Occupy Wall Street-Manhattan New York


It is small,  loud,  disorganized, and motley. But despite, or maybe because of, these qualities, Occupy Wall Street thrives. Without leaders, without a unified message, without clear demands, the movement has the tenacity of a dandelion.

When I got to New York City at the end of October, the big marches had already happened; hundreds of people had been arrested; and the Occupy movement had sprouted sometimes rowdy scions around the world. In New York, the protestors had reached an uneasy truce with the powers-that-be and were dug into Zuccotti Park.

Zuccotti Park corner of Broadway and Liberty

Since I am so resoundingly among the 99 percent of ordinary folks, I had to check it out.

Zuccotti Park is a handkerchief-sized sneeze of tree-lined pavement in the midst of the greatest financial steam engine on the planet.

You can hear the occupiers before you see them. In the afternoon, the drum circle in one corner of the park creates a din that draws crowds and donations. The makeshift message boards, the costumed prophets, and the motley crazies ring the park’s perimeter interacting with onlookers and providing photo ops.

Felicity and her family

“This is history,” said Felicity’s mom. “See kids, these people are here for you.”

“What do you think, Felicity?” I asked.

“It’s nice,” she said.

“Why are these people here, do you know?”

“Ummm. I can’t really explain it.”

Well…that has been a bit of a problem for the movement.

The overarching message of the occupiers–and the spark that finally blazed into a protest movement–is outrage at the shenanigans that have enriched institutions and the people at the top of those institutions even while the rest of us (the 99 percent) pay to bail them out, sometimes at the cost of jobs and homes. The occupiers are protesting the lopsided distribution of wealth at the top of the food chain that has reached levels not seen since the Great Depressio and the regressive tax structure that coddles those at the top percentiles while hammering everyone else.

the poster created by Adbuster's that ignited the spark

The message resonates with a large swath of ordinary folks.

That’s the reason Paul, a union ironworker from Los Angeles, comes every day after work to hold his placard in Zuccotti Park. “I’ve been mad for years,” he said. He wants to wean politics from the money tit. He wants to get lobbyists out of Washington and to see meaningful campaign finance reform.

The Occupy message was originally broadcast by Adbusters, a clever Canadian anti-consumerist magazine. The hue and cry went viral with Internet groups like Anonymous urging folks to “flood lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” The rest is history, and it’s still being written.

Zuccotti Park is awash in tents and swathed in blue tarps. Paths snake between them, but sometimes the trail ends abruptly, and you have to retrace your steps, which may or may not be difficult depending on how many people are behind you.

While most of the action happens around the perimeter of the park, plenty of onlookers wander through the inner maze as well. There’s a People’s Library under a tarp quonset hut; there’s a kitchen that distributes three free squares a day. When I was there, lunch was coming out of pizza boxes, and a girl was smearing peanut butter on bread. Nutritious but not tasty. The logistics of feeding a couple hundred people without water or power had to be challenging.

Native American presence @OWS

Surprises lurk around every corner (of which there are many due to chaotic tent placement). As I wandered through the park, a guy who looked like Lenin was holding forth on one corner.

“I believe that we can win,” he yelled.

“I believe that we can win,” echoed a little circle of people.

“Obama is waffling. He’s nervous.”

“Obama is waffling. He’s nervous.”

“He doesn’t want to look nervous before the election.”

“He doesn’t want to look nervous before the election.”

Is this some kind of entertainment? I wondered. A spiritual chant? But then I realized that this was what the protesters called a “human mike.” A single voice can’t be heard, but many voices can. Is a metaphor hidden in there somewhere?

A Native American guy with a few bedraggled feathers in a headdress was waiting in the wings. He was from North Dakota and was going to speak about the Canadians digging up the tar sands in search of oil. Tar sands? North Dakota?

So Chief Few Feathers began and the chorus followed, and I left wondering what tar sands had to do with corporate greed or unfair taxation.

the Swami

A little farther on, I encountered the Swami. He sat turbaned, robed, and cross-legged on a box with his blissful followers gathered ’round, occuping an entire corner of the park.

“I don’t think September 11 was any big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think September 11 was any big deal.” The repetition made the statement more disturbing.

“It’s just a shift in human consciousness that’s been going on for a long time.”

That was too long for everyone to remember, so half the message was mumbled.

I realized that Mr. Swami with his unlined face and long beard was probably younger than I. So I’m pulling rank and calling it as I sees it–the guy is full of total egotistical crap.

A normal-looking man stalked around the perimeter yelling loudly, “Where is the money? Can anyone tell me what’s happening to the money?”

Buck demonstrates twinkle fingers

A young guy ran up and tried to explain to Mr. Loud Mouth that decisions were made in meetings of the General Assembly, which at that time were happening every evening at 7pm in a donated space at 60 Wall Street. No one leads the assembly. Anyone attending has a vote. Attendees communicate their frame of mind with hand signals, for example, crossed arms is strongly negative, hands up with waggling fingers (called twinkle fingers) signals approval.

