when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Occupy Wall Street’s near-eviction and the aftermath

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Like several hundred others, I spent the very early hours of Friday morning just a couple of blocks north of Wall Street at Zuccotti Park.

I’d visited the Occupy Wall Street protest twice before, once while photographing the activist group VOCAL, which joined the October 5 rally of support, and a few days later with Erin, my fiancée. On that particular sprint through the encampment, I saw clusters of grungy, crunchy kids lounging and talking, several long-haired and funky lefties closer to my age holding forth, giddy tourists angling for photos, plus thousands of uncategorizables. It was chaotic, body-to-body, animated, and relaxed.

We weren’t there long enough to hear any speeches or witness the formidable “people’s microphone” in which folks amplify a speaker’s voice by repeating what she says to those farther away. But we saw and felt something—optimism, goodwill, even curiosity—among many, occupiers as well as passers-through like us.

On Friday morning, in a soaking rain, the park was no less animated, but less crowded, and more purposeful. When I got there at 1:30, the park beautification process that OWSers hoped might prevent the scheduled 7AM eviction by the New York City Police Department at the behest of the park owner, Brookfield Properties, had been cranking for hours. Teams of occupiers carted trash to drop sites at the park’s corners. Others scrubbed sidewalks with stiff-bristled push brooms and detergent. One girl dashed to get a bucket of clear water to flush a puddle of soap residue pooling in the dirt around a spindly tree. Microwave and satellite trucks from the various media outlets ringed the park. (I didn’t see FOX, so I figured they were incognito and using the services of an independent transmission provider.) Most journalists seemed to be waiting for the minutes before zero-hour to pounce.

An NYPD “SkyWatch” mobile observation tower stood at one corner of the park, a very impressive piece of high-tech surveillance equipment. SkyWatch is made by a division of FLIR, a military contractor with $1.9 billion in revenue, known for its thermal imaging technology. I’ve seen their products at military “force protection” trade shows.

The people’s mic was in full effect in impromptu assemblies. Someone would shout “mic check” and those within earshot would repeat it. If the statements that followed struck listener-amplifiers as relevant, vital, interesting, uplifting, or anything else good, the chorus grew. Discussions occasionally got disputatious and went off track. Gassers-off would mic-check and divert the group from the issue at hand toward their own general fabulousness. But when those around the speaker caught on, that people’s mic would fade out, and another mic-check would get recognized. All of this is maddening for a linear guy like me, but quite beautiful once I felt the power of the process rippling through the kids around me. They might not be bathed in the spotlight themselves, but each could decide whether to cut off the verbal voltage she was providing to a speaker or to keep generating it.

I wandered, soaked to the niblets, through the tiny park and fell into conversations. The first was among a half-dozen people knotted around a collegiate 20ish young white man. The wealthy earn what they have, and they deserve to keep it, was his point. Those gathered around him disagreed in varying degrees. When the agitation level rose, a woman named Deborah, 50ish and white, gently intervened to remind folks it was just a conversation.

Deborah shared her story. “I was such a good legal secretary I was raking it in. I was making like 90 grand at the end—plus overtime.” Life, of course, is what happens to you while you’re making plans to spend all that cash. Breast cancer. Her treatment is covered by the COBRA program, she told us, but only for a few more months. (She now pays $706 a month.) Before COBRA runs out, she must buy an additional insurance policy so that she’ll be able to purchase coverage on top of that when her COBRA finally ends.

“If I’m a multimillionaire, that’s not going to present a problem, but if I’m a regular working stiff, and we don’t have a single-payer health care option, I am fucked.” Respectful silence from all, even the kid formerly at the center of the conversation. Deborah is virtually uninsurable under our present system. That’s why she supports OWS (she visits but doesn’t sleep in).

A kid, 20-something and white, swaddled in a trashbag shuffled over.

“This is a very, very serious—” he paused—“thing. I won’t ask a rhetorical question. In my opinion, nothing is going to change–”

“Uh huh,” Deborah interjected.

“Them—” the boy said.

“Right,” said Deborah, impatiently.

“—is gonna change them unless we change ourselves…. It’s all about us creating a new society where, where we love each other like we love ourselves.”

