Occupy at One Appears Restless, Transformed
This article was originally published on Alternet and is reposted with permission.
10 a.m, New York City
There is no longer an Occupy Wall Street.
That's what all the mainstream outlets are saying this week, and they're right in one way. What started as a couple hundred people in a park with no plan has turned into a decentralized, distributed network of activists, affinity groups, organizations and organizers, working on everything from free education to fracking. And so, as New York's financial district was choked with glitter, balloons, dance parties and a whole lot of police, Occupy's anniversary feels less like a celebration of what was and more a demonstration of what's becoming.
The plan on paper sounded much like the plans for November 17, 2011: Shut down the NYSE bell. But it quickly became very different. Maps handed out over the weekend (along with pre-coordinated text message lists) separated the Financial District into quadrants, each with its own theme: the Eco Zone, the Debt Zone, the Education Zone, and the 99% Zone (which includes the original occupation site at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza). At 7 a.m., groups assembled in each zone to spread throughout the financial district, staging creative actions as well as old-fashioned sit-down protests, designed to confuse, distract, and infiltrate the heart of Wall Street.
From the red cube across from Zuccotti Park, one march headed out and down Broadway, to run straight into the police barricades at Wall Street. But unlike last fall, when the confrontations wound up as heated stare-downs between occupiers and police, this time groups of people splintered off to do their own thing. The maps had marked strategically important locations, like bank and corporate headquarters, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Emblem Health, TD Ameritrade, and many more.
The NYPD, meanwhile, had set up its own occupation, more thoroughly shutting down and annoying the residents of the financial district than Occupy ever did. Barricades closed off all access to Wall Street and many other locations, as well as encircling Zuccotti and lining both sides of Broadway. We spoke to one woman who was headed to her first day of work on Wall Street and was not allowed through the barricades because she did not yet have an ID—she struggled with tears as she told her story.
The police moved away from kettling and mass arrests a while ago and have settled on a much more terrifying tactic—seemingly random snatch and grabs, yanking people off the sidewalk out of a crowd. Artist Molly Crabapple was one such arrest, seized at around 8:00 a.m. from a march on a sidewalk near her Financial District apartment. So, too, was student organizer Isham Christie, grabbed off the sidewalk in front of me, seemingly for crossing the street at Broadway and Wall Street around 9:30. While Christie is a longtime Occupy organizer, Crabapple is an internationally-known illustrator and artist (and, full disclosure, a sometime collaborator with this author) whose Occupy-related posters and prints have been wheat-pasted around the globe. According to National Lawyers Guild New York president Gideon Oliver, the 100-odd arrests made by 11:00 a.m. also included a working legal observer, Damen Morgan, arrested while taking down names of arrestees. The arrests have tended to be quick, sometimes brutal, designed to intimidate and unnerve.
We watched the "balloon bloc," "writer's bloc," and "free university" blocs head out, and then an organizer I've known for over a year grabbed my arm and told me, "You don't want to miss this."
I fell in with her and a small group that wouldn't tell me the plan but warned me that arrests were possible, and we moved down Water Street to the Chase building around the corner. I fell back and watched the crew stroll unhindered through the revolving doors—and pull out bouncing balls, confetti, and a letter to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, which they read out loud—until the cops finally came in. Most of them, including longtime members of Occupy's Direct Action Working Group, made it out again just fine, though a few arrests were reported and NYU professor Andrew Ross of Occupy Student Debt was rumored to be among them.
Reports reached us that a group of clerics and other Occupy Faith members were planning a symbolic sit-in in front of the Wall Street Bull, so we headed that way next but found ourselves instead in a scrum on the sidewalk on Broadway where more seemingly random arrests happened.
Other reporters scattered throughout the Financial District caught other actions; Nick Pinto of the Village Voice tweeted that the education and debt blocs were joining up briefly to "symbolically enact their interrelation" by shutting down an intersection and stopping a police truck. Molly Knefel of Radio Dispatch reported, "Just saw a cop walking with a giant pink cross, I assume confiscated from Occupy Faith." Citizen Radio's Allison Kilkenny saw, "Two men in suits standing on corner quietly talking. Assumed they're wall street until I heard them discussing #ows tactics."
