What Happened to Occupy Wall Street?
By the time the police kicked the protesters out of Zuccotti Park last November, the Occupy Wall Street movement had already split into at least two distinct factions. There were the mostly college educated activists and intellectuals who essentially made up the government of the park, and the drifters who slept in the park and relied on donations mostly allocated by the first group for food, clothes and other basic necessities.
After the eviction, some members of the first group tried to portray the raid as an unintended gift from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD to the movement. The 22,000 square-feet village of tents and tarps had garnered incredible attention and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, but maintaining the space had come with significant challenges. In addition to feeding, clothing, and caring for the hundreds of people living there, the activists had to contend with the hazards of drug use and mental illness, reports of crime and the imminent approach of winter. Some saw the eviction as an opportunity to focus more of their energy on bigger things, like pushing for reforms to the financial system and to the United States government.
Members of the second group, many of whom had lived on the streets long before anyone pitched a tent in the name of “the 99 percent,” went in search of a new place to stay. Most eventually disappeared from the scene, but a few hung on, trying to find a spot where they could continue to live together in solidarity with the larger movement and in accordance with its communal values. For a time they found shelter in churches around Manhattan, but by the end of two months they had worn out their welcome. Their clergy hosts, many of whom had been happy to speak up for the protesters when they did not have to deal with them on a daily basis, balked at the difficulties of providing free housing to an unorganized group of indigents and turned them back out onto the streets.
There was an unsuccessful attempt to set up camp in Union Square, followed by an occupation of the steps of the Federal Reserve Building that lasted all of two weeks. Eventually the few remaining holdouts began to sleep on a section of sidewalk in front of Trinity Church, at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, where they remain. By September 17th, exactly one year after the first protesters camped in Zuccotti, this encampment will have been there for more than three months. The occupation of Zuccotti lasted for one month and 29 days.
Last fall, as cracks began to appear in the united façade of the Occupy movement, a protester and marriage counselor named Robert Adams told a reporter for The Huffington Post that the two groups needed each other to succeed. Referring to the “nomadic” types who lived in the park, he said, “They’re probably tough enough to survive whatever comes at us.” Although Adam’s professional life may have given him some extra insight into the strained relationship between the two parties, his perspective was hardly unique. Many protesters saw the uneasy coexistence of college professors and chronically homeless people as a testament to the movement’s unifying power and as an essential attribute of an ideal society, one which every person, no matter how marginal or poor, recieved an equal say in the decisions that affected their lives.
Today, as the movement approaches its first year anniversary, members of both factions are trying to recapture the lost energy of that time. Some in the first group are forming what they call a “debtors’ movement”, and are calling for the creation of agricultural communities where people can live off the grid and gain independence from the government. Some in the second group are “liberating” abandoned properties in Brooklyn, breaking into them in an attempt to convert them into new places where they can organize and live.
As it stands, though, without a common space to keep them together, the two groups barely communicate with each other. Distrust and disdain are pervasive, and it’s uncommon to hear anyone still making the case for greater unity between the movement’s middle-class idealists and its inveterate social outcasts.
On a Monday evening in August, I dropped by an office in Midtown Manhattan where members of the first group were meeting to talk about their plans for the movement’s birthday party. I’d heard that the protestors were working on “big things” and I wanted to see whether they still possessed any of the vigor and idealism that seemed so prevalent last fall. At the height of the demonstrations, information about the occupation was unavoidable, and the way that it swept through social media was unprecedented for a grassroots political movement, at least for one that started outside of Egypt, Tunisia or Iran. By the time the activists began planning their anniversary this summer, the Internet presence had grown much quieter. Maybe 100 people attended the Midtown meeting. Many of the old Zuccotti Park regulars were there — Ray Lewis, the retired police captain who was arrested in October; Marisa Holmes, the Hunter College grad student who seemed to be in the middle of every general assembly; Bill Dobbs, the deep-voiced communications specialist who got his start in the AIDS activism movement of the 1980s. The drab space was tucked away on the sixth floor of a nondescript office building, and it had a dull blue carpet, metal folding chairs, and boxes stacked on top of beige file cabinets. Everything about it was unremarkable and unattractive.
