The Occupy Wall Street Walking Tour

On its second birthday, some of Occupy Wall Street's key players held a participatory walking tour in the financial district.

Sep 17 2013, 7:45pm
Image: Brian Merchant

Occupy Wall Street hosted a walking tour. Detractors will inevitably scoff at mention of the concept alone, but it's true: The most explosive anti-establishment movement to grace the United States in a generation commemorated its second anniversary with a nostalgic, guided waltz through the financial district.

On September 15th, I headed down to the infamous bull statue at Bowling Green on the southern tip of Manhattan. Two signs were visible as I hurried out of the subway tunnel: one read ‘Occupy Memory,' the other ‘#OWSWALK.’ I was late, and a crowd had already formed into a wide circle. Activists were manning audio recorders and live-streaming from the center. ­

Image: Corrina Laughlin

In keeping with the spirit of Occupy, the event quickly set about confounding expectations. For one thing, a surprisingly robust crowd—at least sixty people—had showed up to stroll through the major sites involved in the storied 2011 occupation of New York City’s financial engine. The tour was to be entirely participatory. Anyone could take the so-called people’s mic and share their stories. Other elements, on the other hand, were more predictable. Ten cops, one a white shirt, had already amassed to keep tabs on the gathering.

Longtime Occupy participant Jeremy Bold, or Jez as he’s better known in OWS, was one of the first to speak. He seemed to reluctantly step into the circle, wearing a black and yellow Nirvana t-shirt, and paint-spattered jean shorts. The week before September 17th when the occupation began in earnest, Bold said he and a number of other activists had gathered here.

“It was confusing,” he said, smiling and looking at the ground. “There was a speak-out planned. And someone proposed the question: Should we occupy Wall Street? And what does that even mean?”

He talked about the proto-OWS protest, Bloombergville, which itself was an occupation staged in the financial district to protest education budget cuts. Some of the activists from that demonstration had joined others to discuss staging a larger action.

“It was the first time people decided they wanted a more direct action,” he said, as the smiling ragtag crowd looked on.. Those early protests presaged the loose, improvisational spirit of what was to come. Bold says he remembers dancing around the Wall Street bull and beckoning others to do the same.

“I was like ‘conga march around the bull! Conga march around the bull! Conga march around the bull, Yeah!' Alright, I’m an organizer,” he said, laughing.

Another activist stepped forward and pointed to the barricades surrounding the Wall Street bull statue, where tourists were snapping photos. "A remainder of OWS,” he said.

Image: Corrina Lauhglin

With that, the walking tour began in earnest. The first stop was the office complex on Broadway, where occupiers were given safe haven after the raid. There, the United Federation of Teachers provided space for activists to store their things over the next chaotic days.

Earlier on in the movement, while Zuccotti was still the most-watched park in the world, the space had been used for organizing outreach efforts.

Rebecca Manski, a longtime OWS organizer, recalled the first meetings of the Outreach Working Group. There were, at the time, thousands of curious people coming down to the re-christened Liberty Square, asking questions about the movement.

“We were trying to figure out what to tell people,” she said. “Where to go, who to talk to, what the hell it was.”

It was at the foot of this high rise that the first major outreach meetings happened—when the movement broke into regional groups and discussed how it would expand into the four other boroughs. That was where Occupy Brooklyn, Occupy Harlem, and other localized groups were born in October 2011. Manski had been at that meeting too, and in the middle of her reminiscence, a police officer leaned in and took a stern tone.

“Guys, you get one warning,” he said. “Keep moving, you can’t block the sidewalk.”

Some things never change.

The activists gave a couple final words at the site.

“This place was full of donations,” one said. “My favorite? Fifty snuggies.”

After the Broadway block, the group stopped outside of Trinity Church. An older woman stepped forward and told a story about the conflict within the church about how to address Occupy. After the eviction, the movement was desperate for a new home base. Duarte Square—a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan owned by Trinity Church, which, as the occupiers pointed out on the tour, is a major real estate owner in the city—seemed an obvious choice. Many clergy were in favor of aiding the movement.

“They were urging a plurality of the multitudes,” the activist, a middle-aged woman and a member of Occupy Faith, said. Then, on December 17th, the movement aimed to occupy the space. A makeshift set of stairs was reeled in, and the first one over was retired Episcopal Bishop (and Vietnam War hero) George Packard.

