14 November 2011

Rumors

The second issue of our OWS-inspired Gazette is out today, online and in print.

If an American was condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence; he would feel an immense void in the life which he is accustomed to lead, and his wretchedness would be unbearable. —Alexis de Tocqueville

October 17, Astra Taylor

Right before midnight I tuned into the Zuccotti Park livestream. I had been down there earlier that afternoon but still I felt compelled to check in. Though the encampment, with the help of a couple thousand early-rising allies, had successfully resisted city’s eviction attempt days before, I had a lingering sense that the occupation was something precious that may dissipate or be destroyed as quickly as it had emerged, as if from nowhere. Indeed, when the video finally buffered and began to play, it looked as though my concerns were about to be validated. I couldn’t quite discern what was happening—the image was dark and blurry, the audio disjointed—but the police were definitely moving in. They were angry about a tent and a confrontation was brewing. Tents had been a point of contention since the beginning of the occupation, with any semblance of a semi-permanent structure serving as a pretext for officers to march into the park, tear it down, and arrest a few people in the process. “The constitution doesn’t protect tents,” Mayor Bloomberg declared. “It protects speech and assembly.”
 
While protesters seemed to be reconciled to camping out wrapped in blankets and tarps, the medical tent was different. Someone told me that the National Nurses United, already providing training and support to demonstrators at occupations across the country, had petitioned Bloomberg to make an exception for the cause of public health. A tent was erected to serve this purpose. I braced myself for a fight as I watched a human chain form around its periphery, sick at the prospect of watching people get clobbered in real-time. But it didn’t happen. Instead, unannounced and unexpected, his timing impeccable, Jesse Jackson waltzed into the park and seamlessly linked arms with the demonstrators to defend against the dismantling. “Jesse Jackson!” people screamed, and the scene suddenly shifted, suddenly, from anxious to exuberant. Faced with a celebrity-endorsed blockade, the police backed down, and in the ensuing days I noticed more and more tents popping up.

On Mon, Oct 21, 2011 at 3:23 PM, Astra Taylor wrote:

Sarah, I just got this forwarded by a friend. Should we investigate? I want to know what the hell is going on. The idea that the encampment may implode over drumming would be laughable if it weren’t so depressing, and an actual possibility. So many movements and groups have destroyed themselves from the inside out. Will this happen to OWS too? I hope not.
 
“X says a woman who’s been very disruptive . . . managed to get folks on board with the idea that the oppression of the drummers is a civil rights issue.  She’s rallying POC folks to meet at 5:45 at the red tripod sculpture with the drummers, to march from there to the community board meeting playing drums as loudly as they can.”


October 21, Sarah Resnick

A group of rogue drummers planned to march to a meeting with Community Board One to let them hear what they thought of the “Good Neighbor Policy.” Posted throughout the park, the policy asked that (among other things) drumming be limited to two hours a day so the neighbors—not to mention the demonstrators—could have some quiet. Yet for the drummers, two hours would not suffice—it was a quelling of free expression. And as of earlier that week, various listservs and social media were sounding the alarm: Our under-recognized allies at the community board had grown tired of the endless reverberations against the glass and steel of the neighborhood buildings. Until now, we were told, they had supported the occupation and their endorsement was not without its rewards. We could thank them, for instance, for their part in thwarting the plans for “cleaning” the park. It’s true, apparently. At a wedding, a state senator—who had played middleman between the community board, the park owners, and the protesters—proudly displayed his text messages with some higher-up at Brookfield to a friend. But that was last week and now, apparently, the neighbors were mad. The community board was losing patience and support was waning. And if they turned against the movement, another eviction attempt would surely follow. Or so we’d heard.
 
So I met up with Astra at the park at 5:30 PM and we lingered by the di Suvero sculpture. We were curious; concerned, too. And we wanted to see what would happen. But no group amassed. And over on the west end of the park, there was no indication the drums would ever let up. We grew sure that our lead was a nonevent. And we were pleased! Perhaps the community meeting would end well after all. And we found out later it did—better, at least, than expected. The neighbors voted to give OWS another chance, though they implored the drumming be curtailed.
 
On the train platform, we discussed second occupation attempts—past failures, future possibilities. Rumors. We deliberated over strategy, and contemplated symbolic resonance. We put forth suggestions—places we’d like to see taken—though they were reveries to be sure. I prattled on until I realized Astra was no longer listening. She had turned toward a short, forty-something woman in a navy suit, and loafer flats, who stood not three feet away. The woman stared right past us, still and unblinking. And it was clear that she was trying to look natural, ordinary, casual. But she was holding up her cell phone in the least natural way, her elbow bent, her forearm straight up—gravity wouldn’t like it that way. She’s filming us, we said.
 
