William Paul Carter is holding open his blazer so I can have a clear view of the text on his T-shirt (“Fuck Rich People”) when the wealthiest man in New York City, buffeted by a posse of well-groomed bodyguards, walks into me. “Hello,” Mayor Bloomberg says, looking up. “Hello” he says to Carter. The Mayor can't manage a smile for either salutation, but Carter beams and extends his hand.
Among the dozens of surreal things that happened in Zuccotti Park on October 12, in the fourth week of the event called Occupy Wall Street, that was one.
Someone in the crowd asks Bloomberg, “What is the purpose of your visit?”
“I wanted to see it for myself,” he says, moving through the crowd, shaking every hand offered. “And there are some concerns about sanitation.”
So, tell me about the shirt, I say to Carter when the Mayor is gone. “It says 'Fuck Rich People,' ” he says, stating the obvious. “Someone was handing them out. And I thought it was a better look than the jacket and turtle neck.” There's a fedora perched on his head, and not even a whisper of stubble on his face.
Carter is from Kentucky, and moved to New York City in 2007. He reasoned that, as a young gay man, he would be more comfortable here than he was in the Bluegrass State. He works at Applebee's, and says he hasn't found a “decent job” since leaving Kentucky. With the exception of one protest against the war in Afghanistan, this visit to Zuccotti Park is his first foray into activism. Asked why he is here, he says, “This is a watershed event” and a chance to air “myriad grievances.” At the top of his list of demands are: single-payer health care and greater economic equality that should be accomplished through “changes to the tax code.” He says he intends to return to Zuccotti Park every time he has a day off work.
There is no typical Occupy Wall Street participant, no spokespeople, and no honest way to generalize. The occupation is an attraction, a tourist destination, and a touchstone for conversations with out-of-town friends. People flock here as voyeurs, antagonists, eager or hesitant participants. Some never leave. The camp is growing with the weeks. Piles of bags and boxes and carts have narrowed paths. In deference to the weather, everything is covered by blue and green tarps. From beneath one, a half-dozen voices chant something indecipherable; the sneakers and boots of early sleepers protrude from others. On the eastern edge of the park a drum circle pounds an ever-changing rhythm. Sage is burning. A can filled with cash donations sits unattended near the sidewalk and continues to fill.
The event's unifying slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent” can be found, but it shares space with other slogans, ideas, and images: A card hanging by a lanyard from a tree limb advertises “Free Empathy;” a sign reads “We Bailed You Out Now It's Your Turn;” a resume bearing the name Robert Segal has been enlarged, laminated and placed so it can be seen by anyone who passes the park on the north side. Someone wrote “Work?” near the top in marker.
Everything is in motion always. The paths crisscrossing the park are never empty or still. Marches are called for and spontaneous groups head off into the city, circling the block or headed north to City hall. On the west end of the park, speakers address small groups that form as soon as a voice is cleared and raised. Slavoj Žižek appeared here recently. Ever since, his name has been intoned respectfully as evidence of the event's legitimacy, and repeated often by people who did not know his name a week ago. Groups form, disperse, regroup, and then drift away from each other. No credentials are necessary to speak, and many in the crowd take advantage of this. They rail against Section 8, hydrofracking, the insufficiency of veteran's benefits.
A teach-in on “The Financial Fizzle” is announced and a friend disappears in search of it. I sidle up to a group of 25-30 young people whose voices sound earnest. At the core of their circle, four are crouched on the ground. The rest of us lean over them precariously. The speakers pause often for translation into Spanish, or for objections from the crowd. From three feet behind and above, not a single word is decipherable. I submit, drift away, and see my friend.
“How was the teach-in?”
He shrugs, “Couldn't find it.” He points vaguely toward the other side of the park, past a food line, a generator, a table topped by computers and their operators, and a hundred milling and curious onlookers like us. “It was supposed to be over there.”
A young woman, dressed in business casual and wearing heels, thrusts a flier in my hand. “Occupy Yourself!...with this great selection of financial literature,” it says above the subheading: “recommended reading for revolutionaries.”
The selections listed are strange bedfellows: Poor People's Movements and How to Win Friends and Influence People. I watch as the woman works the grateful crowd, and then ask for an interview. She declines, and fetches her boss, Dan Simon, who is more than happy to talk.
Simon is the president of Cognito Media, a public relations firm that focuses on the financial services industry—JP Morgan is near the top of its clients’ list—and looks as if he were ordered from central casting to fill the role of “nonthreatening capitalist.” He is baby-faced and smartly dressed, tie still straight and perky at 7:30, and tells me he feels very comfortable working this crowd. The fact that so many people in one place are interested in financial issues excites him. “They are open to all ideas,” he says.
Does he think the group's lack of cohesion is a problem?
“It's charming, in it's own way,” he says.
“As a PR person, one thing I'd say is they need better messaging. “They're not bumper-sticker-ready yet.”
I can't argue with that. But for reasons I can't articulate, it seems to be completely beside the point.
After Mayor Bloomberg's visit to Zuccotti Park, the corporation that owns this semi-public space requested that the NYPD clear it in stages starting on the morning of October 14th. The stated purpose was to clean the park of the grime that has accumulated over the last month, but the people at the heart of the occupation have recognized the move for what it is, an existential challenge.
A decision has been made to challenge the pretext of the Mayor's support. If the park needs cleaning, the occupiers will clean it. At 5:30 in the afternoon of the 13th, dozens of people are scurrying around, scrubbing and sweeping and bagging trash. Crowds are being rerouted so that nylon brushes can scour the speakers' steps and the paths.
