Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I saw Jimmy McMillan at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Liberty Plaza. Plenty of people there recognized him--suit, beard, muttonchops and long silver hair--from his fringe candidacy in the 2010 New York Governor's race, and remembered his rent-activist slogan. Most didn't remember his name, so they called him "the 'rent is too damn high' guy."

A small crowd gathered around McMillan at the edge of the protesters' mattresses and tarps on the south side of the plaza. He said he was here to see how it was going, but "this is Ron Paul stuff." The supposed presence of libertarian Ron Paul supporters alongside anarchists, union members and other leftists at Occupy Wall Street had become a kind of metaphor in the media for how ideologically disorganized the movement was. McMillan said the protesters needed to vote instead, to elect a governor and attorney general who would put real pressure on the financial industry to stay in line. "In America, I don't come out here. I voted for you, you come out here."

"Don't let Rona Paul sucker y'all into coming out here and wasting your time," he said.

People from the crowd sparred with him. A grey-haired guy in business clothes said the protest highlighted the need for alternative energy job creation. Another guy said they were feeding the homeless. A British backpacker said voting was futile because "It's not a democracy, it's a fucking plutocracy." McMillan refused to give an inch. At some point, he said, "I know when I've hit a wall of Ron Paul" and made a dramatic exit, only to start a fresh harangue when somebody else approached him a few yards away.

With McMillan gone, the crowd kept arguing among itself, and that was how I met Sage. He was a youngish guy in a baggy green sweatshirt with black hair shaved close along the sides. He looked tired and had a hoarse voice but seemed to have a kind of intense energy pulling him along. He said people were out here because of oppression by "college debt, general malaise, a discontinuing of the democratic process, drug addiction."

Sage got here early in the protest, meaning a couple weeks ago. There were pizzas, water bottles and a media team, broadcasting online interviews with protesters. Sage said that for him, the living conditions weren't that much of an adjustment. "I was sleeping on the street already, so I just bedded down, lay down my head."

Sage had complaints about some of the college-educated activists at the protest, who he said lacked self- sufficiency skills like knowing when to secure a place to sleep at night. "They're gonna create a bureaucracy because they can't handle accountability."

"I'm a smack you upside the head kind of confrontationist," he said. "I'm never gonna get very far networking in academia."

Standing around the Liberty Plaza protest site at dusk, Sage told me an allegory in the form of a story about The Simpsons. At around eleven years old, he said, Bart Simpson finds Jesus, the Jesus who attacked the money lenders at the temple. He sees through everything, becomes a nonconformist, gets into trouble. But the other kids fool him. "Everyone tells Bart, we hate school too, but while they're saying that, they're going home and studying."

While he was talking, a young guy rolled around on the ground nearby and yelled at passersby to give him a dollar "or I'm gonna go crazy." "Man, there's free food and water here," Sage said to him, and there was a brief, tense exchange with the guy and his friend, who had oversized sunglasses and long, bright green hair. Later, a white guy with black dreads came over and gave Sage and another man plastic cups that he filled with water from a Poland Spring bottle.


On October 5, a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered in Foley Square and marched south toward Liberty Plaza and Wall Street. There might at any given time be a few hundred protesters in the plaza, so the Foley Square crowd was gigantic in comparison. One reason was the members of various unions, like the United Auto Workers, the United Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International, that had aligned themselves with the movement. Another was the students from colleges around the city who had taken off early from class to attend. The size of the gathering and the narrow chokepoints the police manned between barricades meant that the crowd drained out of Foley Square slowly, like sand flowing through a massive hourglass. Near me at the south end of the square, cameramen took turns climbing onto a lamp post to grab wide shots, while a helicopter hovered tiny and motionless above the forty-story Manhattan Municipal Building.

Behind me, a group of people thrown together by the rally were talking about the size of it, grumbling about being herded, speculating about the future of the world economy.

"Greece is gonna go down, and when it does, they're gonna ask for another bailout, and that should be interesting," said a grey-haired guy in a red sweatshirt and glasses. The world had been waiting for America to start protesting, he said, and now it was starting. "It can't be a one-shot deal. It's not a battle, it's a campaign."

