The Wall Street protesters determined to "Occupy Everything" now find themselves, in a sense, occupied
A few hundred occupiers sleep in the park on any given night; many hundred more come during the day to exchange ideas in the sort of public commons that had disappeared in the era of laptops and cell phones; hold and read signs; take in or add to the scene; or join the nightly General Assembly, the governing body of the movement that’s open to all comers and built on principles of participation and consensus.
“What we’re trying to build here,” said Jeff Smith, a member of the Occupy Wall Street press working group, “is a model for the bigger society we’d like to see.”
The dedicated participants’ stronghold is on the park’s east side, facing Broadway. The stragglers tend to cluster on the park’s west side, facing Cedar. The rift between them is growing. And two of OWS’s core values, generosity and inclusion, are being put to a crucial test.
Every protest scene or dissent park draws from a dark carnival element, and Zuccotti has had members of this group since the first week of its occupation. But the swelling ranks of freeloaders and disturbed characters in the last few days has pressed the working group members who’ve organized the protest and so far kept it from going off the rails to refine their ideas about just how open their movement should be.
Walking from east to west through the plaza, the stratification is stark, especially at night, when the gawkers and press have mostly cleared out. Inside the park, just past the General Assembly steps, are the library, the press and information tables, the legal table, sanitation and so on. Most of the working groups have been clustered at the east end of the park in order to share one of the few generators they had installed (the FDNY removed those generators Friday, ostensibly because they posed a fire hazard), and the space behind the tables has been the closest thing to a formal area, with only active participants behind them.
Most of the non-participants in turn pitched camp west of there, as far as possible from the workers. That dynamic reinforced itself, as occupiers nervous about their possessions and safety slept by their equipment and each other to the east, while the carnival crowd kept to the other side of Zuccotti.
It’s a fast drift from political theater and experiment into tarp and tent city, where sleepers block the walkways and the organization breaks down. The west-side anarchists are in 70s-punk costumes, and to the extent that they have discernible politics, many of them would be more fairly described as nihilists. At the Liberty-facing steps, where the much-discussed drummers are based, there’s a post-apocalyptic feel at night, with the spiritual meditation circle sharing space with a shady mélange of crusty punks, angry drunks, drug dealers and the city’s many varieties of park denizens.
“I mean you wouldn’t see somebody at the General Assembly smoking a joint,” said Smith, reflecting the frustrations shared by many working group members who have invested their time and energies in the occupation. “But in the back, they’re selling crystal meth.”
Ongoing efforts to change that dynamic by better distributing the working groups’ tables across the park have been frustrated by the limited number of generators they have to share and the unwillingness of many of the less-active occupiers to clear space for them. Members of the sanitation group say that more than 30% of the occupiers refuse to move their tents at all to accommodate the big weekly cleaning each Thursday. While the so-called Community Watch has significantly expanded in recent days, the sense of disorder has so far persisted, and concern has grown among the organizers, who understand that the scene in the park is — for the millions watching from afar — a symbol of their broader cultural and political ambitions.
The watch, though, has only powers of persuasion and pressure to try and enforce the rules, and no way to remove people from a public park. The police, whom many occupiers see as the enemy and who work under a mayor who’s made no secret of his distaste for the occupiers, have little reason to help them maintain order, and rarely seem to have entered the park over the last week for anything short of an assault. When officers have gone in, a wave of people carrying drugs (or with other reasons to fear arrest) moves away from them while others circle tightly around, cameras out. Even when organizers have requested their intervention, police enter to a mixed chorus of “brutality” and “pig” calls side by side with chanted reminders that “you are the 99%.”
But while officers may be in a no-win situation, at the mercy of orders carried on shifting political winds and locked into conflict with a so-far almost entirely non-violent protest movement eager to frame the force as a symbol of the oppressive system they’re fighting, the NYPD seems to have crossed a line in recent days, as the park has taken on a darker tone with unsteady and unstable types suddenly seeming to emerge from the woodwork. Two different drunks I spoke with last week told me they’d been encouraged to “take it to Zuccotti” by officers who’d found them drinking in other parks, and members of the community affairs working group related several similar stories they’d heard while talking with intoxicated or aggressive new arrivals.
The NYPD’s press office declined to comment on the record about any such policy, but it seems like a logical tactic from a Bloomberg administration that has done its best to make things difficult for the occupation — a way of using its openness against it.
“He’s got a right to express himself, you’ve got a right to express yourself,” I heard three cops repeat in recent days, using nearly identical language, when asked to intervene with troublemakers inside the park, including a clearly disturbed man screaming and singing wildly at 3 a.m. for the second straight night.
“The first time I’ve heard cops mention our First Amendment rights,” cracked one occupier after hearing a lieutenant read off of that apparent script.
“A lot of you people smell,” a waggish cop shot back later after an occupier asked if he might be able to help find more appropriate accommodations for a particularly pungent and out-of-sorts homeless man.
“The police are saying ‘it’s a free for all at Zuccotti so you can go there,’” said Daniel Zetah, a member of several working groups including community affairs. “Which makes our job harder and harder because the ratio is worse and worse.”
“We’re in a limited physical space,” said Zetah, “and we’re past carrying capacity. By including these people we’re creating a space where other people, and particularly women, don’t feel safe — and by default you’re excluding them.”
Siegel, a writer based in Brooklyn, is a former editor at the New York Sun, New York Press and Politico.