Song for Occupations

For three years since the bailout of the banks—with each year’s news of record profits and bonuses; with the failed re-regulation in Dodd-Frank; with the revelations of the Fed’s hiding other bailout lending programs; with the spectacle of politicians taking banking and lobbying jobs before and after serving the public; with the banks’ donations to campaigns; with each instance of Obama’s economic continuity with Bush and Clinton—it crossed our mind, Why doesn’t somebody just go and stand on Wall Street? Until someone from the press asks, “Why are you standing here?

It probably crossed many Americans’ minds.

But then the voice of conscience would whisper, “Why don’t you go and stand there, coward?”

And our cowardly answer had been, We’re waiting for someone else to start it.

The first time we saw Zuccotti Park, on September 17, our heart sank. There were maybe two or three hundred people. We came that day because all summer the Adbusters website, then many others, had been saying that all the angry people of the nation were going to descend on Wall Street and be heard. We thought there would be at least a thousand of us.

A few hundred proved to be enough to start things. It was only the first day.

The first few times we went to Zuccotti we didn’t run into anyone we knew. This was disconcerting. And then, gradually, we met more people, and ran into them. Gradually, too, we started running into the people we’d known before. They’d been there all along. We just hadn’t been going often enough.

The first two weeks, the only people we saw at Zuccotti Park, besides the friends we’d planned to meet, were interns. Funny to think of them as an emerging demographic category. But they were interns, undeniably: people we knew as interns at magazines, interns at websites, young people who could write, artists who couldn’t find jobs commensurate with their talents. A few who’d struggled up to assistant this or that.

We wondered, as we strolled around ugly, slanting, paved, tiny Zuccotti, which under other circumstances we never would have agreed to dignify with the honorable name of “park,” where were the pundits, the adults, the ones who speak on panels, who opinionate on blogs, who go on TV and say what’s going to happen? None of them in evidence. Just their interns.

Lots of students, too, past and present. The fall semester started just before OWS did, and it took a little while to figure out who in our classes, if they were absent, might have been arrested.

For two hours one morning we streamed through the streets of the Financial District with several thousand other people, drumming, dancing, waving signs, periodically linking arms, and stopping traffic. We enjoyed a cup of coffee and a banana. At one point everyone sat down to hold ground and we were pushed into the lap of a 50-year-old man. “Nice to meet you, darling,” he said.

Behind us, someone started a chant about love transcending all. We all repeated it automatically, trailing off with groans when the meaning started to sink in.

We borrowed a red Sharpie to write the number of the National Lawyers Guild on our arm because of the likelihood we would all be arrested for sitting. When the police announced we could leave, we got up and went to work. We were there by 9.

We saw an old leftist writer post grumpily on Facebook: “Spontaneity is when someone else does the organizing.” That wasn’t our experience. Spontaneity is when everyone does the organizing.

Early in the occupation we found ourselves joining the Political and Electoral Reform Working Group. One afternoon we wandered into its second or third meeting, by the library. Someone suggested it would be good to announce the group at the general assembly that evening. That’s how we ended up leading our first human mic.

The Political
The Political
and Electoral
and Electoral

Reform. Working Group. Will be meeting. Every day. At 6 pm. By the library. It’s what. It sounds like. Please come. Join us. We’re especially looking. For people of color. And women. And other members. Of marginalized groups. Because. We don’t want it. To end up. A bunch of white dudes. Like us.

A middle-aged black woman and an old Hasidic man came for information, and the next day they both showed up at the meeting.

But later we stopped attending, when it didn’t live up to what we’d hoped.

Bittersweet memory of the human mic at the first eviction attempt, echoing through five relays of voices:

I’d like to read a brief statement
I’d like to read a brief statement
from Deputy Mayor Holloway:
from Deputy Mayor Holloway:
Late last night
Late last night
we received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park
we received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park
something-something-something [Wild cheering]
The line drowned out was: “That they are postponing their cleanup.”

It proved to be a mild September, October, early November. A gift from the heavens or the carbon-compromised atmosphere. When a freak cold snap and snowstorm hit, the occupiers in Zuccotti stayed put. They seemed indomitable.

In other neighborhoods of Manhattan, in the boroughs, at all the colleges, groups held general assemblies. It made you giddy. Ordinary daily decisions would come up, whether to postpone a deadline, and people would start talking about achieving “modified consensus.” Friends and strangers alike made constant, silly jokes. “Let’s go occupy dinner.” “Sure, I’d occupy that.”

One night just before Halloween we walked through Washington Square and stopped by the Washington Square General Assembly. It happened to be just six kids around a bench that night, twinkling their fingers and making plans. Each repeated what the others said although the whole assembly sat within a ten-foot diameter.

