By 6 AM this morning, Zuccotti Park had almost literally turned into a circus. Hundreds of earnest protestors crammed into the square of wet pavement, including a troupe of elaborately costumed and caped women who could've been out of a USO show, a circle of New Agers who repeated onomatopoeic chants around an arrangement of candles, people dressed as Santa Claus and Superman, a guy wearing a robe made of foil, and dozens of kids with bandanas around their faces in preperation for the Big Showdown that was scheduled to happen Any Moment Now.
One of the bandana-wearers slowly walked the perimeter of the crowd, waving a bundle of incense ceremoniously in front of everyone’s faces. Under almost any other circumstances it would've been impossible to take him seriously, but as I looked into his eyes I realized that he was totally prepared to be tear-gassed, beaten, and dragged into one of the countless police vans parked around the square. The sun had yet to rise, the scene surreally lit by camera flashbulbs, headlights, and the harsh floodlights of omnipresent TV crews who hovered around the edges of the park for the same reason I was there: We wanted to see some action. We wanted to watch the occupiers link arms, be forcibly broken apart, then zip-tied and taken into custody while screaming slogans. And if some of them decided to go all Seattle-in-2000 and throw a glass bottle at a black-and-white, so much the better for our cameras. The media, like vultures, typically gather when they can sense something is about to collapse. I wonder if we were a bit annoyed that nothing did, that everything stabilized and resolved itself a half-hour before the hammer was supposed to fall.
This latest Occupy Wall Street showdown began Wednesday, when Mayor Bloomberg showed up and decreed—hizzoner loves decrees—that the protestors would have to clear out by 7 AM today because the landlord of the privately-owned park needed to have it cleaned. It was clearly an excuse to get the protestors and their tents out of the park, at which point the cops would arrest anyone who tried to come back with a sleeping bag or tarp. The internet exploded with “calls to action,” petitions, and pleas, and on the ground the occupiers got ready for the transition from semi-tolerated guests of Brookfield Office Properties to full-on illegal tenants.
They went about this with the same spirit of just-organized-enough chaos that has characterized the movement. The “Sanitation Committee” distributed bins for publicly-donated supplies and handed out brooms to be used for sweeping the pavement clean, even though it wasn’t clear that the cops or the city would care if they scrubbed the place with toothbrushes all night (some people seemed prepared to do this).
Another group worked out a plan to nonviolently resist arrest: Protestors would let cleaners into a third of the park at a time, occupying the other two-thirds and locking arms in rows to create a barrier between protestors and police. This group practiced their tactics in the middle of the square, even as the rest of the occupiers slept and sat around them, mostly ignorant of the plan.
This revealed a divide in a movement that was supposed to be all about unification. As far as I can make out, there’s a small, competent, fist-like core to Occupy Wall Street that can actually Get Things Done—active members of committees, the people running the website, those who decide the locations of marches—and a larger group that sometimes participates in the “general assemblies” but more often seems to be hanging out in Zuccotti because it’s the best place for semi-homeless drifters to gather. These are the young folks who lived in foul-smelling makeshift tents and get loaded and fuck each other at night in between the political stuff—kids like Cheney, who came here to take photos and got swept up in the culture. “It’s the best feeling waking up here,” he said. “Even if you got three hours of sleep, you wake up happy as shit because everyone else is as happy as shit.”
Because of fears that cops would overhear their strategy, the lead protestors relied mostly on word of mouth to establish resistance tactics for when the authorities came. Rumors and half-formed plans circulated all night—the police were going to come at 4 AM to catch the occupiers by surprise; they would relocate to Tompkins Square Park on Saturday if the clampdown came; they should sit down inside their storage boxes to better resist arrest… I heard vague stories about undercover police officers and “safe houses” in the area where “sensitive information” was being stored. Early in the morning an SUV crawled along the road next to the park, a telephoto lens extended out an open window. A young guy with a bandana wrapped around his face paced around the park hitting a hollow silver bowl that made a gong-like sound at irregular intervals. In my sloppy notes from the long, long evening, the word “paranoia” keeps popping up. Probably for good reason.
Two blocks away from the occupation—which was starting to feel like a siege—the unofficially-connected Occupy Wall Street art show was on the 96th hour of what was supposed to be a 24-hour exhibition. Here, a few stragglers were getting openly wasted: One guy fell over trying to ride a bike, a young couple made out in the middle of the room, and a German named Wolf Geyr threw confetti made of what he swore was real shredded 100-dollar bills on anyone who approached his exhibition.
I talked with Wolf and recorded our interview, but in the light of day I can’t make any sense of his gibberish. He said he hopped on a plane as soon as he heard about the art show, referencing his lucrative and now-abandoned commercial photography career and speaking passionately about the disconnect between an artist’s integrity and his paycheck. Then he threw more shredded money in my face.
