Occupy Wall Street: photo diary, Times Square, 10/15/11

October 16, 2011

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street movement since it emerged last month, always with the nagging sense that the mainstream media wasn’t conveying the essence of it properly. The movement really escalated while I was in Italy the last two weeks — with 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, a rally at City Hall on October 5 that drew 30,000 participants (including several key labor unions), and increasing tension about the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Liberty Square. So when the call went out for people to gather in Times Square yesterday (while similar actions took place all over the globe), it seemed like a good opportunity to show up and (as my friend Jonathan Lerner, an experienced ’60s radical leftist, puts it) “get a sense of the meeting.” I’m so glad I did.

The big question mark about Occupy Wall Street has been: what is the intention? what are the demands? It’s clearly emerged from a general sense of frustration and rebellion, the feeling that something’s got to shift. The skeptical part of me always gets concerned when political rallies try to rope in too many issues. But actually being in the midst of the energy, I completely understood: this is a movement whose core issue is economic injustice. And it’s a huge issue, very difficult to tackle. What that means is a little different for each of us, so to name one target is reductive. Change has got to start somewhere. The civil rights movement in the ’60s tackled the impossibly gigantic social injustice of racial segregation by starting with bus seats and lunch counters. This movement is starting by Occupying Wall Street. Here’s an irony that tickles me: for decades the rest of the world has been inundated with images from American media as the norm for representation, but this movement clearly takes its inspiration from Arab Spring, specifically the gatherings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down the Mubarak regime. Just show up, people, and something’s bound to happen.

I showed up a little after 5:00, and for the first hour or so, the mood was low-key, sort of like a big party, everybody looking around expectantly, wondering what happens next. The main action going on was people holding up signs so that other people could take pictures and post them online. There was no central focal point, but Duffy Square was the nucleus. The police had blocked off the bleachers with barricades. A ragtag marching band pumped out tunes. Street performers on stilts entertained. I ran into David Denby, an old colleague from Boston newspaper days, and we noted the diversity of the gathering — largely but not completely white, youngsters but also oldsters (like us). And of course mixed in with the tourists and everyday Times Square inhabitants buying theater tickets at TKTS were the usual array of nutjobs happy to have a larger-than-usual audience, like the guy with the enormous crucifix bellowing “Come to Jesus!” steps away from the Naked Cowboy posing for smirky photos with pretty girls.

The energy changed enormously with the arrival of 5000-6000 folks who marched up Sixth Avenue from Union Square. Instead of just milling around, they’d been moving and chanting, and they were charged up. “Whose street? Our street!” “Show me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like!”

The police presence also intensified with the new arrivals. Half a dozen policeman on horseback made a dramatic entrance and zeroed in on the corner of 46th Street and Broadway.

Tension zoomed high, with the police using metal barriers to try to contain the crowd. I heard a cop on his cel phone saying, “They want to take over the street and block traffic. We can’t have that.” Right, the people are exercising their first amendment rights to assemble peacefully and to express outrage at economic injustice, and you’re concerned about smooth flow of traffic. The skittish horses made everyone very nervous — those things are dangerous weapons. Suddenly, there was a flare-up, pushing and shoving at the barriers on 46th Street and the cops fanned out in all directions pushing people with the metal barriers. Apparently, there were some arrests. A middle-aged woman near me got knocked down and hit her head on the pavement badly.

It started to look like one of those ugly us vs. them confrontations with the police. Cameras everywhere. Huge amount of testosterone and action-movie swagger on display. I saw one cop who looked exactly like a mad dog straining at his leash, looking for a fight. And there are always a few people in the crowd who unwisely stir things up — I watched a woman pointing a flag on a short sharp stick at the Mad Dog Cop from inches away. Taunting a frightened animal is a good way to get bit. The collective chant rang out across the intersection: “Who are you protecting? Who are you protecting? Who are you protecting?” That thought actually seemed to have a sobering impact on the police, and things settled down a bit. What were they protecting? I’d been standing on the west side of Times Square looking east, and when I turned around I suddenly understood what they were protecting.

Once the energy peaked, the question became: how to dissolve this gathering sensibly. It was getting cold, I was underdressed, and I didn’t want to get penned in by the barricades so I started heading home. Unlike the blue-shirt cops, the white-shirt superior officers seemed to keep a level head — the guy with the bullhorn here addressed the crowds as “Ladies and gentlemen” and managed to keep people and car traffic moving.

There was plenty of potential for tension and clashing — I heard that the cops were prepared to make plenty of arrests and were authorized to use tear gas to clear Times Square. That didn’t happen. Occupy Wall Street dispersed to a general assembly in Liberty Park and an occupation party in Washington Square Park. All in all, it felt powerful and triumphant. Walking through the crowd, I felt excited. I saw a woman sitting inside a blinking white hula hoop holding a sign that said, “Live in love not in fear.”

I went home and read the Occupied Wall Street Journal, with Naomi Klein’s inspiring October 6 speech — I encourage you to read the whole issue online (see instructions here). An editorial note titled “No list of demands” sums it all up:

“We are speaking to each other, and listening. This occupation is first about participation.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers streamed into Foley Square on Wednesday — labor unions rolled out, students walked out. The occupation of Wall Street grew to resemble the city we live in.

What race, age, religion, occupation did we represent? None of them. All of them.

Barricaded in by steel pens, surrounded by a thousand cops and NYPD helicopters above, we saw our power reflected in their need to control us. But just as this is our movement, it is our narrative too.

The exhausted political machines and their PR slicks are already seeking leaders to elevate, messages to claim, talking points to move on. They, more than anyone, will attempt to seize and shape this moment. They are racing to reach the front of the line.

But how can they run out in front of something that is in front of them? They cannot.

For Wall Street and Washington, the demand is not on them to give us something that isn’t theirs to give. It’s ours. It’s on us. We aren’t going anywhere. We just got here.”

6 Responses to “Occupy Wall Street: photo diary, Times Square, 10/15/11”

  1. keith Says:

    Wonderful report Don. Thanks. I dig your mad dog on a leash and don’t taunt an angry animal observations. And yes, the only way to make it happen is to show up.


  2. Roger Says:

    thanks don! Bless you for taking time to write and share this!


  3. Misha Berson Says:

    Thanks Don — wish I could see it first-hand. The gatherings in Seattle have been steady (including a continuing camp-in) but fairly modest in size.

    My hope would be that eventually the movement would not have to pick parties, but to articulate very specific questions it would force every candidate for higher office to answer: 1) who are your biggest donors? 2) do you believe income inequity is a problem in this country, and if so how would you begin to solve it? 3) what is your position on a surtax on the wealthiest one-percent, in order to create jobs, solve the deficit problem and pay for the economic safety net for the poor, the elderly and the disabled? and 4) what is your position on campaign finance reform, and on increased regulation of Wall Street?

    I think if every politician was pressured to answer these questions, it would be very clear who the movement could get behind and work for in the coming election — which is, like it or not, essential ultimately.

  4. Glenn Berger Says:

    Yes, Don, thanks for participating and the reportage. You all may want to check out the photo/journalism of my friend Rob Couteau who is an old rad friend from way back. (Easy to find on Facebook.) I consume little content, because I’m too busy creating it, but this is was all a worthwhile read. I’ve got to go though — off to write my piece, “No One Needs a Billion Dollars.”

  5. Misha Berson Says:

    Just a note to fan the flames: B of A just posted a record profit — as they are raising bank fees and laying off thousands:


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