New York - Occupy Wall Street
September 15th-18th 2012
For some reason, I always spend the first 12 hours after arriving in NYC the same way: tired, pissed off and buzzed on bad coffee. Last weekend was no exception as my bus pulled in at 1:30AM and deposited me in the brightly-lit, swirling centre of capital.
Nothing triggers my misanthropy quicker than seeing people “go shopping”, and nowhere are people more prone to “going shopping” than downtown NYC. By the time I had navigated the fetid, rat-infested subway line to my friend’s place in Brooklyn, I was ready to burn Manhattan down. I slept for six hours and headed out again, my mood only marginally improved by an artisanally crafted, yet sadly watery americano and a quick flirtation with the skinny, mustachioed, heavily-tattooed barista. Brooklyn, baby! It struck me on the ride to Canal St. that these feelings of despair, hatred, discomfort and worthlessness are so intimately tied up in the quotidian life here that no one even bothers to point them out any more. So I was, in fact, being quite gauche by complaining. The struggle continues regardless. Suck it up etc.
My purpose in going to NYC was to participate in the one-year anniversary celebrations of Occupy Wall Street. Ever since September 17th last year, I had been variously camping, debating, attending lectures and demonstrations, organizing, studying and hosting in the name of this amorphous movement. You could say that OWS ‘radicalized’ me. I thought of this anniversary celebration as both an opportunity to collectively demonstrate the continued strength of anti-capitalist/anti-neoliberal sentiment in North America, and as a personal milestone, a moment for reflection on what I have learnt and how I have grown as a citizen and as a human. As soon as I got to the Town Square celebration at Thomas Paine Park, I could see that many others shared this double motivation
There were politics and soul-searching in equal measure; an abundance of artistic and personal expressions of OWS’s impact side-by-side with tactical planning committees, union and political organizers, prominent intellectuals etc.
There was a stage set up at one end of the plaza, and in keeping with the day’s theme of “Celebration”, musicians and comedians were rousing the crowd with chants, rants and tunes. Jello Biafra MC’d which was pretty entertaining.
At one point, someone took the mic to announce a walking tour of the Financial District in preparation for - what I considered the ‘real’ point of all this - tomorrow’s direct actions. Naturally I tagged along, and I’m so glad that I did. In those ninety minutes, I learned more about economics, activism, and urban warfare than I had in one month of Quebec student strike actions. The tour began with a run-down of the plan for S17, which was brilliant in its simplicity and faithfulness to the nature of OWS: the entire Financial district was separated into four zones designated “Education”, “Debt”, “Eco” and “99%” respectively. Folks were encouraged to form affinity groups according to whichever ‘zone’ they identified with, and carry out spontaneous disruptive actions in those regions.
I have to emphasize how perfectly deadly this plan was: even if the cops knew the plan, (which they did, because it was posted all over the web and on thousands of pamphlets), there would be no way of knowing who, or where, the targets would be. It is a fantastic strategy, merely providing a structure for individuals or groups of provocateurs that allows them to decide what to do. It allows for tactics to be cohesive yet open, adaptable and impossible to infiltrate ahead of time.
All this was explained while we walked along Broadway, towards Wall Street. Our guide shared some simple tricks for directing a large group through NYC streets - hand signals, pacing and attentiveness to traffic lights being the most important. Within two minutes, we had acquired a police escort of two on motor scooters and three on foot. This caused some indignation and tension at first - after all, we were just on a walking tour! - but our guide kept his sense of humour, mentioning that he didn’t want to get arrested yet so we better be careful not to jaywalk.
We passed by significant buildings - banks, investment firms, political offices - making note of the ground layout, the number of doors, the nearby access to streets and subways and other spatial features that might come in handy for flash mobs or human blockades in case they need to, say, escape the cops. This exercise gave me a heightened awareness of my surroundings for the remainder of the day. I felt like a soldier, looking out for trenches, pillars, weak spots, traps and so on. The other people on the tour included just as many grey-haired ladies as bare-footed Vermont boys. We were all fascinated by the tidbits imparted, like Did You Know? Wall Street is so-called because it actually literally used to be a wall, built by the Dutch to keep Native Americans out, and protect the slave trading that was going on down by the water from infiltration by the British.
We wound our way through the majority of Manhattan’s vertex, mentally mapping the locations of certain corporate headquarters and hearing anecdotes about the successes and failures of sit-ins and other disruptive actions past. I recalled N17 last year, where hundreds of folks converged on the narrow streets surrounding the NYSE, and were met with military-level resistance from riot cops and horses. We were cornered several times. We quickly realized the importance of moving in small, highly-communicative groups. This way, we kept the police force dispersed, and were able to clog up checkpoints, block intersections and generally disrupt flow for most of the day. Our guide reiterated these points, and reminded us that if our goal is to block capital, then the police are our best allies: by filling downtown with their vehicles and blockades, they were doing most of the work for us. Good point. It was an excellent pep-talk for tomorrow. We were going to shut the whole district down this way.
The tour ended at Zucotti park, with a brief primer in legal rights and what happens after you are arrested. I left feeling inspired and a bit terrified: so this is how you do it. Knowing that, as a Canadian, getting arrested in the USA was not a good option for me, I was nonetheless eager to join an affinity group and throw my body in front of some moving capital. Maybe I could line up for an ID check with all the other Wall Street employees, and slow the process down by not having sufficient ID? Maybe I could help stop traffic at strategic intersections? Maybe just a flash mob at the Merril Lynch building? My head was spinning and my feet were sore, so I met up with a friend and we went in search of food.
The rest of the day I spent exploring New York and observing the flow of human, material and virtual capital. I didn’t have much energy left for the dinner party my friends had planned, but I made it through fine enough. My misanthropy had been sublimated into something only marginally more appropriate for a dinner party: unflinching realism. That is, I played the familiar role of the downer. Every chance I got to mention how the neo-liberal establishment perverts true value, I tackled with panache. It was probably really depressing. I was on a higher plane.
The next morning, even though I set my alarm for 6am, I opted to sleep in. It was a decision that I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, I wasn’t able to participate in the direct actions that we had all been looking forward to so much, and I felt very guilty about that. On the other hand, I knew that getting arrested was not really an option for me as a foreign visitor to the US, and having seen what kind of force the NYPD is willing to exert in the face of civil disobedience - especially the horrifying reports of harassment and sexual abuse towards female arrestees - I didn’t think being in the vicinity of Wall Street was a wise choice after all. Besides, I wanted to save my energy for the rest of the day’s activities.
Now is a good time to address the phenomenon we might call “activist guilt” - that feeling I experienced by not participating in the demonstrations, a feeling familiar to any ostensible activist who finds a way to avoid demonstrations, meetings or other crucial events. I want to say: don’t feel guilty. But what I really mean is: shape up or ship out. Either you do what you say you will, or don’t bother. If you commit to organizing or participating in something, fucking DO IT And if you can’t commit, for whatever reason, don’t waste your time feeling guilty. It’s OK, we can’t all have endless energy for what is essentially a very long, drawn out war consisting of 90% losing battles. Some people seem to manage to ‘do it all’, and thank god for them. But if you are not one of those people, don’t pretend that you are. Remember: the revolution is a mass movement. You are one of the masses. Do what you can, and don’t feel bad about not doing more. Guilt is an unproductive feeling. Even worse, it is disempowering - it causes insecurity and uncertainty.