Sunday, December 4, 2011

Up close and personal: Participating in NYC’s Occupy protest

You may have heard about the Occupy Wall Street movement, also called the 99% movement. Contrary to some media reports, when you go to one of these protests you will get people from all walks of life to participate. This includes homeless people, hippies, older experienced activists, young college kids, international people and police participating. This means a realm of political and social beliefs is present.
The diversity of the movement was proven through my experience. Early in the morning, at about 9:00 A.M., I came near Zuccotti/Liberty Park with my family. There were two entrances, both with New York Police Department (NYPD) officers guarding them, meaning you had to go through police checkpoints. Once inside, once could observe twenty people sitting on benches in the park and occupying about 1/4th of the park. Half of the park was being power-washed by Brookfield workers and the other 4th was open space. One must take into account the nature of the protest itself: it has more longevity, different orientation and feel toward social dynamics, not just a one day march. One can get a feeling that people know each other and talk to each about their ideas.  As a result, it’s much more a movement about sharing ideas, not just demonstrating. This sharing goes on that doesn’t happen at usual demonstrations, housing sharing at encampments (not in New York) and overall it becomes like an alternate family, a social network.
Speaking of sharing with others, the first person I talked to called himself D.J. about what had happened and he mentioned a number of interesting points. He argued that there was a psychological reason to bring the walls in. There were (and probably still are to my knowledge) NYPD fences around the park, doubled up with another fence parallel around the whole park. It’s a bit hard to explain, but if you look it up, you can see what I’m talking about. Continuing with D.J., he believed the police wanted to intimidate the protesters with a huge presence, so they would leave. After that comment, he walked away.
There were two people that walked up to us (me and my family), hugging and welcoming us. When we told them we came from Baltimore, both of them thanked us for coming. In a conversation about Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, each one had a different view. One was an African-American male possibly in his 20s was reasoned, saying it was it was horrible the tents were taken down. He also noted it’s not going to get better since Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend is on the Board of Brookfield Properties which owns Liberty Park (note this is an unconfirmed report). We asked him of the day’s events and he mentioned a march later in the day to Macy’s to protest the buying of fur, which seemed to not be related to the original message of the movement. However, the older African-American lady decried Bloomberg, saying he should be killed. I could tell she really hated Bloomberg with a passion. The younger African-American who I mentioned earlier calmed down the discourse even though he didn’t like Bloomberg either. He spoke of Bloomberg having his money evaporate instantly.
Activity was low at that time of the day, so we left and went to Battery Park. What happened after that is something I’ll mention in a future article. Anyway, we came back to the park about an hour and a half to two hours later. The place was lively with the beating of drums which some critics say is ridiculous and won’t lead to meaningful change. These critics don’t realize the sound of the drums will attract people to join to cause and become part of the movement. People were beating with their drums and I decided I’d join in. For a little while banging a pot lid and a padded soup ladle together, a feeling came over me: I was more than something generated by my beliefs; I was part of a movement. We walked around, scanning it out, and then we left the second time with a family friend. What happened after that is material for a future article as well. That wasn’t all that happened to me.
The third time, coming back near the park, there was a noticeable difference: increased police presence. It seemed something was going to happen. Later I figured out it was probably just usual police posturing to scare occupiers. At one point, a group of 200 or more came by shouting their support for women’s rights and the Occupy Movement. The family friend started to become paranoid about the police presence. The rest of my family looked in one direction at what they thought was a police buildup throughout the day. Meanwhile, I looked the opposite way and saw a startling site.
A person, an older white male, was asking people for donations to OWS (Occupy Wall Street). He was also holding up a sign that opposed American military intervention in foreign countries by listing statistics on who died, since 9/11, along with other information. Suddenly NYPD officers rushed in; handcuffed him and he yelled: “I didn’t do anything wrong!” After they told he was charged with assaulting another, he yelled once more: “I didn’t assault anyone!” Camera took pictures of this affair while someone else on a notepad wrote down what he was saying. Less than a minute later, you’d never know he was there. A middle-aged man commented to me: “Isn’t it a police state?” speaking of America in general. I stated that I agree, even though it was a stretch to say that one incident made it a police state. Previously I had been debating the issue and now was the time to confirm it was a fact. I talked a little more with the man on the subject.
By this time, our family friend got so paranoid and thought that the police would surround us. So we left that corridor in front of the park. On the corner overlooking the park we watched and listened to the General Assembly. I wanted to participate, but it wasn’t possible with the paranoia of the family friend. We crossed the street and the marching occupiers came toward us (we joked) literally! They turned and went to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Earlier we had commented on the excessive security in the area around the NYSE. One would have to go through two checkpoints to even get in front of the stock exchange. Our family friend kept mentioning how much these tactics by the NYPD reminded him of fascism, saying it was very similar. After a while, he left and was off on his merry way. Then we followed the occupiers down to the corner overlooking the stock exchange, then back to the park.
This time we entered the park, not going on the perimeter. The police pressure has diminished dramatically. There were no police at either entrance into the park, only Brookfield workers. At first glance it was lit up and it looked like there was just a bunch of tourists in the park. Later it was apparent there was even more activity than before. In a sense there were a number of different stations addressing certain aspects of the protest itself. One area was more serious, called the “think tank,” where a knowledgeable man was talking about the Egyptian Revolution and how it was not calculated well by the activists in the country. I would believe that other revolutions worldwide were discussed there, revealing the impetus for the protest. Also, a former police officer, Sergeant Louis, I believe, was there. He was the one who was arrested in a nonviolent action in Philadelphia was there to talk. He called Bloomberg’s actions close to a dictatorship. He also recommended that when people participate in civil disobedience, they should offer to cut themselves so unnecessary injury does not occur as they struggle. A person named Michael of Philadelphia Weekly was also there and I introduced myself. He said I could send my blog to him and this gave me great joy that people respect political bloggers.
Finally, we went to the weekly story time, organized by an activist who said the stories presented would be given to Eve Ensler, the author of the play The Vagina Monologues and she would compile them into a book. She was a clean-cut, simply-dressed woman who seemed to be a college graduate or in college. Stories ranging from international occupiers to those from other protests in America were told. Each was personal to the occupier.
This brings me to another concept, the human microphone. NYC has noise ordinance, so those in Liberty Park couldn’t get a bull-horn. That’s why they came up with the human microphone. It’s the first time this idea has been used in a movement or demonstration.  “Mic check,” a common tactic that has been used to interrupt numerous political figures (President Obama, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Karl Rove, etc…) occurs with human microphone. When one is participating in the human microphone you fell more involved than just listening on the side.
Back to the stories. Some were seasoned veterans (one had been to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the Pacific region) who then came to New York, another was a college student who decried imperialism as the greatest terrorism ever, another was a high school student and another was from Ecuador and talked of his work with a student-led movement there. That’s just a sampling of the stories, the ones I can remember. Also at night, intellectual discussion and heavy-duty political discussion was more common. The level of intellectual discussion was elevated to a higher level, in part about political philosophy.
Before we left, I stumbled upon an American Indian activist who gave us his paper (for one dollar donation) and the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Then he talked of the Occupy movement representing other cultures as well and how he had to be there in solidarity. After that we left the site and I uttered: Goodbye! Goodbye! This experience left a lasting impression on me, something I’ll never forget. The future historians will remember this movement and say it stood up for something that was right, for what was needed: fundamental change.