The woman stepped forward; she was at a different angle now. And her forearm was still up! Astra, much taller than her, maybe even by a whole foot, bent down and leaned in close. Are you filming us? Is your camera on? I peered at the ID card on a lanyard around her neck. She works at Deloitte. But her eyes stayed straight out in front, and if she saw or heard (and she must have!) there was no sign of recognition, no reflex response. And her arm still up and her phone pointed toward us. The train finally came and we walked down the platform, bewildered and laughing. In jest we foretold of the FBI admiring our sweet faces in no less than an hour. Though without saying so we knew there were things less likely. She’d mistaken us for figures of import, radicals of influence, though we knew we were not.
 
I moved to the back-door window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in the next car. Maybe she’s just one of those people who films everything, I mused. Like that artist, Wafaa Bilal. Unlikely, we both agreed. If our spy was in the adjacent car, she was out of sight.
 
The doors opened at the next station. “Slavoj!” Astra called, through the rush-hour crowd. And Žižek maneuvered his way to where we were standing. We recounted our tale of citizen surveillance, and he complained of the hippies at Occupy San Francisco. At Union Square, we exited the train and he called out after Astra: “I hear you are married. Don’t you know that’s a sin!”


October 23, Astra Taylor

Back at Zuccotti, this time to meet Judith Butler who has agreed to come and give a short speech, an “open forum,” as these events are called. A few dozen people gather round her, sitting on steps and crouched on concrete. “It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public, that we are assembling in public; we are coming together as bodies in alliance in the street and in the square,” she says, every few words repeated by the human microphone—our bodies, our voices, her amplification. “As bodies we suffer, we require shelter and food, and as bodies we require one another and desire one another. So this is a politics of the public body, the requirements of the body, its movement and voice.”


October 25, Astra Taylor

Today I went to Penn Station to pick up my sister, Tara, visiting from Georgia. We went straight to Zuccotti Park, arriving around 8:30 to watch the General Assembly. A woman, who looked to be in her early thirties, was submitting a proposal to buy fifteen walkie-talkies to be used by the people who watch over the occupation at night. She was requesting $800. She explained that there had been some bad stuff going on when people were asleep and the community watch group needed to be able to communicate to keep things safe for everyone. “Like what kind of bad stuff?” a skeptical guy asked. The women replied that there had been reports of fights, drug dealing, theft, and, finally, sexual harassment. Over the last few days I had heard from friends, in person or over email, that security was a growing concern; here it was being publicly discussed. The crowd, however, seemed reluctant to believe these were serious issues until a young fellow from sanitation stepped forward. “We see these things when we clean up,” he said. “It’s happening. We need to deal with it.” After a few clarifying questions – How will the walkie talkies be charged? Would they accept a smaller number or walkie talkies? What brand do they plan to purchase? – the proposal finally passed, my sister and I enthusiastically casting a vote to approve the budget. As we strolled around the park, admiring the bicycle powered generator in the kitchen, the ever-expanding library, the media team, heads bowed over their computers hard at work, it was hard to imagine feeling unsafe. It was getting late and the park was not well lit, but it was full of people and buzzed with energy.
 
When we returned to my apartment a couple hours later a message from our other sister, Sunaura, awaited us. She had been occupying Oakland and was supposed to be heading to the airport to catch a red eye and join us for a family visit. But instead she and her partner were caught up in protest, a large spontaneous march against the raid on Occupy Oakland the day before. The community, outraged, was fighting back. “I don’t know if you can hear me,” Sunaura shouted into her phone, exultant. “This is amazing! We want to stay! Can you see if you can change our tickets?” Tara and I went online and found our way to a livestream expecting some rousing spectacle, but what we saw looked disturbingly like a war zone. We found footage of Oakland police shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd and read reports of rubber bullets being used against demonstrators. Multiple people emailed me a photo of a woman in a wheelchair trapped in a haze of mace and I started to panic. After a moment of calm reflection, though, we realized it wasn’t our sister – Sunaura wouldn’t wear that hat. But she’s still not picking up her phone.  Half an hour later we finally get a text. She and her partner got out just as the cops were closing in and will make their flight. The woman from the photo, I learn the next day, is her friend, a talented dancer and dedicated civil disobedient with a long arrest record.


