When I got off the train in the Financial District two Saturdays ago,1 the first thing I did was accidentally walk into a policeman. He and fifteen or so other policemen were standing in front of a barricade that had been set up to prevent anyone from entering Wall Street. As I backed away, flustered, I heard one member of a passing elderly couple say to the other, pointing between two buildings, “Is that the Freedom Tower going up over there?”
I had come to the Financial District for a gathering of leftist dissidents, an event that had been described to me as an “occupation of Wall Street.” There were a few websites explaining that “For #occupywallstreet, dispersion is part of the plan” and informing protesters that they “do not need a permit to occupy or peaceably assemble on public sidewalks.” Emails and blog posts alluded to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, popular uprisings in the Middle East, and the intense clout of financial institutions. The tone of the pieces varied but all shared a sense of indignation. The event seemed to be predicated on the idea that the act of assembling was threatened, that the gathering was a justification of itself.
I had trouble finding this gathering, however, since Wall Street itself had been shut down. Chase Manhattan Plaza—the designated meeting place—was surrounded by police barriers. At the barricades, I didn’t see any protesters, only tourists having their pictures taken with cops, tourists having their pictures taken by cops. It was only 3:30 PM but felt like dusk. As I walked, I came to suspect that there were no dissidents at all, that any organized group action had been squelched by the hundreds of police guarding the narrow passageways between the skyscrapers.
Finally, a friend responded to my text message and told me where the General Assembly was. The group had congregated in Zuccotti Park at Liberty Plaza, a paved rectangle between Broadway and Trinity Place, and looked to be at least a few hundred strong. Instead of a single, unified congregation, there were smaller circles of ten to fifty people, some with megaphones. Some circles had moderators and agendas, others appeared to be more spontaneous. Speakers took turns sharing their thoughts and suggestions: how we should be respectful to the police (“fuck the police, love the police officer”), how croneyism was destroying our democracy. People—some compelling, others less so—urged one another to storm Wall Street, shared information about where to find food and blankets, and decried the Obama Administration. Around the edges of the park, rows of police officers and large groups of protesters milled about.
Compared to other large-scale protests I’d attended in my life—the WTO protest in Washington D.C. in 2000, various antiwar protests throughout the early aughts—the aggravating causes here were less abstract. These were not Americans decrying foreign policy. They were Americans in debt, Americans out of work. This “day of rage” was inspired by personal injustices, best illustrated by anecdote rather than data. Along with all the familiar righteous ire at corporate sway in our supposedly democratic political system, there were tales of joblessness, debt, and desperation.
Eventually, I found myself with a group of friends and acquaintances—some I knew from high school and college, some from n+1 and Dissent. Someone suggested that we “assemble,” so we all sat down in a circle. It seemed almost like a joke at first, as when any group of highly self-aware people agree to do something together that could be construed as a cliché. We had to speak loudly to hear each other over the sounds of voices from neighboring assemblies and the occasional police siren. From time to time, a woman seated on a nearby bench rattled a tambourine.
Someone asked what the action was, what we were going to do, and another responded that this was the action, that we were there to talk and organize. Someone suggested that we come up with our demands as a group, then, after some deliberation, we decided we should have just one demand. Our job, as a single congregation, was to decide what was most important to us. I agreed to take notes, and as we talked wrote down the following list of potential demands:
To repeal the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (through a constitutional amendment)
To remove the bull sculpture from Wall Street (as suggested to us by a man who walked by dressed as a banker but wearing a noose instead of a tie)
Some form of debt cancellation (either for everyone or just for students)
Pay-as-you-go military intervention (so that wars could not be waged without Congress agreeing to finance them immediately)
Taxes on small financial transactions (one version of this is known as a Tobin tax)
A social wage or guaranteed income (also described as a negative income tax)
Universal care centers (for children and the elderly)
Reinstating the Glass-Steagall act (a banking reform passed in 1933 and partially repealed in 1980)
Paid sick leave for all working Americans
Greater political transparency in general
Our conversation was serious but also light-hearted. One person suggested that universal care centers be established in former post offices, once the USPS folds. Another objected to full employment as a demand, saying that Americans already work too much. In the middle of our discussion, we debated why it was problematic to make a demand, how in order for a demand to be meaningful, one must have some power to leverage. Someone asked if we could demand that our list of demands be published in Harper’s.
As we talked, people came up and joined our circle. It was not always clear who knew someone in the group and who was a stranger. One man sat down and told us that Wall Street was not the place we should be, that we should find the “nerve centers,” the semi-secret non-governmental organizations that write laws. Meanwhile, protesters marched around the perimeter of the plaza chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” We talked about what criteria made for good demands.
Someone had told us that the small groups would present their deliberations later in the evening, and eventually we decided that repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision was our best demand, since it would ostensibly create a more truly democratic political climate, through which our other demands could be met. We passed around a notebook and wrote down our emails, so that we could continue to talk about how to repeal Citizens United. Then we were done.
A member of the group offered to pass on our decision to a friend who was sticking around, since none of us were going to stay to present our demand to the General Assembly. People were going to get dinner. One of my friends had to go to Williamsburg to bartend a film screening, as part of his unpaid internship with a film company. I walked uptown to see a friend in the East Village. Nothing had been finished.
A few days later, as I was trying to write this piece, I came across a passage in George Eliot: “For in general mortals have a great power of being astonished at the presence of an effect towards which they have done everything, and at the absence of an effect towards which they have done nothing but desire it.” Was this us? Are we living and working in a city where in order to subsist, we must cooperate with the very injustices our demands were attempting to combat? A friend I saw that night asked derisively, “What were you protesting?” Then he laughed and added, “What weren’t you protesting?” Is the whole thing stupid?
There is a temptation to say yes. Since Saturday, it has been harder for me to remain hesitant, to maintain my uncertainty about whether the people still occupying Liberty Plaza are succeeding, or could succeed, or even what they might succeed at. We still don’t know exactly what the demands are. One of the members of our group, in discussing the criteria for a good demand, noted that Americans like to “get something” out of a political action. Repeal, enact, ban. We want visible, measurable outcomes. But we have no Mubarak, no Qaddafi. We are the country that reelected Bush, that bailed out the banks, that has stalemates in Congress about paltry tax increases. Our partial joblessness and alienating democratic system may be very real, our reasons for congregating concrete, but the precise causes of our distress are still far off, the specific solutions perhaps further.
I went back to Zuccotti Park on Monday around 11:30 PM. There were fifty people maybe, many of them sleeping, or preparing to sleep. A kid playing guitar. Someone was projecting images of Twitter onto a white screen. Hundreds of cardboard signs were laid out on the ground, lit by street lamps, waiting for protestors to take them up again. A chatty stranger from Virginia Beach told me he had moved to New York; “Where do you live?” I asked. He gestured out at the park, at the topless men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes sitting in front of banks of computers set up on poured concrete flower beds. “I live here now. We’re going to be here for a while.”
Despite the repeated mentions of “Tahrir Square” and #globalrevolution on Twitter, the uprisings in the Middle East are probably not the best model for effecting change in America. But insofar as they constitute instances of political change instigated by groups of likeminded citizens, they are exciting to think about. It is exciting that people are upset and have claimed a public space as both a symbol of distress and a practical means of organizing. It is exciting that the protests and the occupation have persisted for over a week. It is possible, I think, without being starry-eyed or overeager, to be hopeful. And it is OK to be hesitant. It is OK to want to get something but also not be sure exactly how to get it, or even what it is. If the gathering was a justification of itself, then it arguably has succeeded. If we have not precisely enumerated our demands yet, at least we know that we have them. We would like to get something.