You can still see traces of the Occupy Wall Street encampment that once stood in Zuccotti Park—a contingent of police officers by the plaza’s entrance and an NYPD watchtower standing guard on Zuccotti’s
northern edge. However, the protesters who made this park their home before being evicted by the police last November are largely gone and the news trucks that formerly stationed themselves outside have departed in favor of a Chabad Mitzvah Tank.
On a recent afternoon at Zuccotti, The Observer encountered handful of tourists and businessmen on lunch breaks but there was nary a demonstrator in sight. At nearby Federal Hall, there were about 11 Occupiers holding signs and sitting on the steps. On the street below, workers were seemingly oblivious to the Occupiers in their midst.
“You’re a Republican?” a suited man asked his friend as they briskly passed by. “Good man!”
Seven months into the movement, the Wall Street that protesters are ostensibly trying to occupy has become inured to the spectacle of carnivalesque protests, demonstrators sleeping on sidewalks and mass arrests. And it seems the rest of the city has too. The protesters are in danger of becoming just another discordant note in the daily din that New Yorkers are so adept at tuning out, like panhandlers, street performers, sidewalk preachers and the other distractions of urban life.
“Their entire message, it’s so fragmented that no one hears it,” said Sam Padilla, the owner of a construction firm behind several developments in the financial district. “It becomes a nuisance, it’s like a gnat that you’re just trying to swat away. It’s just another element of the background noise. They want to be heard, but their message is too confusing.”
Daby Carreras, a broker with Spartan Capital, smoked a cigar a half block away from the Federal Hall Occupiers. With their many messages, Mr. Carreras said the protesters concerns just get “mixed up” and don’t grab the attention of Wall Street workers.
“The brokers are thinking about how to make more money than they did last year,” he said.
Wider public interest in the Occupy protest has also waned. Mentions of “Occupy Wall Street” in the news media are down this month by nearly 75 percent from peak in October, according to Google News. During that same period, Google searches for “Occupy Wall Street” dropped by over 80 percent nationally. The decline was even steeper in New York.
On May 1, however, Occupiers hope to jump back to the forefront of the city’s collective consciousness with a massive day of demonstrations that has been termed a “general strike.” The forecast for the day includes civil disobedience, political performance art, flash mobs and a push into Midtown.
As they move toward May Day, the protesters promise the debut of a new, decentralized model for the movement that will fuel a comeback following their eviction from the park. However, their adversaries on Wall Street aren’t the only ones who don’t seem to speak the protesters’ language.
Occupy’s planned spring reawakening is the brainchild of a secretive group of protesters who have proved markedly unfriendly to outsiders. Progressive political types and union leaders who seem like the protesters’ natural allies have had difficult experiences working with them. Even some Occupiers are complaining they’ve been left in the dark and don’t know what’s on the menu for May Day. Amid this handwringing, the insular core planning the “general strike” are more than happy to do their own thing and confident they’re going to change the world.
The May 1 Occupy comeback is currently being planned at small meetings around the city. At one of these gatherings in a Lower East Side church Sunday night, a group of about 30 Occupiers met on folding chairs and a single couch. The crowd was evenly divided between men with shaggy hair and beards and women with edgy haircuts and thick glasses. They were almost all in their 20s. A handful were members of minority groups.
A skinny man with a combination Mohawk/mullet (call it a mullhawk) and striped overalls stood at the front of the room and scrawled a list of scheduled May Day activities on a large piece of paper as they were mentioned by the group’s members. There was a panoply of protest actions planned by different Occupy-affiliated groups—including marches, “choir flash mobs,” union rallies, games of “capture the flag,” a “music dance party” and a demonstration involving “trying to levitate the Goldman sign and throwing pennies at the Federal Reserve.”
Occupy has always prided itself on being a diverse, leaderless movement, but the downside of this structure was on display at the planning meeting. Many of the attendees clearly didn’t know the details of all the events in this smorgasbord of May 1 actions.
“There’s a ‘Shit Has Got to Go’ event posted on a news site,” pointed out a man named Malcolm, who wore a sleeveless shirt, Afro and beaded necklace.
“What does that mean?” a girl asked.
“I don’t know, I just thought people would want to know about it even though it’s vague,” Malcolm said.
At one point, a man named Chris discussed plans for the aftermath of one of the main marches, which was to take protesters from Union Square to Wall Street. The ideas were rather open-ended.
“At that point, some folks from Occupy are going to ask anyone in the crowd who’s willing to, to leave to go to an evening staging area,” Chris outlined. “From there, there’ll be, like, whatever the hell we want to make it. So, some people probably want to do a march. Some people probably want to, like, go sleep out on Wall Street or something.”
In addition to these activities, people at the meeting described even vaguer protests planned for “50 to 70 targets across Midtown.”
Organizers at the strategy session said union workers would be holding “99 pickets” as part of the festivities, but they had scant details about the union element of the protests.
“Some TWU union workers are going to be like, We don’t have a contract or whatever,” Chris said when asked to give details on a transit workers’ rally.
As attendees pressed for more information about union participation, a young woman seated on the couch explained that organizers might not be able to provide more detail about the union portions of the protest because they were being planned separately.
