For the past two months, I have been following, and even blogging about, Occupy Wall Street. But like many people, I have been on the fence about going. On one hand, this movement is about economic equality, a continuation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights battle, and therefor a once in a generation opportunity. On the other side, there were the concerns about finding time, the large distance to travel from my home to NYC, the brutal response called in from Mayor Bloomberg, my responsibilities at home, etc.
And then, this happened.
If you know anything about me, you would know there are two things that I refuse to tolerate: bullies and good people getting hurt. For a guy like me, that kind of intimidation has the opposite of the intended effect. Two days after the unwarranted assault on Zuccotti park would be the movement’s 2 month anniversary, and I would be there.
I made my way up via public transportation. I didn’t actually know how to get from the WTC PATH to Zuccotti park, and originally planned to use google navigator to wander through the city. As soon as I stepped onto the PATH train, however, immediately in front of me was an elderly African American couple with a protest sign. I asked them if I could tag along so I could find the park, and they invited me to talk with them. April and Dave had been participating in the protest since about the beginning. They had not camped out, but they had been commuting into the city to participate. April was an art teacher who was slowly losing her vision. Her protest sign was made by her students, and she was quite proud of their work. They were a warm couple and we had some nice conversations on the way over. When we got to the park, we found it fenced off with a single opening created by the police as a choke point. We were stopped because the protest sign had a stick attached to it. Once the stick was removed we were allowed to enter the park. I separated from April and Dave then, but I later saw them shouting and chanting with the sign tied to April’s cane.
The park was relatively empty when I arrived. A few people who used to run the library were there, so I offered them the books I had brought up to donate. They told me that they were told they could not have a permanent structure, and therefore no library, anymore. When I showed them the books I brought, their eyes lit up and they accepted my offering. There were protesters up near the street so I went to join them. One of the protesters stood there with a kitten in his jacket. He rescued the little kitty, but now he and the kitten were homeless, having been evicted from the park and all of his stuff, including medication for himself and his kitten, confiscated in the raid. Another new protester walked over and we began to chat. As we were talking, the rest of the protest, that had gone at 7 am to protest on Wall Street, came back. The mass flowed in. They grabbed and removed the police fencing, and then moved into the park with proclamations of “We’ve taken back the park!”
I milled around and met some interesting people, including a young couple who had come up from Richmond, Virginia, and a group who, after my own heart, marched around dressed as trees. A fight broke out near me, and the organization had its own people acting as security to break it up and deescalate the situation. From my experience working at a psychiatric hospital and with adjudicated youth, I was able to appreciate the conflict resolution skills used by the security member. The guy security talked to afterwards still was agitated, so I channeled my friend Edmond’s peacemaker spirit and decided to talk to him. That is how I met Mike.
Trouble makers will always move into a group and threaten it from the inside. One of these trouble makers decided he would spend his time targeting and harassing Mike. The troublemaker was being shameless about it, which prompted me to call security and talk on Mike’s behalf and act as a witness to the troublemaker’s harassment. Later on, after Mike left, the troublemaker told me that I had just made myself his target as well for sticking up for Mike. I told him to go to hell and walked into a drum circle. Guys like that are cowards, and crowds are your best defense against them.
As for Mike’s story, he is a Veteran, formerly serving with the Navy. His reason for being an occupier came from the problem that Veteran unemployment rates are higher than that of the national average. Whatever your opinion may be about the wars we have fought, our armed forces are our national brethren. Many signed up because there were few other options in the economy, and many more did it to protect their fellow countrymen, namely us. But when they’ve fulfilled their promises, and return to life as a civilian, we seem to forget about what they did for us, the risks taken, and the sacrifices made. Mike’s mission has become to look out for his fellow brethren, and help them get a fair shot at civilian life by calling attention to the issue and pointing out organization that need to do more to support our veterans. It truly is a noble cause.