After nightfall, I ended up at the dark, narrow southern end of Broadway. The sidewalks were thick with protesters, with police standing at the curb to prevent the crowds from spilling into the street. The atmosphere was tense and restless. A couple of anarchist types were quietly pressuring people near the curb to cross the street en masse. One of them was wearing a mask on the lower part of his face, and a cop told him he had to take it off. New York City law bans masks where two or more people are gathered.

People cheered when a city bus drove by and the driver honked his horn. The Transit Workers Union had recently come out in solidarity with the protests. They booed and jeered a rider who was leaning against the window with his thumb casually turned down.

Eventually, scattered people began to cut across the street, police not bothering to stop them. I cut over to the east side, trying to get near the intersection where Wall Street branched off from Broadway. Police had barricaded the entrance to Wall Street and were keeping everybody out. As I got near I noticed an officer carrying a bunch of the twist ties that are used in mass arrests. Word started to go around the crowd that a group of protesters were getting ready to rush the barricades and the cops were getting ready to start arresting people. Some people pushed forward toward Wall Street, others pushed back in the opposite direction.

I found myself standing near a young woman trying to get to her mother, who was stuck on the other side of the street. The woman didn't want to say if she was part of the protest because she worked at one of the banks. As I was talking to her I heard the "Whose streets? Our streets," chants turn to "Fuck the police." The crowd started to surge away from the barricades and a cop told me I couldn't stay where I was. I ducked into a subway entrance and when I came out again down the block the police were calling through a bullhorn for people to disperse, which a lot of them did.

Witnesses told me some protesters had jumped the barricades onto Wall Street and got pepper-sprayed and arrested. Somebody got punched in the head. Video footage uploaded later showed a chaotic situation, people falling on the ground, a white-shirted senior officer beating people with his nightstick, protesters throwing things. The wind carried the pepper spray to some of the people standing nearby.

On the west side of Broadway, at the corner of Rector Street, the crowd had thinned out. Office workers were walking by quickly, trying to get out of the area. A group of protesters was standing near the curb, looking around. The police ran orange netting along Broadway, separating the sidewalk from the street. A paddy wagon drove past, lights flashing. The protesters at the curb kept looking south on Broadway and west on Rector, debating whether the cops were going to come in and sweep everybody up in a mass arrest. Just behind them, an officer was patiently giving directions to a family of tourists.


"I don't do carnival," Robert Segal told me in Liberty Plaza. 47 years old and wearing a dark suit, Segal looked less like a Wall Street protester than somebody who worked on Wall Street, which was exactly what he used to be. Now he was an organizer for the movement. As he talked to me, he checked his phone for a laptop he was trying to buy on Craigslist to use on-site.

Segal winced when a spontaneous march started up during the general assembly meeting. "Unplanned marches result in a lot of chaos." He was frustrated that the protesters had plenty of tents but the police wouldn't let them be put up. Amplification also wasn't allowed; at the general assembly meetings and speeches by visiting speakers, audience had to yell out each line after it was spoken, relaying it back through the crowd.

What Segal wanted was for protest sites to open up at other locations around the city. "You walk in, you sit down, you don't leave. The U.S. Constitution says you get to do that. We're full to bursting here at Liberty Plaza."

When I asked what he thought the most important goal of the movement was, Segal said that wasn't the point. "What we're doing here is we're massing. And if the community is robust enough, and if the community can thrive and be healthy, then the necessary political discussions can take place."

"Whatever policy outcome develops, coming out of a healthy, thriving community, it will be healthy," he said.

The idea of most protests is action on behalf of a particular goal. The Occupy Wall Street protests, by design, are action in search of a goal. That makes it hard to know how they will proceed in the future. As the New York Times reported recently, some union leaders have embraced the movement as a left-wing response to the Tea Party, something that could push the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.

But the people I heard from at Liberty Plaza didn't seem as enthusiastic about the Democrats. Michael, a blond guy with a beard who had driven up from Asheville, North Carolina, was a former Ron Paul voter who didn't think voting for either of the two parties did any good. He wanted to see a viable third party emerge around issues like cutting back the military and the CIA, taxing the rich and limiting the federal government. The most concise rejection of working with the political establishment I saw was written in marker on a cardboard sign, propped up next to some people sitting on the ground: DON'T VOTE.

"When people yell 'solidarity', that's when you know there's disagreement," Segal told me.

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