Today isn't about mass movement-building, though. That's the work these groups are doing day in and day out, off the streets, in their communities, with friends they met in and out of the park. Instead, these days now serve as a moment for the diverse parts of left movements to come together, to remind the enemy—financial firms and other big corporations—that they haven't forgotten.
Though rumors abounded that the unions and community groups had abandoned Occupy, in New York City, at least, that wasn't the case. While the overwhelming presence of May Day or even October 14 wasn't to be seen, a few hundred union and community group members braved the barricades at Zuccotti Park to come out in support. A crew from ACT UP, VOCAL-NY and Housing Works, many dressed in Robin Hood costumes, called for a tax on Wall Street to pay for health care, including AIDS care, and community group members from United NY, Strong Economy For All, and New York Communities for Change rallied with workers from companies that have been preyed upon by Bain Capital (and the now-famous and continually terrifying 15-foot Bain Capital puppet).
But even during the rally in Zuccotti Park, impromptu marches and actions went on in Lower Manhattan. One group spontaneously shut down the West Side Highway briefly on the way to Goldman Sachs and the World Financial Center. A group, including several CodePinkers wielding hot-pink bras, held a mic check outside of the Bank of America location adjacent to the park—until a quick, violent arrest left the NYPD holding a fifteen- or twenty-foot perimeter around the bank's entrance for no visible reason.
The financial district felt alive with protest in a way that they hadn't even in the early days of Occupy; it was impossible to keep a count of the people around because they never stayed still. When Zuccotti Park filled up mid-afternoon with people milling around like the early days—People's Think Tank and all—a march promptly took off to try to reach the stock exchange before the afternoon bell. The march clogged the sidewalks and resulted in several arrests, including that of journalist and AlterNet contributor John Knefel, who according to witnesses was walking on the sidewalk when he was pulled to the ground by NYPD officers.
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While the big march didn't make it to the stock exchange, a few intrepid college students did. A group of students from Middlebury College in Vermont, a liberal arts school that sends many graduates to work in finance, visited New York for the Occupy anniversary and were disturbed by what they saw as racial disparities in the people who were being harassed by police as they attempted to cross the barricades. They witnessed people of color being stopped, asked for ID, held up, while well-dressed white people crossed easily.
Barrett Smith, dressed in a shirt, vest and tie, was the first to try crossing the line. "I held up my Middlebury ID, said 'I'm from Middlebury,' and they let me right in," he told AlterNet.
"We wanted to make a point about getting through the checkpoints," Anna Shireman-Grabowski explained. So the group of them went in with their student IDs—9 of them, men and women, all white. Then they held a mic check at the foot of the stock exchange, calling attention to how easily they were able to cross, and the white privilege that allowed them to do it. "The police did come at us and ask us to move along, but didn't arrest us," Katherine Murray noted.
"We were able to exercise our rights, which are protected by the Constitution, but there are people in New York City who can't walk down the street without being arrested," Smith said.
At 6 PM, the Occupy groups descended back on Zuccotti for a spokescouncil and speak-out session, but I headed to One Police Plaza to check on arrestees. In a small park across from the police building, Occupiers and friends and family waited to greet released friends with love, support, food, water, and beer and pizza at a neighborhood pizzeria doing a brisk business at its sidewalk tables. A marching band played and people danced as some of the 155 or more arrestees from the day trickled out—including faith leaders, journalists, and a lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild.
That part, and several other parts of the anniversary, felt like the old days at Occupy. The mood in the park was jubilant and slightly defiant, the crowd either celebrating the return and the sight of old friends, or enjoying the feel of the occupation for the first time. Yet, Zuccotti didn't feel like the center so much as a place to regroup and reach back out into the world, to take a breather before trying something new. "Occupy" might not be the right name for the movement anymore, as today's actions were less about holding space than breaching it, breathing new life into it, and then leaving it empty but with traces of what might be scattered like the glitter and confetti on the floor.
The movement isn't what it was, and who can blame it? As many have pointed out, a year into the Civil Rights movement, the bus boycotts were still fighting. Other tactics had barely been thought of.
The mainstream media, and indeed much of the progressive media, is eager to pronounce this movement over, to return to business as usual, to the latest Romney gaffe or poll. But for too many Americans, business as usual ended in 2008 with the financial crash, or was never tolerable to begin with. Occupy opened a space to discuss those problems and to dream of something better, and there's no going back from that.
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @sarahljaffe.
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