6:15 pm, November 15
Zucotti Park, New York City
As I approached Zuccotti Park in the drizzle I could see that others were as tense as I was. I had no idea if I would even be able to get there after the 1:00 am police evictions of the previous night. The thought of my first arrest at the age of 66 did enter my mind if the police prevented me from walking to the site.
I wanted to see the park and the young people I had so grown to admire over visits over the past month. However, discretion was always the main component of my valor and I shelved the idea of an arrest rationalizing that the world needed me at a computer.
In the dead of night with most of the world asleep, the police had staged a coordinated raid on the park just 17 hours earlier. Authorities had shut down subway stations nearby and blocked off pedestrian traffic to the site. Pepper spray was reportedly used. There was a report that a squad from Homeland Security had appeared. The police told the media that they were being kept from the eviction for their own safety. A military style invasion for a group that espoused and practiced non-violence was clearly nothing less than an attempt to harass and intimidate the youthful protestors.
Later a policeman told one of the protestors who questioned him about the suspicious timing of the eviction that police do their raids at night. When the protestor explained that it made sense if you were going into a drug house but that was not the case here. The police officer seemed confused by the response which basically asked him: Who do you think you are dealing with?
Clearly, the protestors had adopted and maintained a completely non-violent approach – despite the disinformation and lies spread by many. As I had learned in my previous three weeks on site, any criminal activity in the area was attributed to the Occupy Wall Street movement. When a drunken couple walking by and got into a fight, they were deemed part of the OWS movement. When a female OWS protestor was raped and was aided by other protestors who reported the assailant, it was laid at the feet of OWS.
The eviction was clearly meant to dishearten the protestors. Like so many other moves by the authorities it would prove to be a miscalculation. One I was thrilled and inspired to witness minutes later. The tents had been indelicately ripped down and personal goods treated with less than concern. Around 200 protestors had been arrested and some 60 still remained in jail. The 5,000 book library was reportedly pitched into a dumpster along with the food and medical supplies. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the eviction was his idea alone and that the city was generously giving protestors two days to pick up their personal possessions. Receipts establishing ownership of their personal property would be appreciated. We all keep those don’t we?
The mayor had repeated the perfunctory pretexts for the eviction: concerns for the health of everyone involved, the unsanitary conditions, the rights of the park owners. Frankly, I found concerns about violence coming from a man who had been a cheerleader for an illegal and immoral war in Iraq which had cost tens of thousands of lives a little hard to swallow.
Then I remember the Egyptian girl from Tahrir Square who had spoken at a OWS think tank discussion the week before. She warned that the authorities would use any pretext to drive the protestors out. Ironically, so many of those who cheered on the Egyptians would demonize their own countrymen when it suited them. Fox News did not worry about businesses in the Tahrir Square area losing business any more than it worried about the 45,000 Americans who die each year from a lack of health care.
Still, seeing the park stunned me. Everything was gone except for the people. They had returned but none of the tents or tarps were there. The park I had memorized was gone. I later learned that the second judge had ruled that camping equipment would not be permitted and that the park rules established after the occupation began would be enforced.
Police in riot gear with face masks down milled about while uniformed officers stopped pedestrian traffic they did not like. It took me five minutes to circumnavigate the small park to find the single entrance.
The police tower with its photographic equipment was up and occupied. The NYPD camera that has recently been placed on the Broadway side of the park was still there.
The police at the entrance were using hand held cameras to photograph all those who entered. Those attempting to enter ran a gauntlet of police. They were not the smiling community outreach police I had met the previous week. The ones who told me they admired the resiliency and resolve of the young people there. One had even said: God bless them.” The people with drums in front of me were turned away as the drummers explained that the police interpretation of the judge’s ruling was overly broad and arbitrary.
They didn’t buy it. One turned to the drummers and asked: “Do you know what they call someone who hangs around with musicians and protestors?” He didn’t wait for a reply and answered: “a drummer.” While that joke was not actually offered I couldn’t resist tailoring one of my favorites lines for the occasion to make a point. Over the next four hours I came to believe as did many of the protestors that the movement had grown stronger as a result of the eviction. Maybe the drummers were not the heart of the movement.
