Editor’s note: On October 14, the month-old citizen occupation of New York City’s financial district faced its first major threat of eviction. Olivia Rosane sends this report of what it was like to be in Zuccotti Park during the tense night and morning reprieve.
There was a brightness in the pre-dawn air as thousands of us gathered in Liberty Plaza, (or Zuccotti Park, in its owners’ language) to prevent the group that had camped there since September 17th as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest from being evicted.
On Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that demonstrators could remain in the park indefinitely, but late on Wednesday night he had stopped by the encampment to announce that Brookfield Financial Properties, the owners of Zuccotti Park, wanted the area cleared for cleaning at 7 a.m. on Friday, October 14. After the cleaning, protesters would be allowed back into the park—but without their tarps, sleeping bags, or personal belongings. That same night, a rather pointed notice appeared on the wall next to Brookfield’s contact information designating the park for “passive recreation” and prohibiting, among other things, “lying down on the ground, or lying down on benches, sitting areas or walkways when it unreasonably interferes with the use of benches, sitting areas, or walkways to others.” It was clearly an attempt to end the occupation.
Occupiers responded with a community effort to make the park so clean as to render the “cleaning” excuse for eviction baseless. Jordan McCarthy, a 22-year-old from New Hampshire on the occupation’s sanitation committee, explained how the group had made an effort to consolidate everyone’s belongings into labeled bins and bags; how they had received, just that day, most of their impressive supply of brooms, dustbins, buckets, and soap. (They only used the biodegradable donations.) Scores of volunteers continued to mop and sweep into the early hours of Friday morning.
I stayed awake through the rainy night, keeping vigil with other occupiers and talking about what Occupy Wall Street had come to mean to them.
Barak Wouk, a junior at Columbia University who had come downtown for the night, told me he was picky about which protests he attended. This one made the cut, he explained, because it was an antidote to the “lack of discussion about economic injustice” by either political party. “This has kind of forced the issue front and center,” he said.
Ursula Romero, a young woman from New Jersey currently paying her way through community college with a job in retail, discussed how much the occupation had achieved. She had been there on its first day; she thought, at the time, that those who criticized it as directionless and disorganized had a point. But now, “it’s its own little community here,” she said.
That sense of community only grew as more and more people began heading to the park to resist the eviction. By 6 a.m., the park was filled shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of supporters chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and, “The people united will never be defeated.”
The General Assembly, the consensus-based decision making process used by the occupiers, began a special session. First, there was an announcement of the global day of action planned for Saturday, October 15, proof that the movement looked beyond Zuccotti Park.
Then, a representative from the Direct Action committee explained a plan to allow the sanitation crew to clean a third of the park at a time, while protesters continued to occupy the other two-thirds—at the risk of arrest. He sought solidarity from those who had not been trained in specific actions: they could link arms around the park, or remain in the park themselves. Those not willing to risk arrest could picket on the sidewalk across the street.
The crowd was using the people’s mic, the now-famous process by which the whole group (prohibited from using megaphones or other amplification) repeats what one speaker is saying so that everyone can hear. In large groups, the people’s mic often doesn’t carry all the way to the edges due to side conversations, but that morning the crowd was so silent with focus that the speakers’ words made it to everyone, even if it took four or five group repetitions to reach the edges.
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Then breaking news was announced. As the sky lightened from black to purple, the crowd began to pass the news that the city had received word early in the morning that Brookfield Financial Properties would postpone the cleaning. The announcement was repeated throughout the square over and over until the repetitions dissolved into cheers.
The mood was euphoric. All the adrenaline of preparing for a fight released into shouts of victory.
But there was a troubling undercurrent to the triumph. I heard a number of people worry that the city or the property owners had chosen not to act when the occupiers were strong and united, preferring to wait for a moment when protesters were unprepared or sleeping.
I left that morning feeling that Occupy Wall Street had proven that it had created something worth defending—no small feat in a country where protest has followed the basic pattern: get a permit, make your complaint, go home. But if it is to grow, the Occupy Wall Street movement does need to think about how it can effectively challenge the injustices occurring outside of the community it has created and maintained.
Saturday’s international day of action was a good start, spawning demonstrations in some 900 cities worldwide and drawing large crowds to New York’s Time’s Square and Washington Square Park. As I joined the thousands gathered in Washington Square Park for a General Assembly Saturday night, I found myself agreeing with Columbia Professor Gayatri Spivak as she addressed the group through the people’s mic, explaining that she felt the ultimate goal of the protests was to separate politics from money. “Don’t let just survival, especially as winter is coming, be enough of a victory,” she said.
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