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Magazine features

Occupy, Everywhere and Nowhere

Zuccotti Park, in the post-Liberty Square winter

Published in the Sunday Herald on January 15, 2012.

When New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ordered the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from their camp in November, he framed it as a public safety issue. The tents and tarpaulins at Zuccotti Park had become a fire hazard, he said, as he justified sending in the riot police at one o’clock in the morning, under floodlights, to rip up shelters, roll up beds and arrest anyone who refused to go quietly.

In the ensuing discussion about the right to free assembly, it was seldom acknowledged that Bloomberg had done the protesters a favour. Forcing them from the square freed them from the obligation to tough it out all winter. And despite a concerted effort to prevent journalists from witnessing the confrontation, images of police officers snapping tent poles and cuffing people face down on the pavement were added to Occupy’s portfolio.

Footage from evictions in Oakland, Portland, Denver and Salt Lake City, the same week, showed a national, non-violent protest movement being stepped on, in heavy boots.

The concrete space between Broadway and Ground Zero is impressively sterile now. The only sign that it was briefly Liberty Square is the metal barriers, two rows deep, that limit entry to a single checkpoint. Apart from stewards in orange jackets and an opportunist peddling badges – “none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” and so on – the park is empty.

These days, the action is a few blocks away, on Wall Street itself, in the atrium of a building owned by Deutsche Bank. This is where the occupiers meet, in self-regulating groups that will, they hope, create the framework for a new society. It is a diverse, all ages, international crowd. The Direct Action working group is here, discussing a merger with the People Of Colour caucus. There is free brown rice to be had, and subway cards, for those that need them. A teenager in a Guy Fawkes mask plays chess against an older, African-American opponent.

After the Movement Building meeting wraps up, two young men from Occupy Philadelphia stick around, killing time before the train home. “The camps, as important as they were, became a distraction,” says Nate Kleinman. “We want to create something that lasts. I want people to be thinking in years, not months.”

They’ve been discussing how to set up a free university and a chain of medical clinics, staffed by volunteers. Their latest project is a communications network, Committees of Correspondence, to help protesters coordinate tactics – the name a conscious echo of the shadow government set up by ‘Patriots’ during the American Revolutionary War.

“The camps succeeded in bringing attention to the issues. It didn’t take long,” says Larry Swetman. “Now in the second phase we’re focused on creative solutions, to loosen the bonds that have been put on people by corporations and government. It’s about taking control of our own destiny, looking at these giants that have kept us in slavery for so long and saying ‘I don’t need you any more.’”

Leandra Villalobos

Uptown, there’s a General Assembly going on, with hundreds of people waggling their fingers in agreement or blocking resolutions with crossed forearms, but most activists feel their time is spent more productively here, in small groups. “I have high expectations,” says eighteen-year-old Leandra Villalobos. “I don’t think anyone here is discouraged. Let the blizzards come. We are ready and strong.”

Last week, she was arrested during a protest at the World Financial Centre, then kept in a cell overnight. She rolls up her sleeve, to show me a bruise, where the Lieutenant grabbed her. “I might take a few hits, but I’m fighting for my mother, for me, for my children,” she says. She camped in Zuccotti Park for a month, around the corner from her school, but for the time being, she’s sleeping at home, in Brooklyn. Her friends stay in shelters run by sympathetic churches. Others commute to be at meetings and take part in demonstrations.

A homeless man gets into a fight with a blue-haired punk. People in the Alternative Currencies working group stick fingers in their ears. Business is winding down for the night, so I walk out, into a Wall Street traffic jam: six limousines, prow to stern, dropping off passengers in black tie at the Cipriani Ballroom. It’s bonus season.

From the start, Occupy Wall Street was a coalition of causes, united around a memorable slogan – “We are the 99%” – and the conviction that an elite class of profiteers and politicians is enriching itself at the expense of everyone else. Freed from the burden of running a makeshift village and bringing all these disparate voices into one physical space, the movement has divided into cells, each offering its own flavour of social justice. There are rallies in solidarity with Native Americans, guerrilla gardening initiatives, hunger strikes, sit-ins, marches, group meditations and endless meetings.

In East New York, a poor, largely African-American neighbourhood in Brooklyn, activists have taken over a vacant house that was repossessed by Bank Of America. In theory, they’re renovating it, for a family of four, but they can’t make modifications without being arrested, so there’s more blogging than building going on.

