It was around 7 p.m. Monday night, and the McDonald’s across from Zuccotti Park was packed. Tired cops who had just spent two hours corralling protesters during one of Occupy Wall Street’s marches waited in line behind tired protesters still caked in zombie makeup. The lines for the bathroom were twenty people long; once inside a stall, the used toilet paper is stacked higher than the actual toilets.
A couple of families hurried in and out, one woman dragging her daughter away from two white guys in dreads who were giggling over some tablets of white powder.
“We just found these on the ground man,” the two young men confided in us before opening up the capsules and pouring the contents onto the table to inspect. “You never know though.”
Fairly surreal scenes like these are increasingly becoming typical as the Wall Street protests progress. But the two opposing fast-food chains that flank either side of the park — Burger King and McDonald’s — have very different ways of dealing with their new clientele. While Burger King has denied that it is banning protesters from their establishment, a “Boycott Burger King” Facebook page and a YouTube video taken by one young woman say otherwise. (Though what’s the point of boycotting an establishment that won’t let you in, anyway?)
This video, alleges protesters, shows that Burger King won’t even allow a lady to buy a cup of coffee, instead calling the cops on her.
But the whole truth may not be seen here: the first portion of the video shows that this young protester was already having an altercation with the employees of the Burger King before she decided to prove how inhospitable the fast food chain was being.
When we walked in to BK Monday afternoon, we saw several obvious protesters (usually identified by grungy clothing and frantically searching for a power outlet to charge their computers or
phones) ordering food without hassle. We asked to speak to a manager about the recent video, saying that we’d like to get their side of the story. At first the woman we spoke to identified herself as the manager, but after we asked for her name, she quickly covered up her name tag and called her boss. (We believe this woman’s name was Jonella L.)
Once we convinced her that we were, in fact, press, Jonella opened up a little bit about Burger King’s protester policy. “We allow everyone twenty minutes to sit, eat, and use the computers,” she told us heatedly. “But these people…it happened this Saturday, last Wednesday….they would come in drunk, or they would try to unplug our equipment to plug in their own. We allowed them to use our bathroom, but then they took advantage of it. We can’t allow that…we have families that come in here.”
Then the Ms. L turned suspicious again, asking for our credentials and telling us that her boss was “in a meeting,” despite the fact that we could hear her when she went to call, advising her superior not to talk to “someone from The Wall Street Journal.”
We didn’t receive a much warmer welcome at McDonald’s, where our request to speak to a manager was only met with a hard stare. The employee took our card and told us that their manager “would call you if they feel like talking.”
Fair enough. Being multinational corporate chains, one store’s policy regarding the protesters could be less a statement on the restaurants themselves than a reflection on the personal decisions of whoever is in charge that day. But it could be dangerously construed otherwise.
Neither McDonald’s nor Burger King’s corporate offices have called us back for comment. And why would they? It’s not in either of the chain’s best interests to come out for or against the protesters. If the official line is “No, we don’t allow protesters into our building,” the company risks a boycott. If they say they welcome these new customers, they could be a boycott movement headed up by conservative groups like The American Family Association, or even …gasp…Fox News. Can you imagine Bill O’Reilly having his cameramen come in and take footage of the refugee camp that the 160 Broadway location has become?
Off the record though, those running the McDonald’s at Liberty Plaza are extremely accommodating. One manager, who preferred not to be identified, told us Sunday that they are trying their best to be welcoming to everyone.
“We are very nice to these people, all we ask is that they clean up after themselves and don’t disturb anyone else,” said the manager. He was currently blocking off the entirety of the second floor, which also happens a lot: whether this is a time-based decision (the floors are only open certain hours) or to dissuade long-term residence is unknown.
The protesters themselves can’t speak highly enough of McDonald’s for being “really cool” about letting them use the facilities and free WiFi. We were told that McDonald’s has gone so far as to occasionally let protesters use the private back room on the second floor (called the Orchid Room) to charge computers and hold meetings.
If the irony of an anti-capitalist organization championing a corporate chain like McDonald’s seems like the definition of irony…well, it sort of is. Just like Occupy Wall Street members get criticized for using Apple products while demanding that corporate monopolies be destroyed (“Apple isn’t a monopoly though!” some protesters are quick to point out), their patronage of McDonald’s seems, in theory, to undermine their argument against conglomerates.
But aren’t those who work at McDonald’s part of the 99 percent as well? And if a giant company like McDonald’s is offering a safe-haven to these protesters when it starts to rain and their equipment gets wet…which dutifully picks up after them after the bathrooms inevitably become a pigsty (while still welcoming them back the next day!), then the theoretical arguments of an Adbusters article eventually gives way to the building’s practical uses.
This is not to say that all Occupy Wall Street participants just hang out in McDonald’s and chow down on Big Macs. On the contrary, many, if not most, of the protesters I’ve met are vegan. So, they tend to favor the apple slices and black coffee. Concessions are made, and the uneasy peace continues.