A downtown demonstration against the government and Wall Street excess unfolds in orderly fashion
On Saturday, I watched a handful of Japanese tourists peering over a low metal barricade slung across the top of Wall Street, at Broadway, trying to catch a glimpse of the fabled stock exchange. The street, they had been informed, was closed because a group of people wished to use it for a protest. One of the Japanese approached a police officer stationed in front of the barrier. What, she asked in fractured English, did the protestors want?
"OK," the officer said, clearing his throat. "The government? The economy? Capitalism? The protestors don't like any of it. They go, 'Capitalism is bad, we don't like capitalism. So, we're going to sit on Wall Street, and we're gonna stay there.' So, we, the police, we go, 'No, you can't sit there. You have to move.' OK? You understand now?"
"Ooooh," said the Japanese tourists.
The officer wasn't totally wrong. The protest did, of course, include a helping of college anarchists, Wobblies, and unreconstructed Leninists. But there were others, who didn't really have anything against capitalism at all.
In July, the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters posted a message on its blog inviting readers to make their way to Wall Street on September 17, pitch a tent, and camp out for several months. Just as the protestors in Cairo's Tahrir Square had found success by repeating a single demand—"Mubarak must go"—so, too, the magazine argued, might the protestors of lower Manhattan see one of their demands met. What precisely that demand would be, however, was to be left to the protestors to decide upon when they arrived.
In the months that followed, word of the event, given various names and hashtags—"#OccupyWallStreet", "U.S. Day of Rage" and, most simply, "September 17"—spread on social-networking sites, but its intentions were never really defined.
When I walked into Bowling Green at noon on Saturday, several hundred people were milling around. Many of them were the college radicals and thin-haired yippies who make an avocation of such events ("Can I just use stock photos from previous protests?" asked a fat man with press pass and an enormous camera), and several dozen wore grinning Guy Fawkes masks, of the sort favored by members of the shadowy online collective Anonymous. But others looked boringly normal.
I approached one of the protesters, a tidy-looking man wearing khakis, a keffiyeh, and a Guy Fawkes mask pushed up on his forehead. He was carrying a sign that read "CITIZENS UNITED AGAINST GREEDY POLITICIANS AND THE WHORISH POLITICIANS WHO SERVE THEM!"
Ethnically Dominican, Rafael Gomez, 31, said he grew up in the South Bronx and was now getting his PhD from SUNY Albany. He said that he was dismayed by cuts to education funding that had caused class sizes to swell and tuition to rise, even as he described himself as essentially libertarian, but with "more of a social conscience.” He said voted for Obama in 2008, but that the bank bailout and the continuing war in Iraq left him feeling betrayed.
"I didn't expect the same oligarchs and the same people who were responsible for the financial crisis to be brought back, people like Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers," Gomez said. "I did not expect those bastards back."
To Gomez's thinking, among the current crop of presidential candidates, only Ron Paul offered any hope of a break with the current system, as he was the least beholden to corporate interests.
When I pointed out that Ron Paul was hardly the biggest fan of state-sponsored education, Gomez said that this was a point upon which he and Paul disagreed.
The libertarians and leftists and libertarian-leftists at the protest seemed to find common ground in an intense suspicion of the current government and its careful treatment of Wall Street.
"I've actually realized socialism and free-market libertarianism are the same thing, just phrased differently," said Zacqary Adam Green, a small 21-year-old with blue-tinted hair and green-plastic-frame glasses who has a website called Plankhead. "A free world where everyone is free to do what they want, within reason, which depends on the ability of everyone to not starve to death."
Green, too, wore a Guy Fawkes mask.
At one point a 19-year-old who identified himself as an anarchist, wearing a yellow glass skull necklace, told to me that government wasn't necessary because neighbors would take care of each other, which, maybe coincidentally, is Ron Paul’s line about health care.
For several hours, protestors made speeches through megaphones on the steps of the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American Indian. Some marched around the Wall Street bull, which had been fenced in by police to avoid defacement.
At 3 p.m., the body of demonstrators, by this time several thousand strong and chanting loudly, made its way down Broadway. Police, looking wary, flanked them on scooters and motorcyles.
"Come on! Join us!" one of the protestors yelled up at a group of out-of-towners in an open-topped tour bus. The riders, looking tickled, took pictures with their phones.