Hordes of reporters have been dispatched in anticipation of tomorrow's conflict. Tourists too are looking for a thrill. Zuccotti Park has become a panopticon. When any voice rises above a conversational level, microphones circle and descend like buzzards, flashes snap, and cell phones are raised and set to record. Reporters, academics, and writers shoulder through the crowd in search of “gets.” We approach each other, spot notebooks half-opened and held low to avoid attention, and withdraw. Interviewing has never felt quite so useless.
Fractional groups of Trotskyists, Maoists and Socialists have been nibbling at the edges of the Park since the occupation began, but now they are here en masse. A nervous, bearded man with unsteady hands reads from a hand-written note, explaining his reasons for coming to Zuccotti. I arrive as he is saying, “I just wanted you to know I'm here to stand for something.”
In the amount of time it takes him to fold the wrinkled sheet of lined paper he was reading from, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party steps forward. He thanks the man for his words, and then announces: “I want you all to know who the man on my shirt is.” He pauses so we can prepare ourselves to absorb the life-changing news he is about to deliver, and then continues. “This is Bob Avakian! Leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party! Leader of the revolution!” Behind him and toward the curb a young woman wearing a yellow raincoat is bouncing on the balls of her feet and yelling, “No Free Weed for Cops; No Free Weed for Cops!” She is holding a sign that reads “I Heart Cops Who Smoke Pot.”
The juxtaposition between his unrestrained self-righteousness and her mawkish parody of protest sends my mind careening in the direction of strong drink.
Journalists have a weakness for analogy, I'm no different. Most scribes have settled on the idea that Occupy Wall Street is like Tahrir Square in Egypt, but I disagree. Occupy Wall Street is more like a Hooverville. The space itself engages people’s imaginations, but nothing will be settled here, not even the meaning of what is happening, and the participants won't be able to define it. It matters that something is happening in lower Manhattan, and that people are paying attention, but it doesn't much matter what is happening.
The proceedings confirm this in small ways. The meetings held to make decisions are without amplification. One person speaks, and the people nearest them repeat their words, and on, and on. This is called the human microphone, or sometimes the “People’s Mic.” While issues are deliberated, the sounds of hundreds of other voices uninvolved with the debates echo through the valley created by the towers surrounding the park, wind buffets the crowd. From 10 feet away it is impossible to hear what is being discussed, but at the heart of the crowd video feeds transmit the deliberation to anyone in the world interested in viewing but not able to participate.
A very confident man leaps into a stone bench and declares that people should march on City Hall and deliver a message to the Mayor. “The people of New York want us to stay in Zuccotti Park,” he says. By the time he steps down, a crowd has gathered. They start up the sidewalk on Broadway. It is 7 pm, City Hall is closed, there are no signs telling the traffic they disrupt what their cause is.
What matters is that they are still there. In 11 sleepless hours the NYPD intends to do something about that fact. The most popular rumor claims the police intend to arrest everyone in the park, confiscate everybody’s belongings, and not allow anyone back in.
At 6 am on October 14th, the sun hasn't touched the horizon but the streets leading toward Zuccotti Park are full. People pass each other and trade hearsay. Everyone will be arrested. One group plans to lock themselves to trees and chain themselves together in the park. Watch out if the police come through on horses. The NYPD will never move in with all this press. The NYPD is going to beat everyone.
The eastern edge of the park is so tightly packed the police can't keep people out of the streets. Between the dark sky, fog, the glare of camera flashes and the movement of thousands of people, it is impossible to see from one side of the park to the other. A chant goes up “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” and the force of the cry and the volume should be enough to give anyone thinking of moving the crowd reason to pause. A marching band makes joyful noise in the heart of the park. Legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild circle the park, their green hats bobbing above the crowd. And everyone clocks the police as they pull in tighter.
Through the night the cleanup continued. Trash bags are stacked as high as five feet. The bristles of industrial brooms have been worn down. Hundreds of backpacks, untold quantities of food, tents, sleeping bags and medical supplies have been stacked neatly for quick retreat. A dozen people or more continue to circulate, sweeping the park's paths as people mill about anxiously. A bench is lifted and carried off. A queen-sized pillow top mattress is dragged away. And every second of all of it is photographed, videotaped, scribbled on notepads and blogged.
A cry goes up from the large group at the edge of the park at 6:30 a.m. The words are indecipherable, and everyone near me understands the chant as a challenge to the police who are pulling in toward the fence ringing the park. Murmured excitement moves through the crowd for a minute and then fades. From then on it is boredom, anticipation and the need for strong coffee. No one seems to know what is happening. The best information comes from a distance. Friends sitting in warm kitchens tracking news sites know more than the crowd. They call or text, and shed light from miles away on what is happening to us. The sun hasn't risen. Word circulates that a group is marching out of the park. Is this capitulation?
A law grad named Ilana Landecker approaches with a smile and delivers the news that the police won't clear the park. The mayor made the announcement at 6:20, we get the news at 7:35. Why the march? “They're celebrating victory,” she says. “The best way to celebrate a democratic victory is to keep on with democratic means.”
No one near me shares her enthusiasm. Many of the occupiers have a more pressing concern than an abstraction like victory. They lie down on the wet ground exhausted, pull sleeping bags over themselves, and roll to the side of the path to avoid being stepped on. A young couple curls up on a thermal blanket near my feet and pass out immediately. A photographer moves through this scene, sublimely unaware of the mood of the crowd. He holds his phone out in front of his body and tells everyone he passes: “The Post says you guys won. The Post says you guys won. I guess you guys won.”