The Occupants of Wall Street

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by Joshua L. Durkin

 

Pungent curry stink hovered overhead in Zuccotti Park. I turned to see three men and a woman in their early twenties, I guessed, carry paper plates holding clumps of food. They looked weary, especially a grungy man of indeterminate age who walked after them, picking at his plate the way that tired or worn people will do. His beard was matted in places that mat when you sleep on something other than a pillow.

 

It was Tuesday, September 27, the 11th day of the protest known as Occupy Wall Street.

My beard felt a little coarse on the fingertips, and otherwise short and combed without all the grime a body collects, but it was no comparison because I had only been in the park for ten minutes, and some of them, maybe even he, had been living in the park for as many as eleven days. The sight of them reminded me of how riveters and ironworkers and steelworkers operated in teams to construct the Chrysler Building, surpassed by the Empire State Building, surpassed by the Twin Towers—the mad rushes to build steel as quick and tall as possible with infernal rackets echoing through the streets.{vsig}josh/OccupyWallStreet{/vsig}{vsig_c}0|2 ocws – mark di suvero sculpture.jpg|”Joie de Vivre”, a sculpture by artist Mark di Suvero.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|8 ocws.jpg|A young woman leading a call and repeat session in the protest.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|9 ocws sleeping area.jpg| An area where some of the protesters slept.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|12 ocsw media area 1.jpg|The men and women running the media center.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|15 ocws police security.jpg|NYPD Security Tower.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|16 ocws – koch brothers.jpg|An animal cage dedicated to the Koch Brothers.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|17 ocws – sign painters.jpg|A young man and woman painting cardboard signs.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|18 ocws – the beligerant protester.jpg|The racist protester. As he is yelling slurs, David Goode (not pictured) cuts him off.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|19 ocws – david goode and the beligerant protester.jpg|David Goode (left) holds a sign as the racist protester refuses to leave until police eventually remove him.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|20 ocws wtc.jpg|The World Trade Tower.|{/vsig_c}

I wondered if I had the resolve to live like they did in protest, or, if maybe they just had less else to do with their time and wanted some donated pizza and curried bits of food. I caught myself on that thought, because that was the kind of reductory narrative that the major news networks shone on everyone to explain away the group of protesters camped out in the most perverted financial district in the world. The CNN/FOX News narrative that aims to trick people into thinking that these people here and now—hunkered with laptops and civil disobedience—did not work as hard for what they believed in as men and women in any other profession.

The mainstream media has not cared about the protest in any meaningful way, which is astonishing to think about, considering the slow snowballs to roaring avalanches that toppled perverted and oppressive regimes during the Arab Spring. One day, journalists will look back at the televised media and feel cold and quiet about the way news was presented in the early twenty-first century. After all, few people look back on McCarthyism with fondness.

I walked under the low canopy of trees in Zuccotti Park, and wondered if they had to be replanted after the shock of debris landed on them from the destruction of the Towers just hundreds of feet and ten years away. In the middle of the park, there was a station that streamed a live online feed for the Occupy Wall Street website. The men and women worked on laptops and sat within a circular barrier of clothes and tables and gear. One guy had a hunter green t-shirt with “F#@k the NY Times!” written on it.

 

I decided that the wrong way to write this story would be as a straight news story.

 

The mainstream media has tried to fit Occupy Wall Street into a narrative model that they feel comfortable with, a narrative model that would just as soon apply to a Yankees/Red Sox game, when much of the point of the protest is quite simply that the mainstream media has failed to dig deeply enough.

Rosa Parks was one woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama who acted as many did before her, but these are hundreds of people in Zuccotti Park of Liberty Square in Manhattan. And a week ago there were thousands who were much less organized than they are now. Should there be tens of thousands? Would that give the protester’s simplistic ideas more merit? It very well might, but it shouldn’t. It involves the same logic that approves of writing stories that interest large audiences instead of writing stories that present large audiences with information.

I sat down and watched a covey of pigeons peck at a plate caked with curry or mustard. The air felt warm and humid. Some protesters looked tired and lithe, carrying that look people get when they don’t get enough sleep. They seemed to half-doze in slumped positions with drained faces and temporarily thoughtless minds.

I spoke with a protester named David Goode, who had that sleepy, worn look I had noticed in others earlier. 24 years old. Lives in Brooklyn and had been in the park for five days. He held a sign that read: “This Man Is Crazy” with an arrow pointing at a man holding a large sign stating: “Satan Controls Wall St.” with a large red pentagram.

