American culture 11/11/11 in Zucotti Park – The Real Occupation
It was 11:11am on 11/11/11. I bought a newspaper to document this moment, and took a picture. All the people I met throughout the day could sign the paper and it would be a keepsake, I planned. I headed out to Zucotti park to make my voice heard, savoring the anticipation on the E train from Hell’s Kitchen, thinking up clever signs to make. I thought I knew. I had been to protests before, and so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong.
What struck me at first was how small it was. Even crowded, and including the sidewalks, it couldn’t have been more than 500 people. There were over 250,000 at the Rally to Restore Sanity. I held up my camera and took a picture of the tent city. After getting my bearings, it became immediately apparent that there were 3 types of people here: The Occupants, The Protesters, and the gawkers. It was also immediately apparent that I was a gawker. I abandoned my idea of making a sign. Instead of ‘making my voice heard,’ I decided to go around the park and hear the voices of the Occupants.
The sign said, “Free Psychotherapy,” so of course, as a behavioral therapist, I had to do it. I laid out on the little inflatable couch Dr. Lisa had set up, and we chatted for a few minutes. Then she wrote me a ‘prescription’ (love yourself, follow your own rules, etc.), and signed my newspaper. She did not ask for a donation of any kind. A war vet with a shockingly mutilated arm saw her sign it, and asked if he could borrow my marker. We had a conversation about disability benefits, and I had him sign my newspaper. He signed his name in Chinese. He did not ask for a donation of any kind.
Further down the sidewalk, a group of people were in Tree pose around what I later found out was an interfaith altar. It looked odd to see the barricades around them. I noticed a man on a stationary bicycle, who explained to me that he was powering the generator used for heat and electricity. I asked his name. He replied, “Anonymous.” No signature from that one, but a group of women in their late 50s-early 60s knitting scarves signed it. They were kindly, grandmother types, all there with their self-described “Not-for-profit business.” (They sold the scarves so that they could buy enough yarn to make more scarves.) A man about their age dressed in an American flag vest stood on the corner, performing cheeky new lyrics to patriotic songs. A cleaning crew swept by.
I entered one of the few openings through the barricades into the actual park, and made my way through the tents toward the food station. I asked a young man for a can of Sprite, and as he handed it to me, I held a dollar out toward him. “Sister, you don’t have to pay for that. Everyone gets fed and clothed for free here.” “Consider it a donation,” I amended. Then I asked his name. “Anonymous,” he replied. I didn’t ask for his signature. Just then, a dog walking by peed on the sidewalk. His owner got on his hands and knees with a newspaper and soaked it all up, then threw it in the trash can. He apologized to everyone.
On the other side of the park, I met one of several men dressed in business suits. He told me he wanted to fix capitalism so that it worked for everybody. “I want rules and regulations to apply to everyone. No tax loopholes. No offshore accounts. Hell, institute a .03% FTT! The point is, America is most importantly capitalist and we have to fix that system or we’ll lose it.” We talked for a long time about what it would mean to restore Glass-Steagall. He did not ask for a donation of any kind. Another cleaning crew swept by.
I sheepishly put my newspaper into my bag. This was obviously not the place for that kind of thing. Wandering through the crowd, I noticed pockets of discussion moderated by senior Occupants. It became clear to me that this group was not leaderless or unstructured. The reason a leader had not yet come forward to represent OWS to the mainstream media was not a result of disorganization, but because no one there was arrogant enough to claim they represented the views of all the people there. They did not need a spokesperson. That was the point.
I stopped to take a picture of a middle-aged black man talking to an old white woman about Guantanamo Bay. “Sister, please make a donation to the commissary, if you can.” He was dressed in a black hat and camel-colored wool overcoat. I put a dollar in his donation bucket, and then the man (“Paul”) explained the kitchen logistics to me. Soon we were joined by an independent member of the press. They led a conversation about media distortion, as a reporter just down the path was interviewing the “Occupy Paw Street” dog station instead of a nearby group of Navy veterans, as if purposefully proving our point. “They try to make it about right and left, but it’s not about that. It’s about Right and Wrong,” I added. Paul and the IP agreed wholeheartedly. I thanked them and continued on.
Lost in the maze of tents, I followed the barricades to the corner, hoping to find an exit there. Instead, I found the interfaith altar. It was beautiful- Covered in flowers and candles and all the charms of every religion of the world. Even though I’m not a religious person, I sat there for a minute, smiling at the 60yr old woman with flowers in her hair and enjoying the fall leaves. There was an exit close by, and I returned to the sidewalk where I heard a loud voice:
“Shoe shine! Shoe shine! We’ll make you look like a million bucks and feel like 2 million! Shoe shine!”