Karanja Gaçuça spends much of his time at the house, writing tweets and giving guided tours to journalists. For years, he worked at the Deutsche Bank building as a risk analyst. “I didn’t actually move too far, just from upstairs to downstairs,” he says. “I also changed sides.” His new business card reads Political Commentator, Writer, Documentarian.

“Poor communities were not well represented at Zuccotti Park,” he admits. “That’s why we’ve come here to East New York, to let people know that their issues are our issues. There’s a certain amount of luxury in being able to spend time in the park, to not have to be working. It’s a huge sacrifice, sleeping out there.”

Karanja Gaçuça

If the Occupy movement is to grow, it must convince families that are already struggling, weighed down by debt and medical bills, to struggle in their spare time as well. Although polls show majority support for its broad aims – reduced income inequality, tough financial regulation, less corporate money in politics – the number of people taking part remains small. Some camps were home to a handful of protesters, others a couple of hundred. Even the biggest demonstrations, co-ordinated with the unions, drew no more than a few thousand marchers.

The idea that Occupy is “leaderless” has been repeated often enough to become received wisdom. A variation that I heard, several times, is that there are countless leaders, empowered by a decision-making structure that grants autonomy without authority. This is partially true. All mass movements need a core of committed activists and strategists, no matter how dedicated to egalitarianism and “radical transparency” they profess to be.

The nearest thing to an Occupy headquarters is an office on Broadway, three blocks from Wall Street, paid for by an anonymous donor. As it can only hold 48 people, due to fire regulations, there is a hierarchy of access. Groups with the most need of an indoor work space are prioritised, so the prime movers have jobs on Accounting, Media, Technology or Public Relations. “It’s a space for working groups, not a computer lab,” says office co-ordinator Bianca Bockman. “A lot of the people that are feeling disenfranchised are people who need an internet cafe.”

A woman named Sonya, making ham and cheese sandwiches for occupiers in the atrium, told me that she has been excluded, despite being part of the community at Zuccotti Park since day one. “We have not had enough marginalised voices,” she said. “This is a movement, at least in New York, that’s run by white, mostly upper middle class men, who have only experienced a privileged life. How can you set an agenda for a movement of the 99% when those are the people in charge? It’s not possible.”

Other protesters grumble about “white men with laptops” taking over, but what sets the leaders apart, rather than race or gender (there are more than a few women and African-Americans at the office) is that they can afford to be professional revolutionaries, devoting themselves full time to activism. Some run left wing websites and most have been taking part in anti-globalisation protests for many years. Occupy is a career, as well as a cause.

The OWS office

Haywood Carey is a member of the Accounting working group, but he also serves as an official spokesperson. His main task is to put Occupy’s accounts online, to defuse allegations that funds have been misused. “We are not a shadowy back room political organisation,” he says. “We are a people’s movement, operating by consensus. You can look through our expenditures and see stuff that’s ridiculous, but honestly, that’s who we are. We have nothing to hide.” The General Assembly spent $3,000 on masks and puppets for Halloween and $1,416 on “tea and herbal” supplies, but the most frequent outlays are stationery, metro cards, batteries and police bail.

So far, Occupy has raised more than $700,000 without actively soliciting donations. Most of the money has come in response to episodes of police brutality captured on video, such as Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying a group of young women or officers in Oakland beating a peaceful protester with their truncheons. When a photo circulated showing 84-year-old Dorli Rainey at Occupy Seattle, tear gas and pepper spray streaming down her face, donations spiked.

In this winter lull, the movement is starved of mainstream media attention and low on income. The day protesters were kicked out of Zuccotti Park, their account took in more than $18,000. In December, donations averaged less than $1,000 a day. “We cannot be reliant on [New York Mayor] Mike Bloomberg punching us in the eye for growth,” says Carey. “But there’s a strong sentiment of anti-capitalism through the movement and with that comes a reluctance to ask for or even have money.”

Occupiers point out that it has been less than four months since they arrived at Zuccotti Park. They maintain that Barack Obama cannot harness the movement’s energy in the coming Presidential election. A campaign to persuade Trinity Church to allow them to camp on land that it owns in downtown Manhattan has been unsuccessful, despite the blessing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

There is talk of a national gathering this summer, akin to Martin Luther King’s March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but for the moment, Occupy is a wave of diffuse grassroots activism, inspired by the camps and united around a catchy name: Occupy Farms, Occupy Schools, Occupy Food, Occupy Data and so on.

“You can trace it back to the feminist movement and the civil rights movement,” says Mark Bray, a doctoral history student and veteran activist. “If this is going to get anywhere, it’s going to take a decade.”