Loud Mouth was calming down, and the young man, whose name was Buck, explained that a committee might get a budget, but money isn’t distributed willy-nilly, and I got the impression that neither were the ledgers rigorously totted up. For example, a guy who broke his drum playing for the movement got pissed and left when he didn’t get money to repair it.

Capitalism is also alive and well in Zuccotti Park. Wherever flocks of people congregate (and even organized tour groups go to see Occupy Wall Street these days), free enterprise thrives. So, while crass commercialism isn’t too evident, still the button sellers and the t-shirt hawkers are doing a brisk business.

The first time I went to Zuccotti Park, Will was the only guy doing t-shirts. (hand-cut stencils, spray paint, and bring your own shirt.) A few days later, three groups were selling t-shirts.

“I’m only about getting the message out,” Will grumbled. “Any money I get goes to the movement. Those guys keep all the money they make.”

I dug through Will’s pile and found a used brown shirt still smelling of the former occupant’s deodorant, which Will painted.

“Any amount you can donate would be great, darlin’ ” he said.

my t-shirt

The money really goes to the movement, right, Will?

For all its discordances, Occupy Wall Street has some kind of embedded collective intelligence. It sort of works. Whether it has staying power or whether it’s the beginning of a change doesn’t matter. The movement has made its case on the world’s stage. In some fragmented way, it has spoken for the people.

And really, does it look so different from a handful of decades ago when a bunch of troublesome young people did some protesting of their own?

Interesting addendum: Not all the privileged 1 percent are sitting like dragons on their gold. Some are publicly expressing support and solidarity with the rest of us. Read their personal statements here.

Update 22 Nov: Four days after I visited Zuccotti Park, police raided the site at 1a.m. with 10 minutes warning. Tents, library, kitchen, along with personal goods, were torn down and taken away. Protesters and supporters were arrested, cordoned off, or pushed down the street. Protests continued over the next few days as OWS tried to reorganize and tens of thousands of people gathered in support. Police by and large avoided the most egregious examples of pepper-spraying and hardball tactics that other Occupy sites experienced. A recent issue of the New Yorker described billionaire NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as “a man not completely able to transcend his 1 percentness to be a mayor of all the people, but no heartless bureaucrat, either.”  Helicopters continue to patrol overhead even today.


Paul occupies Wall Street every day after work










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7 Responses to Occupy Wall Street-Manhattan New York

  1. Davis 18 November, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    The local New York CBS news, hardly a mouthpiece of the Murdock interests, reports less gentle goings-on:


    And the “human mike” — mindlessly repeating the leader’s words — is positively Orwellian. The effect on the mind of the participant is entirely independent of whatever reasonable rationale might have been offered for the practice in the first place.

    But I am glad you went and appreciate your report.

    • Kate 18 November, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

      There were thousands of people on the streets downtown on Nov. 17. (OWS estmates 30,000.) I’m sure there was questionable behavior on both sides, but this report of kids being escorted to a Wall Street prep school doesn’t seem like hard news to me. Might have been a good day to keep your kid home. The “discussion” following this blurb was equally disturbing. (Time to “crack some heads.”???) I’ve been listening to NYC public radio, and I’m not sure the real story is being reported anywhere. Too much happening.
      Although about 300 people were arrested, Mayor Bloomberg said most people acted responsibly. Even so, helicopters have been flying overhead since the early morning hours. But apparently streets are, by-and-large, clear.
      Personally, I feel the OWS message and presence is important and timely. I certainly didn’t feel much rapport with many of the people occupying Zuccotti Park, but I’m glad someone was there for me. As for the “human mike,” the description may sound Orwellian and experiencing it was confusing, but in the end, it was simply a way to communicate–the only way a speaker could be heard.
      Thanks for your perspective. I appreciate it.

  2. jean selby 15 November, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Thanks for the up closse and personal view. It,s about what we here in the sheltered midwest thought it was, but it’s good for us to see the real people. Especially the Iron worker. He’s one of all of us.

    Shawn and you are corrrect that we should get off the Indians backs and let them progress. That’s our American shame.

  3. Erik 14 November, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Very interesting read. A unique perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  4. shawn 13 November, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    I can explain a little about the tar sands. There’s a bit of oil in Northern Canada in the sand; it will be hard to get out, and not good for much. Still, the oil barons would like to pipe it from Canada through the midwest (ND and OK are the Indian reservations in the way) all the way to Tx.
    The very poor ND Sioux Indians and the relatively more weathy Osage & Pawnee Indians are hoping to stall this aspiring eco-mess. I think they’ll be the only ones that can. Back to saving the earth for 7 generations.

    • Kate 13 November, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

      Thanks, Shawn. OWS has become a soapbox for all sorts of messages–and this is an important one. I knew about the tar sands debate, but I didn’t know the plan was to pipe the sludge to TX. Good Lord, what madness. I guess we need to stand with the Native Americans on this one.
      (Shawn is my sister. She works as a nurse practitioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.)

  5. hoz 13 November, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Bless you, we are the 99%.