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Inside Occupy Wall Street

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"I'm not gonna lie," LaGreca says. "First thing I saw at the park was the topless girls." He knows how that sounds. "Can't help it, dude. But then I saw the food lines" – the Occupy Wall Street kitchen, feeding all comers – "and then I saw the books. I'm a nerd, man. I read and read." He dropped out of high school in the 11th grade, but continued his education on the job as a school janitor in New Jersey. "Read all of Thoreau, Emerson, Shakespeare. Read a lot of Dostoyevsky. I was a shitty janitor."

So there were books, free food and women, but that wasn't what kept him there. "I see people talking. Everybody's talking, man, and I can talk, too." He didn't just have a voice. He had amplification – the human microphone. On the fourth day of the occupation, a former science teacher named Justin Wedes was speaking to the crowd through a megaphone when a policeman threw him to the ground, the first of a series of rough arrests that morning. "Just to intimidate people," recalls Graeber. One man's face was ground into a flower bed, another dragged, cuffed, until his hands bled, another left gasping, denied his inhaler. The cops moved in, citing a law prohibiting the use of electronic amplification. This turned out to be a lucky break: Without conventional means, the occupiers would have to figure out a new way to hear one another.

Sitrin, schooled in the factory takeovers of Argentina, which followed that country's economic collapse, had an ingenious solution: "the people's mic." One person speaks, all repeat, the words rippling through the crowd. "Mic check!" it begins with a single voice. "Mic check!" thunders the assembly. It's absurd, its inherent humor and brevity undercutting the wordy earnestness that usually makes political meetings unbearable. "My concern"/"MY CONCERN"/"is deeper"/"IS DEEPER"/"than sleeping bags!"/"THAN SLEEPING BAGS!"

"Cops made a huge mistake," says LaGreca. "The people's mic, it's such a unifying force. Almost like a choir. Like a modern religious revival. But it's a civil revival. Down here, we're becoming citizens."

The people came. And then they stayed. Occupations are literally about refilling space – parks and plazas, a hollowed-out public sphere. That begins with bodies, accompanied by noise. Which is where the drums come in, bongos and tablas and tambourines and full drum kits with snares. In the beginning, the drummers drummed as long as their arms could flail, sometimes 12 hours a day. The noise was so loud it was like a wall on the western edge of the park. At first the drums were exciting, even if you weren't really a drum-circle kind of person, which most of the occupiers weren't. But then they got annoying. Like when you were trying to sleep. Or talk. Or hold a general assembly.

One of the first times the General Assembly asked the drummers to quiet down, they simply moved their drums farther down the park. Another time, the drummers said what they were doing was sacred; they'd quiet down in a little while (they didn't). "This movement would not be here right now if we didn't do what we did, by playing all day," a drummer boasted. One night they grew so rowdy, they began to drown out the General Assembly altogether. So the first order of democracy was to bring the drummers, many of whom did not want to stop drumming long enough to talk, into the assembly. A lot of them weren't interested. "Aggro" was the word you started hearing around the camp. "Scary" was another. What was to be done?

The drummers did it themselves, imperfectly but "horizontally," through self-regulation rather than "vertical" rule imposed from above. They pulled themselves into a "working group," one of the key units of organization in the occupation – there are 82 as of this writing and there will almost certainly be more tomorrow. The drummers called their group Pulse and agreed to lay down their sticks for a while to attend general assemblies.

"John" – that's all – a compact man, all taut vein and muscle, with a shock of wiry gray-black hair, spoke for Pulse one night, arms twitching in just a T-shirt on a cold evening. "We," he said. "We," the crowd said. "Want to respect you." Back came the echo, a call-and-response through which everybody, apparently, respected everybody. But John wasn't satisfied. "But we want respect too!" he shouted bitterly. The drummers, he reminded the General Assembly, had restricted themselves to two-hour sessions, noon to two and four to six. But there was a move afoot to cut them back to only one two-hour drumathon. "We are the movement's heartbeat!" John shouted. "You're cutting out your heartbeat!"

To which another speaker, an earnest young woman named Linda, responded, "I have a clarifying question. How is it that one group can claim to be my heartbeat?"

The first night that I stayed at Zuccotti Park, bodies were laid out like tiles, head to toe, in circles and blocked out in squares and the occasional heap. There were street-sleeping pros, homeless and crusty punks, wrapped up in tarps, a few people on air mattresses with fluffy pillows. I didn't actually sleep. I paced among the tarp-covered bodies, sat on the steps, browsed the library, drank coffee from the food trucks open 24/7. The second night, after beers with LaGreca and a few other occupiers, I followed his friend Austin, a college dropout – a casualty of his student loans – who works with autistic children, to the Comfort Station for some bedding of my own. "We'll set you up on the margins," said Austin. "That way you can get out if you need to."

Twice I woke up. Once when a squat woman with dreads down to her knees shuffled by with a broom, a cleaning detail, and woke another sleeper, who stood up with his sleeping bag wrapped around him, stumbled, and gave up, letting it drop to reveal a sculpted body, naked but for dog tags. And a second time when a deranged man, top-heavy like a bulldog, punched the air above my head, daring anyone to take a shot at him. The occupation's security, thin-limbed men with walkie-talkies, spread their arms out like birds and surrounded him. "We love you, man," they said, over and over, containing but never touching. Finally he fled; the scene was too strange for conventional crazy.

If Occupy is "semireligious," which is how many at the park describe it, and "a spiritual insurrection," in the words of Adbusters senior editor Micah White, then its rituals might be counted as these: First, occupation itself. Second, the General Assembly. Third, the kitchen and the food line. And finally, sleep, lying among your comrades, everyone vulnerable, everyone absurd, stretched out between the coffee trucks and the police cruisers, under the watchful eye of a mobile NYPD surveillance tower jacked up over a truck.