Alex was a businessman, wearing a circa 50s tweed 3-piece suit and hat. He was well-shaven, clean, and very blonde. I put my knee-high boots up for a $10 shine, and conversed for about 15 minutes. Alex believed in capitalism with his whole heart. He believed that he, an American citizen, could work hard and earn a living. “What we’re told is that we live in a meritocracy- That we will be rewarded for hard work. We have to get capitalism back to that state,” he said. That’s the American Dream, and to save it we have make sure everybody plays by the same rules. Then Alex admitted that he is homeless. “For now,” he said. “Only for now.”
As I wandered throughout the camp, I met many people. We talked about Sharia Law, the United Nations, Israel, anarchy, fracking, war, public education, and more. I stuck my head in on a scheduled “Think Tank” meeting, wherein the topic was, “What are the proposed substitute systems?” Most wanted to keep capitalism but with different regulations, a few were socialists, and then there were a handful of anarchists. (They kind of shunned the anarchists for having no solutions.) There was a small march in support of public education. I don’t have the space to record it all- Which is a shame because they all were worthy of mention. Especially the People’s Noise Brigade.
I was also surprised at what I did not see. What little trash there was, was in garbage cans or handled by one of several clean-up crews. There were no drugs, no alcohol, no stealing, no fighting; not even a whiff of violence. No Obama shirts or Ron Paul signs. No bad smell or sanitation issues. Any person asking for donations provided a service in exchange. The local “small” businesses claiming to be hurt by the Zucotti Occupation were Brooks Brothers and Burger King- No one was harassing their customers. People stood silently, holding their signs, waiting to be asked about their content instead of raving like lunatics. It was the most peaceful group of people I have ever seen. I was given a flier inviting me to an interfaith service at Strawberry Fields in Central Park at 11:11pm. I asked if atheists were welcome, and the man replied, “Sister, it’s not about being religious- It’s about being human.”
When I first got to Strawberry Fields, probably 15 people were standing around a single chapel candle in the center of the “IMAGINE” stone. It was silent and chilly outside in the dark. I started to take a picture, but then realized that this wasn’t the place for it. This experience couldn’t be turned into a ‘keepsake’ like a charm on a bracelet- It was so much more than that. Just then, 3 figures approached us wearing Guy Fawkes masks and waving American flags. There was a larger prayer circle elsewhere, and they had come to collect people from different areas of the park. I asked the people behind the Fawkes masks their names. “Anonymous,” they all replied.
At the larger prayer circle, roughly a hundred people sat or stood in a circle around a Central Park tree in silence. One person spoke at a time in the quiet night. Native Americans taught us chants honoring Mother Earth, some prayed in the name of Jesus, some honored Sophia, and some extolled the human condition. When asked if I would like to say something in turn, I agreed. I was moved by the attentive willingness of the group to consider each perspective with respect.
“This can be a very lonely place,” I began. “Let’s just take a minute to contemplate the cosmic accident that gave us life. Take a moment to consider the electro-chemical reactions in our brains that we call ‘consciousness’ or ‘a soul,’ and the ability to interact with each other and the world around us. We are hurtling through space on this tiny planet, at the edge of the galaxy, in the midst of infinite space. This can be a very lonely place. But we have each other and the good earth. There is beauty in people, and animals, and plants; in the stars and vast oceans. Let this be a reminder that we may be lonely, but we have each other. And whether caring for someone means giving them food, or clothing, or shelter or love, we are all we have.” I paused. “That’s all,” I finished lamely.
“Thank you, sister,” several voices murmured.
At 12:30am, a lawyer representing Occupy Wall Street informed us that Central Park closes at 1:00am, and that if we were still there we would be arrested on charges of criminal trespassing. Most of us left. A few stayed. I wandered back toward Strawberry Fields full of wonder and appreciation.
The Occupation at Zucotti park was nothing like what I’d expected or experienced. Despite the giddy way I began the day, I felt reproached by the peaceful simplicity of those around me. At home, I found myself unable to properly describe it, which is why I took such a long time to condense my experience into this narrative. Two days later, police raided Zucotti Park in the middle of the night, throwing away the personal belongings of hundreds of people and arresting many. I was shocked to hear of it. After what I had just seen there; The perspective-altering experience I had there, I could not fathom why they did it. I was outraged at Bloomberg’s false accusations of safety and sanitation violations, having seen the truth first-hand. These peaceful people could not be bought. They could not be sold. Their message could not be condensed into a bumper sticker, or represented by a politician. It was so much more than that. It is so much more than that.
Occupy All Streets.