Song for Occupations (Reprise)

From the creation of a spokes council, meant to cut through the unwieldy consensus process of the directly democratic general assembly, came a paradoxical result. The spokes council was paralyzed by conflicts over power. Who could join this decision-making group? One meeting was delayed by ten minutes because someone was angry that the timekeeper sat elevated above the rest of us. Was it so that people could see her signal time—or so she could rule over everyone else? Another meeting turned to chaos over whether Chaim should be allowed to finish his statement about the differences between men and women. At emptied and fenced-in Zuccotti, meanwhile, the general assembly still met four times a week, for anyone who cared to come and sit in December’s bitter cold. The ranks were reduced, but open to newcomers and unaffiliated folks, and most of the disruptors who caused trouble at the spokes council didn’t bother to go. So the general assembly passed resolutions effectively, including the most practical ones (approving $1,500 for building supplies to improve the office space on Broadway housing phones and logistical meetings), while the spokes council was an exercise in intrigue, theater, and paralysis.

For much of the autumn, we were traveling, which meant we went to occupations around the country. Only rarely did we have to search to find them. All we had to do was look for any green or concrete square in the center of town, with government buildings looming and one or more luxury hotel, and there the occupiers were, with similar bulbous tents and signs. It was comforting, the sense that friends were everywhere. The legal argument that the tents weren’t just for sleeping in, but expressive symbols of the movement, made perfect sense when we saw them this way, in town after town. It felt like seeing America filmed from space, the camera detecting the ribbon of the Mississippi or the peaks of the Rockies. A defining feature of the continent—outposts of civilization.

In all these places we heard the same refrain, at the information tables, or from the tents, or at the coffee shop next door. “We can’t let New York dictate what we do. Their demands aren’t our demands. Occupy everything!”

On the internet we watched Oakland broken up and revived, triumphant. We watched Boulder brutalized. We watched Portland, where thousands of people stood their ground, then slowly, ever so slowly, nonviolently moved forward, as riot police retreated before them. We watched the kids beaten at Berkeley, the footage of the students pepper-sprayed at Davis. We watched the silent protest, hundreds of Davis students sitting still and observing the university chancellor on her endless walk to her car, like a funeral for her administration’s dignity. We compared American cities to pictures of Athens, Madrid, Lisbon. We watched London, Frankfurt, Toronto, Vancouver. We would go to the grid of livestream feeds and see scores of cities and know where things were happening by the numbers of people watching. Then the mayors colluded, and we watched the evictions: Atlanta and Chicago online, then New York in person, then a cascade, so that we still don’t know exactly in what order they happened: Oakland again and again, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles. We couldn’t bring ourselves to watch Boston, where many of our friends are. All we know we have left is Tampa and Washington DC.

We went to the ugly, emptied park one Saturday morning in December for a rally put on by New York’s “communities of faith.” When we arrived, this meant Christian folksingers and a bored crowd. Later, priests made speeches, calling on Trinity Church to let the occupiers take its empty lot at Canal and Sixth, invoking Jesus and quoting words of scripture while a Fox News–parroting heckler stood outside our caged-in protest shouting: “You all just want a handout!”

But before the clergy got their act together, the few of us waiting were restless. Someone put three books down on a roped-off stone bench at the northeast corner, the one closest to the site of the destroyed library. Susan Faludi’s Backlash was foremost. This was a provocation, but—it was just three paperback books set down in a public park! Incredibly, the guards in trashmen’s suits moved in. “They’re trying to start another library,” one whispered into the radio in his hand.

It hurt to watch a farce acted out where real events had occurred. Later there was a controversy over hot tea, which was being forbidden from the park. Tourists stood on the sidewalk, sipping their coffee, watching this insanity. “You might throw the hot tea from inside the park on some people outside,” said the lead guard. “Then who would be liable? Brookfield!” These were low-paid contractors, outsourced, desperate-looking, made to stand between us and those who actually caused us harm.

We left the group of forty or fifty and walked out the gates in time to hear a little civilian-clad Napoleon in a bomber jacket and needless aviators join the awestruck NYPD outside: “Deputy Commander Such-and-Such,” he announced himself. “I understand we’ve got a hot tea situation.”

In December, we meet with friends in Union Square to get on the L train for the Occupy Our Homes initiative in East New York. We’re going to join a march in the neighborhood, culminating in a party for a homeless family now occupying a Bank of America–owned foreclosed property that has stood empty for three years.

A man in our subway car starts a mic check. All the way out through Brooklyn people tell their stories. “We’re the 99 percent,” someone says as the train rises above ground and into view comes a vast hill of graves. This is the Cemetery of the Evergreens, one of seventeen cemeteries that straddle the border between Brooklyn and Queens, the final resting place of over half a million New Yorkers. Centuries of graves of the 99 percent.

One grave belongs to Walt Whitman’s father, a carpenter. He died in 1855, a week after the publication of Leaves of Grass. One of the poems in the first edition was “A Song for Occupations.” Whitman addressed it to “Workmen and Workwomen!” The fourth stanza begins:

The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you, not you here for them,
The Congress convenes every Twelfth-month for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of States, the charters of cities, the going and coming of commerce and malls, are all for you.

That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re on this train. Because we believe these words to be as true for us as they were for Whitman, and for his father, and for the dead beneath the evergreens. All America is for all of us. Not dead, but living still. Now, and here.

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