New York Press
September 13, 2013
Last week on a late Thursday afternoon, a middle-aged man in tie-dye strides up Zuccotti Park’s eastern steps. His hands cupped around his mouth, he calls out to any fellow Occupy Wall Street (OWS) supporters. “Hey, you guys!” No one responds. His only erstwhile OWS ally in earshot is Jonathan Gilbert, who is busy acting out his “nautical rescue plan for saving the world.” Pausing between his spiel, Gilbert points over to his compatriot and says, “That’s Jason the conversation killer.” The only two OWS supporters in the plaza are barely on speaking terms.
Then Gilbert tells me about his other plan. To buy live chickens from Petco and set them free in the plaza. He whispers conspiratorially, “Want to go in on it with me 50-50?”
The existence of Jonathan and Jason in the park notwithstanding, along with a visibly beefed-up police presence, on this afternoon, it’s difficult to conceive that just one year ago this stretch of granite was home to a large utopian experiment: the freewheeling OWS encampment that was the fountainhead of a larger “Occupy Movement.” It seemed to herald the promise of a 1960s-like change in social consciousness on a national scale, or in the words of public intellectual Cornell West, “a democratic awakening.”
But as it turned out, if the Occupy Movement was indeed a millennial repeat of the spirit of the 1960s, it only was so in the sense that Karl Marx predicted: “History repeats itself; first as tragedy, second as farce.” Almost from the get-go, #OWS seemed to move at a dizzying pace, bursting instantaneously from obscurity into the forefront of the American zeitgeist. (Some of this can no doubt be attributed to social media’s ability to create large crowds quickly.)
But before the media feeding frenzy that developed around Zuccotti during the heyday of the movement last autumn, there was a short period of time when mainstream reporters generally ignored the ragtag interlopers— armed with “We Are the 99%” signs and sleeping bags—picketing Wall Street. (The original site of the protest was Bowling Green and One Chase Plaza.)
I first began covering OWS just when this band of protesters “occupied” Zuccotti Park, re-christening it with its original name, “Liberty Plaza.” These were heady days, when everyone in the park (minus the cops and informants) channeled their disaffection with the current economic system into creating a new type of urban protest community.
The protesters were emboldened when they won a handful of victories allowing them to stay in the park, even as the NYPD seemed ever more eager to evict them. Donations came pouring in, allowing for a bounty of resources—especially frequent meals—to be distributed among the flock. It was then that the media began to take a stronger notice and create their various narratives and counter-narratives. Protesters were always willing and eager to talk. Some were more cogent on political issues of the day than others. Predictably, the right-wing media pounced on the occupiers, describing them as “lazy, unemployed socialists,” even while for the most part their stated political aims were modest. (In those early days, the most frequent refrains heard were of a pressing need to take corporate money out of politics, to restore democracy and increase taxes on the “1 percent.”)
By mid-October, the Zuccotti encampment had become daily tabloid fodder, especially as undesirable elements began creeping into the park, taking advantage of the plentitude of free resources. There were widespread rumors, substantiated by a report in the Daily News on Oct. 31, that the NYPD was sending vagrants into the encampment to wreak havoc. In any case, a rift had been created between the earnest do-gooder protests who swept and cleaned and the ne’er-do-wells who did drugs and sponged off the camp’s resources.
By early November, the plaza had devolved into a full-fledged tent city bursting at the seams with bodies fighting for decreasing space. The smell of weed was always in the air, and the political causes on display—especially as the so-called black bloc moved in—aimed to offend middle-class sensibilities. Petty thefts became rampant. So it came as a surprise to only the starriest-eyed OWS believers when after midnight Nov. 15 the NYPD unleashed a blaze of force that completely wiped the encampment off the map. Looking at pictures of Zuccotti the next day, one might have wondered if the downtown utopian experiment ever existed at all.
Post-eviction, Occupy’s trajectory toward obsolescence has been equally rapid, begging the question of whether the movement was able to achieve anything meaningful during its short lifespan. Certainly it can take credit for instilling a flurry of buzzwords into the national psyche that changed the terms of the economic debate. Indeed, the very way in which many Americans think about how wealth and political power coalesces has been altered by the concept of the “1 percent.”
Cynically, the national Occupy movement might be seen as another pseudo-rebellious lifestyle for young adults who aren’t cut out for the rat race—like obsessive tattooing or following Phish. Now a year on, OWS’ imprint seems lightest where it is needed most, near the financial centers of power. (While conversely you can find devoted Occupy denizens in small towns like Ithaca, N.Y.) Worst of all perhaps, despite its exciting rhetoric of economic equality, Occupy’s influence during a decisive election—when real issues determining the well-being of a majority of Americans are in play—appears to be nonexistent. Some of this absence of muscle-flexing during the election season may be attributed to choice. Journalist and activist Chris Hedges, probably the closest the movement has to an intellectual mouthpiece, once opined in an interview with the blog Truthout that “the greatest enemy of the Occupy movement is Barack Obama.”
Perhaps. But after the crackdowns on the national Occupy movements in the fall—and especially in Zuccotti Park—spokesmen for the movement promised an impressive comeback the following spring. That such a show of power never materialized has added to those skeptical of Occupy’s ability to muster its forces at will. OWS has planned a flurry of events to mark its anniversary that aim to prove skeptics wrong with an impressive show of strength, and the NYPD for one isn’t taking any chances. Even so, pointing to the giant white concrete slabs the NYPD has amassed near the plaza, Gilbert says gleefully, “The cops are nervous about the anniversary.”