Breaking Up With Occupy | The Nation


Breaking Up With Occupy

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Sandy Nurse, a familiar figure in Occupy’s direct actions, now runs a composting business that employs teens from Bushwick’s poorest sections. (© Tracie Williams)

Sandy Nurse seemed to have lost what tolerance she once had for long meetings. Even though the basement of the DeKalb Library in Brooklyn was air-conditioned on an especially sticky July day, and even though the meeting’s agenda was only partly finished, she told the handful of other eco-activists there that she was sorry, but she had to go build some compost bins, and she left.

Nurse never really looked all that happy in meetings. As one of the earliest members of Occupy Wall Street’s Direct Action Working Group—as well as one of the last—she attended a lot of them, including a lot of quite horrible ones. She could often be seen sitting at the far end of the oblong circle, away from the fray but guiding it nonetheless with her formidable evil eye. Where she would come alive was in the streets, leading marches through the winding canyons of the Financial District or tricking the cops with an unexpected reversal of course to get the march to where it wasn’t supposed to go: Wall Street.

Nurse, now 29, is tall, strong and accustomed to being in motion. Her father was an engineer in the Navy; she was born in Panama and graduated from high school in South Korea, with stints in a sequence of world capitals in between. Before Occupy, she organized relief shipments to Haiti with the United Nations’ World Food Programme, and she was studying toward a master’s degree in international affairs. But by the time a friend suggested they check out the protest that was happening on September 17, 2011, she was aching to do something more hands-on. She found it in the occupation.

“I like all the different working groups,” she told me in an interview that fall, “but I’m more about action.”

It was in the work of building the occupation that Nurse met Zak Solomon, a social worker from the West Coast with an imposing stature and an earnest manner. They collaborated on actions and made money when they needed it by doing bicycle deliveries. As even the most resilient strands of the movement were dissipating this past spring, Nurse came up with an idea for an organizing project that could also be a business, BK ROT. The idea is to employ teenagers in the poorer quarters of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood to pick up compost from the doorsteps of subscribers and deliver it to urban gardens.

While setting up BK ROT, Nurse also completed a women-only construction training program and is now taking a course on how to audit buildings for energy efficiency. She loves this stuff. As the second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street approaches, she says, “Zuccotti Park feels so far away. Honestly, it’s like a blur.” But it’s also too close for comfort.

Sandy Nurse in 2011. (Giles Clarke)

Those of us whose social media networks swelled at the height of Occupy Wall Street have been inundated for more than a year now with a discouraging topic of discussion. Is Occupy dead? Where did it go wrong? Will it rise again? What happened to Occupy?

One hears these questions, too, among people on the outside, especially those who supported Occupy in its heyday but now wonder where it went. They recognize that something important and necessary (while perhaps misguided) happened in the fall of 2011, but they’re waiting to see what will happen next.

In late July, Nurse pleaded on her Facebook wall, “Does everything have to be called ‘Occupy’? Come on, y’all.” A commenter on a similar post a few weeks earlier put the matter succinctly: “Burn Occupy on a funeral pyre and move the fuck on.”

Nurse is unapologetic about her love for the free-for-all Occupy street protests that she played such a central role in organizing—“if I could do that all day every day, I would”—but now she’s thinking much longer term. She’s thinking toward the end of the world, more or less.

“What are the likely scenarios in our lifetime?” she asks rhetorically. “That resources will become scarce, that the economic crisis continues to worsen. When global finance is no longer interested in you, you need the skills to continue living—and that doesn’t involve freaking Google.”

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