The Untouchables of Zuccotti Park

In an October 9 article for the website, Chris Hedges, the former New York Times bureau chief turned dissident journalist, gives us a vivid description of Ketchup, one of the early leaders of Occupy Wall Street.

“Ketchup, a petite 22-year-old from Chicago with wavy red hair and glasses with bright red frames, arrived in Zucotti Park in New York on September 17,” he writes. “She had a tent, a rolling suitcase, 40 dollars’ worth of food, the graphic version of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and a sleeping bag. She had no return ticket, no idea what she was undertaking, and no acquaintances among the stragglers who joined her that afternoon to begin the Wall Street occupation. She decided to go to New York after reading the Canadian magazine Adbusters, which called for the occupation, although she noted that when she got to the park Adbusters had no discernible presence.”

Few readers of would describe Ketchup as a “homeless woman,” although she is spoken of as living out of a suitcase. For Hedges, Ketchup is a free spirit, not a lost soul. Compare Hedges’ view of “ketchup” to a later article, this one in the New Yorker. It’s written by George Packer, a liberal magazine writer best known for his support of George Bush’s war in Iraq. First he introduces us to one of Ketchup’s fellow occupiers, a middle-aged man named Ray Kachel.

“Until this fall, Ray Kachel,” Packer writes, “had lived virtually all of his fifty-three years within a few miles of his birthplace, in Seattle. He was a self-taught Jack-of-all-trades in the computer industry, who bought his first Mac in 1984.”

Then, after a very long, and very sympathetic article. Packer does what Hedges refuses to do. He labels his subject as a “homeless person.”  We are now in mid-November. After Occupy Wall Street is clubbed out of Zucotti Park at 2AM by a massive police blitzkrieg, Kachel wanders down to the East River to gather his thoughts.

“Kachel,” Packer writes, “kept checking Twitter, but by four in the morning there was still no word about where the evicted occupiers were going to gather again, and his phone battery was dying. He was determined to find his comrades and help rekindle the movement that had so strongly connected him to other people. For the moment, though, he was alone: a homeless man in New York.”

Photo by Stanley Rogouski.

So what makes Ketchup and Ray Kachel seem so different? Is it only the different perspectives of Hedges and Packer? Or is it their age? The photo of Ray Kachel in the New Yorker shows him to be a middle aged man in a yellow rain jacket and a pair of jeans. He’s wearing a red ski cap and a hooded sweat jacket. He’s sitting back on a park bench, his face pale, his shoulders hunched, and his hands in his pockets. He looks spiritually exhausted, beaten. You can see Ketchup on the Steven Colbert show, where she and a fellow occupier try to explain, to Colbert’s great amusement, the difference between a “woman” and a “female bodied person.”  She strikes you as the type who would argue a small difference of opinion for hours. Beaten and spiritually exhausted she’s not. On the contrary, she has the earnest sanctimony and vitality of youth. Indeed, it’s very difficult to describe anybody in her early 20s as a “homeless person.” Someone at that age always seems to have a friends couch to sleep on or parents to go back to. “Homeless person” has a finality to it, as if it also means “lost forever.” By the age of 53, you can indeed by lost forever.

From September 17 until November 15, when it was violently broken apart by the NYPD, Occupy Wall Street at Zucotti Park was “home” to about 200 people, all of whom could have also been described as “homeless.” They lived under tarps and, after late October, in tents. They showered where they could and used the bathrooms at McDonalds or, until they were locked, at Burger King. They were subject to the constant surveillance and periodic harassment of the NYPD, as well as the open scorn of the New York tabloid media and random passers by. “Get a job hippie,” men in suits would shout as they power walked by on Broadway, not waiting for an answer. “Take a bath you dirty bums,” editorials in the New York Daily News would scold. They ate at a free soup kitchen, run by the occupants themselves and supplied by donated food and money. They were homeless, and yet they were not. For those two months in Zucotti Park, Occupy Wall Street was their home, a small city that had a library, distinct neighborhoods, it’s own police force, media and a distinct way of life now gone forever.

At the same time, a war of propaganda raged inside the New York City media. On one side you had both New York City tabloids, the Daily News and the New York Post, Fox News and the conservative blogs. On the other side you had Occupy Wall Street itself its supporters in the social media and on the “respectable” left wing fringe of the corporate media, New York Times writers like Paul Krugman and less well known liberal journalists at Salon and Wonkette. The question they struggled over was this: Were the occupiers in Zucotti Park young idealists who had voluntarily made themselves homeless in to protest the financial industry, or were they hard core vagrants, drug abusers and criminals, homeless, not by choice, but by necessity?