“Last night we had a proposal that we organize snacks for future GAs,” the de facto facilitator announced. “I suggest we form breakout groups to brainstorm this idea before taking a temperature check.”

Funny looks. “Um,” a woman said, “if we break out in groups it’s just going to be us.”

Nearby, an NYU troupe was practicing in turn-of-the-century costume for a play about the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and women’s labor organizing. “An eight-hour day! An eight-hour day!” chanted a picket line of crinoline-clad students until the foreman started beating one of them.

When the text message came that Zuccotti Park was being raided again, we had just taken off our pants to get into bed. We live nearby, and we went on the empty nighttime subway. It was a challenge to guess who else on the train had gotten the alert and was headed for the park, and who was going home after a night out. The girl with the Goth paraphernalia? That guy in work boots?

The call to protect the encampment was already moot. Riot police pushed us newcomers back to a corner a block north. We could see steel barricades and klieg lights. It was less than thirty minutes after the assault. The police seemed out of control, unwell. A plastic riot shield pressed against our chest; a black baton pushed us back. “It’s OK, stay calm,” we said to the cop without thinking, “You’re going to be fine.” We saw why they wear plastic visors and helmets even though they limit the cops’ vision: to dehumanize us, to make it seem that the citizens they are pushing are just figures on their TVs.

All our lives we had wondered: why do people face off in the front line against the police, why do they antagonize them? It seemed so irresponsible. Finally we saw what we could never see in pictures, that, close up, riot police become visible, not as helmets and batons and pepper spray and guns, but as vulnerable, ordinary, lovable American citizens, just like you. And these citizens are denying you your rights. They are shoving you for standing on an American street, on land which is yours, which they have no right to do. We have never been so angry in our life.

We were late to the raid on Zuccotti, having been up near Harlem and unsure what our help could amount to. When we finally got down there, we approached a barricaded street south of the park. We were now part of a third wave of arrivals, milling around and straining to be part of something we were worried was already over.

People said the kitchen crew was making a last stand in Zuccotti, U-locked together. This was repeated often that night, into the next morning. (It turned out to be true; there’s footage on YouTube.) It was repeated over the human mic in Foley Square, our backup gathering point, while riot police slowly encircled our group of forty or so, before dawn came to expose the police to sight and cameras. Each time, the news that the kitchen crew was holding on was met with a wave of elation.

We felt our legs and arms shaking when two buses of arrested occupiers were driven around the park. They waved their cuffed hands out of the windows, calling to us. Anyone sitting immediately leapt off the ground. We hollered, we ran toward the edge of the park. Everything felt so real at that moment—our position within this greater structure thrown into ecstatic relief.

On our way to Foley Square, we stood for a few minutes outside a Citibank north of the park. A small gathering was amassing in the street, planning to block a caravan of approaching police buses. We were standing on the sidewalk, and we moved into the street. The man next to us asked if we were willing to link arms. A few minutes later the two of us were ripped apart and we watched him being hit with a baton.

We didn’t think again for the rest of the night that we were alienated from these people who were protesting, or ask what we were all doing together here, or feel that we were unneeded.

After the Zuccotti Park eviction we called our mom. She said the media coverage made America look like a “police state.” That was a pair of commonplace words we were fairly sure she had never put together before in her life.

A text message the day after the eviction read: “We need bodies down here.” We got dressed, on the train, off the train. The Brooklyn Bridge rose high against the blue sky. We went down Broadway. In front of us was the guy who balances a cat on his head; today the cat was wearing an American flag. We followed the movement toward familiar Liberty Plaza, which was now surrounded with police barricades and had been hosed clean, like a driveway. Inside the park, a handful of police officers milled about aimlessly. One was eating a bag of sunflower seeds. None seemed terrifically engaged or worried by the protesters who were congregating on the sidewalk. A lot of them were playing on their phones. The one who had been eating sunflower seeds dropped the empty plastic bag on the ground. Later the park reopened.

On November 17, the Day of Action, our first chance to show we hadn’t been broken by the eviction, we saw a bunch of our friends get arrested, first thing.

Later we saw five cops marching shoulder-to-shoulder down the sidewalk. They were blocking off the sidewalk as they cleared it. Protestors slowly backed up before them. We were in the street. We ran to the sidewalk and started the chant. “Whose sidewalk? Our sidewalk!” Those around us picked it up. The cops stopped. They couldn’t deny us—it really was our sidewalk. They slunk under some scaffolding, and we all walked forward on our sidewalk again. Then something got into us, and we shouted, “We won! To the street!”

And we took the street.

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