A New York City Police officer near the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday, July 11, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
At the corner of Spring and Varick streets, in the ethereal white halls of a Manhattan Mini Storage, two members of the Occupy Wall Street Archives Working Group have assembled competing visions of how the movement should be remembered. Their collections look deceptively similar: cramped, high-ceilinged storage closets packed with cardboard signs, boxes, banners, and stray objects such as a mannequin, a pig mask, a miniature tent, an orange mesh police net and hundreds of unopened letters. Neither self-appointed archivist has had access to the other’s stash. They rarely even speak to each other, having undergone a philosophical falling-out—one that, as the first birthday of OWS approaches, seems to hinge on the question of whether the movement should be spoken of in the past or present tense.
Amy Roberts is in her mid-30s and works for a public library in New York while studying for her certification as an archivist. She’s typically soft-spoken and considerate, qualities I appreciated when we were watching out for each other in the streets after the early morning police raid that evicted the Occupiers from Zuccotti Park last November. She hopes to deliver the contents of her storage unit to New York University’s Tamiment Library, which specializes in labor and the left, and which for months has been courting the Archives Working Group. The materials would be professionally cataloged and preserved there, allowing easy access for whatever future historians might want to see them.
As we went through the objects in her storage unit, we played some memory games, trying to pin the objects to their particular time and place. “It’s nice to go through this again,” Roberts said, holding a letter that accompanied a donation of clothes from a fashionable retailer in Los Angeles.
On another floor of the same building, Jeremy Bold keeps his branch of the OWS Archives. Bold, who goes by variants of “Jez” in the movement, is in his late 20s and has a wispy beard that’s most profuse in the region between his jaw line and neck. He has been working as a philosophy librarian at NYU but now is entering a more transient period. “There is no such thing as permanence in my life,” he observed in characteristically metaphysical terms.
Like Roberts, Bold collected signs, documents and other ephemera throughout the occupation and its aftermath. Since he was part of the earliest planning meetings in New York, some of his objects have particular historical significance. But now, unable to keep paying for the storage unit, he wants to give them away. “I guess my part is over,” he said. “If people still feel strongly about this stuff, I think they’ll want to take care of it.”
To this end, he’s been developing what he calls the “Anarchives”—a system for preserving the movement’s material history outside of institutions like NYU. Rather than keeping all of the objects in one place, they’d be divided among those who helped create them, who would then catalog and interpret their holdings in an online database.
“The history is left to be preserved by the people still living it,” Bold explained. Rather than the fossilized existence offered by Tamiment, the Anarchives would play an ongoing role in an ongoing movement, in a manner consistent with the movement’s do-it-yourself ideals. Bold’s proposal, however, assumes that Occupy Wall Street is still alive and well.
During the fall of 2011, op-ed pages and cable news shows constantly referred to “the Occupy protests” and tried their darnedest to explain what exactly had caused this sudden and unhygienic uprising. The encampments last fall indisputably “changed the conversation,” specifically by enabling the country to talk about wealth and inequality again. In many cases, Occupy even provoked an analysis of corporate domination over politics and everyday life. But after the dismantling of the Zuccotti Park encampment in November 2011, the media lost interest, lending the impression that the movement no longer exists.