The boy spoke slowly, perhaps to keep from slurring his words. He was drunk or compromised by something other than booze. The diverse group—young and less-young, white, black, biracial, professional and student, agitator and agitated—listened. I stifled the “shut-the-fuck-up” I was gnawing on.

“I think we need to just focus on loving each other,” he added.

“Okay. That’s nice. I think love is a good idea,” Deborah replied. “My health insurance doesn’t get paid by love.”

Our conversation was over. I waded back into the park.

Sun guns atop TV cameras illuminated another kid belching power-to-the-people platitudes, giving him fleeting legitimacy. It took a few determined mic checks and several minutes of verbal dueling for the young men and women from the Direct Action group to get center stage, but they did. They called a special assembly and gave updates on the impending eviction and the plans in place to deal with it.

A faint “late last night” in a girl’s voice wafted over to me and then got trumpeted sometime after 6AM. “We received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park.” This got repeated three times, of course.

I heard the distant voice say “postponing the cleaning,” and then whoops of joy from the thousands of folks around me. This was the people’s sound system on overload. (Audio to come in next post.)

I followed OWSers as they celebrated by marching through the Financial District.

I watched a horde of still photographers encircle a brown-haired white man, also a 20-something, cigarette dangling from his lips, glaring into the visor of an NYPD riot cop, one of a squad that had been deployed to City Hall’s front gate. The kid was no more than a foot from the cops. Macho, narcissistic, dangerous.

I had seen this before in the dozens of demos I’ve shot in past 20+ years. The violent scumbags were crawling from the cracks. They can’t emerge and don’t figure in the park’s wonderfully messy democratic process. But in the street, they can play their cowardly hit-and-run games—and tarnish the reputation of a movement. A young woman from Direct Action urged the photographers to keep moving with the crowd, otherwise, she pleaded with them, “the cops will beat our heads in.” I agreed with her, complied, and left the provocateur to his star turn. Then I broke off from the march and headed north to teach my undergraduate photo class at Baruch College.

Minutes after I left, a senior NYPD officer, a white shirt, grabbed marcher Felix Rivera-Pitre from behind and punched him in the face.

“I didn’t do anything to provoke him. I was just doing what everyone else was doing in the march,” he said. There’s video shot by Animal New York that’s shows a fragment of the interaction between Felix and the cop here.

I had photographed Felix, a slight man who is HIV-positive, earlier in the week in a series of group portraits of VOCAL. (He’s a member.) VOCAL issued a statement here. A VOCAL member tells me Felix is OK.


2 Responses

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  1. Throughout the entire article there was only one position stated that this disparate group of people wanted. The cancer patient wanted single-payer health insurance. Well democrats had the presidency, and both houses of congress and were not able to pass a health care law with a single payer option. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea. it seems that if she has been out of work for 3 years and her COBRA is about to run out there would be a safety net in place through medicaide or a state run low income health plan.

    Is anything else articulated with this demonstration? We do have the drugged out guy asking everybody to love one another, but we really don’t want government mandating that do we? And apparently we have Felix being beat up by a cop for no reason (I hear they like to do that).

    At least the tea party protests led a change in elections which is what this country is about. Not mob rule, but a representative democracy peacefully bringing about change through elections. Try that for a change. If you can win on the power of your arguments you don’t necessarily need to block bridges and make a general nuisance of yourself in a park for a month.

    John K.

    2011/10/17 at 14:23

    • Thanks for commenting, John. I’d hold off on judging OWS, whether it’s from my single snapshot or accounts in the media to date. OWS is messy, confusing, chaotic, but it is new. And I mean “new” in so many ways. It is young, just a few weeks old, and it is a fresh from of protest for the 21st century. What if it is simply a form of protest rather than a defined movement? But what if that protest sparks previously apathetic and immobile folks to do things like learn about economic and social issues that affect us all, get involved in community groups, or perhaps even vote? The conversations I heard on Friday 10/14 reached no immediate resolutions. But folks who might have never spoken to one another LISTENED to each other. That in itself is a small victory.


      2011/10/18 at 11:34

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