Well, perhaps not quite everything, but enough that were you to personally experience the demonstration and look around with your own eyes, you’d likely come to regard the mainstream media reports about Occupy Wall Street (especially the lamebrain stuff printed in The New York Post or heard on Fox News) more like loose gossip, bullshit or random fiction, than actual journalism or considered opinion.
I had the extreme privilege of visiting Zuccotti Park on three of the five days I recently spent in NYC and I’m here to tell you that I am much more excited about Occupy Wall Street—and prospects for real progressive change in this country—now than I ever could have been admiring it from afar. It was a life-affirming and quite moving thing to personally experience and hopefully I can get some of those good feelings across here.
On Wednesday, I was picked up at JFK by my old friend (and frequent Dangerous Minds Radio Hour DJ) Nate Cimmino. I checked into my hotel and since I hadn’t been to NYC for a few years, we decided to just walk from Houston Street to the OWS site. It was raining, not exactly a heavy downpour, but the rain had been steady for most of the day. When we arrived at Zuccotti Park around 4pm, it was starting to get dark and it was pretty much locked down with everyone trying to keep dry. Plastic covered everything and people huddled under makeshift tarps just trying to keep their shit together. It resembled a water-logged shanty town and hardly anything was going on. The lines for the brightly-lit food carts on the southern side of the park were the most noticeable thing at that time (these guys must be making bank, especially the falafel vendors). CNN had a mobile video van with a crane and a “crow’s nest” for getting aerial shots of the park. Dozens of NYPD officers in rain gear ringed the park, many of them female officers.
The medical area of Occupy Wall Street.
This wasn’t the right moment to get much of a feel for what’s been going on there, obviously, so I resolved to return on the weekend. Some initial observations though: Zuccotti Park isn’t much of a park at all. It’s more like a concrete plaza and it’s not very big. Keep in mind when you hear people scoffing at the size of the demonstration, that about a thousand people (give or take) is all this area would hold. If many more people tried to join in the demonstration, it would not be possible to move about. It’s already densely packed as it is.
It’s also right across the street from Ground Zero. In my mind, it was in a different (southeastern) part of lower Manhattan, so when we walked down Broadway, the sound of the drumming got louder and then all of a sudden there it was, that came as a surprise.
Greg Barris and me mugging for the camera on one of the OWS live video feeds.
On Saturday I returned to OWS with my friend Greg Barris, a stand-up comedian and restaurateur. Greg’s been taking pizza from his restaurant to Zuccotti Park since the demonstrations began. The festive carnival atmosphere that morning was a striking contrast to Wednesday’s wash-out. Colorful flags, costumed characters and people of all ages, races, creeds and personality types circulated around the square. You could see people who were arriving alone with a look of apprehension in their eyes, but soon afterward, that same person would be seen joining right in.
Several people distributed free copies of The Occupy Wall Street Journal and a lefty books lending library operated efficiently (there were even a few books that I had published). Everyone was smiling at one another and a feeling of fun and solidarity was palpable. I saw no overtly negative signs and I saw no placards whatsoever for either of the major political parties (I’d put the number of Republicans at Zuccotti Park at slightly north of “zero,” but still I saw not a single pro-Democrat or pro-Obama item anywhere, either). There’s a medical area where minor things can be tended to by volunteer nurses and medics and a food area manned by park residents. Greg pointed out one earnest-looking California blond skater-type and told me he’s seen that same guy dishing out plates of free food since the earliest days of the demonstration. The park was notably clean, not at all the unsanitary mess Fox News viewers have been repeatedly told about.
A woman who identified herself as “The Knitting Granny” sat knitting sweaters and scarfs to give to the occupiers. Children in face-paint or costumes carried signs marching with their parents. An elderly gentleman using a walker who must’ve been in his nineties told some of us that he’d been an engineer working with dams and waterways his entire career and what he knew about the “fracking” that’s planned for locations upstate less than ten miles away from New York’s main water supply scared him to death. He came to share his expertise, he told me, and to see OWS with his own eyes.
Several “super heroes” circulated around. A man in his early 30s, who came to OWS alone from Delaware, brought along a solar electrical generator and set it up so people could charge their cell phones. One fellow, who we later saw on the subway, was dressed in a barrel. He must’ve been cold. Another guy carried a “Ross Perot for President” sign and wore a Ross Perot t-shirt and badges.over his coat. He might’ve been the weirdest guy I saw there.
When you hear dismissive asses braying about how it’s “all white people”—that’s a bunch of utter nonsense. You’ll encounter as diversified a group at OWS as you would if you were in a New York City DMV office and that’s really saying something, so these sorts of haters and naysayers, can go jump in the lake. All white? Maybe in the first few days, but now, that’s simply not even in the slightest bit true.
There are TONS of attractive people at OWS and the mood is so festive and jovial that making conversation with members of the opposite sex is very easy to do. I may get shit for saying this, but it’s true: If more guys knew how many super hot women were milling around OWS, there’d immediately be a massive increase in attendance and foot traffic in the area around Zuccotti Park.