The original plan to occupy Wall Street was never consummated. City officials, presumably deciding that a long occupation of the neighborhood that produces seven percent of municipal tax revenues was a thing best avoided, closed off the streets around Exchange Place to anyone who didn't live or work there. So the group made an impromptu decision to settle in Zuccotti Park, which is sandwiched between two skyscrapers and across an intersection from the World Trade Center site.
Protest facilitators—they repeatedly emphasized that there were no “leaders”— suggested, through a megaphone, that people break into smaller groups and discuss why they were there. They did this. For the next hour, the protestors sat cross-legged in groups ranging in number from about 20 to more than a hundred and compared notes on what they were discontented with. Meanwhile, scores of police officers took up positions on the edge of the park.
Over the course of the late afternoon, the protestors' energy dropped with the temperature. Most of the people who looked like they had day jobs quietly departed for the subway.
At 7 p.m., the sky was getting dark and the group, now significantly smaller, came together for another meeting. Word spread that the park was privately owned and the owner, Brookfield Properties, was debating how to handle the situation. Technically, if anyone stayed past 10 p.m., they could be arrested for trespassing. The had to decide whether they would continue to occupy the park and risk arrest or make an alternate plan.
I sat in the front row of the meeting, in front of a Marxist and a Ron Paul supporter, who had struck up a friendship and were now deep in conversation.
"Well, it's good that Anonymous is getting their name out," said the Ron Paul supporter. "I figure, worst comes to worst, someone's going to get beaten and then it's going on the news. They can give 'em bad publicity, but they'll still get the name out. That's their Phase One, getting their name out."
"I don't even know anyone from Anonymous," said the Marxist.
"Well, do you like freedom?"
"Do you not like corporations and the government infringing on your rights?"
"Congratulations, you're Anonymous."
"Yeah, pretty much."
A half-dozen facilitators stood on a low parapet, taking ideas from the protestors about how the group would proceed. Because megaphones can't be easily passed through a crowd, a human amplification system was instituted. Everyone time someone stood up and said something, everyone within earshot shouted what just been said. Out of politeness, most speakers kept their proposals short and cut them into shoutable bites.
"I propose..." said a small blonde.
"I PROPOSE..." boomed her neighbors.
"...that we sleep..."
"...THAT WE SLEEP..."
"...on the sidewalks."
"...ON THE SIDEWALKS."
The debate went on for several hours. Ideas included staying in the park, come what may; making a second attempt to march on Wall Street, either inside or outside the barricades; relocating to the street by the Staten Island Ferry (pros: near bathrooms and waterfountains; cons: cold and easily cordoned off by the police); and sleeping on various sidewalks around the financial district. (A pamphlet distributed by one of the organizing groups noted that sleeping the sidewalk for reasons of political protest is legal, so long as the group sleeping takes up less than half the sidewalk, does not interfere with business and does not erect any kind of structure, like a tent.)
There were only several hundred protestors left at this point, almost all college-age. They were actually pretty orderly, or at least not the kind of disorderly that would get them arrested. Lawful proposals generally received more applause than those that involved confrontation. Several speakers mentioned having to get back home or to work or school, and were met with appreciative murmurs. Finally, an announcement was made that the owner of the facility was willing to let protestors spend the night, so long as they weren't too loud and didn’t break anything. An enormous cheer went up.
"It's a victory," a facilitator said, nodding furiously. "Because we're able to protest publicly in a privately owned space."
Acoustic guitars and tom-toms were passed out shortly after that and the protest turned modestly celebratory.
David Fabe, who studies philosophy at the New School, was standing alone, watching the crowd from a low flight of steps.
"I don't know," he said. "Their whole idea is we don't need leaders, but it's a law of humanities that we need leaders."
A few feet away, a girl strummed her guitar and sang a verse of the Cranberries' "Zombie."
"I feel like the people in America who are really getting fucked the most, a lot of them, view protests as kind of disloyal and unpatriotic and just not dignified," Fabe said. "They just think, 'Keep working, keep doing we need to do, take care of our families, and maybe things will get better.'"
The protestors began to lay out bedrolls and make sleeping arrangements.
The voices of the protestors didn't carry through the canyons of the financial district well, and, a few blocks away, the neighborhood was as quiet as it always is on a weekend. A few police officers leaned against the metal barricades on Wall Street and made jokes to kill the time.