Last fall, encampments around the country transformed unexceptional public spaces into extraordinary wellsprings of debate, discussion and messy life. Nowhere was this truer than Zuccotti Park, an unloved square of granite benches that morphed almost overnight into a miniature village with bicycle-powered generators, a silkscreen, street signs, and a kitchen that served thousands. The spectacle attracted all sorts of people, including many who might not have normally showed up to a protest or a meeting on economic inequality. By contrast, the people who attend the meetings that make up most of the movement’s activities these days tend to belong to a core of dedicated insiders. As the meeting in Midtown began, everyone took turns introducing themselves by name and preferred gender pronoun. “Either she or he is fine,” said one protestor. The activists seemed as intent as ever on changing the world, but now that the world had stopped taking them seriously, their insistence on details like gender pronouns seemed more out of sync with the concerns of the majority of people.
After the introductions, people offered various proposals for anniversary stunts. Someone suggested wearing balaclavas in homage to the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. A man proposed holding “an open workshop to build giant puppets.” Several people argued over whether or not it would violate Occupy doctrine to apply for a permit so that an amplified band could perform. Another activist stood up in the back of the room and identified herself as a professional public relations consultant. “I feel like we’re speaking to ourselves and there’s not a 99 percent we’re talking to,” she said. “When we were designing the posters, a lot of people rejected the use of the word ‘country’!” There was a murmur in the crowd, and some people twinkled their fingers, a gesture of affirmation that most of the 99 percent have never made.
Todd Gitlin, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the author of “Occupy Nation,” estimated that, at the start, Occupy consisted of a movement of about 50,000 people in the country. At its peak, the movement was able to mobilize many hundreds of thousands nationally, he said. Most of those people, he said, are now “politically unemployed.”
One of them, Max Bean, a talkative New York City teacher given to the sorts of in-depth cultural analyses you might expect of a Brown graduate, which he is, says he spent 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, doing work for the movement last fall. This winter he sent a letter to about 60 other occupiers announcing his departure. A few days after the Midtown meeting, he locked up his bike and sat down on the steps of Union Square to talk about his reasons for dropping out.
He was initially drawn to movement, he said, when he saw a few people having a heated discussion about OWS right there on the steps of Union Square, and came to the conclusion that the movement could help people like these really listen to each other, something he hadn’t seen very often in the streets of New York. In the park, “we were trying to build a different kind of culture,” he said. “It was a dysfunctional community, it was a fucking mess, but I think that was a worthwhile and interesting goal.” After the park was cleared out, many activists shifted their energies to conventional protest tactics like rallies and sit-ins. “If you want to be very focused and organized, then those tactics might make sense,” he said, “but we weren’t any of those things.”
Some recent efforts carried out under the auspices of Occupy do go beyond sit-ins and marches. In Minneapolis and a few other cities, activists have been camping out in the homes of foreclosure victims and resisting arrest, and some of the homeowners have gotten their homes back. In Vermont, Ben Cohen, of the famous ice cream company, is funding a non-profit organization aimed at raising support for a constitutional amendment that would ban “money in politics.” He and his staff of Occupy activists are trying to get people to use rubber stamps to mark bills with messages like “Not to be used for bribing politicians,” an effort that he likened to selling Cherry Garcia. “To appeal to a broad swath of the population,” he said, “you need to communicate in simple, easy-to-understand terms and you need to have a really good product, and you need to do it with a sense of joy and fun and whimsy.”
So far these efforts haven’t come close to generating anything like the support and interest that made Zuccotti Park a front-page news story. Priscilla Grimm, who helped run the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a print newspaper that published more than 70,000 copies of its first issue last September, told me that she had parted ways with Cohen over his opposition to the use of the word “revolution” on her website. Wealthy donors like Cohen don’t “have skin in the game,” she said; if there really were a revolution, it would “affect their lives not in a good way.” Meanwhile, the Occupied Wall Street Journal has run out of money and will publish its last edition this month. When I asked Grimm why, she replied with a two-word history of the radical left. “Capitalism won.”