When I returned a week later, the scene had darkened. "It started with punks and nice academic anarchists and grad students and labor organizers," said a journalist who'd slipped into the movement. "Then it got really mainstream. But now it's like a circus." The human mic wasn't as loud. The sanitation group threatened to strike. There were more signs that made no sense at all (my favorite: "Alligator Fuck Housed Me," followed by a frowny face). There were suspicions of police infiltration and accusations of treason. And the people who ran the kitchen, confronted by street people in need of more care than a protest camp can provide and sometimes given to violence, revolted, serving only rice. They even proposed a fast. The other organizers would have none of it. "In this camp, the bullshit flows in certain directions sometimes," said one participant at a daily coordinators' meeting, but that would be no excuse for starving anybody. "Everybody eats," chimed in another coordinator. "Junkie or tourist, a donator or a worker – everybody eats."

And then there were the tents. Zuccotti, renamed Liberty Plaza by occupiers, had become a tent city. For some people, the turning point occurred the night the drummers tried to drown out the people's mic at General Assembly, but I think it was the tents. They have proved to be one of Occupy Wall Street's most contentious issues. At the start of the protests, the rapper Lupe Fiasco donated 50 tents, but the police tore them down. In mid-October, members decided to try again, putting up a medical tent. Police moved in to dismantle it, but Jesse Jackson happened to be visiting the camp and put his body in the way. Cops on the scene got the word from on high that it wasn't worth it to try and arrest him. "Jesse threw down for us," LaGreca says. Soon, the park at night was filled with the clickety-click of tent legs crackling into assembly.

With the tents came a new kind of territory: turf, even private property. The park's sobriety, an agreed-upon principle, began to erode. The police reportedly started directing street people to the park but refused to help when some got out of control. "You've got a right to express yourself," went the cop's refrain. "He's got a right to express himself." Junkies came and then the people who supply them. Some tents became shooting galleries. Rumors began to circulate – that there'd been a stabbing, that someone was running around with an AIDS-infected needle, that the hacker group Anonymous had a plan to destroy the credit ratings of the cops. A man who worked in the kitchen was arrested for sexual assault.

By late October, there were three levels of internal security. The kitchen closed at eight. The 24/7 library rolled up around midnight. Liberty Park is a city now, and it has hours. There's even a town-planning committee that has held meetings at 16 Beaver Street, in an oddly shaped room with a movie screen and a grand piano.

But here's the thing: Anyone can still join. It's another old protest slogan metamorphosed. "Whose streets?" would go the call. "Our streets," came the reply. Now it's personal. Whose city? Your city, there for the making. All you have to do is show up.

Reporters keep sniffing around for leaders, but while it's true that the movement has spawned celebrities – like LaGreca, who lambasted a Fox News reporter in a YouTube clip that went viral – its resistance to organized leadership has proved enduring. Kalle Lasn is simply watching in awe from his home in Vancouver. David Graeber left for Austin four days after the occupation started. Marina Sitrin stays active in the legal team dedicated to working with Occupy Wall Street's arrestees (there have been almost 1,000 arrests in New York and more than 3,000 movementwide, as of this writing), but she's far enough removed from the action that LaGreca has never heard of her, just as the thousands who have joined the camp for a night have never heard of him, either. The evasion of organized leadership that for many began as a tactic – leaders are targets and weak links, subject to prosecution and co-option – has now grown into a principle.

Which left the biggest questions – What is Occupy trying to say, and who will be its voice? – with no conventional answers. The press found this maddening. It "doesn't really take you to a particular bumper-sticker action," declared a puzzled Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal – he couldn't imagine any other worthwhile outcome. Even some within the movement have their doubts. "You don't seriously believe this is a leaderless movement, do you?" Cecily McMillan, a 23-year-old graduate student at the New School, asks me one day. Not possible, she says, that's an illusion crafted by the OWS secret elite, who she insists are unresponsive to the demand for a concrete agenda by the "actual 99 percent."

McMillan is Northeast regional organizer for the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America, which bills itself as the largest socialist organization in the United States. She's been involved with the Occupy movement since August, despite sharp differences with most of the people in the park. "I believe in a constrained view of revolution," she says, by which she means putting pressure on mainstream politicians. And for this, she says, she has suffered. "I have been called a terrorist. I have been called CIA, FBI. I have been called a Democrat!" Like Lasn, she wants regime change. Unlike most of the occupiers, she believes it requires the guidance of those, like her, possessed of what she calls "cultural capital."

She's a former cheerleader; she used to want to be a politician. She says her studies and her work – she's also a nanny – prevent her from sleeping in the park. But she's not afraid to put her body on the line. She was arrested after she charged Wall Street three times, a "direct action" that even some veteran anarchists – militant and masked – considered wildly courageous, if foolish. A cop thought so, too, blasted her with pepper spray, knocked her down, stepped on her head and snarled at her, "Shut up. You get what you deserve, cunt bitch."

We met in the atrium of 60 Wall Street, built in 1989 as a headquarters for JP Morgan and sold to Deutsche Bank right after 9/11. It looks like a bad Italian restaurant – white-tiled columns, mirrored ceiling, a grotto, stunted palms. This is where many of the movement's working groups meet. At any given time there might be a half-dozen of them – the People's Kitchen, Alternative Banking, Tactics, Medics, Sanitation. McMillan had just come from a gathering of one of the biggest and most influential groups, Facilitation, responsible for setting the agenda of the daily General Assembly. She was there as the least bristly representative of the working group that bluntly calls itself Demands, and her first demand was a place on the agenda, which she claimed had been denied by "infiltrators." She wasn't talking about police; she meant other occupiers opposed to her ideas.

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