Video filmed and edited by Noah Schwartz, Produced by Lane Tobias
For every word I write, there are five on my mind. The sadness associated with the failures of a once promising President has at times crippled my faith in the collective will. My enrollment in a public policy program that focuses – rightly so – on analytical and practical approaches to policy change has forced me to question the usefulness of radical activism and political theater as tools of change. We live at a time when young radicals have been stifled by the apathy brought on by overwhelming wealth inequality, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ridiculous favoritism granted banks and corporate interests, and the efforts of law enforcement and government agencies to quell the movement for change by any means necessary. Consider the murder of Troy Davis the cherry on top of a disenchantment sundae.
The call to occupy Zuccotti Park, to make a lasting statement by erecting a living memorial to justice right in the middle of the financial district, seemed like a distant call to arms that someone as busy and consumed as myself could simply not afford to participate in. I walked down to the park on Day 3 and engaged a few young occupiers, inevitably running out to grab some coffee and bagels in solidarity. Somehow, amazingly, I was still unconvinced. What could the outcome possibly be here? Since that day, the NYPD stepped up harassment and video began to circulate of seemingly unnecessary force (including the use of pepper spray). The occupiers were not a large group – but the police actions seem to indicate that someone was afraid the movement would continue to grow.
And grow it did. Recognizing the obvious link to labor rights, unions from all over the Northeast are now on board. Then, Occupy San Diego, Occupy Boston, Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Chicago, Occupy EVERYWHERE – despite almost nonexistent mainstream media coverage, this protest went “viral”.
To quell the slow but steady growth, the NYPD had to do something. On Saturday, thousands of protesters were misled into believing that the path of a march from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn was on the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge (rather than walking in triple file on the pedestrian path – the original plan). What followed was an attempt at intimidation that only an entity as large as the NYPD can undertake: 780 protesters were arrested, possibly more, after being corralled between orange nets to prevent “escape”.
In the days leading up to the mass arrest, I started to realize that interest in this movement wasn’t confined to my insular circle of like-minded, weary, and doubtful self-righteous leftists (really just a couple of my friends). From discussions of the possibility of a police presence without typical harassment with my roommate, to an ideological discussion of what the movement means to the educated, young, and jobless saddled with student loans with a generally apathetic friend, I realized that this movement was reaching the collective consciousness. The influx of link after link after link on Facebook and Twitter with images and video of a movement fueled by young and old alike has made it apparent that this country is fed up with getting plundered by a system that favors the established. The heaviness in my heart, likely attributable to the apathy of my brothers and sisters in the fight for justice and compassion, was beginning to lift.
Fast forward to Zuccotti Park. I went in with the intention of capturing a living, breathing piece of history with my good friend Noah’s help (he has professional film and editing skills as well as a dope video camera). But it didn’t truly dawn on me what it meant that this protest was in Day 16 until I was able to step back and really inhale what was happening in front of me. What I saw was an anarchist-democracy, an anti-infrastructure that left me overcome with emotion and in awe of what the human spirit is capable of accomplishing in the face of enormous challenges. There is a media center, where a group of individuals with computers are sending live updates, blog posts, and video to independent media outlets all over the world. There is a medic section, with donated medical supplies, clothing, sleeping bags, and other necessities. Of course, there’s the food table, where food donated from people all over the country is distributed without restriction to what seemed to be both occupiers and (unfortunately) passers-by or tourists. There was a section of the park where individuals gathered for a drum circle, another section for intimate- group political rallies, and of course, “the Red Thing”, a statue at the corner of Broadway where protesters meet and conduct direct actions. The physical use of this small park is nothing short of amazing; the communal goodwill invigorating; and the constant fruitful, constrained, civil political debate empowering.
I spent the day talking to a number of people, and the common theme of those conversations is threefold: 1) The group occupying the park is a collective of activists that each add something tangible to both the ideological movement and the physical community itself; 2) Despite continued police pressure and impending cold weather, the protestors have no intention of ending the occupation; 3) The lack of a list of tangible demands to this point is part of a developing process taking into account the growth of the movement beyond original “radicals” and a consensus in the General Assembly. I managed to squeeze in conversations with other members of the 99% on film, and highpoints of those conversations are captured in the accompanying video. The individuals in the film are willing to make sacrifices many cannot, and they are of the highest intellect and dedication.