October 26, Sarah Resnick

A. had texted: “meet 8:30 or 8:45.” And I didn’t have to ask—he meant the Police Brutality Solidarity march with Oakland. I was already at the GA, and we were debating twenty thousand for bail plus one hundred tents plus shipping. We’ve got plenty in the bank, can’t we spare some for Oakland? Yes.
 
It’s almost 9pm now and I see A. and C. and we hasten down the sidewalk, we’re already lagging. We catch up on Church, but A. sprints to the front of the march and I don’t see him again that night. And later I hear that he and some others had stolen orange netting and run through Tribeca, up Church and Sixth Ave, then on to the set of Gossip Girl on MacDougall.
 
But I’m still with C. and we’re headed up Broadway. At Prince we veer left. To Washington Square! Then we hear it’s surrounded, so right on to Mercer. More arrests now but we press on, returning to Broadway and up toward Union Square. We’ve taken the street now and we’re walking through traffic. A couple exits their cab to join us. New York is Oakland. Oakland is New York.


October 30, Sarah Resnick

It’s more and more difficult to spend time at the park. Turns out, the revolution is but a series of meetings held at far-flung locations, and I sat in on three today. Four if you count the one in the bar. As the afternoon progressed, the anecdotes amassed, echoing an email I’d received earlier that week: “L. said people were really burning out, getting tired, bad things happening, etc. L.—not a paranoid person at all—said he’s seen police cars dropping off schizophrenics at the park, and I believed him.”
 
The story varied each time I heard it. That cops were encouraging the chronically-intoxicated and the longtime homeless to head over to Zuccotti. That buses from Rikers were dropping off the recently-bailed two blocks from the park. That protesters in search of police assistance found officers unwilling to help. That the kitchen had cut back on hours to discourage freeloading. Some (the Rikers buses) left me skeptical; others (police encouragement), less so. And while the veracity or falsity of each was impossible to determine with any certainty—they were all hearsay, all third-party accounts—surely there was some truth in what was being said.

I returned home late that evening to see yet another variation reported in the Daily News by Harry Siegel:

He’s got a right to express himself, you’ve got a right to express yourself,” I heard three cops repeat in recent days, using nearly identical language, when asked to intervene with troublemakers inside the park, including a clearly disturbed man screaming and singing wildly at 3 AM for the second straight night.

Let the conflict among them be their own undoing. An old and trusted tactic. Life in the park was undoubtedly becoming more complicated

On Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 9:31 PM, Astra Taylor wrote:

Sarah, did you see these? Tweets from a Mother Jones reporter—mention of a possible rape at Zuccotti. I’ve heard about incidents of sexual harassment, but still I find this hard to believe. But maybe I just don’t want to.  It’s just too awful.
 
What do you think? And is it responsible for reporters to tweet this kind of speculation, to broadcast gossip?

JoshHarkinson</strong><br />A trustworthy #OWS activist tells me that an influx of homeless and hardened criminals is causing major issues for Zuccotti campers<br /><br /><strong>JoshHarkinson
She cites reports of cops dumping inmates a few blocks away. There are also rumors of NYC’s City Homeless Services sending homeless there.

JoshHarkinson</strong><br />Most disturbingly, she says there have been reports of rapes at Zuccotti. People are now locking their tents at night.<br /><br /><strong>JoshHarkinson
If the rogue elements at the park can’t be tamed, she thinks #OWS will relocate to a new site that is more easily defended.

On Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 9:47 PM, Sarah Resnick wrote:

It’s hard to imagine with everyone living in such close proximity and the community affairs people up all night, keeping watch. But anything is possible. I hope it’s not true!

And I agree these tweets are irresponsible. That’s the danger of Twitter and the reporters who use it as if they are no longer reporters. Especially in sensitive situations such as this one. His followers may retell this information as if it is fact. And if it doesn’t turn out to be true, then. . . .


November 2, Astra Taylor

I went down to Wall Street just after eleven hoping to catch the veterans march from the Vietnam memorial, but was running a bit late and couldn’t find them. No wonder. I later learn they marched in dignified silence and were, for the most part, free of a conspicuous police escort. There were no barricades, no plastic handcuffs, no orange nets, no authorities with bullhorns. Only as they approached Zuccotti Park did the brigade begin to shout, in military cadence: “…corporate profits on the rise, but soldiers have to bleed and die!  Sound off, one, two…” Many carried signs that read,“I am still serving my country.” Later, when I spot a few servicemen lingering on Broadway, I am reminded of a federal report on homeless veterans that had been released only days before, which I read about in the newspaper. There are 144,000 of them, the experts determined, and they make up a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population (young veterans are twice as likely to be homeless as their nonveteran peers) in part because many have disabilities—both physical and psychological—as a consequence of their military service.
 
