As the throng of chanting discontents wound its way through the narrow aisle of barricades along Wall Street, a steady file of motorcycle police on one side and the buildings of financial institutions on the other, suited corporate employees and otherwise employed people were trying to get to work.
It was 9:30 am on Monday morning. As the commuters pressed down the sidewalk, skirting around the crush of police and protesters, some looked down at cell phones. Others smirked at the sign-holders, and still others nodded approvingly. “I’m so with you guys!” shouted a woman in restaurant uniform. “Join us!” a bearded twenty-something banging a drum shouted back.
The Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, or what is now being called “Liberty Square,” has evolved significantly since it began last Saturday, when 1,500 or so hopeful protesters gathered after months of social media-fueled planning. The Facebook event had 20,000 ‘attending.’ Barely a murmur was heard in the media that day. But as the daily march streamed back into the square on Monday, the tenth day of the encampment, network press vans and a small flock of journalists were waiting for comments.
Likely the result of the footage of police brutality widely circulated online in the past few days, the news media has just begun to paint a picture of an emerging type of active sentiment which the United States, let alone New York, hasn’t seen in more than a generation. Americans have watched it land in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe in the past few months, but the commonly accepted rhetoric (something about apathy, something about complacency) seemed to imply it would not touch down here. Though its beginnings, it is clear, are self-consciously humble, the Occupy Wall Street protest is maturing, and fast. The question for a protest in a city and nation very out of practice is whether it will be able to grow up.
Christian Gabriel Ruiz is a 19 year old student from the Bronx. “I missed my last class,” Ruiz said, “I’m probably expelled.” He sat on a bench in the plaza with a plate of food from the occupation ‘kitchen,’ a communal buffet table spread with three meals a day and frequently pizza, donated to the protesters by a number of sources.
He’s there “for equality.” He’s sick of so many things, he said, that seriously disturb “[his] own moral code.”
Equality for Ruiz starts with healthcare. “Doctors have a huge moral obligation to help people. They really, really want to. But because of our system, if we go to the doctor’s, there’s a chance they can’t. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Ruiz’s big-picture statement–that his motivating discontent is on a scale as big as the national healthcare system–is common in the plaza. People are there for environmental justice, for student loan reform, for a restructuring of the tax system. They hold signs that read “end the wars” and they chant “tax the rich.” Some say they’d hesitate to call what they want a revolution, and some are outright anarchists. Most realize the potency of the label they’ve acquired, and corporations and their attendant government benefits are the most echoed outrage at “the Wall Street protest.”
These large-scale statements run the gamut of discontent, and protesters are self-consciously aware of terms like “splintered” and “disorganized” and “idealistic” being applied to them in news coverage and blog comments.
Very little can be said to define the movement wholesale, but Ray Mia, a 25-year-old who traveled from Boston to be at the protest, felt no pressure to provide it. “Maybe our demands shouldn’t be really small. Our demands aren’t going to be met. So let’s just laundry list them and make it a bigger picture,” she said. “It’s completely decentralized, but it’s okay.”
If they know they’re not going to change laws, then the point, she said, is in the process. Indeed, they have adopted the same encampment structure of what they view as their older siblings abroad. References are made to the Madrid protest, which organized itself into committees and held general assemblies committed to pure, if tedious, democratic procedure. No leaders were established and anyone could chime in, if they waited their turn. At Wall Street, a general assembly meets twice a day and propositions are made on a soap box. “The learning curve is steep,” said Mia; the first assembly was six hours long.
Committees on safety, on media outreach, on food distribution and every other conceivable moveable part of the encampment have popped up in recent days. They sit in circles and take turns speaking. For Robert Paros, a 23-year-old construction worker who came from Florida to be there, this leaderless tedium is the ultimate source of frustration.
“We’re fucked,” he said, but it’s temporary. “The process has slowed us down. They’re all calling us disorganized. But when we do get big–and we will–they won’t be able to accuse us of being led by a few hardcore leftist radicals.”
A permanent problem, in Paros’ view, is the aesthetic of some of the people camping out. “I wish the hippies would get the fuck out of here,” he said, pointing to a group of sleeping bags where topless twenty-somethings and a few dreaded men were chatting and playing guitar. “When a mom with her little kid walks by here the kid should be asking the mom ‘Why are these people here?’ not, ‘Why is that girl not wearing a shirt?’”
While the numbers of topless folk are relatively few, the question of demographic–or more specifically of homogeneity–is of general concern. The protesters are predominantly white twentysomethings, and many, even if unemployed, are financially stable enough to be camping out “All day/All week,” as one chant goes. Can they really claim to be the “99 percent?”
Mia says yes, if they play it right. “Yeah, we’re white and young,” she said. “So when it comes to police brutality, we are getting maced, and people are taking notice.” Finding a way to use that attention and amplify the complaints of “everybody else,” she said, should be the real focus. “We just have to know what they want to say.”
Union workers have become the first group to break up the uniform demographic. By lunch time several benches were peopled with construction workers and electricians on break from work at the nearby World Trade Center site. They come at that hour every day, they said.
“I’m not part of the protest but I’m not against it either,” said Lord Monroe, a Local 46 metal lather. “They’re complaining about the same stuff we do but we just won’t take their action. We don’t want to fail. So I tip my hat to them for trying.”
“Some say the group looks silly. But it’s not. It’s proof positive–they’ve been out here a week now, covering their heads in plastic when it rains,” he said.
Another union worker named CJ pointed to the end of the square that was strewn with several hundred posters. “There was one of those over there, it had a big fish eating another big fish, but the first fish was made up of tons of smaller fish,” he said. “The message that that sends–yeah, I’m with that.”
At the center of the square people on iPads and laptops were updating the protest blog and tweeting voraciously. A group painted posters and two women wearing duct-tape red crosses asked if anyone needed water. Tourists and passersby stood reading the signs, pointing and talking amongst themselves.
The turnout is still low. Tents have been banned and recent bouts of rain have cut into overnight numbers. They’re not allowed amplified sound, so a call-and-repeat system replaces a bullhorn. The threat of being arrested while on the daily Financial District march is very real.
“I’ve seen people pepper sprayed, beaten up, handcuffed for no reason,” said Paros, who said he has walked towards the front of ten marches since last Saturday. “When you do that, they have the tendency to single you out. Now I’m doing more organizational stuff, because if I go back on the march they will arrest me.”
Despite this, and any misgivings he has about toplessness and turnout, Paros echoed the sentiment of most in the square who showed up to the protest with some kind of fundamental discontent.
“I’m staying. It’ll work. It’ll just take some time,” he said.
Whatever ‘it’ is and whatever might constitute it having ‘worked’ are unknown. But they are learning, they are trying, and they are reintroducing themselves and anyone watching to rhetoric and behavior that have sat largely unused in the American context for decades. That, if nothing else, is no small something.
Photos by Zoë Schlanger and Julia Berke