election anxiety countdown

47 Days, 45 Days, 43 Days: Occupy

Today, I’m circling back to Occupy Wall Street. Thursday was the ninth anniversary of its beginning at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. I stopped myself from posting a version of this on Thursday because I wasn’t sure how it fit in to my story, or whether the stories of others were mine to tell. These are questions a memoir with a longer gestation period might wrestle with at length. Today I’ve picked up the threads and present three sketches I associate with Occupy for Thursday, Saturday and Today’s countdown posts:

Part I: K Street

In the days after the takeover of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, Occupy Wall Street would inspire sister camps in cities around the globe. These camps would make news the rest of fall and winter. Capitalism run amok was the idea being protested in the early calls to Occupy that were put out by Adbusters. A decade and a half prior, the glossy magazine that turns commercial culture back on itself had been one of my inspirations for teaching myself how to use design software. Now I managed a bunch of designers in a well-appointed building in Washington where we used that software to poke at capitalism in meaningful, if not exactly scrappy and risk-taking, ways.

When the Occupy camp in D.C.’s McPherson Square (Occupy K Street) began, my boss suggested our team visit the nearby park at midday to pay witness and give encouragement to the activists gathered there. One of our number was especially excited by what he saw there and joined an earnest conversation about the camp, the issues, the work being done to build a sustainable system of support for a large camp there. He went back to the camp after work and would sleep there and spend much of his free time there for the next couple of months. His work (and hygiene) suffered, but I envied his dedication. He was relatively new in the job, and I could tell he valued his creative freedom more than the newfound safety his job in big anti-capitalism offered. I had a sense of this when I hired him. I hoped he’d push back against the design clichés of our world: megaphones, silhouettes of crowds with fists raised.

As the weather turned cold, Occupy K Street erected a wooden structure in the square. The police had warned them against it. They were willing to overlook tents, but anything more would require a permit. Our guy was one of a few activists defending the wooden frame when the police brought in equipment to remove it. He balanced atop the structure for hours with no bathroom, no food or supplies. A colleague who’d been following the developments on Twitter and arrived on the scene phoned me to raise my alarm. He was worried a Fox News camera would have our guy all over the network the next day. So what? I thought.

Part II: Pilgrimage

That October, I made a pilgrimage to Zuccotti Park. Pilgrimage may not be the right word. I knew I wanted to see Occupy, but I wasn’t there to participate since I wasn’t of the NYC community. It wasn’t spiritual.

New York has always been a novelty to me, and even the shortest trip there has me hungry to do as many things as I can: museums, visits with old friends, long walks. My girlfriend was often in New York for meetings, and so she was not as filled with the need to walk from one end of the city to the other and back. She had work to do and knew when she needed breaks. Sometimes her meetings covered the hotel. Other times we found deals for ourselves. We both made enough in those days to not think much about a bill at a nice hotel and meals at the legendary restaurants she’d read about in food magazines.

Occupy Wall Street had been operating and sustaining itself for weeks under constant media (and police) scrutiny. A flood of donations of food and money from New Yorkers and global sympathizers were distributed there. The media had covered the spectacle of Zuccotti Park for weeks. I knew what to expect. We would be two more tourists among thousands, checking Occupy off our list along with Rockefeller Center and the Apple Store before going back to our fancy hotel. As we approached, crowds with black and pink department store bags swarmed all around us. The wind in Lower Manhattan was brutal and cold, and I too was tempted to go in the department store for comfort. Maybe I’d buy another scarf or hat. Sidewalk vendors sold bootleg NYPD knit caps. But those wouldn’t do. We rounded a corner and there it was. Just like it looked on TV. We followed the tourists through a maze. The pressing curious crowed kept us moving past outdoor kitchens cranking out meals, past campers trying to sleep on concrete and cardboard at midday, past groups talking on upturned buckets, past slogans on cardboard and art doubling as a privacy wall. It was more the experience of a haunted house or a crowded craft fair. Occasional human microphone shouts would ripple through the crowd. After exiting on to the other end of the square and back on to the uncrowded cold street, we shrugged our shoulders and sought our next warm place.

There was a beauty in it. In showing that there are plenty of resources to go around. That we can choose to live in public and demonstrate care for the homeless, care for each other.

Part III: Institution

By the time winter proper fell on northern cities, the camps were fading from the headlines and regrouping. My organization wanted to tap the energy of Occupy and bring it into conversation with organized national fights against income inequality: fights in Congress and in a handful of states. And so, permits for a tent city on the National Mall were hurriedly procured (as long as nobody slept there it was fine with the Park Service as a first amendment demonstration) and Occupy activists from around the country were brought together with our staff from those same cities as a sort of Occupy summit. It was December. The temperatures hovered just above freezing. Rain and slush fell all week, and the mall turf inside and around our dozen rented white wedding tents quickly turned to mud. I spent that week in my heaviest Minnesota parka, thickest socks and heaviest boots risking electrocution to staff a tent filled with rented computers run from a high end trailer-sized generator so that a few activists could check their email. It was not Zuccotti Park. It was not McPherson Square.

My boss quit not long after our visit to Occupy K Street and recommended me for his job. In the chaos of the middle of this cold mud field, I learned that his job — which I’d been doing on an interim bases for weeks — was officially mine.

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