While some of the protesters huddle in out-of-the-way offices debating the wording of their posters, the drifters who make up the second faction of OWS sit at one of the busiest intersections in the world, displaying their own hand-scrawled protest signs to the thousands of tourists, businessmen and office workers who pass them each day. When they’re not shouting slogans at passersby, they talk with each other, smoke cigarettes, nap, flirt, engage in occasional spicy banter with the cops and sometimes get arrested. At night they sleep on sheets of cardboard and bedrolls spanning about 50 feet of sidewalk. At times, their numbers climb as high as 40 or 50; some nights they drop to the single digits. A little ways back from the sidewalk, behind an iron gate, stands Trinity Church, an 18th century structure with a 281-foot Gothic spire. The protesters chose this location because of a conflict that arose last winter when several Occupy activists and a priest were arrested while trying to set up a new encampment on a Trinity-owned piece of land several miles uptown.
In a recent letter to his parish, Trinity’s leader, Rev. Dr. James Cooper, wrote that he didn’t wish to have the police remove the protesters from the Broadway site, but noted that even if he did, “we are being advised that it is lawful for people to camp there.” What the police don’t consider lawful, the protesters say, is anything that gives the encampment the appearance of permanency. Over the past few weeks, the police have confiscated boxes of books, bags of donated food, and any cardboard signs that the protesters have left lying around. “They’re afraid we’ll start another Zuccotti,” one protester told me.
If that happens, it would be an incredible transformation. While Zuccotti had a library of thousands of volumes and a staff of professional librarians and professors, the Trinity camp has six books that someone spotted on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. Zuccotti had a funding pool of nearly half a million dollars and a group of bookkeepers to manage it; Trinity has a water cooler bottle where passersby drop maybe 20 or 30 bucks a day. The “People’s Kitchen” in Zuccotti served hot meals; the Trinity occupiers get most of their food from the trash.
A week after the midtown meeting I spent a few evenings at the Trinity encampment. One night, a 24-year-old girl named Amanda stood up in front of everyone with a huge smile and announced her husband was getting out of jail. As it turned out, she and her husband had met in Zuccotti Park and got married a few months later in a Brooklyn squat. They were both arrested this spring for drinking in public, and the husband was now finishing a four-month sentence for violating parole. Sitting back down on the sidewalk, she talked about her hopes for the movement. “We need to get our park back,” she said. “Our park is everything.”
For many of the people who lived in the park, the makeshift village there was a welcome reprieve from hard lives on the streets. Amanda had made her way there from a cheap hotel in Brooklyn, after losing her job at a restaurant and deciding to “sell my ass on the street. A man raped me and knocked my teeth out, and someone told me to go to Zuccotti: it was safe there. People cared about each other there,” she said. So why did it fall apart? “Because of money and infiltration,” she replied.
The anxiety over money goes back to the earliest days of the movement. The people who lived in the park, in particular, suspected the mostly better-off and better-educated bookkeepers of incompetence and greed, mirroring the attitude of the movement as a whole towards the American ruling class and Wall Street. By April, the savings had dwindled to several thousand dollars, and the protesters put a freeze on spending. Although there’s no longer much money to fight over, people are still paranoid about spying. Some of the Trinity crowd think that federal agents are watching them through binoculars from the second-story window of a building across the street, some describe their most dedicated members as informants, and I heard a number of conspiracy theories that reach back to the very founding of the country. There is a persistent rumor about Alexander Hamilton, for instance; they say he isn’t actually buried in the Trinity churchyard where flocks of tourists come to take pictures of the tombstone bearing his name.