Some of the artists at the exhibition were forming a collective called Abstract Science and were thrilled about the success of a t-shirt design they had come up with, which had become one of probably dozens of Official Occupy Wall Street Logos—you could see people wearing this symbol down at Zuccotti and at the McDonalds’ that had become the protestors official restroom and nap area.
The artists were optimistic, but when I got back to Zuccotti I found that the actual occupiers were not. A debate broke out between the people who wanted a more organized approach—one guy suggested adopting a similar command structure to that of the police—and people who balked at anything smacking of authority. A raw-voiced woman took the floor and noted that some people thought it would be harder for the cops to remove them if they had structures erected (she pointed to a giant model of a megaphone). “These structures are illegal!” she shouted, imploring everyone to get more organized and to learn the plan that they had worked out earlier, a plan which the majority of people still didn’t seem to know about.
Talking to her minutes later—her name was Lauren—she struck me as 70 percent anger, 30 percent weariness, and running mostly on adrenaline. “We are at war and no one is acting like fucking soldiers,” she said. “This is not going to end.” She was prepared, even eager, to get arrested and seemed to be contemplating creating a splinter Occupation in Tompkins Square. She was part of the Sanitation Committee, which she described as an “extension of security,” as they often peeked into people’s garbage to see who was doing what drug and who was at least having protected sex. (This is apparently a concern—one guy walked through the square at one point offering free condoms and lube.) Lauren was committed; she told me she had been sexually assaulted her second night in Zuccotti and the cops told her that “I brought it on myself coming out here and I should go home and stop playing games.”
Shit, I should probably make an attempt to describe what exactly Lauren is committed to, what these people are occupying for, or at least make an honest run at it—the rage at the rich, the lack of financial regulations, the inequities of capitalism, corporate socialism… but politics and policy barely came up last night. The protest turned into a protest for the right to protest, which is sort of appropriate for a generation that turned “meta” into an adjective. Last night the occupiers had one, and only one, specific demand: Let us stay! And they actually got what they wanted, which sort of makes you wonder whether this shit might actually work after all. Whatever “work” means.
It should be said, too, that these protestors are not only nonviolent, they’re pretty fucking polite. Their demand wasn’t really “Let us stay!” but rather, “Let us stay, we’re cleaning up all night, see, and taking away our tents to abide by the law!” Even the crust punks ignoring the plans and meetings in favor of dancing to a half-broken keyboard didn’t bother anyone else.
From 3 AM on, the night was a boring, dark blur. Some people knocked a beach ball around. Unionized truckers honked at the protest as they passed and received big cheers. A food cart opened and people lined up for watery coffee. From my notes: “The tents smell awful inside, like wet cat… Sleeping bags wrapped in IKEA-blue tarps look like corpses… Met a kid with 15 tickets for turnstile jumping, he says he can’t get arrested because of $2,000 in fines…” I think I slept sitting down for a short time, wrapped in a garbage-bag poncho given to me by the “Comfort Committee.”
The media trucks and credentialed photographers arrive at around 3:30, but there wasn’t anything to look at until two hours later, when a fresh crowd of people flowed into the park with signs and costumes and the bandanas got pulled up over the Serious Protestors’ faces. Belongings were stuffed into bags, tarps were rolled up—the camp was preparing to move even as fresh bodies arrived to make sure nothing would move.
There were hundreds (at least) of people crowded around a single speaker, and no microphone—which led to an actually impressive display: The speaker would say something, the people who could hear him would repeat his words, and then the people who could hear them would repeat the words, and so on, leading to a bizarre game of Telephone, where five sets of people would roar the same three words back and forth. It took a long time to say something as simple as, “THE SPECIAL ASSEMBLY [PAUSE] IS NOW IN SESSION,” but every accurately complete thought was rewarded with wild applause. The speeches were choppy and full of clichés (the phrase “brothers and sisters in arms” made an appearance), but the content didn’t matter to anyone yelling the words out at the top of their lungs. A young couple got caught up in the passion of the moment and starting making out aggressively in the middle of the crowd.
Almost anything could have happened with a crowd of leftists getting pumped up, not all of whom knew what to do if the cops get aggressive, the lead Occupiers exhausted, and cameras and reporters all over the place. But nothing did. Bloomberg changed his mind, probably thanks to pressure from elected officials who support the protests; the tactical maneuvers and disagreements of the people in the square didn’t make a difference in the end. The city is going to wait, presumably, for the weather to get worse and the occupiers to thin out, then push them out for good. They still can’t legally build structures or pitch tents, which is going to be a problem when the first snow arrives. Nearly 12 hours after that dawn rally, however, there’s no other way to tell the story than by saying that a bunch of dirty hippie squatters got the mayor, one of the most powerful men in the world, to back down.
Photos by Taji Ameen