Not just in New York City, but at occupations around the country, mental health and homelessness have manifested as interconnected issues, with members of both groups increasingly scapegoated. At Zuccotti Park the homeless are said to be “occupying the occupation” and are portrayed as “freeloaders” and “loonies,” a danger to the community, a threat to “health and safety” and “quality of life.” The homeless are unfairly lumped in with the dangerous, drug-addicted, and, to quote the New York Post, “deranged.” But housing status and personal conduct aren’t the same thing (if nothing else, the elaborate fraud and theft of Wall Street executives should remind us that those who have multiple homes and who appear perfectly sane can be criminal). More importantly, the presence of homeless people at encampments should not be seen as a liability for the movement, but a reminder of why the protest exists, since their condition is directly linked to the unjust and corrupt economic policies OWS is rallying against. Recession-induced homelessness is set to skyrocket over the next five years and shelters across the country are already filled to capacity with people whose homes have been foreclosed on (in the Midwest foreclosures are accounted for 15 percent of the newly homeless). Meanwhile, funding for social programs is being chipped away at: earlier this year Bloomberg’s budget called for a six percent cut in homeless services. People who should be getting help from the city, in other words, are seeking aid at Zuccotti Park.
 
Later in the afternoon I introduce two friends so they can talk about bolstering efforts to provide mental health support for people who come to Occupy Wall Street, which has become a veritable tent city, an almost impassable maze of temporary structures housing hundreds on less than an acre. Protesting, especially occupying, entails real strain. It’s cold and noisy on the street, which means many occupiers are suffering from sleep deprivation, which compounds other problems. But it’s not just the people who are visibly troubled—the ones who are attracting negative press these days—that my one friend is worried about, but regular protesters. “Let’s face it,” she says, “people with emotional issues end up at this kind of thing.” That’s not meant to disparage the movement or detract from the cause, she says, clarifying. It’s just to acknowledge that many activists are wounded, broken, a want to fix the world that made them that way. It’s a kind of sublimation. There’s something beautiful about it, but maybe they need help too.


November 2nd, Sarah Resnick

Oakland general strike today. They’ve shut down the port. Twitter is going crazy.

JeffSharlet </strong><br />Any firm sources on twitter buzz that occupyoakland protester hit and killed by car, driver released by police? Seems unlikely.

JeffSharlet</strong><br />Merc News, MSM, says Mercedes ran red light bcause driver pissed at protesters. Onlookers believe deliberate and acceleration post-impact.</p> <p><strong>JeffSharlet
Looking worse. MT XXX WARNING GRAPHIC! photo of #OccupyOakland protester after hit by car is.gd/x2pNHp</p> <p><strong>JeffSharlet

I’ve been thinking that an Occupy fatality was possible. I thought it would be an overzealous blow w/ a nightstick. Appears it’s road rage.

JeffSharlet</strong><br />XXX XXX XXX No, I haven’t “reported” anything; I’m not there. Trying to sift thru accounts. No death confirmed.

JeffSharlet</strong><br />XXX No deaths. Those rumors were false.

On Thurs, Nov 3, 2011 at 5:45 PM, Astra Taylor wrote:

Reading the news today and talking to people and it appears the stories of sexual assault are true. My fear is that things will become worthy of a Joan Didion style essay, a tale of decline and darkness, of dreams turning into nightmares. It’s terrible that this happened, but the mayor is making it sound like this sort of shit only goes down at Zuccotti Park (which it doesn’t) and, more laughably, that it only goes unreported there when A) these incidents were reported to the police multiple times and B) lots of women don’t report attacks out of fear of stigma and shame. I have to admit, I was really hoping this was a fabrication by OWS’s enemies, a deception engineered by the rightwing media.

On Thurs, Nov 3, 2011 at 6:33 PM, Sarah Resnick wrote:

This is deeply disturbing, and I worry for the victims. I am also concerned for the broader movement—I hope the press does not blow this up and out of proportion. The individuals responsible for these crimes are by no means representative of OWS, nor are these crimes particular to the park. We’re in a large urban center and there is crime throughout this city, everyday. In the first three months of 2011 alone, the NYPD reported 340 forcible rapes (which does not include statutory rape and other forms of sexual assault) and it’s unlikely that most, if any, of these were covered by the media. I guess what I mean is: I wish we’d spend more time addressing the pervasive cultural tolerance of sexual violence against women rather than spotlight one incident in a park.