“There’s like 40 different groups plus that are doing this and we have to get confirmation from a bunch of different bureaucracies,” she said.
Another woman with a blond chunk of hair in her otherwise brown bob was clearly unsatisfied with this explanation.
“Talking about bureaucracy in this room makes me cringe and a lot of this info should be worked out already,” she said.
The distance from organized labor was maintained partially because many Occupiers are uncomfortable with the structured nature of established progressive political groups. Because of this, May 1 marches will be facilitated by union marshals but will also include segments solely made up of Occupiers.
“There’s an Occupy Wall Street zone in the march and anyone who doesn’t feel like marching with marshals should go with the Occupy zone,” one of the organizers said at the meeting.
After about two hours of talking, the disagreements over the unknown aspects of various events seemed to have taken their toll on the group.
“Can we do a vibe check? It seems like people are getting really angry,” said a young woman with a plaintive voice. “Can we all just take a moment and take a deep breath? We all want this to be really awesome and we shouldn’t be fighting with each other.”
The meeting concluded soon after.
Despite being branded a general strike, one thing that isn’t on the menu for May 1 is a work stoppage. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told The Observer the Occupiers haven’t worked with the unions in “a serious way.”
“They haven’t tried to understand how you create coalitions with established elements of the progressive community,” Mr. Appelbaum said.
Despite the fact he and his union were early supporters of the Occupy movement, Mr. Appelbaum said the protesters made no attempts to communicate with organized labor.
“We’re on the same side, that’s what the Occupy movement doesn’t seem to understand,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “We’re on the same side and we should be talking to each other, not just being talked at.”
Over 20 labor groups, including Mr. Appelbaum’s RWDSU, have endorsed the Occupy protests. However, they have not called on workers to strike. Mr. Appelbaum said Occupiers should have checked with the
unions before proclaiming a strike.
“You’re not going to see workers leave their jobs in large numbers,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “That was what was called for at this time without appropriate discussion and involvement.”
A union official, who didn’t want to be named because his group is endorsing the protest, said “continuing conversations” between Occupiers and unions broke down because the diffuse, leaderless nature of the movement made it difficult to collaborate with.
“With the Occupy movement, it’s not always clear who you’re even supposed to be speaking with,” he said.
The union official also described the culture clash that occurred between labor groups and Occupiers.
“I think that, because the labor movement was established with hierarchy and the like, that it was held up to a little bit of disdain. It didn’t reflect the way the Occupy movement thought that democracy should operate, so I think that there were language barriers because of that,” the official said. “I also think that the labor movement, because it has such a hierarchical structure, has difficulty in understanding a movement without structure like that.”
Mr. Appelbaum believes Occupiers’ inability to partner with unions and other established progressive political groups shows the movement might not be able to grow beyond the cadre of young protesters who have kept the occupation alive after its eviction from the park.
“I think that in order for a movement to be successful, you have to expand beyond your core constituency and that has not happened with Occupy Wall Street,” Mr. Appelbaum said.
None of the May Day festivities planned by the Occupiers are part of the “99% Spring,” a slew of Occupy branded activities hosted by the multimillion-member progressive fund-raising organization MoveOn.org.
Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told The Observer his group got behind the protests almost as soon as they began.
“Economic injustice and inequality had been our top priority and campaign since the beginning of last year,” Mr. Ruben said. “Then, when Occupy happened, we kind of jumped in. It was articulating the exact same concerns that our members were really frustrated about and had been working on all year, but in a really compelling, amazing way. So, we sort of jumped in to connect people with it, to support it.”
MoveOn’s involvement triggered a backlash from Occupiers who abhor the organization’s work on Democratic political campaigns. Last week, AdBusters, the anticorporatist magazine that initially launched the call for a Wall Street occupation, published a scathing online editorial blasting MoveOn for sending Occupy-themed solicitations for donations and calling the organization part of the “dead body of the old left.”
“MoveOn wants to hijack our movement with their 99% Spring,” the AdBusters editorial said. “MoveOn is an existential threat to our movement because they don’t have a revolutionary bone in their body.”
Mr. Ruben vigorously denies the charge his group was trying to co-opt the Occupiers. He also suggested protesters’ intolerance of different approaches may hurt them, especially as the presidential election
“Many of these groups and strains, who have been fighting together against economic inequality and for the power for the 99 percent, are going to go in different directions around the elections,” Mr. Ruben said. “Some people want to put their energy in different places and, I think, we need to have a notion of a diversity of strategies that we all respect, because we’re doing the work of the 1 percent if we just tear each other down.”
Electoral politics can be a “useful tool,” he added, “and even if that’s not your bag, hopefully we can sort of honor the fact that some folks are going to want to get into that.”
Protesters we spoke to seemed unconcerned what others think of their methodology and confident they’ll blow the city’s collective mind, come May Day. “Ultimately, this will be a catalyst for a lot of people who are in their early 20s and relatively middle class to wake up and recognize their place in the theater of the world and the social struggle,” said one Occupy organizer we spoke to after the planning meeting.
“That brings more people to it. It’s a new context.”
What remains to be seen is whether the Occupiers can continue to make an impact on the larger world by speaking on their own terms. And whether they can regain the attention of a city populated with habitual ignorers. The kids say they’re all right. The rest of us will find out on May 1.