly radicalised by disappointment in the president they helped to elect. Not long after the police massed at the park’s edge, I snuck away, thinking they would rush anyone audacious enough to unfurl a sleeping bag. The next day I was shocked to see that the demonstrators had held their ground and grown in number. Soon, occupations were popping up across the country, and then around the world.
As 17 September approached the second time around, it was hard to be optimistic. Occupy had been declared dead so many times, and it’s unsettling to have your life be consumed by something people think no longer exists. Yet feminism, punk rock and irony have all been the subject of countless obituaries, and still they persist.
On Saturday, 15 September, Washington Square Park was full. I was relieved even though I knew that a good many of the people milling about were actually there to hear the jug bands and Django Reinhardt soundalikes at the folk festival happening on the other side of the park. It was a day for ‘Education’ and so Occupy did what it does best: people sat and talked. A large piece of cardboard listed the variety of ‘thematic breakout groups’ open to all-comers: Education, Healthcare, Ecology, Debt, Money out of Politics, Labour, the Commons, Faith, Political Oppression etc.
At 4 p.m. the direct-action training began. The crowd broke into ‘affinity groups’, small bands that would, in theory, stick together on Monday morning, come what may. I was absorbed by the Bad Parents, named for a couple from New Jersey who had joined Occupy at the request of their teenage daughter. The three of them were willing to risk arrest and wanted to know what to expect. A few minutes later we were role-playing chaos. Trainers gently tackled trainees and shouted at them to ‘Get a job!’ and ‘Take a shower!’ as arms were pinned behind backs. It’s important, facilitators explained, to know your rights, but also that they wouldn’t necessarily be respected in the streets. ‘Maybe you’ll sue them later, but in the moment they will do whatever they want,’ a veteran organiser explained. She demonstrated how the police would break a blockade, twisting the arm of the woman sitting at her feet until she let go of her neighbour’s. ‘Be nice when they are cuffing you. That’s when they can inflict a lot of pain.’
That evening a few hundred people gathered across the street at Judson Church, which counselled drug addicts in the 1950s, helped women get abortions in the 1960s (when they were still illegal), aided runaways and prostitutes in the 1970s, and worked with Aids victims in the 1980s. Dinner was served by the Kitchen Working Group (a group that outlived many others from the early encampment days) as we gathered to hand out The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, a pamphlet by a group called Strike Debt (I am a member). Five thousand copies had been run up on cheap newsprint. We discussed what a radical debt resistance movement might look like. After twenty minutes, a man burst into the sanctuary. ‘Right now,’ he shouted, ‘people are getting arrested downtown and you all are just sitting here talking!’ A wildcat march had left the park an hour earlier, led by the kind of black-clad bandana-faced kids the cops love to hate. ‘The least you could do is get out your phones and Tweet or Facebook about it.’
The following day I stood in Foley Square, in the shadow of City Hall, watching the union-funded concert, our ‘Celebration’. Jello Biafra, the former Dead Kennedys singer, was bantering between acts when a member of the Public Relations Working Group asked me if I would do a quick interview for local television. ‘Be careful,’ she warned, ‘the woman’s a snake.’ The reporter’s helmet of teased red hair shook as she rephrased the same question three times over. ‘How do you justify the fact you are wasting $17 million of taxpayers’ money in police overtime this weekend?’ Three times I replied that $17 million wasn’t much compared to the 15 trillion in taxpayers’ dollars that had been committed to bailing out Wall Street banks. She took a new tack. ‘What are you accomplishing besides making a lot of noise? Don’t you know you’ll just be inconveniencing the 99 per cent who want to go to work tomorrow?’ When it was over, a pang of regret seemed to flash across her face. ‘You know I have to ask those questions,’ she muttered into her purse.
After the concert, I headed to One Police Plaza for the Affinity Group Spokescouncil, feeling morose. The event had attracted only a modest crowd. The media would declare the weekend a failure. But as I sat down on the pavement for our last planning session, the square filled up. Soon there were kids with tattoos, people in wheelchairs using breathing tubes, nurses, environmentalists, graduate students, veterans, and one young woman who told me she was on a layover, headed for Lebanon. Affinity groups clustered. The Bad Parents had morphed into the Rad Parents and were joined by dozens of others: Education Is a Human Right, Labour Swirl, the Nice Group, Weird Street etc. NYPD headquarters loomed overhead. A nun in a pale floral print dress made a speech directed at the riot cops encircling us: ‘Officers, let me remind you that your faith cannot be separated from your official duty. Sometimes you have a moral obligation to disobey orders. God bless Occupy!’
On Monday morning my alarm went off at 4.30. I dressed in business casual to blend in. The financial district was quiet. We huddled on a street corner, going over contingency plans and waiting for scouts to report on the police barricades. We walked to 55 Water Street, the meeting spot for the Debt Zone, next to Standard and Poor’s. Organisers had divided the financial district into four quadrants, and we were responsible for one. We signed up for a ‘text loop’ that would send out alerts all day. By 7 a.m. a journalist estimated the crowd at 350. The goal was to get as close as possible to the stock exchange and block the police checkpoints. Our plans were soon dashed. The police beat us back, snatching people at random. Our second attempt was more successful. We abandoned the People’s Wall for an action called 99 Revolutions, a shifting constellation of mobile occupations. ‘Don’t be an organisation! Be an organism,’ one of the trainers advised us. I joined the Writers Bloc and we set our sights on AIG.
A sign on the door said the building was open to the public. We entered the lobby, set up a microphone and improvised some denunciations, then decided to leave when we overheard the security guard calling the police. Outside a picket formed. ‘They’re crooks! They’re crooks! They cooked their fucking books!’ everyone shouted. A man in a suit caught my eye as he dodged the line to get inside. ‘And they taste good too,’ he said, licking his lips.
We headed off to J.P. Morgan Chase, where five Strike Debt organisers had just been arrested after reading an open letter to Jamie Dimon in the lobby. We converged with other groups outside the building and stepped out into the intersection, blocking the traffic. Banners were rolled out, kazoos blared, and protesters danced in front of a giant NYPD bus. After a few minutes, the revellers moved on, leaving a trail of red confetti. Then mayhem broke out all around the financial district: women carrying ‘Bust up the Banks’ signs tossed bras at a Bank of America; four people in wheelchairs held an intersection, physicians wearing white coats, arms linked in a circle, held another (both groups went to jail); nine wily students from Vermont circumvented the police checkpoints by being clean cut, white and showing their Middlebury IDs; one band of pranksters arranged doughnuts and milk on a table as tribute: ‘NYPD thank you for shutting down Wall Street.’
I collected some volunteers to carry props that the police barricades had prevented from being delivered in the morning. A friend had been circling the area in a rental truck, trying to find a spot to drop off nine giant foam blocks, replicas of the police department’s ubiquitous concrete barriers emblazoned with OWS on one side and ‘protecting the people from the powerful’ on the other. We built a giant wall at the entrance to Bowling Green and let it be used for photo-ops. Then we got word that our comrades needed the blocks, so we hauled them north and then west to the appointed meeting place. We waited in a ditch by the West Side Highway for a signal, but it never came. Our friends, we later learned, were being detained by the police down the street and our path to them was closed. Though we weren’t doing much, two brawny undercover cops sat nearby filming us, until some members of the Mutant Legal team called them out and chased them away. New York City cops may be the only people besides dedicated activists who know that Occupy isn’t dead.