I asked him if the police, or anyone else, had interfered with the protest in the last few days.

“I think the police forget how to protect us,” he said. “We’re trying to be peaceful.” He said that America is not a hateful nation, but then stopped and sighed. “We are a hateful nation,” he corrected, “but here [in the park] we are against hate.” He said that the police and everyone had been calm since the arrests and pepper sprayings a few days ago.

“We don’t want that here,” he said, after a moment, nodding at the man to my left. “It got me pretty mad.”

The man at my left had erupted less than five minutes earlier while speaking to a young woman with a video camera. I saw David jump up a few moments after the man startled bystanders and protesters by screaming, “The Jews are stealing our money! The Jews are stealing our money!” with a ferocious anger that scared people around him. David got right up to him and shouted repeatedly to get out of the park. I heard the man yell, “I’m being turned out.” It seemed jarring to people around, and most stared wide-eyed as the man walked off, and I thought it weird and darkly funny that he would first yell a thing like that, and then claim he was being turned out, as if his rights were violated in some way.

Anna Marie Rockwell was from San Francisco. She held a black tin of shoeshine. As we talked she would point at times to the chair and black footrest she had set up behind her. On the footrest were red, white, and blue bottles of nail polish, and acetone. Her hands had brush strokes of nail polish around and between the fingers. She had set up similar stations in front of courthouses and also in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

“It’s a symbol of where you begin,” she said. “We’re offering a service that people cannot afford.”

He looked to be in his forties, and didn’t seem to hear anything from anyone. He had tanned skin, gruff stubble that looked both respectable and ugly, a cap, and simple clothes. David and many others were clearly bothered by his presence, but it was interesting to me that they did not physically eject him. I did not ask if it was a question of freedom of speech, or if it was pacifism, but it seemed a bit of both.

I asked David if stuff like that happened a lot, and he shook his head. David said it had been otherwise calm. Just then a large double-decker tour bus passed and all the sign holders yelled for the tourists to come join them.

When they quieted, I asked David if he had seen the young women sprayed with pepper spray while they appeared to kneel in civil disobedience in a barrier they were told they could protest in. He said yes, and that was why he wasn’t on Wall Street; he didn’t want to be sprayed. David had an intelligent look to him, and soft eyes that made him look more worried than he probably was. He was a calm young man in thin flip-flops and a light shirt with a few earrings and a determined air.

Two women in their thirties or early forties arrived and pointed at David’s sign, and he looked at them and motioned to be quiet—not wanting to rile the man next to us, who had still not noticed the sign. David walked up to them and after a moment the three of them were smiling and the women nodded. I hung around there for a while, but he was deep in talk with them, so I wandered back into the park.

A young woman stood and shouted out to the crowd, which returned her calls. I had read somewhere that the police did not allow bull horns in the park, so the protest organizers resorted to call and group-repeat sessions to communicate on a massive level. The young woman would shout “mic check” and all in earshot would shout “mic check”. It was slow, but probably more effective than just having a bullhorn, because dozens of people returned the calls, instead of just one voice. She gestured with beautiful arms, the light catching her black skin and making her look vibrant and full of energy.

I could see several unaffiliated cameramen, and figured that there must not have been any major networks there at the time, because they generally like to promote themselves.

Just slightly northwest of Zuccotti Park was the construction of the World Trade Center’s southeastern building, in the backdrop above the low trees that covered students, police officers, young people, an elevator operator, suits, old people, dresses, echoes of the past, and food vendors—halal, smoothies, falafel, Sabrett hot dogs, fruits and vegetables.

The crowd continually grew in the two hours I was there.  As tour buses passed, the protesters implored them to take pictures and come join them, and I thought it was great that the buses had not rerouted to avoid the density of people that clearly slowed them down.

A man from The Nation magazine approached me and asked me if I was covering the event, and I said yes, and asked him why, and after he identified himself, he made a joke about the pizza boxes and said he would send an e-mail to his editor to maybe get someone to come down. I wondered what the hell he was thinking after he walked off. A protest on Wall Street might happen every so often, but in a year of bouleversement all over the world, now would be the time to cover any attempt to make a stand on Wall Street. After all, the media had covered outrageously stupid town hall death panel discussions, and yet where were they now?

Then I wondered if he was really with The Nation, and if I even cared.

I saw two young women had set up under the Mark di Suvero sculpture called “Joie de Vivre”. I walked over and introduced myself.