For Fox News and the New York Post, the goal was to soften up public opinion for the inevitable police raid. Knowing that New Yorkers would be more supportive of violence against the hard core underclass than they would against young idealists, they lost no time in portraying Zucotti Park’s occupiers as first, dirty hippies, and, when that didn’t work, drug users, thieves, and, finally, rapists. Occupy Wall Street’s defenders, on the other hand, worked just as hard to portray every Occupier as another Scott Olsen, the gainfully employed Iraq War vet who was violently assaulted by the Oakland Police on October 25, or as Chelsea Elliott, the young woman who was randomly maced by the now infamous NYC police officer Anthony Bologna. In other words, were the occupiers at Zucotti Park “homeless” or not? Were they still “Americans” who still had rights and civil liberties or were they members of a sort of American “untouchable” class, people who most Americans regard as disposable?

The weekend before the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zucotti Park, for example, Frank Miller, the comic book artist and Hollywood screen writer, published a widely circulated attack on Occupy Wall Street. Miller’s attack, which was in many ways, a culmination of a running campaign in the corporate media to discredit Occupy Wall Street, expressed an almost obsessive interest in the bodily functions of the activists who were camping out in Zucotti Park, bodily functions, we can presume, or at least hope, he shares. You are too unclean to participate in the political process, he seems to say. How dare you untouchables exercise your rights as citizens.

“Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts,” he writes, “thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness…..Occupy is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the “movement” – HAH! Some “movement,” except if the word “bowel” is attached…This is garbage. And goodness knows they’re spewing their garbage – both politically and physically – every which way they can find….Wake up, pond scum.”

If Frank Miller expresses his desire to expel the inferior caste from the village, Candice Giove at the New York Post takes a similar, if slightly different tack. In a November 6 article for the New York Post, she describes her night in Zucotti Park and comes to the conclusion that “the parcel is now a sliver of madness, rife with sex attacks, robberies and vigilante justice. “Giove’s obsession with bodily functions is palpable. “A woman emerges from a makeshift tent that looks more like a layer cake,” she writes, “a clear tarp draped over a sleeping bag that is on top of a filthy mattress. It even has a welcome mat missing the “m” and the stench of a vagrant.” The threat of rape is very real here,” she continues, “for women and men.”

In other words, Giove is the damsel in distress stuck among the underclass, the white maiden in imminent danger of being ravished, the southern belle in 1950s Mississippi who just got whistled at by an uppity black man. This is an incitement to violence, and not a very subtle one. Giove and Miller are not simply pointing out the difficulties involved in maintaining a camp of several hundred people in the heart of a big city. They’re agitating for a violent crackdown. The only question is why? What about Occupy Wall Street drove the corporate media into such a violent rage that they simply abandoned all pretense of objectivity and started shrieking for pepper spray and police batons? Why not simply do what they did during the first few weeks of Occupy Wall Street and ignore it?

The first and most obvious reason is that Occupy Wall Street made the homeless visible again. Whether, as Harry Siegal of the New York Daily News maintains, the NYPD was encouraging the homeless to go downtown to Zucotti Park for free meals and the opportunity to panhandle in a relatively unmolested environment, or whether they just came on their own accord, the Occupy Wall Street encampment had become, by late October, a magnet for the city’s most downtrodden citizens. They panhandled, got into fights, and put a burden on the encampment’s fragile network of security and system of sanitation. They came out from the shadows where they had been driven by the Guiliani and the Bloomberg administrations right back into one of the city’s main tourist districts. Europeans who came to visit the financial district and middle Americans who came to gawk at the mass grave at Ground Zero would not only see Wall Street. They would see the very real face of human misery that Wall Street produces.

To anybody who spent time in the now demolished Zucotti Park tent city, there are no longer two clear cut categories, homeless and not homeless, human and untouchable, dirty hippy or respectable protester. What made Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park so potentially radical is the way it taught us that homelessness is not an either/or proposition. There are not homeless people and not homeless people. There’s a continuum, running all the way from members of the “1%” like Michael Bloomberg all the way down to the demented, mentally ill man sleeping on the grating of a side street waiting for January, and the cold, to die. What separates a young idealist like Ketchup just starting her life, for example, from a lonely middle aged man like Ray Kachel headed for social oblivion? The answer would be “not very much.” What separates a member of the middle-class from the homeless man he walks over in Penn Station or the “dirty hippies” he used to smirk at as he walked by Zucotti Park? How many paychecks, how many medical emergencies, how many fights with his wife or his employer will it take before he’s out in the streets looking for a place to piss and finding that the Starbucks has converted them all into “employee only” restrooms. For most of us the answer would be “not very many.”

