11:00 am Sep. 18, 20121
In 2008, the Venezuelan politician Teodoro Petkoff was asked by the television show "Frontline" to assess the legacy of his country’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
Chavez had entered office a decade earlier on a platform of helping raise poor Venezuelans out of poverty. To accomplish this, he had instituted a series of sweeping political reforms. A prominent critic of Chavez, Petkoff declared that, judged on their own merits, these reforms were failures: 10 years later, the poor were still poor. However, he said, history would look back favorably on Chavez as the individual who had made poverty a national issue. Before Chavez, Venezuela’s politicians had simply ignored the poor. “Today,” said Petkoff, “in any political discourse … the theme of poverty is essential, thanks to Chavez.”
When a history of Occupy Wall Street is written, a similar judgment might be made on the movement’s first year. Legislatively, Occupy Wall Street has accomplished little. Rhetorically, it was a success. It has contributed a handful of populist additions to the national lexicon (“occupy,” “the 99 percent,” “banksters,” etc.), phrases and concepts that may live on well after the occupation is broken up. The Occupy protests pushed the issue of income inequality into the mainstream. It wasn’t until Occupy emerged that President Obama began talking about “the top 1 percent.” And it’s no coincidence that pundits, discussing Occupy’s influence, tend towards the cognitive-fictive terms used to handicap political campaigns, where power lies not in money or accomplishments but in the ability to “change the conversation” and “create a narrative.”
However, one problem with a movement based on rhetoric is that when people stop talking about it, it ceases to exist. Since the protesters were thrown out of Zuccotti Park last fall, conversation about Occupy Wall Street has been sporadic, and participation in Occupy Wall Street and its other chapters has dwindled. Harrison Schultz is the founder of the one-man group “OWS Analytics,” which uses market research to measure public interest in Occupy Wall Street. On Saturday, during an assembly in Washington Square Park, Schultz reported that, measured in terms of attention on social media sites, interest in Occupy Wall Street was approximately where it was one year previously, before the Zuccotti Park occupation had even taken place.
“We’ve lost everything we’ve gained,” he said. “And now we have to get it back.”
This weekend’s activities, preceding the occupation’s first anniversary on Monday, Sept. 17, was an attempt to do just this. A week ago, after a planning meeting held in a West Village church basement, Sean McKeown explained that the three-day celebration-protest would be “an opportunity to get people’s attention again and remind them we’re still here.”
The weekend’s activities, consisting most of assemblies, concerts and other outreach events, would culminate on Monday with a day of demonstrations.
On Monday morning, around 7 a.m., hundreds of protesters began filtering into the streets around Zuccotti Park. Many sported party hats and colored balloons and, when passing, wished each other happy birthday. Some had slept on cardboard on the sidewalk outside Trinity Church. Others, mostly out-of-towners, had found shelter in a donated warehouse in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. Among them was Tom Over, a blogger and rickshaw driver from Columbus, Ohio. Over has participated in several large protests, including at the political conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, but thought the future of Occupy lay in smaller, community chapters rather than in the larger, showier gatherings.
“You really have to engage locally to make change,” he said. “The big national stuff? It’s more like a rock concert.”
Organizers made no secret of their immediate goal for Monday morning, which was to block access to the stock exchange. Long since surrendering to the reality of police infiltration, protesters had become open about their plans. They hoped to create human “walls” at intersections, composed of protesters linking arms. Organizers had identified four initial meeting points in different corners of the Financial District. The protesters, starting at these separate points, would then converge on the streets around the stock exchange in time for the opening bell.
By 7:30, about 200 protesters, plus half again as many media, had gathered at one of the checkpoints, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, next to 55 Water Street. In one corner of the plaza, a thick line of blue-uniformed police, headed by a half-dozen white-shirted commanders, stood in the shadow of a skyscraper, watching them.
“Hey everyone,” yelled Austin Guest. “We’re going to shut down Wall Street today!”
The protesters split into smaller groups, each armed with its own route and plan of action. Most hoped to block an intersection for a little while, disperse before they were arrested, and then repeat the process.
“It’s not about holding a space,” explained one group leader to his team. “It’s about creating a disruption."
At 8 a.m., the protesters set off. A big clump of demonstrators made their way up Water Street, then into the canyons of the Financial District, the police on their tail. As they passed under some scaffolding, a burly construction worker leaned down from his plank and gave a thumbs up.
“Is this Occupy Wall Street?” he asked. “O.K., all right. Down with Romney, eh?”