Originally from Kansas, Anna May Harrah lived in Brooklyn.

“We’re showing that your participation is patriotic,” she said, meaning anyone who added a hand to the demonstration. “Making the 99 percent feel like they’re being heard.”

Like dumping British tea into a harbor, or sitting in the middle of a street in civil disobedience, when you raise a flag or paint a sign, the importance is the idea the image brings to mind, not just the image itself. Many of the signs were flags for and of America. Many were just crude, or incoherent, but the majority had a middle ground feel of persistent and calm opposition to a complacent nation with many, many problems.

She’d spent last weekend and that day at the protest. She thought it was better organized now, in its 11th day. The protest began on September 17, and Anna Harrah had been the first to start making cardboard signs for the protest. She said so quietly, and it felt honest. She worked for twenty hours until it began to rain and then she went home. She had been tired, and was struck twice by cars while riding her bike, and had bruises on her legs and behind her knees, still yellow and purple. She also had a cigar sticking out of her left breast pocket, which I forgot to ask about.

Anna caught the attention of the other woman she was with, Anna Marie Rockwell, from San Francisco. She wore a dark blue dress, and had rather clear enunciation. She held a black tin of shoeshine. As we talked she would point at times to the chair and black footrest she had set up behind her. On the footrest were red, white, and blue bottles of nail polish, and acetone. Her hands had brush strokes of nail polish around and between the fingers. She had set up similar stations in front of courthouses and also in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

“It’s a symbol of where you begin,” she said. “We’re offering a service that people cannot afford.” She wanted to get people in touch with the humble but also subservient nature of washing and caring for feet. She explained a connection between what she was doing and immigrant Asian women who manicure the feet of women from higher economic classes.

“You can’t hide your shoes,” said Rockwell. To her, the condition of a person’s shoes is an indicator of the economy’s health. It made me think of Charles Dickens’s stories, but then I thought of my shoes and looked at their stains and grime.

Her idea was one of the nice quirks of the protest. It is hard for some to grasp the patriotism in protesting, but Rockwell tried to address that directly.

At the onset of the protest, Harrah’s cardboard signs had the same driving force and thought as the actions of rural townspeople when they put out yellow ribbons, or the way people sometimes raise American flags in their yards. Like dumping British tea into a harbor, or sitting in the middle of a street in civil disobedience, when you raise a flag or paint a sign, the importance is the idea the image brings to mind, not just the image itself. Many of the signs were flags for and of America. Many were just crude, or incoherent, but the majority had a middle ground feel of persistent and calm opposition to a complacent nation with many, many problems.

I had watched the online feed from the park for a while over the weekend, and remembered one moment when a young man with short hair and glasses sat in front of a webcam and challenged the people in the chat room to find as much information about him as possible. The man responded to the chat room that scrolled on the right, and laughed as they guessed serious and ridiculous things, and he clearly ignored the few sick comments that people feel free to make when their own faces and names are not out there. He finally shook his head and said something like, “oh, come on guys, use a facial recognition program.”

As I walked away from the Annas’ shoeshine and manicure station, I saw the police ejecting the anti-Semite that Dave had set up next to with his “This Man is Crazy” sign. After the police had removed the protester, a man in tattered clothes and crooked teeth with stubble and wild hair brown and matted as if wet, but clearly dry, kept yelling “Get the fuck out of here!” in a strained and warbled voice that rose and fell and rose and fell.

A cop finally walked over to him and threw up his hands in a gesture to calm down. “My man,” he said rapidly. “Why are you still yelling? He’s gone over to that side.”

“He has?” said the warbler, “He has gone over to that side?” He repeated the cop’s words as people with a mental handicap will sometimes do. The cop kept talking to him and that was the end of the dust up.

At the long marble wall along the north of the park, I put down my pad so that I could have a hard surface to work on. Rockwell had been excited by the energy of the city. Both Annas had an alert focus, and connected the simple service of manicuring toenails and polishing shoes to so many people who cannot afford shoeshines or a manicure.

Rockwell would go back to San Francisco, she said. Hard not to admire her. Few people spend time hoofing it to places to protest. I remember her talking about sister protests budding in other cities, including Chicago, and I looked over at di Suvero’s installation, and saw Harrah, and wondered if  Rockwell had herself bowed to shine like the Asian women she had mentioned.

 

I had noted something a documentary filmmaker named Katie Davison said a day or two earlier in a NY Times interview: “I think it is almost unfair of the public to expect that this group should come up with one solution for everything. I think that is what is most valid about this group.”

