Occupy Wall Street, for their May Day spring time resurgence, had a bit of a logistical problem: how does a loosely-organized coalition of protesters come out of hibernation, while rallying the troops, and not get their skulls cracked by the NYPD in the process? The Occupy movement had been using social media last fall to organize, and then, they always had a home base at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Now, they are faced with the prospect of starting their movement anew, and because they need to use the web to organize, they must alert both their allies and their surveillants to their plans in the process.
That a couple of Occupy organizers allegedly had their doors kicked in by the cops the night prior was not a good portent for how this would play out — the Occupiers were, after all, promising to shut down commerce on the island of Manhattan on May Day. How’d they do? I followed them around for the morning to see if and how their tactics have changed.
Smartphoneless reporter that I am, I quickly jotted down the times and addresses of OWS’ planned actions in Midtown — the same information that the NYPD was working off of, presumably — and took the subway from Brooklyn to Midtown, to discover that their first protest site, the Chase building on Park and 48th St, was completely barricaded off. A gaggle of photographers and private security awaited the Occupiers’ arrival, but they wouldn’t show. Eventually, we were alerted to the protesters’ presence just around the corner at the J.P. Morgan building by the sound of their whistles. There they were, all 20 of them, marching in a tight circle outside the building’s entrance.
“Wall Street, Wall Street, take a hike/Now’s the time for a general strike.”
All the while, J.P. Morgan Chase employees filed past, or through, the small group of protesters, IDs at the ready, heading into the office for a 12-hour day of soulless number-crunching. Some bankers looked down, amusedly, from their fortressed building. A tall blonde woman wearing Louboutin heels walked out of the building and past the protesters as if they didn’t exist, this is how most JPM employees treated the protesters. “F*ck Jamie Dimon!” shouted one of them. (“He’d like it, he’s Greek!” shouted another in response.) Nearby, a crew of idle construction workers giggled.
“Wait, who’s Jamie Dimon?” one of them asked him, once he stopped laughing.
The Dimon-hating protester’s name is Jared, he’s 25, and he’s sort of on strike — his seasonal job starts in a week. He was only marginally involved in the protests until the police started getting violent with protesters.
“I became really committed the night of the raid (when protestors were evicted from Zuccotti park),” he told me. “I saw the cops staging on Canal Street, just a shit-ton of police vans, and it looked ilk they were getting ready to do something…I went back to my girlfriend’s apartment in Tribeca and I saw that the raid was going on. And I just saw a lot of surreal and f*cked-up things that night that made me much more committed…all the phalanxes of riot police, and I saw the people who were coming out of it, they were crying and their faces were puffed up.” It would be nothing new for dissidents to be radicalized by their brutal treatment at the hands of a ruling regime, and by all accounts, the NYPD’s raid of Zuccotti was forceful and surreal in exactly the way Jared described it.
Without a home
And without Zuccotti as a home base, the Occupy protests were forced to be peripatetic in way they had not been prior. At the protesters’ rally outside of News Corporation’s headquarters on 6th Avenue, they protested Fox News and the New York Post for not paying taxes, of all things. But they only did so for a short period of time, moving up the street to 1251 6th Ave, where Paulson & Co., the hedge fund sponsor, keeps offices. Once the crowd had reached a critical mass in front of the fountain at that building, to the point that the dozens of police officers present forced protesters to leave some of the sidewalk open, they moved on to the Time-Life Building, just across the street. Security guards there giggled, I went to get coffee.
Separated from the protesters for just 20 minutes at the most, I got to navigate Midtown Manhattan in their wake — cops trading notes about a certain protester with a pink bandana and ponytail, office workers on smoke breaks asking people just what the hell is going on, Spanish tourists looking bemused. The iconic plaza at 30 Rockefeller was barricaded off until security got word that the protesters were gone, at which point they moved the police barricades to the side, allowing the Italians and Spaniards to catch a glimpse of the plaza, both tree- and ice-skating-rink-less.
The protest was neutered not only due to the police department’s complete familiarity with the occupiers’ plans, but also by the frenetic nature of the Occupy movement itself. At midday, Bryant Park, the movement’s May Day headquarters, was teeming with protesters, each with his or her own idea of what it might look like to protest corporate greed, income inequality, and Washington corruption. Some played the drums and danced, some held up signs for passers-by on 6th Ave, some held teach-ins on mutual aid, and some meditated well within earshot of the drummers.
An older man led a small group of Occupiers in this meditation: “Seeing when I am angry, I have choices, I breathe in; Sitting with my anger, I breathe out.”
Me, you, us, them
To Occupy (in New York, at least, the Bay Area does things differently) is an intensely personal, arguably solipsistic, experience, which is at least slightly problematic considering the movement’s goals. Putting specific policy goals aside, because there are likely as many different platforms as there are occupiers, they just want us to consider things other than personal property rights and fiduciary responsibilities when we think about what sort of society we want to have. Because our two choices for president differ so slightly in their view of government’s role in society, it’s nice to have dreamers among us, who actually think America is capable of being a better place. It’s not a radical thought, but it will require a massive shift in how our politicians think, which will require a massive shift in how Americans vote, which will require a bit more of Occupy than, well, this.
Feminist theory has it that the personal is political (and conservative politicians have done everything in their power to ensure this is true) but political economy is most certainly not personal. It’s a larger societal issue, and as such requires people to think outside of themselves. Our current malaise is arguably the result of a complex, hard-to-break-up, messy relationship between industry, labor and Washington — and only two of these parties are winning. Any Occupy movement that deserves to be taken seriously ought to engage directly with this hideous menage-a-trois. Instead, we get a dated, 1960’s-style be-in, which serves only to alienate potential allies — the masses that are too square to sincerely meditate near a drum circle, but are to the left of the Democrats.
The argument that “raising awareness” justifies whatever weirdness Occupy Wall Street brings to a very serious policy debate worked in the fall of 2011 — they raised awareness in an incredibly effective fashion. They exceeded everyone’s expectations, except maybe for AdBusters‘. The winter showed hints of seriousness in the form of Occupy the SEC, so it was hard not to see May Day as a step backwards for the movement. (It should be noted here that Occupy the SEC has not stopped.)
As someone who wishes this country could address the very serious policy problems we face in an honest, fair and compassionate way, I hope that isn’t the case. It very well may not be. After all, Occupy Wall Street looked feeble when they started last fall, and that’s exactly what allowed them to keep their camp in Zuccotti, as it grew day by day.