Mike and I talked for a bit, partially so I could hear is tale, and partially so he wouldn’t be left alone if the troublemaker returned. After he left to grab some coffee, there was another commotion, and several police officers rushed in and tackled one of the occupiers on the ground. A crowd formed around the scuffle, Occupiers rushed in with cameras to film the incident, and Police ran in in full riot gear. I was shoved back by an officer, then shoved back by another. A girl who was struggling to get to the friend that got tackled tried to push her way through and got punched by one of the officers. Another officer began pushing back the crowd, while I shouted that there was a physical obstacle made of stone behind us and we could not move anymore. More police in riot gear moved in and made a physical wall in front of us. I put my hands up and the girl stormed by us screaming and yelling. The officer in front of me didn’t know how to react to the girl until I told the officer about the punch. The officer lowered her eyes, shamed by her colleague’s actions, and then the police withdrew. As it turns out the one Occupier flipped off an officer’s hat. That wasn’t right of him to do, but it should not have resulted in a full riot response and an open head wound for the kid.
I walked away to clear my mind, and a gentleman handed me a length of light purple ribbon. “If you blend all the colors on our flag, you get light purple. wear this and you become ‘ultra-American” I then heard someone asking for a little help. A young woman and her mother were unfolding a huge banner and needed extra hands. Athena had made the sign herself for the Occupy Halloween event. She had been sick for many years, suffering from brain cancer. Her tumor had been removed, and she said she was more or less healed. We discussed arts and crafts, and she told me about the quilt she had made while she was still fighting the cancer. Now full of energy, she invited as many people as she could to hold a long banner that simply stated “Occupy Wall St.” I met a number of people holding that banner, as they rotated in and out of the spot next to me, and it’s amazing what you end up talking about when you just hold up a sign and welcome people in. Soon however, it was lunch time, and I had to rotate off the sign.
Lunch was at Burger King. I needed to eat somewhere with a bathroom. Occupiers and police alike filled in and grabbed lunch. While waiting on the line for the men’s room (after buying food at the establishment) I talked to another occupier who lived near by. He mentioned that the Burger King had been rather supportive, and we traded information via the many fliers collected during the day.
Re-entering the park after lunch, I was saddened to see Athena and the banner had disappeared, leaving me to once again wander around the park aimlessly. Then, the drum circle began.
Drum circles have become a source of mockery. It seems, that the common regard for them is that they are just some inexplicable side trait of being a hippy, and exists with the stereotype along side such things as incense, dreadlocks, and sandals. What I saw when I walked in was that people were there dancing and celebrating. I pulled one of my juggling balls out of my bag, and started joining in by contact juggling (sadly, I can’t dance). There was no cliquishness, no sense of arrogant denial or rejection from the group, just a sense of enjoyment and fun. In a place like this, where you are fight for a slow process like change against a backdrop of naysayers and violent police response, you need to find any way you can to keep your spirits up. But I wonder what it says about the rest of us that we have to take an expression of such joy and celebration, and dismiss it with ridicule, as if we can’t bear to have true joy or celebration in our lives.
The circles began and ended and began again. Between the drumming, I wandered around helping to clean up garbage that had been left around the “kitchen” in the park. I had found one of my fellow banner holders and we talked and both wondered where the banner had gone. But soon after Athena and her banner returned. Soon after that,the crowd begin to move, and we were marching across the city towards Foley Square.
As we walked and chanted, the streets were lined by police in full riot gear. In addition to these officers, the were another group dressed simply with blue jackets with the words “community affairs” written on them. These officers walked with us and talked to us. Watching the some of the protesters (angered by the raid and brutality) waving their middle fingers at the riot dressed officers, I looked at the one Community Affairs officer next to me and said, “We know you’re not all assholes.”
“Thank you,” she said with a sigh of relief.
“I actually support you guys,” another officer added, “I know how bad things are.”
“Well,” I said, “we are marching for you’re union rights too.”
We talked some more. When I mentioned it might lower tensions if the officers in the riot gear walked with their batons holstered instead of wielding them, one of the officers told me that the batons can actually be uncomfortable when they are on the belt and often smack into their legs. Holding the baton might be more of a comfort thing than an intimidation thing. We talked even more. when I told her I was from NJ, she told me she had family there. I had to break ranks to make another bathroom stop in a coffee shop. They made a good chai latte there. While waiting in line, I talked a bit to a reporter and another protester, and when we all had our drinks, we headed out together to try to find where the group went. We stopped by Union Square, where I gave a shout out to the independent crafters in a little Christmas Shopping Village. I met up with the banner again, and while standing with it, we were approached and asked the same questions asked since the beginning: “what are your demands, and how do you know when you are done?”