People picked up trash and a procession passed by in a chorus of “Be a supporter / for postal workers” following a young woman holding a camera and walking backwards.

I had noted something a documentary filmmaker named Katie Davison said a day or two earlier in a NY Times interview: “I think it is almost unfair of the public to expect that this group should come up with one solution for everything. I think that is what is most valid about this group.”

I left, and apparently had just missed Susan Sarandon’s arrival and talk. At different points, Chris Hedges and Immortal Technique had also been there to speak.

I have been to many protests, and these people did not have the usual geeked blind glee that student-run, two-hour long anti-war protests can have that makes a whole event seem like a flash in a pan. The fact that there were so many ideas presented is actually a positive result of a collection of creative minds. Yes, not focused, but if the protest sustains itself, it will find focus. Those protests in Egypt and Tunisia started broadly enough.

I walked past the WTC, wanting to go to the memorial, but the line was very long, and so I decided I would see it in a few weeks. The site looked better than it had a year before. Yet the glint of failing light reflecting from the windows had a Photoshopped feel, as if it were falsely superimposed on reality. It took me a while walking back up the streets to realize that I hadn’t felt anything looking at the tower, and that bothered me for two reasons. The first, that there might be a flaw in my ability to feel things like that, but the second, that the tower was not that impressive, but the memories of the old towers in smoke and rubble and flame were more important than the new 1,776 foot tower.

I had seen photographs of people deeply affected by the simple memorial, which is good, because a nation that cannot feel morose about the past, or cry outside or in from painful remembrances, is a nation that ignores itself, and I wanted no part in any kind of numb society.

The college kids struck me. Some were maybe even my age, outside and long boarding, drawing, groping, smoking, laughing.  There were older groups too. I saw a man in his forties with olive skin smoke a cigar on a concrete stoop. He looked at me and we nodded, and I remember it because you see so many people in NYC that you tend to avoid peoples’ eyes.

After the WTC I slowed and moved over to let a boiling chunk of city kids let out of school pass by. Their peace troubled and comforted me. And I felt good in a way that I had that kind of ambivalence, and did not want to feel only one or the other, because alone those feelings are falsely meaningful. Men and women, the best of them, feel wildly about events like this one that media try to pin down as simple, like a parent annoyed that they can’t get drunk and watch TV, telling his or her kid go to bed, you’re just overreacting, nothing is wrong.

It was interesting to visit Washington Square Park immediately following the protest. The craned necks and thick textbooks and stretched out bodies made me wonder how many students had walked the twenty minutes south to see the protest?

I sat near the statue of Garibaldi. People mulled and seemed as peaceful as the protesters, but focused on their temporarily quiet afternoon lives, as the light turned that shade of gold particular to New England fall treetops and buildings that makes it easy to escape.

I read over some of my notes: “young woman led call ‘n repeat pledge. More than 200 in square—more on the sidewalks. Headbands, blue hair, plaid cut offs, Smiths baby t-s, leather boots, ‘mic checks’, a reverend, camera phones, gauged ears, hand gestures, engaged faces. The audience rapt. A cardboard sign ‘drug free zone’ another ‘I support the protests. Media: cover the issues.’ Peaceful enough. Clothes and coats in black plast. garb. bags for rain probably.”

Earlier on the way up Broadway before I reached Washington Square Park, just before the street numbers started, a man asked me which way to uptown. A block or two later, another man asked me how far 20th Street was, we were on third, so I told him it would be about twenty blocks. I saw a chinsy statue of Andy Warhol, and again felt ambivalent, wondering whether he’d have liked how bad it looked, like the false chrome of matchbox racecars.

I saw bikers and recalled the deep purple of Anna Harrah’s legs, and the smiles on her face before and after she showed her bruises—a small surprisingly cute well, it is what it is smile. What does it say about a person that can smile so nicely after a car hits her?

My legs were sore and I began regretting not using the subway that day, but the sky was bright and gorgeous. I looked up the street and saw the young dawn redwoods and spruces and sycamores of Washington Square Park come into view. I decided that the wrong way to write this story would be as a straight news story, and slumped into a park bench near dozens of kids my age, probably NYU students. I remembered the spittle slopping out of the anti-Semite’s mouth as he screamed, then sat back, tapping a pencil on a pad and watching girls and boys pass by.  I wondered, what would they do if even a tenth of the city rose up in fury on Wall Street, the way the Arabs had in their Spring?

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