Gay? Fret not, there is a “Queer Camp,” too (look for the feather boas on the northeast side of the park). We even saw someone who identified herself as a “T-girl pornstar” make herself hoarse shouting anti-capitalism things and the very wonderful Reverend Billy is a frequent visitor. The age range is all over the place, as well. In fact, it’s hard to generalize anything at all about the people you meet there except to say that they’ve got their eyes wide open about the problems of advanced capitalism and American democracy. That’s the bottom line. THAT was the commonality amongst all of us.
Greg Barris and his sign.
Most people, it would seem, sleep at their homes but come downtown whenever they can. I got the feeling that there was a small percentage of the occupiers who were the ones who were sleeping there. When you walk around in the interior of the plaza, it becomes somewhat apparent that the folks who the media are derisively describing as “hippies,” “punks” and “homeless people” are in fact, quite often hippies, punks and homeless people. They form the more hardcore inner group that performs the very important task of holding down the park. Without their presence, Mayor Bloomberg would have put fences around Zuccotti Park in two seconds flat, so remember that when you’re there and drop a few bucks in their cans. They’re not merely scruffy panhandlers, they’re there in YOUR place if you support the aims of OWS.
Aside from the resident demonstrators and the day-trippers getting their protest on, there are also thousands of tourists milling about taking pictures. The photos they take are then uploaded to Facebook, Flickr and their blogs. The stories they bring back home and to the water-cooler at work and to their online lives will continue to spread the word about what’s going on in Zuccotti Park.
Sunday afternoon at Occupy Wall Street, I met up with Em, the “undercover banker” who sometimes writes incendiary essays for DM, Nate Cimmino, his wife Nicole and my pal, noted photographer Glen E. Friedman. It was another gorgeous, glorious day like the one before it, with intelligent and engaged people joining together for a higher purpose. (I’ve already mentioned about all of the beautiful woman down there, but I’m going to mention it once more so it really sinks in, okay?).
My favorite moment—or moments, I should say—of my three visits to Occupy Wall Street was watching the open-air Big Apple double-decker tour buses drive past, full of tourists with their fists in the air! That was an amazing thing to see. Witnessing that sight, repeatedly, I might add, was as sure a confirmation as anyone should require that a little over a month after its improbably beginnings, OWS is becoming a mainstream phenomenon. When is the last time the mainstream media took up a progressive cause? The Civil Rights movement? The Vietnam War? This is a real thing, not a flash in the pan. The fist-pumping seniors on the tour buses are but one of the signposts of the shift that’s happening in this country. Is there anyone out there stupid enough to still ask “What is their endgame?” Even someone who only watches Fox News has probably figured THAT out by now!
The only disharmonious incident I witnessed in my three visits was when a dopey-looking born again Christian crew (I’m talking total Ned Flanders-types) started telling the people assembled there, but especially the ones sleeping in Zuccotti Park, that they were possessed by demons and bound for Hell. As you might imagine that message went over like a lead zeppelin. A late 40-something gutterpunk guy and a hilariously confrontational black kid got right up in their faces with such intensity (and volume) that they quickly left. When they fucked off, deflated, everyone cheered.
Having said that, the overall scene at Occupy Wall Street does feel, in some respects, almost biblical, with one thousand iPhone carrying Joshuas shouting down the walls of a very high tech Jericho. Let there be no doubts, dear reader, I, and everyone around me there knew that we were witnessing and participating in history. It’s not going to be an overnight change, but anyone who thinks that things can or will continue on indefinitely the way they have been are going to be in for a very rude awakening.
Obama and the Democrats are going to have to move quite far to the left to satisfy their base as we move into 2012 and from what I saw, I reckon that OWS is pretty much 100% bad news for the Republicans, who are going to get the free market and tax cuts for the 1% shoved right up their goddamned asses on election day (I’m looking at you, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan). I mean, shit, once the election season kicks fully into high gear next year, I expect to see some completely hilarious stuff happen, don’t you? It’s going to be the best election ever! Or the funniest, at least.
As the drumbeat for change in the way we “do business” in America gets louder and louder and louder, the elites will have no choice but to respond. 99% vs. 1%? Who’d be dumb enough to bet against odds like that? The changes that are destined to take place in the next decade of American life are going to make people of a conservative political disposition very uncomfortable indeed. The rest of us are going to be thrilled, though, so fuck ‘em.
From my point of view as an “old school” New Yorker parachuting into Manhattan after a few years away, Occupy Wall Street is functioning like a sun that is radiating its heat throughout all of New York City, and then via the media, to the rest of the planet. It’s extremely inspiring. As someone who lived in the city for the better part of three decades, NOW is the best I have seen NYC since the early 1980s. The energy in the streets is near an all-time high. New York is just killin’ it. Something is really happening at the moment and it’s an exciting time to be there. If you live in Philly, CT, New Jersey… go down there and check out Occupy Wall Street for yourself. If you live in the NY metro area and you haven’t been downtown, shame on you for watching it on tee-vee…
Trust me when I tell you that it pained me, absolutely pained me to be the old fart saying “New York used to be better back when I was young”... but I’ll never be tempted to say that again anyway, not after what I saw last week.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Original Occupy Wall Street: Stop the City, 1984
All photographs taken by Greg Barris from his Flickr page.