“The bishop went over the fence, and we thought, ‘It’s happened!’ They’re siding with the multitudes! But it was not to be.”

The church denied the occupiers the right to stay, and the police forcibly cleared them out.

“It was my first civil disobedience,” the woman said, half-wistfully, half-solemnly. “And I was arrested by the church."

Image: Corrina Laughlin

As we walked, I spoke with a man who called himself Smiley. He’d worked in Occupy’s famous free kitchen during the occupation, and had followed along with the movement afterwards, getting involved with Occupy Sandy last year. Since then, however, he says there's been little to do.

“The summer was slow,” he said, shrugging as we walked down Wall Street.

Next stop on the tour was the obvious highlight: Zuccotti Park, or Liberty Square, the once-pounding heart of Occupy. Smiles broke as that “big red thing,” as the activists mostly referred to the sculpture in the corner of the park, came into view.

The activists sat down on the benches containers that were once covered in laptops and obstructed by a sea of tents. The erstwhile occupiers traded stories about life in Liberty for those two months in 2011.

“I remember every night sleeping in a different place in this park,” an activist named Becky said.

Image: Stacy Lanyon

“I was a drummer,” a man wearing a baseball cap and a black vest over his sweatshirt said. He was grasping a tambourine. “I didn’t really go to too many assemblies. We had a falling out, between the political guys,” he said. But during the eviction, “I was the last drummer arrested, and I drummed until they beat the crap out of me.”

Other activists described the night of the occupation. One talked about chaining himself by the collar to his peers, and the cops gouging his neck with bolt cutters as they tried to pry it off. He’d been hauled off to jail that night, bruised and bleeding from the neck.

Lauren DiGioia, one of the most recognizable faces during the Occupy movement thanks to her bright blue hair and apparent eagerness to plant herself on the front lines of the action, spoke about the movement on a personal level. Her hair has gone mostly blonde. It's too fried to dye again, she said.

Image: Corrina Laughlin

“I was in a state of mania,” she said. “I have the park to thank for liberating me from my own self." DiGioia described being in a state of depression, fighting with her father, and feeling crushed by student debt before joining Occupy. The movement gave her an opportunity to push back.

“It’s why I have #Occupy tattooed on my neck,” she said.

After the discussion, the tour moved on to a few more key spots—the Atrium on Wall Street, where organizers met, and where the general assemblies where held in the winter months after the eviction. The group then moved to New York’s Federal Reserve building, where they planted themselves out front. They told more stories: they remembered the financiers peering down on them while sipping champagne, and calling the cops on a group of Wall Streeters who were carrying open containers. The mood was jubilant, light.

Image: Brian Merchant

Jez sang a song adapted from a poem he wrote two years ago about the ills of capitalism. The occupiers joined in a spirited chant, for old time’s sake.

Image: Brian Merchant

The live-streamers and audio recorders documented it all, still, hoisting their equipment into the speakers’ faces as everyone took a turn, so the remembering of Occupy could be remembered. It was these devices that lent the proceedings a true feeling of authentic, vintage #Occupy.

Image: Brian Merchant

The old-fashioned signage, the high technological acumen, and the free-form spontaneity that once led Alexis Madrigal to describe Occupy as a sophisticated API was all on display as the diverse, ragtag, but still-optimistic group wound its way through the gilded city streets that housed its sworn enemy. 

As if to cement that notion, the event closed out with a so-called cartography party in a nearby event space. There were interactive maps, a timeline, and vegan food and beer. DiGioia and others headed straight for the maps, and began adding post-its to the giant sketch of downtown Manhattan and Zuccotti Park that was propped up on the wall.

Image: Brian Merchant

Another activist told me that she'd been in weekly meetings since May to kick-start a brand new direct action branch of Wall Street. Others still operate Occupy-affiliated websites and organize much smaller actions around issues like the Robin Hood tax. 

Image: Brian Merchant

Two years later, it's not so hard to remember that those streets, these office spaces, every stop on this tour, was home to a scrum of frantic activity. There was genuine, concentrated rage emanating from this place, and the media couldn't turn away.

"Occupy is continuing to make history," insisted one activist. That's probably true. And the purpose of this gathering was to recall, together, the obstacles and triumphs of the movement, so the participants might begin to build the foundation for whatever comes next. Still, on its two-year birthday, there was a quiet, thoughtful exercise in collective remembering where Occupy's ferocious, messy roar once bellowed out.