Occupy Wall Street: A Movement Of Moments, Two Years In
I’m wearing a coat and tie because that’s what I wear when I think I might get arrested. “Good optics,” is what I think of my outfit. It’s mid-October 2011, and Bloomberg wants everyone out of the park so that it can be cleaned. The cleaning is a fig leaf. We’ll be allowed back in, he says, but we won’t be allowed to bring sleeping bags and tents. A notice is posted telling us that the park is meant for “passive recreation.” It also says we’ll no longer be allowed to lie down. We figure Bloomberg is envisioning a sweet spot that’s more passive than activism but less passive than napping. Bloomberg loves sweet spots, like how he’s nice enough to gay people to persuade liberals that he’s kind of cool but has his cops frisk enough black teenagers for rich folks to know that everything is running like it’s supposed to.
The NYPD says they’re coming for us at 7am. Okay, so come. There are a few hundred of us staying in the park all night, just in case they try to slip in early. The cops sit in their cruisers and turn their headlights on and off. This starched collar is making my neck sweat. Some guy talks my friend Niral into sitting in a Rubbermaid bin, because of a theory that the bin isn’t technically a banned structure like a tent, and that you don’t have to lie down to sleep in it. These bins can save the movement, the guy assures us. All of our nerves are pretty frayed.
Day breaks and I’m peeing in a McDonald’s bathroom. A good motto: never get arrested with a full bladder. I look in the mirror and practice telling my mom that disorderly conduct is only a violation, basically a parking ticket. Sated, I exit onto Broadway and—holy hell–thousands of union members are suddenly pouring into Zuccotti. They’re like the Riders of Rohan rumbling down the mountainside to defend Helm’s Deep at the end of The Two Towers.
I’m back in the park and we’re smushed body-to-body. How many of us are there? Three-thousand? Five-thousand? The sonic ripples of the human mic spread advice on how to best face mass arrest.
“Link your arms!” yells an organizer from her perch on the wall at the park’s north end.
The people near her shout: “LINK YOUR ARMS!”
Then again from those farther back: “LINK YOUR ARMS!”
Behind me, a brawny sanitation worker nods. “All right,” he says, and he laughs a little. “I guess it’s on.” I decide that he’s the kind of guy I want standing between me and the NYPD.
Somebody passes a message to the perched organizer. She shouts some words I can’t hear. Instead of repeating them, the people close to her start cheering. A literal marching band starts brassing it up. Words? We don’t need no stinkin’ words. We got the message. For today anyway, we’ve won.
That was one of the beautiful moments. Occupy Wall Street had a lot of them. Each one was a pinhole poked in the fabric of our day-to-day reality, and if you were there to peek through, you could catch a glimpse of an impossible world that seemed on the verge of coming into being. Occupy Wall Street was a movement for economic justice in a country where we usually pretend that our disgusting level of inequality is justified because something called The Market says so. It was an experiment in collective living in the functional and symbolic center of world capitalism. It was a mass movement that functioned without official leaders or hierarchy. It created a situation where the mayor and richest man in New York could see his will thwarted, at least temporarily, by a ragtag coalition of a few thousand radicals and working people hanging out in a park at dawn.
And then, gradually, almost without my noticing, it became something referred to in the past tense. Occasionally it still feels odd when it hits my ear, hearing people—hearing myself—talk about what Occupy was. After all, I felt present during my time in Occupy in a way that I rarely have before or since. To hold it as a completed event, to be prodded & analyzed rather than to inhabit it in a moment of action—it seems to distort its nature. For many of us, OWS was a prolonged but fleeting brush with an authentic life. What we wanted to be doing, what we thought we should be doing, and what we were doing all came into near-perfect congruence.
If you look, you can still see some of Occupy’s comet’s tail. Activists will be out again tomorrow to mark OWS’ two-year anniversary and to make clear how much work is still left to be done. Tidal, a journal that grew directly out of OWS, is still giving voice to the ideals that brought the movement into being. Strike Debt is working to erase the shame that attends indebtedness, and to erase millions of dollars of that debt by buying it and then forgiving it outright. Not as directly but just as genuinely, my own Blunderbuss Magazine was born out of Occupy. The DIY spirit of OWS helped my co-founders and I to realize that maybe we don’t need to throw ourselves at the feet of editors to get our work out there; maybe we can do it without asking permission.
This is where Occupy lives, and will continue to live: in the headspace and heartspace of those it touched. This might include you. Perhaps the 99%/1% divide is on your mind and on your tongue in a way that it wasn’t before OWS. Perhaps you’ve decided that banks and big corporations don’t deserve our accolades just by virtue of existing, that they’re members of a community and they sure as shit better start acting like it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps you’ve been sniping at OWS from the comfort of your apathy since the first park was occupied. But even you, Hater, are now living in a country where our rhetoric and concerns are still on the front page of your newspaper, and where a man who proudly & publicly thanked occupiers for “standing up for all working Americans” is about to become mayor of this country’s largest city.
Occupy is dead! Long live Occupy! The movement was a mélange of moments, the greater number of which are now behind us, but moments change people and people change history. While OWS might be over, its story certainly isn’t finished.
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