Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, All I Ever Wanted

It's becoming more and more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement, and I'm not sure whether visiting Zuccotti Park made that more or less so.  I think it's fascinating and really important to think and talk about the very complex issues facing the movement and to do so critically and impartially despite my support.  I am wary, however, of having any criticism I might have used to discredit the movement, so I feel increasingly pressure to make sure I'm speaking very precisely.  There were some parts of my visit to OWS that were a bit disheartening, but others that were utterly transcendent.  Whatever shortcomings I might identify, I am, now more than ever, a huge supporter of this movement and extremely impressed with the work that's being done and the extraordinary level of complexity and organization within the group.

Since I tend to think of my experience there in two parts, I'm going to split this into two posts. For one thing, it'll just hang together better, and for another, I'm fully aware that I'm, well, wordy, to put it kindly. And so.

I guess as good a starting point as any is the peculiar semantic dissonance of the term "occupation" and the actual structure of the protest group.  I've had a number of discussions lately with Occupy skeptics, and it's occurred to me that despite the fact that a huge majority (read thousands upon thousands) of participants and supporters are not actually, literally occupying tents in Zuccotti Park or other designated spaces across the country, the encampments, because they are a visible, tangible, 24-hour manifestation, are the sum total of evidence for how many people judge the movement.

On the one hand, I understand.  If you aren't already predisposed to support it based on the vague ideas presented in the mainstream press, it's difficult to invest the time and energy necessary to understand the layers upon layers of nuance the movement engenders.  And it's called "Occupy" which suggests (again, to those disinclined to really examine it) that somehow the physical presence of protesters in tent cities is somehow the point.

On the other hand, that's some pretty goddamn lazy thinking.  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm group shy and took my time getting comfortable with Occupy, but I spent some time trying to get a feel for it, and found it relatively easy to get a handle on.  Granted, as my high school history teacher taught me, I went directly for the primary source readings,,, participants blogs, etc., because if you want to know what people are talking about, you'll always to better to ask directly then to accept someone else's account of what they seemed to be saying.  Particularly when "someone else" is a reporter who may or may not have done their research.

At any rate, this question of Occupy Wall Street (or anywhere else) as a physical occupation of a particular space versus a larger philosophical and/or off-site presence is important and I became more cognizant than ever that the physical occupations, while symbolically important, should not be the standard by which the movement is judged. Because if I were to judge OWS by Zuccotti Park, I would have been very disappointed.

Let me make it clear that the "official" parts of the camp are extremely well organized: Media/Information, Legal, the library, Medical, Food, Comfort (blankets and clothes), these areas, the duties of which are shared by active protesters are situated in proximity to each other, prominently labeled and manned by some very friendly, engaged folks.  Information about upcoming events is readily available (there's a chalkboard listing teach-ins and a white board with information about General Assembly, including agenda items).  In the same area, it's easy to identify the tent the LiveStream crews uh...occupy.  All of these are situated toward the side of the park that fronts on Broadway.  An ever-changing row of sign-holders stands just inside the barriers separating the camp from the sidewalk.

Once we'd passed the Comfort tent, located roughly a third of the way in, however, things got a little weird.  I'll beg your pardon for the religious analogy, but I couldn't push from my mind an impression of moneylenders in temple.  How so, when people weren't lending so much as panhandling (though one fellow claimed to be collecting money for disbursement to others)?  I guess the similarity was in the appropriation of a belief system for financial gain. "Please donate...I swear I support the movement," was a particularly honest expression of it.  These were people who identified supporters of class- and economic equality as softer touches than tourists elsewhere.  Plus, without the interference of police, they could panhandle unmolested, a situation which is definitely not the case  elsewhere in the city.  There were crust punks ostensibly soliciting money for pet supplies, but the only animal I saw was one guy's dog, and the positioning of the table squarely among a crowd of snake oil salesman (and the sort of inherent disingenuity in many crust punk's pleas) made the cause unconvincing.  It was interesting to note a couple of people strategically located near entrances holding signs that said, "Please do not give money to panhandlers. This ENABLES, it does not HELP. We are doing our best to provide food and comfort to those who need it."

It was cleaning day when we were there, evidenced by crews moving tents and mattresses, mopping the granite with bleach water, sweeping the paths and steps. There were probably 6 or 8 people doing various projects like these throughout the park.

At the far end of the park there was a little circle of devotional images of various sorts, apparently the meditation area.  As we sat on some nearby steps taking in the scene, someone in the circle yelled, "Mic check" and got two people to respond.  He shouted the second, "Mic check," and got the same.  He announced that meditation would begin at 3 p.m. and his 2 person people's mic repeated.  He shrugged and laughed at the lack of participation.

Also at that end of the park were the drummers.  Those of you who follow have probably seen the ongoing tension between the drummers and other stakeholders in the park.  Initially the drummers were playing all the time, which became oppressive to OWS' neighbors and began to interfere with OWS itself, even drowning out the GA at times.  There've been various proposals (both from the OWS community at large and from the drummers themselves) to create limited hours for drumming, but they've been largely ignored.   Comments on the web site (I know, I know...the part of my brain that knows better than to read comments is broken) include actual discussion of the issue and vitriolic response from New Yorkers who consider the drummers just a symptom of the disease that is OWS.

It's recently been reported that the community is creating a security team to deal with people (including non-protester residents, pandhandlers, and, presumably, non-compliant drummers) who fail to live by the rules that have been painstakingly hammered out in General Assembly, particularly the Good Neighbor Policy For people outside the movement, particularly those who just don't like it, this has been interpreted as a sign of the OWS apocalypse, them crazy hippies exposing themselves as hypocrites and fascists (because in the modern U.S. anyone who disagrees with you is obviously a fascist) and (as someone honest to goodness said) "more oppressive than the oppressors they're protesting against."

But these are, realistically, very minimal growing pains for a social experiment in which a group of strangers is forced to create, on the fly, a practical model of government based on their ideals.  Whatever the shortcomings of the tiny republic of Zuccotti Park it has two things going for it that are really very impressive: 1) It really has very few serious problems given the realities it has to deal with. Given the above-mentioned diversity of motives and the rapidly expanded scale of the thing, drummers playing 5 hours instead of 4 and panhandlers very transparently attempting to exploit the movement are very minimal deficits. 2) They are very, very serious in their commitment to their ideals and have managed, so far, to deal with the issues facing them without betraying their values.  This will undoubtedly become more difficult as time goes by and the complexity of their microcosmic social structure grows, but the work they've done so far is really inspiring and encouraging.

And that, I think, is where I'm going to leave things for now.  Lest you think, however, that my visit to OWS left me with a negative or lukewarm impression of things, let me assure you that the next installment will demonstrate how deeply impressed I was by how things are going there.

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