We took turns answering. I offered her two books to read: Mat Taibbi’s Griftopia, which explains step by step how corporate corruption and deregulation has caused the economic crisis, and Richard Wilkinson’s Spirit Level, which looks at social data and shows through science how many social problems are connected to economic inequality. I also pointed out that we have no “demands” because we are not terrorists, we instead want change, and change is sadly harder to predict and define in absolute terms. The more I think about that question, them more I think about how it both the wrong question and a question systematic of many of our problems. It’s overly simplistic, asking for a simple answer that once handed, shuts down thought on the subject. In reality, the change being asked for can only come when people stop asking for the sound bites that will tell them what is happening, and take on the responsibility of understanding the problems of the world.
We continued on and marched on the sidewalks, observing the laws for the protest, and then we were lead down a street that was closed off to allow us to march. We marched, chanted and cheered, waving to the city that waived back in support. One building we passed put up giant signs in the windows to show support, and we all cheered in response. The road ended with a row of police in riot gear and giant concrete barriers to block us off. I don’t know if this was an attempt to antagonize us to jump the barriers and provoke arrests or not, but after a few minutes, the crowd reorganized and went back to the sidewalks and chose a new direction to Foley Square. We passed union square where an old lady called us a bunch of jokes.
“That’s Dr. Joke to you, lady,” I shouted back.
We began to cross the street as part of our new route. Protesters were shouting reminders not to jaywalk or otherwise give the police excuses to arrest them. The police scrambled around us trying to herd us in. Their attempts actually stopped the movement of the march, so that a bunch of us who began crossing when we had a “walk” signal got stuck in the middle of the street. They moved closer to push the crowd, and I turned to them and said “look, I’m trying to get onto the sidewalk voluntarily”
I then got pushed with a baton into the crowd. At this point, frustration caused me to get snarky, and each time the NYPD riot squad lined up to herd us, I would point out that a simple “please” would be just as effective as all the batons. That often invoked a discussion with other Occupiers about the amount of money being wasted to surround and intimidate a peaceful protest, often countered with the idea that the money Wall Street gives to the police force may be helping with that expense.
As the march continued, we began to sing, and this made me happy to no end. Back in 2002, I was in Baltimore, talking to a woman who was protesting the upcoming Iraq war. She told me she had been part of the anti-war protests of the 60’s and 70’s. She mentioned that one of the things that had been missing in the modern protest was the music, and she felt that that took something away. I had noticed and commented on the same thing during the say. We had chanting, we had drumming, but there was no song. And even though chanting and drumming are powerful organizational tools, song has a unique power of its own. It was the first form of intelligent communication, preceding language itself. And where drumming and chanting stir the soul and lead people, song harmonizes voices, hearts, and souls. And though what we sang was a simplified repetition of the opening stanzas of John Lennon’s Power to the People, there was something magical produced as the crowd’s voices came together.
The march progressed on, and many of us grew weary. My legs were starting to cramp up, and exhaustion began to set in. I was chanting less, and I noticed the energy of others dropping. We fought to rekindle the fire, and it would glow, fade, and glow again. Soon we approached more barricades and fencing. As we rounded the corner, we came upon a crown estimated to be over 30,000 people rallying in support in Foley Square. There was a sea of UAW representatives, nurses, teachers, and other hard working Americans standing together for the same cause. A stage had been set up, and people were dancing, milling, playing and talking. I took a quick rest on a bench, only to find messages on my phone from friends and family offering support, and if need be, a safe place to crash. I wandered around, complimented a gentleman for the “They Live” reference on his sign, and helped a woman clean up the litter that was accumulating on the ground. I met up with Athena and her mother again, and took up my position with the banner as we started to walk around. As the march was about to proceed to the Brooklyn Bridge, I noticed it was getting late, and I still had a 2-3 hour mass transit commute back home. We said our good-byes, and I attempted to navigate the subway.