Some of the Trinity occupiers are more paranoid than others. Of all the people I talked to, none seemed more reasonable and thoughtful than I.B., a 27-year-old man who says he built one of the first tents in Zuccotti Park and has been sleeping at the Trinity encampment for more than a month. I.B. speaks very slowly, pausing after every two or three words, as though to make sure that he is saying exactly what he means. Others at the camp respect him. Once, an aging hippy with wild gray hair came by holding up a sign and shouting something about Obama, and as he passed I.B. he slapped his back and said, “You never know, he might be the next president!” I.B. smirked at the absurdity of this, but you could understand the guy’s thinking. Tall, thin and black, I.B. bears a vague resemblance to the president, and he usually wears a grey or black suit and sometimes a tie.
Most days, I.B. stands over the tarp on the ground that serves as the equivalent of an information booth. Once, when I greeted him there, he told me that a woman had just stopped and exhorted him to vote in the election. When I asked how he replied, he laughed. Like many protesters throughout the movement, I.B. has no interest in electoral politics. He mentioned the National Defense Resources Preparedness act, an executive order signed by Obama this spring that gave the president unprecedented powers to appropriate national resources in the event of a national emergency. Many leftists saw this as an attempt at some sort of fascist power grab. “That convinced me that I’ll never support Obama and he’s not good for this country,” said I.B.
Like many of the people at the camp, I.B. gets most of his information about the world from websites and blogs and from other protesters. He scoffs at the mainstream press, and although his unofficial role as the camp’s information officer requires him to talk to all sorts of people, he describes his life until now as one of extreme isolation. His father was a Muslim leader in Harlem who had five wives and 30 children, and I.B. never got along with any of them, he said. He’s never dated, and he’s never had any close friends. Until he learned about Occupy Wall Street, his main interest was the Swedish heavy metal band Opeth. At one point in his 20s he ran an online forum for fans of the band, but he never had a face-to-face conversation with any fellow enthusiasts. When I asked if he’d seen the band play, he replied, very slowly, “I’ve never been to a concert.”
At the peak of the movement, many celebrities of the left came by Zuccotti to rally the masses: Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Joseph Stiglitz. I reached out to about a half dozen people who could be described as influential liberals, but only one, Ben Cohen, agreed to talk about Occupy Wall Street. As the election approaches, lefties have a new cause to rally around. Although it’s still unclear whether Obama will be able to win over the disaffected young voters who took to Facebook and Twitter to share their excitement about Occupy Wall Street last fall, the argument that there’s no significant difference between the two major parties seems increasingly feeble, especially now that the Republicans have nominated a billionaire venture capitalist who has selected as his running mate a congressional leader accused of seeking to dismantle nearly all of the major liberal legislative achievements since FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s.
The two classes of Occupy movement, meanwhile, have come to resemble two much larger segments of American society. The people on the street are increasingly like street people everywhere. And the people in the offices are increasingly like traditional left-wing activists. “We’ve become professionalized in a way,” said Marisa Holmes, the Hunter grad student leader who attended the Midtown meeting. “People don’t identify with that. If we become just another left movement, we will suck the life out of it.”
In the last few weeks, perhaps a hundred occupiers from around the country have gathered in Tampa and Charlotte to protest the political conventions of both parties. Some protesters came from the Trinity encampment, some from the office contingent. The 15,000 reporters at the conventions barely acknowledged them. On September 17th, an indeterminate number of protesters will arrive in downtown Manhattan, the media capital of the country, hoping to capture the world’s attention once again. I.B. and the others on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway will be there to greet them — if they don’t first get arrested, that is.
The afternoon of Romney’s speech to the Republican delegates in Tampa, a police captain in a white shirt and a blue-uniformed beat cop strolled up to the Trinity protesters, snatched up some of their signs and continued down Broadway. One of the protesters, a young man wearing dirty cargo shorts, ran after them. “Why are you doing this?” he shouted. “Why are you violating my constitutional rights?” The cops ignored him and crossed the street. The protester stood on the sidewalk, screaming hoarsely into the traffic while a family waiting at a nearby hotdog stand stared at him and giggled. After a minute or two the protester walked back to the camp, picked up a fresh piece of cardboard, sat back down on the sidewalk and started working on a new sign.