The signs I would later see such as “We’re still winning,” “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come,” and “Grand re-opening under new management” were later backed up by comments made during the meeting of the New York General Assembly which I carefully estimated at over 800. One speaker, I think it was the charismatic Sully ,said: ”We are a lot stronger from this whole situation.”
As I walked over to the entrance I learned that some 20 minutes earlier a judge had reversed an earlier court ruling allowing demonstrators to return with their camping equipment. The new judge, however, did say that people could return to the park and they had. I raced around the park and could not quite recover my equilibrium because nothing and no one was where I expected them to be. The media tent was gone and the library next to it. The tarped food kitchen was now garbage I learned as well as the medical tent. I kept looking for familiar faces and saw only several. They looked like they had much on their minds and I left them alone.
Several union tradesmen stood nearby. One in particular caught my eyes because he was covered in dust. Then I learned that he had been a first responder on 9/11 as a union plumber and had never washed the clothing out of respect for those that died. His sign said: “Hey NYPD I am a real 9/11 WTC first responder wearing the dust of your friends and families from 10 years ago. SHAME.” A carpenter, Dave Buccola, was standing there and I thought his face was familiar. We had several interesting discussions as he talked about coming in from Brooklyn over the past two months and staying at some times.
Then I hunkered down on the steps waiting for the New York City General Assembly to meet at 7:00 pm. I felt that the meeting would be historic but I was later surprised at how emotionally stirring it was at well. I had come expecting to see a group of despondent young people. Instead, I saw people, well-scubbed people of all ages, with determination in their eyes. Earlier, I had talked with Jay who explained that perhaps the eviction would strengthen the movement explaining that “No matter what happens here we see it as good.” He laughed and said: “They just don’t get it. They think that the movement is just here when it is really about changing the consciousness of Americans and this crackdown helps focus attention on the movement.”
The meeting started promptly at 7:00 pm. Sully, Eileen and Nishira kicked it off with an upbeat presentation that because of the police action people had “lost a lot” and that many people “don’t know where they are sleeping tonight.” He also reminded the assembly that “We have a lot of friends who are in jail tonight.” Then came a remarkable 15 seconds of silence: “I would like to ask for 15 seconds of silence in recognition of our suffering and the many suffering that our movement represents.”
Nishira was eloquent in noting: “In recognizing our suffering, we must also recognize our strength. So today if you lost a little bit of spring yesterday, you are in the right place to get some of it back.”
The National Lawyers Guild appraised the large group about the legal developments. Discussions were going on whether to sue the city or do little. Clearly, the lawyers were moving to reestablish the camping rights of the protestors. For those unfamiliar with the movement the first speaker explained the hand signals that the assembly effectively uses and how – because they are not permitted loudspeakers – speakers speak in short phrases which are repeated throughout the assembly like the waves from a rock thrown into the water.
One of the speakers focused on how confusing the movement must look to the authoritarian folks looking at it.
“We are a horizontal movement. The cops think that power looks like shouting orders. We do things differently here. We use consensus processes. There means we create space to hear as many voices as possible and seek decisions that are not just majority decisions but decisions that everyone consents to.”
A ton of practical concerns were addressed. Where people could sleep, where they could eat, who they could turn to for help, where the medical people were, etc.
But most of all the speakers focused on the fact that OWS is a movement for change. They noted that November 17th is their call for action day which is being coordinated with many labor groups. It will all start at 7:00 am at Zuccotti Park and will have a 5:00 pm meeting at Foley Square. One of the objectives is to non-violently march to the New York Stock Exchange in an effort to shut it down.
The movement speakers know that their efforts will meet fierce, perhaps violent opposition, but know that a movement dies when it stop moving. Hopefully, you can join us either here or at your closest rally on Thursday.
Dave Kelley has served as the issues and policy advisor to the Dennis Kucinich campaigns. He was a registered principal with the National Association of Securities Dealers and an expert witness on pensions over 1,300 times. Typically, he writes either issues papers or books for attorneys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org