BY MONDAY NIGHT, the 10th day of the Occupy Wall Street protest, the miniature colony at Liberty Park Plaza was rather sophisticated. The “media tent,” which on Saturday had consisted of a MacBook and an umbrella, now looked like an amateur version of the CNN newsroom. Protesters crushed around a central table, tweeting, emailing and editing video, surrounded by a barricade of tables holding more computers, with the cracks in between filled in by sleeping bags, blankets and backpacks. One revolutionary with a hard face sat straight-backed, a cigarette poking sideways out of his mouth while he typed away. The computers and lights were powered by a generator, which briefly died when someone misplaced the gas can. The media center, as the always-lit hub of information and electricity, is the cornerstone of the encampment. Entry is restricted.
Next door is the kitchen, two rows of marble benches laden with pizza, fruit, dry noodles, bean salad and hot vegetarian chili with bread. Saturday’s dinner was self-serve; this time, a gentleman in a New York Film Academy T-shirt handed over The Observer’s brownie in a napkin. Next to the kitchen lies a field of protest signs—former pizza boxes—within easy reach. The rest of the park is residential, filled with sleeping bags, tarps, air mattresses and ordinary mattresses; a bench stacked with folded blankets for common use; and a living room complete with carpeting, chairs and a futon frame, which we observed being occupied by a family with three small children, and later by a pair of men bedding down in opposite directions. The east end of the park usually hosts the drum circle. The bathroom is located around the corner at McDonald’s, whose employees have been surprisingly accommodating, allowing protesters to come, go, use the electrical outlets and linger unmolested. The Burger King on the western border of the park, however, has reportedly told protesters they’re banned from making purchases.
The Observer arrived at Occupy Wall Street after chasing Monday evening’s march through the narrow streets of the financial district, following the group on Twitter and scrambling to catch up. The New York Stock Exchange—dead, but lined with cops. Bowling Green—quiet, no police presence. At Bridge Street, we noticed a helicopter above the skyscrapers. Heading up Broadway, we caught up with the motley but spirited crew of protesters bobbing their signs to the beat, and fell in between a pair of middle-aged moms and a boy with green-tipped hair in a ripped white T-shirt. Some people beat pizza boxes with empty water bottles. We spotted a sign: “Unfuck the world!”
As we rolled our eyes, we saw another: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Comparing the collection of apparent Burning Man refugees who have been demonstrating in Liberty Park Plaza over the past 10 days to the anti-colonial effort led by Mahatma Gandhi would be charitable. Even so, the Occupy Wall Streeters probably fit somewhere between Gandhi’s steps two and three. In the first week, media coverage was negligible. Then over the weekend, The New York Times’s Ginia Bellafante weighed in with a piece that the demonstrators found condescending, in which she called the protest “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty by-products of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater” and gave the final word to a floor trader who dismissed the movement because some protesters were using MacBooks.
Then on Saturday, a senior officer of the N.Y.P.D. was captured on camera spritzing pepper spray into the faces of two women. The video, along with reports of more than 80 protester arrests, gave the protest some legitimacy in the eyes of the media. While not especially impressed by the protest itself, The Atlantic’s James Fallows posted the video under an unusually sharp headline: “An Important Video to Watch: Pepper Spray by a Cruel and Cowardly NYC Cop.” Mr. Fallows explained his extreme reaction to The Observer in an email: “I am sure one reason is because I’ve spent much of the past five years in China,” he wrote. “I looked at that video and thought, how would I feel if I saw the Chinese cops doing that? Also, I have been on a slow boil about the security-state excesses of the past 10 years.”
Mr. Fallows is in exalted company. “Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street—financial institutions generally—has caused severe damage to the people of the United States (and the world),” Noam Chomsky wrote in a letter to organizers Sunday. “The courageous and honorable protests underway in Wall Street should serve to bring this calamity to public attention, and to lead to dedicated efforts to overcome it and set the society on a more healthy course.” The rapper and 9/11 Truther Lupe Fiasco attended, sent a poem and has been tweeting vigorously for the cause; Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron spoke at the protest Tuesday morning. Michael Moore, who paid a surprise visit to the park Monday night, took a harder line: “Tax them! They are thieves! They are gangsters! They are kleptomaniacs!”
It was too bad Mr. Moore was not present for the march earlier; he would have enjoyed the dozens of cameras as well as the spectacle of protesters dancing down cobblestone streets. “Banks! Got! Bailed out! We! Got! Sold out!”
Across the street, about ten tight-shirted men stared from behind the window of a clothing store, frozen, so that at first The Observer thought they were mannequins.
“Hey, do you guys want to help me do a chant?” Green Hair asked the marchers around him. “You just say, ‘Occupy Wall Street,’’ okay?” He cupped his hands around his mouth and hoarsely yelled, “ALL DAY! ALL WEEK!”
The Observer felt ridiculous, but we didn’t want to be a square. “Occ-u-py-Wall-Street!”
