The Occupy Wall Street protest—which isn’t on Wall Street and relies on the “occupation” of privately owned land with the landlord’s reluctant consent—has hit some bumps in its second week. Over the weekend, nearly 80 protesters were arrested by the NYPD during a march on Union Square, and the company that owns Zucotti Park (excuse me, “Liberty Square”) is getting increasingly annoyed with the protesters. You can—and probably should—criticize the protesters for having hopelessly confused aims, but the people still hanging out on the tree-studded strip of concrete just off Broadway are inarguably dedicated to their cause.
Yesterday I took a pleasant stroll through Zucotti Park to see who was still there, arriving just as a large tranche of protesters were having a “general assembly” in the middle of the square. This consisted of speakers from various committees that had been organized (lefties love forming committees), and it took over three hours, because there were 13 committees, including ones for “town planning” and “direct action.”
The protesters don’t have permission to use microphones, so the speakers annoyingly overcome background noise by inciting the crowd to repeat every sentence. It’s kind of like attending a mass with a dozen homilies in a row, without the distraction of dirty toddlers eating Cheerios on the floor. And instead of clapping, they’ve adopted the cloying hippie tradition of silently applauding by doing that thing that looks a lot like jazz hands.
Monday’s assembly ended with a guy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask reminding the group to keep their reports succinct. Meanwhile, people around the edges of the assembly waited for the scheduled march to the Stock Exchange or just sat rolling cigarette after cigarette, like Micah below.
Cigarette-roller “isn’t a defined role,” according to Micah, “but we got a lot of donated tobacco. Not only does it suppress the libido of the group, it also keeps stress down.” He’s from Columbus, Ohio, where he goes to school for political science (“digging myself into a $13,000 hole of student debt”) and works as a line cook. Next to him is a little camp of people who definitely exist on the “crusty” side of the protest spectrum, including a 19-year-old who told me his name was Captain Chilligan.
The Captain has been a “nomadic transient” for about three months and was clearly unperturbed by sleeping outdoors. “The mood is great,” he said. “Everyone’s pissed off but they’re not pissed off at each other. I like to go around the city and see people who aren’t here who should be here and tell them to come down.” He assured me that while he might be a drifter, he wasn’t a victim of the recession: “If I wanted to get a job I’d go and do that. I sold real estate when I was 16; I can fix computers and make websites. Right now, I take everything I need from my environment and it usually provides.”
Among the other folks lying about were Robert, a 24-year-old “professional protester” who hitchhiked from California, and Amber, an 18-year-old marketing major at St. John’s University. They met this week and are now sharing an air mattress, which, no matter your politics, is pretty damn adorable.
The couple said they were committed to staying until the occupation ended. “I’m in for the long haul,” Robert said. And he wasn’t kidding. “Snow is easier to deal with than rain. People don’t respect that.” Amber, who went to an “environmental high school” in Minnesota, chimed in, “If it snows, you just build a shelter.”
A lot of the protesters living down here seem more concerned with pragmatic day-to-day operational stuff than sweeping political statements, which is probably out of necessity—whether or not a makeshift camp is going to cause the collapse of capitalism, you still have to take care of food and trash and make sure no one dies. To that end, you need some competent people, like Edward T. Hall III, or “Ted.”
Ted attended Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and Bard College and is the grandson of this famous anthropologist. He also runs a company called lghtsrc.org that’s dedicated to “unifying humanity’s shared tools to make sure life on Earth flourishes.” Ted was part of an “agile” committee whose tasks range from organizing candlelight vigils in 45 minutes to “on-the-down-low” missions like spotting undercover cops. (“There are CIA and FBI all over the place.”) I asked him where occupiers were going to the bathroom and he told me they mainly went to the nearby Burger King and McDonald’s. People sometimes went to friends’ apartments to shower, but Ted has no need for fancy water and soap. Apparently he “can’t take that much time away,” so he has a “secret place” where he cleans himself, which he tells only a select “hardcore” few about. From his description, I guessed that he knew of a semi-hidden outdoor shower or a hose or maybe a sympathetic Starbuck’s manager who’s looking to “stick it to the man.”
As the general assembly ended, the sign waving and marching began. Did I mention there are a lot of signs?
There are a lot of signs, and more being made out of old pizza boxes all the time. A lot of the slogans contradicted each other, or were a little silly (industrial civilization is here to stay, I think). But this was the worst sign of all:
I was in the midst of a week-old protest that wasn’t about anything specific, and yet Fox News, NBC, ABC, the Associated Press, and dozens of freelancers all showed up to cover it on a Monday afternoon. This guy was yelling something about 2012, the “energy of thoughts,” and his 1,000-page manifesto. He must have been photographed 200 times.
If there’s one thing that the occupation has succeeded at—besides being able to maintain a presence in a park for ten days—it’s creating a media sideshow. Turns out squatting in the middle of the biggest city in America is a decent way to get attention, even if you’re armed only with vague slogans and the tenacity of the true believer. “I’m staying beyond the end,” Ted told me before I left. “The end is just the beginning.”
OK, Ted, but the beginning of what?