Still Occupying Wall Street: N17 and Beyond
If there’s anything more astounding than seeing a train derailed, it’s watching it get back on track. Liberty Square, the home of Occupy Wall Street, had been evicted early Tuesday morning. By Wednesday, the protesters were emotionally shaken and downtrodden, and many of them were still trickling out of jail. The newly formed organizing structure of the movement, the Spokes Council, was finding it difficult to govern when it met that night. As a representative body meant to serve the needs of working groups, many of which are focused on maintaining the camp at Liberty, the Council’s legitimacy was questionable now that the occupation was over. A small divide was appearing between protesters who wanted to move on without Liberty and others who insisted that they re-occupy.
Everything would depend on the success of N17, the Global Day of Action called to commemorate the two-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Ever since the eviction, Occupiers have been talking about what would come next. At a General Assembly that filled Liberty on Tuesday night, break-out groups were formed to discuss possibilities for Occupy moving forward. Various ideas were put forth: occupy new spaces, focus on the elections, unify with labor groups. The discussion continued on Wednesday, both at Liberty, where protesters in ponchos were outnumbered by private security guards hired by Brookfield Properties, who owns the park, and in the public atrium a few blocks away at 60 Wall Street, where working groups were meeting.
Daniel Zitah, a 35-year-old who occupied Wall Street shortly after OWS’s first day on September 17, seemed galvanized by the eviction, though he also recognized that it had been traumatic to many. “Instead of dealing with the how of the Occupy, I wanna talk about the why,” Zitah explained. “We’ve been focusing so much on how to maintain this movement. But we need to think about why we’re here,” he continued. For Zitah, Occupy’s mission is to inspire and engage Americans all over the country to become more involved in shaping democratic institutions. They can do that without an occupation, he insisted.
But most people involved in the movement, whether they occupied Liberty or were active in other ways, concede that the physical location of the movement near Wall Street was immensely important. The symbolism of being in the city’s financial district spoke directly to the movement’s grievances, which point to corporate greed and austerity.
The Spokes Council meeting on Wednesday night exemplified the danger of Occupy becoming weighted down by the emotional and logistical challenges presented by the eviction. The Council’s legitimacy was unclear now that the occupation had ended, and as a result, they couldn’t make any decisions through consensus, the movement’s established procedure for collectively determining actions ranging from the mundane (purchasing batteries) to the strategic (organizing a march). There was confusion, and also dismay. People showed up halfway through the meeting, saying they had been at Zuccotti Park, trying to hold down the space on their own; they felt abandoned by those who seemed to have moved on without the park. Most of the Council meeting was spent listening to a representative from the National Lawyers Guild who advised the group on how to get their tents, clothes, books and equipment back from the New York City Department of Sanitation, where it had been hauled to and dumped following the eviction.
November 17, the Global Day of Action, was going to be crucial in gauging Occupy’s standing. The day was planned as a smorgasbord of activities: “Breakfast” would entail shutting-down the New York Stock Exchange at 7 am; followed by “Lunch,” where occupations of the subway would occur at multiple locations throughout the city alongside a student-strike rally at Union Square, and finally, for “Dinner,” the groups would all convene in Foley Square, near Wall Street, where they would march over the Brooklyn Bridge, the site of seven hundred arrests during an Occupy march in October.
Nobody could have predicted what a success it would be. The morning action did result in some arrests—seventy-three reported by the press, though Occupy representatives proudly stated that it “was closer to 200”—but more importantly, the protesters held down entire sections of Wall Street against the police and then filled Liberty with hundreds of people who danced and cheered victoriously. Morale was high as the day went forward.
By mid-day, small groups of striking university professors, college adjuncts and students were “occupying” the subways all over the city, holding storytelling sessions with the human microphone, a signature technique of the movement. Students from Queens read aloud from a book on political economy, asking subway riders to join them in repeating phrases about “how America’s one percent consists mainly of white, Christian males.” At Union Square, nearly 2,000 people—students, professors and supporters—gathered for a rally on the north side of the park, where a group of students climbed up on a monument to hold a General Assembly. They spoke of rising tuition, burdensome student loan debt, lack of employment opportunities, racial profiling by police on their campuses and lack of student representation in university decision-making processes. Then they marched.
It was cat-and-mouse all the way from Union Square down to Foley Square; the NYPD attempted to put up barricades to prevent the thousands of students from marching through the busy avenues of downtown Manhattan at various points. The marchers turned and ran in the opposite direction after seeing that the police would not allow them through, and then made their way through the streets with the cops on their heels and attempting to cut them off all the way. Arriving in Foley Square, the marchers were welcome by thousands upon thousands of people, as far as they eye could see. Labor organizations such as the United Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union and local adjunct unions were out in full force, waving banners. A stage had been set up with a real microphone—something of a shock to many who had grown accustomed to the lack of amplification at Liberty Square. Speakers were telling stories of economic injustice; a hip-hop group had the crowd bobbing and swaying to verses about freedom from oppression, and organizers named all the religious leaders who supported Occupy. The Occupiers were visibly overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and its energy.
But there was also a sense of claustrophobia; the police had barricaded the park, stranding overflow crowds on the other side of the street. Calls of “Let us in the park!” could be heard across the way until finally, one by one, the barricades began coming down, and the crowd started marching toward the Brooklyn Bridge. The police scrambled to put the barricades back up. One woman, middle-aged and not able-bodied, was caught with her legs splayed over a barricade, and she screamed with fright as police overturned the barricade with her on top of it. She was helped up, and the crowd screamed, “Shame!”
But other than a few incidents like this, nonviolence was the rule of the day—as it has been since the start of Occupy Wall Street. Protesters kept mostly to the sidewalks and walked over the bridge’s footpath, although a few protesters were arrested for blocking motor traffic on the bridge. People chanted slogans such as, “We! Are! The 99 Percent!” and held up signs about unemployment, corporate privilege, government corruption and, amidst endless seas of police on horseback, living in a police state.
That evening, as protesters continued marching over the Brooklyn Bridge, a General Assembly convened at Liberty Square. A few hundred people gathered, and warm freshly baked cornbread circulated among the chilled but visibly enthused crowd. Facilitation began, and an emergency proposal was put on the table for the Occupy Wall Street legal working group to be tasked with retrieving items taken from Liberty during the police raid. Stack was opened for “clarifying questions,” and after an hour and fifteen minutes of exhausting back-and-forth over the human microphone, the General Assembly finally approved the proposal. Next was an announcement from Housing about the various churches around the city where displaced occupiers could spend the night. It was confusing, exhilarating, drawn-out and elaborate. But the crowd was comforted to see Occupy running a General Assembly at Liberty again. And it seemed, at least in the moment, that Occupy was back on track.