And with respect to Bloomberg: As if sexual misconduct is never swept under the rug in the halls of great wealth! We need only look as far back as the coverage of the Dominic Strauss-Kahn case, for instance, which, irrespective of his guilt or innocence, revealed a culture of condonation around sexual predation. Friends like Bernard Henri-Lévy call him “charming, and seductive,” while the French essayist Pascal Bruckner pilloried the incident as evidence of our “twisted puritanism” here in the US.


November 4, Astra Taylor

Today I heard from folks in Georgia that the little Occupy Athens—which is sometime only a tent strong—has its share of problems. Last week, when she was visiting, my sister Tara had been distressed because the organizers shooed away a homeless man from the first meeting. Sure, the guy is a notorious alcoholic, she told me, but he’s also a sweetheart who has been around for years. She thinks they should have tried to recruit him. Today our houseguests, also from Georgia, tell me about the mini-occupation’s tribulations. Supposedly the encampment keeps getting ransacked by homeless men getting up off their benches in the middle of the night and drunkenly rustling through all the coolers and boxes in the food area, making a huge mess while on a hopeful hunt for donuts. Not only that, but the protest also attracts a good number of counter-demonstrators. For example, two straight-looking fellows showed up the other day with “Invade Mexico” signs. My friend claims that Rush Limbaugh has been advising his listeners to infiltrate OWS and stand around with off-message signs to confuse and turn off passersby. “Are you guys here because of Limbaugh,” my houseguest asked the interlopers. They wouldn’t respond to the question, she told me, but one of them broke into a wide and mischievous grin. But when I look for evidence that this conspiracy is true—how great it would be if the crazy signs at Zuccotti Park could be blamed on conservative radio cranks!—I can’t find any.
 
Down at Wall Street I run into an ex-coworker, D., now working for the business press. We trade notes on the events of the last six weeks and discuss actions that are being planned. Everyone is gearing up for November 17th, the occupation’s two month anniversary. Things need to escalate, we agree, or the media may lose interest; D,’s editors are already saying the protests are old news. D. is excited but also frustrated; so many scoops but he can’t write about them, at least not yet. Right now they are just whispers, designs only beginning to take shape, too premature to make fully public. Things need to stay under the radar a bit longer. Meanwhile, he wants me to call his great uncle and help organize a field trip for a bunch of geriatric radicals since he can’t—his job demands the appearance of neutrality. A lot of the residents at his uncle’s nursing home are eager to join the protest and they have vans and drivers to bring them to the park. Since it’s New York City there must be tons of wizened leftists who would want to join them. Old people want to occupy. Could I help make it happen?
 
A few feet away a man is speaking, a lawyer, an author, but I don’t catch his name.  “It’s cold down here today,” he begins. “It’s so cold I saw a bunch of Bank of America lawyers on the corner with their hands in their own pockets.”

On Fri, Nov 4, 2011 at 9:07 PM, On November 4, Astra Taylor wrote:

Sarah, Are you out and about? I hear that community watch has a meeting at 10 PM at the west side of the park and that some important news is being announced.


November 4, Sarah Resnick

Friday night at the Tree of Life. The stories around Zuccotti had grown progressively worse that week, though it seemed we’d weathered through it. At the very least, park safety issues were being addressed, and well at that: “Safe spaces,” including group tents, would be created for people who identified as female; the victims were receiving needed support; and there were trainings around consent and other forms of assault awareness. A security team (a group that prefers to be called “community alliance”), avowedly nonviolent and trained in de-escalation techniques, patrolled the park round the clock, while empowering occupiers to stand up for each other and work with police when need be.
 
The wind was bitter cold and we stood with our heads bowed and waited. Occupy! Shabbat had just finished a service and we chatted some with those who lingered. We’d either missed the meeting or it wasn’t happening. I thought of Much Ado About Nothing: Had we become Shakesperean characters, steered by rumor and intrigue?
 
Astra suggested we do a quick tour of the park. At the northeast end, a large group had gathered. Someone was filming and there was a bright light. Before we could hear anything, a large placard: Poetry Assembly. We stood one the edge of the crowd unsure where to go next and then decided to stop and listen: “We can fill each other with ourselves. . . . Smother my face with your pussy.” The words made us cringe; given what may have happened nights before, they seemed particularly ill chosen. But as they were earnestly repeated by the crowd, echoing through the people’s microphone, we laughed.  

Image: Wall Street subway. From thevalueguys.com.

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