Occupy Wall Street at Zucotti Park took all of Wall Street’s victims and put them on public display, only a few blocks from the New York City Stock Exchange. It took the group of people most devastated by the “Great Recession,” people who were scammed into high interest, high risk mortgages by the casino on Wall Street, to the group of people who were most devastated by Bush’s crusade in the Middle East, homeless veterans of the Iraq war. But it did more. It gave them the opportunity to empower one another, to begin the process of building a community. It allowed the chronically homeless contact with people who had more social skills, who, perhaps, could teach them to pull themselves up off the streets. It brought the gay teenager who was kicked out of his home in the Bible Belt together with the middle aged liberal activist from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It brought the 22 year old, recent college graduate, too poor to move out from his parents house in the bad economy face to face with the laid off worker in his 40s and 50s. It dissolved the rigid social categories that separate us and allowed us to speak to one another as humans. It was, in short, the fulfillment of the words of Walt Whitman, that great New York poet who trod the ground around what is now Zucotti Park many times.

“STRANGER! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”

Had the encampment at in Zucotti Park been allowed to persist through the winter, had the activists in Occupy Wall Street would have continued to feed the homeless and protect them from the police, they might also, in time, have secured help from the surrounding community. People might have brought their donations, not to the United Way or the local mega church, but right to the people who needed them.  Zucotti Park might have become a successful laboratory experiment in how to reclaim people who had fallen through the cracks into social oblivion. It might have exposed both the “1%” and the governments they own as the frauds they are. Clearly that could not go on. Maintaining occupied spaces also develops collective leadership. It requires people to understand the importance of camp discipline well known to any NCO in the military. It requires people to learn how to organize, to conduct outreach, to drive working groups and coordinate through general assemblies. Getting hauled off the Brooklyn bridge in handcuffs and spending 12 hours in jail with 125 other men begins to create the kind of bonds people develop in the military, only, in this case, those bonds are developed engaging in class war against your real enemies, not in an imperialist adventure overseas.

The “1%’ and their employees in the media and the NYPD hope they have put the genie back into the bottle, and they have indeed scored a devastating victory over Occupy Wall Street, but the kind of ham handed propaganda and brute physical repression they used on November 15 can work only in the very short run. There is one way, and only one way that the “1%” can really defeat Occupy Wall Street: solve the social and economic problems that created Occupy Wall Street in the first place.

And what are the odds of that?

The homeless who had found shelter in Zucotti Park may have crawled back into the shadows. But their numbers are only bound to increase as the economy continues to implode. There will still be recent college graduates unable to find work, however many times you shriek “get a job” at them. People are still being foreclosed out of their homes. Military vets are still going to be returning, in ever greater numbers, to an official unemployment rate of 9% and a genuine unemployment rate closer to 20%. People in their 40s will still be kept out of the job market by baby boomers and pushed out of the job market by people in their 20s. People in their 30s will now think twice about putting their hard earned money into a 401k just so it can be converted into gambling chips for the “1%”  in the great casino on Wall Street, a casino we now know depends on hired muscle for its very existence. People in their 60s and 70s will still need that social security trust fund the “1%” are eyeing hungrily. Fiery young idealists like “Ketchup” are now going to look at their country’s pretensions at being a model of democracy for the rest of the world, and laugh. The “1%” have revealed themselves as shrill ideologues willing to scapegoat America’s most vulnerable  people in order to defeat a political movement that threatens them. They’ve revealed themselves to be thugs willing to beat up and pepper spray their own citizens for the crime of exercising their first amendment rights. Far from being a model for the emerging democracies of the Middle East, the people who rule the United States have revealed them to be democracy’s bitter enemy. One Ray Kachel may not have the power to threaten Michael Bloomberg or Ray Kelly, but the hundreds of thousands of Ray Kachels all over America now know of one another’s existence. Look at that photo in the New Yorker, you people in the “1%,” look at that pale little man you kicked out of his home in Zucotti Park, that lonely little soul you drove away from his newly found companions. That man is your grave digger. He will destroy you.

Stanley Rogouski has slept under a tarp in along the side of a road in British Columbia, in a homeless shelter in Ketchikan Alaska, on the couches of several friends, and in his parents’ basement. He has never, to his knowledge, been referred to as homeless. He blogs here.