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, many of the movement’s “actions” were spontaneous. Part of the movement’s allure to the media was its unpredictability. One day Occupy could seem to summon, with minimal planning, thousands of people to Times Square. The next day would bring a series of wildcat marches on Lower Manhattan. What the protesters would do next and how the police would react was a constant surprise.
Since then, Occupy’s demonstrations have stiffened into a kind of formal dance, and protesters, police and media have memorized the steps.
It begins with a band of protesters, bearing signs and flags and musical instruments, marching down the sidewalk. A column of police trots beside them, white twist-tie cuffs swinging from their hips. Photographers with big telephoto lenses run up and down the line, clicking away. The protesters chant “We are the 99 percent” or “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” or any of a dozen stock slogans. The sound bounces off the tall buildings. Some protesters heckle the police. Others urge them to shed their riot gear and join the demonstration. The police don’t respond.
If a protester steps into the street or a photographer climbs up onto a lamppost, an officer barks at him to get back on the sidewalk. After a few blocks, the protesters stop at an intersection, clotting the street with bodies. They cheer and chant and wave their signs. Taking a megaphone from one of his men, a police commander orders them to disperse: anyone who doesn’t will be arrested. The protesters stay for a minute or two, thumbing their noses, then march on. The police and the photographers follow.
Often, as was the case on Monday morning, one of the protesters is too slow to disperse. Or maybe she steps off the sidewalk for too long. She’s thrown to the ground and arrested. A scrum of photographers crowds around, hoping for an action shot they can sell to the wires. Yellow-hatted legal observers run up, scribbling in their notebooks.
As her arms are pulled behind her and her wrists bound, the demonstrator hollers out the correct spelling of her name. Her fellow protesters, outraged, start yelling about free speech and police brutality and fascism. The police officers, angry now, break out their batons and shove everyone back. Other officers, zipping along on mini-bikes, plow into the demonstrators, trying to break them up. The police and protesters scuffle. The protesters videotape the police. The police videotape the protesters. Tourists videotape everyone. Finally, the protesters scurry free and resume marching. The chase continues as before.
“The protest has become a little ritualized,” said Over.
As it turned out, the protesters got nowhere near the stock exchange. Police, sticking to the plan they’d used during previous demonstrations, blockaded access routes with metal barricades, admitting only people with proper work identification. After a half-hour of weaving, the bulk of group returned to 55 Water Street. Guest again addressed the group.
“O.K.,” he said. “We feel the reason that kind of sucked is we did exactly what we’d trained not to do.”
Guest explained that the plan had been to split up into small groups, not stay as one large, easily corralled lump.
“That’s O.K.,” he said. “We can learn.”
After a brief meeting, protesters made another go of it. The cat-and-mouse game continued as before. Eventually, a dense mass of protesters found themselves on the stretch of Broadway running from Wall Street to Zuccotti Park. The sidewalk was definitely congested, but the exchange was far from shut down. Men and women in suits pushed through the protesters and, a little late and little rumpled, slipped through the barricades and down the hill to their jobs. The protesters remained enthusiastic.
“This is amazing,” said one woman. “Totally amazing.”
Farther down the street, on the corner of Liberty and Broadway, a protester, Kirk Root, 23, sat in a wheelchair. As some heavy trucks approached, Root rolled into the crosswalk, blocking traffic. The trucks stopped, and Root held his ground. After a minute, Root rolled back onto the sidewalk.
“Whoo!” Root yelled. “Occupy! Captain Kirk! Occupy Florida in the fucking house!”
A reporter approached Root and asked him what his demonstration had accomplished.
“I don’t know,” Root said. “But it felt good.”
A few minutes later, Root was arrested.
“I didn’t do anything,” Root cried. “Shit is fucked up and bullshit!”
Protesters began yelling. Police pushed them down the sidewalk, leaving Root and three wheelchair-bound colleagues parked on the corner.
Protests continued until dark. By then, more than 100 people had been arrested. The media, weighing in on the protest later in the day, was generally unimpressed, emphasizing the relatively small numbers of protesters, a steep drop from the crowds the movement attracted last fall. Descriptions of the protesters were similar to those that had come before: marches, scuffles, arrests.
The protesters thought that was enough, though.
“A lot of media is saying that Occupy is dying down,” one protester told Reuters, “but I think the fact that over 100 people were arrested this morning shows that Occupy is still part of the conversation.”
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