On the subway ride back to WTC, I found myself sitting across from a couple who had been at the Occupy Wall Street event as well. As I talked to the ladies, we found that we each had rescued a cat. We were discussing all the common issues we had shared, and they even gave me tips for my kitten. They found their stop, and I continued my journey home.
* * * * * * * * * *
I found my day at Occupy Wall Street to be an intense and exhilarating experience. I witnessed strife, aggression, and abuse of power, but I also witnessed compassion, joy, celebration, and humanity. I met people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds and fascinating histories. I would like to head back to join the struggle once again, and will have to plan and budget to get there again to both add my voice of support in the future and possibly reunite with the many interesting people I met on this day. But as i finish this account, I would also like to offer some advice and insight based on what I saw and experienced:
1) More music. Find songs that you can sing together. Pass out the lyric sheets with the flyers. Join together to echo your voices through the buildings in Manhattan. Get those songs stuck in the heads of every citizen in the city.
2) Beware of your troublemakers. People like the one that stalked and harassed Mike and myself will only cause division within your movement, and loss of support from the outside. You will have to decide how you deal with problems like this, but ignoring the problem is not a healthy option.
3) Transform the acts of the oppressors. You already did this when you brilliantly created the “Human Microphone.” That was a stroke of genius. Now keep it up. That little doorway that the NYPD created to get in and out of the park; don’t let them make it a choke point, turn it into a portal. Make it a sacred gateway that takes you into this new world your are building, and that the tools of oppression are not allowed to enter. Come up with a sacred password to shout to invoke this travel from one world to the next, and shout it each and every time you pass across that gap in the fence.
4) To the NYPD, if you really want to keep the protest under control and incident free, have fewer riot police, and more community affairs police. The imposing officers in the full armor with batons drawn are only agitating people and creating problems. I’ve worked with both adjudicated youth and the severely mentally ill in residential treatment facilities. The workers who pushed around the kids or the patients had the most problems and found themselves in the most incidents. The workers who built bridges and worked with the kids or the patients had fewer injuries, incidents, and problems. The former may have had intimidation and fear, but the latter had respect. With the former group, the kids and patients showed them only resentment and grudgingly followed rules under constant duress, but the latter group had the kids and patients working with them every step of the way. There is a highly competent security group within the OWS structure with whom you can liaison. You also have many professional and respectful officers who are willing to just talk with the Occupiers, and have done so in very positive ways. The tension is growing between the NYPD and OWS, and you have to decide if you are going to resolve the issue, or just let it explode.
5) To the individual NYPD officers. Police your own. I saw officers abusing their power. I also saw officers showing that they don’t approve of the abuse. Every major fight civil rights has involved bloody and violent altercations with the police. Stories of horror have come to us from the Alabama boycotts, the Freedom Rides, Chicago in 1968, etc., and in them, the police are not seen as the heroes. The stories of police violence at OWS are already entering the media. If things get worse, you will be treated by history the same way those pat officers were. However, there is still time to reverse the situation. Don’t let your good names get soiled by a situation that becomes out of control.
6) Occupiers, do not fight fire with fire. Waging peace is a process that takes discipline Do not let the acts of abuse and injustice turn you into the enemy. Find love and compassion for your opponents.
7) Don’t lose faith, and don’t lose hope. This is not a fight that will create instant solutions. If it were, you would not have meaningful change. When I worked in the US Peace Corps, the first thing they told us was that because we only serve for 2 years, we would never really see the success of the projects we start, but the success would never the less come. In one of our trainings we were taken to a farm, and told a story about once of the local who worked with a volunteer to turn half of his property into a eucalyptus grove to provide sustainable wood for the community. The village opposed and mocked him every step of the way, because he was trying to change the way things were done, even though those changes would benefit them all. When his grove was finally established, someone invaded the grove in the cover of night and burnt it down. The man, however, took what he had learned, and began again. That grove not only became successful, but became one of our training areas and helped to spread the grove project throughout the country. The same thing is happening today. People are mocking and opposing the movement because you are challenging the way things are done. The NYPD burnt down your grove. But victory will still come, you just have to find the strength, passion, and faith to keep rebuilding.