The idea of occupying Wall Street originated with an email blast by the lefty magazine Adbusters, best known for not accepting advertising. Adbusters is based in Vancouver but two-thirds of its readership is in the U.S., and in July senior editor Micah White and writers called for a 20,000-strong extended occupation on Wall Street, with the hope that Americans, complacent in the throes of a going-on-five-year recession, might adopt some of the outrage and effectiveness of the Arab Spring.
“We’ve been kind of watching the Egyptian uprising and the Spanish uprisings and wondering, why aren’t Americans also rising up against the financial fraudsters that are ruining people’s lives,” said Mr. White, who lives in Berkeley and has not ventured to New York for the proceedings. “I think we wanted to catalyze a people’s democratic spring in America.”
The email went out to Adbusters’ 90,000 subscribers.
“The basic model is to combine the Egyptian Tahrir uprising with the Spanish acampadas,” Mr. White said, referring to a string of extreme sit-ins across Spain in May and June. “You hold a symbolic space and you hold people’s assemblies.”
Of course, the protesters aren’t technically holding a space on Wall Street. Liberty Park Plaza, also known as Zuccotti Park, is two blocks away from Wall Street, where police regularly patrol the barricaded area around the New York Stock Exchange, a security measure implemented after Sept. 11.
“Adbusters put out the call, but they had no idea what they were talking about,” said Guy Steward, an 18-year-old unemployed New Yorker in thick glasses and a blue bandana. He read about the local effort on Tumblr and has been involved since the first day. “They’re a bunch of Canadians. They were like, ‘Go set up tents on Wall Street!’ You can’t set up tents on Wall Street. You’ll get shot.”
The grassroots New York City General Assembly, a scattered but competent body of activists, sprang up Aug. 2 and starting hammering out logistics through a series of hyper-democratic meetings in which everyone is given a chance to speak, every proposal is voted on, nothing happens without consensus (reached when there is no outright opposition to a proposal), and individuals are not bound by the group’s decision. The process is painstaking, but it worked—the group picked a place and the memo spread via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and word of mouth.
The protesters now hold General Assemblies twice a day. There are three key components to the meetings: the “human microphone,” in which the people closest to the speaker repeat his or her words in unison for the rest of the crowd; the “stack taker,” who manages the list of people who want to speak; and a set of hand signals that include “spirit fingers” to indicate assent and arms crossed in an X to indicate a question or objection.
On Monday after the march and pep talk by Mr. Moore, the crowd was feeling especially empowered and optimistic. “Mic check!” yelled a blond woman in a black tank top and yoga pants. “MIC CHECK!” the audience bellowed back. Lately, most of the business at the General Assembly has involved proposals for the formation of new committees. On Monday night, various protesters suggested an animal rights committee, a translation committee, a committee for “matching volunteers with tasks” and a diversity committee (most of the protesters are young, white English speakers). The “vision and demands” committee was slated to speak Monday night, but could not finish its highly anticipated proposal in time. “I must say—” one audience member said.
“I MUST SAY,” the crowd repeated.
“I am disappointed—”
“I AM DISAPPOINTED!”
“That we still do not have—”
“THAT STILL WE DO NOT HAVE!”
“A list of demands.”
“A LIST OF DEMANDS!”
Sure, there is an abundance of inarticulate hippie-types on hand, ever ready to assume the modified lotus and ostentatiously meditate. And yes, The Observer was forced to relocate to McDonald’s to write because three young men on the plaza wouldn’t stop crowing about how they were tripping on acid. But some protesters have managed to tow a more compelling line.
On Aug. 23, an activist—actually a reporter, who asked to remain anonymous because he was concerned about running afoul of his editor—launched wearethe99percent.tumblr.com, which contains some of the stronger arguments for the Occupy Wall Street movement. “It’s time the 1 percent got to know us a little better,” the site says, referring to the nation’s richest percentile. Readers submitted pictures of themselves holding up signs. “I’m an unemployed college grad living with my parents,” read one. “Working 67 hours a week but can’t afford to buy school supplies for my daughters,” said another. “I’m 18, a college freshman. My dad has been unemployed for over two years and nobody is hiring. I haven’t been to the doctor’s since I was 14.” Most of the people pictured are 23 or younger. Student debt, health care and persistent unemployment are recurring themes.
The kitchen started serving coffee, juice and fruit at 6 a.m. as dawn broke over the plaza. Earlier, Mr. Steward had remarked that some pictures “made it look like a hobo camp,” which was exactly how the scene must have appeared to the business-attired professionals who were starting to appear on the sidewalk. At the west entrance to the plaza, a protester was sleeping in a chair with his mouth half-open, knees splayed apart, his head completely lolled to the right. Next to him was the orange poster bearing the day’s official agenda.
Correction: This story originally referred to Micah White as editor-in-chief of Adbusters; he is a senior editor. The Observer regrets the error.
Follow Adrianne Jeffries via RSS.