Jenny Heinz is a member of the “Granny Peace Brigade”, a well-known group of peace activists based in New York. Hard to miss in her bright yellow poncho, I was drawn to her energy from across the sidewalk. Heinz is no stranger to being arrested in the name of civil disobedience; in her mind, consistent arrests and harassments are a police tactic meant to slow the movement down through system involvement. A lifelong activist, Jenny is of course energized by the diversity in the group but even more so, the focus on developing consensus and staying on task.
Robert Louis is a Park Slope, Brooklyn resident who was arrested during the protest march to Brooklyn on Saturday. When I spoke to him, he was standing in front of the park alongside a number of other protesters, holding a sign that read: “Arrest one of us, and two more appear. We are legion, for we are many. You can’t arrest an idea – we are the 99%”. In his view, the arrest of over 700 people was a tactic meant to stifle what is believed to be a small movement. Accepting nothing short of a system that begins to serve our self-interests rather than the interests of the corporate elite, he is steadfast, strong, and articulate. Robert IS the 99% – and his dedication is striking.
I met Evan Marchmann on the bathroom line at McDonalds (ironically, the only business in the vicinity allowing protesters to use the john). Evan joined the occupation from Philadelphia, driven by a desire to protest corporate greed, the lack of change since President Obama took office, and the continuing reliance on debt to finance the American Dream. He is doubly energized by the experience of a family member who lost his Los Angeles home, fought Wells Fargo tooth and nail over their foreclosure practices, and forced the banking giant to offer an alternative solution so that the house could remain his. Evan is one of the many within the movement who learns something new each day, and the newfound knowledge has only strengthened his dedication.
Gecko, a Bronx native living in Brooklyn, invited our entourage (my friends Brian and Joel, Noah, and myself) to join him in a circle on the small personal space where he lays his head at night. At the time of our encounter, he was replacing all his old bedding because it had been soaked in the rain the night before.
Gecko has been suspended from work due to his participation in the protest. Ironically, his office is just blocks from the occupied space, but he made it clear that he has absolutely no plans to leave the park. Strong in his belief that the movement will outgrow Zuccotti Park and that a new location is inevitable, Gecko is one of the many individuals who refuses to allow police harassment (he was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge) to dissuade his dedication.
“They kept asking me ‘what is your name, what is your name’”, referring to the moments after he was handcuffed. “I said, ‘My name is Sean Bell’”.
The whole point here is that the system has failed, and the occupation of public spaces across the country is where the development of a more just and equal system will occur.
As I watched Gecko hold up the summonses he had been given, and thought of the sacrifices so many young people have made in the name of revolution, I wanted to help him get through the next stage of this occupation however possible. In true solidarity, I gave him the freshly laundered shirt off my back.
I have to note, I didn’t sleep for days leading up to Sunday. I was afraid I would be confronted for my lack of dedication, afraid that I had turned my back on the issues I hold close to my heart. There are millions of people suffering out there, and we all suffer in different ways. In my quest for a sustainable career in social justice, I forgot that I too am of disproportionate unequal wealth just like the currently and formerly incarcerated folks I work on behalf of. That even my friends who can pay their bills and have fun on top of it are suffering at the hands of an unjust economic system. That everything we buy feeds the beast in some way or another. I forgot that this is not a new issue; I forgot that it is not my generation’s fault, but it is our problem.
And then I remembered that we are the 99%.
There is certainly some internal and external discussion over the direction of this movement: What are the demands? What changes will satisfy “these people”? Who is in charge here? What happens when the group outgrows this small park? At the very least, the consensus is that this is a movement on OUR terms, and if it takes more time to figure out what exactly the desired outcome is, than so be it. There’s plenty of food, supplies, volunteers, financial support, and of course, love to sustain for quite some time. The whole point here is that the system has failed, and the occupation of public spaces across the country is where the development of a more just and equal system will occur.
I will report from Occupied Wall Street when possible, and my hope is that this will come after attending some general assembly meetings and student contingency meetings (these are meetings where the process of defining the various elements of the movement such as direct actions or distribution of necessities is fleshed out, as well as generating consensus on larger philosophical goals). In New York, Boston, and other Northeast cities, it is getting colder by the day, and clothing and bedding donations are welcome. General Assembly meetings are open to anyone willing to be productive and supportive. Essentially, I was wrong in fearing shame amongst those who are making the ultimate sacrifices; solidarity comes in many forms, and if you are part of the 99%, then this movement is you.
Abbie Hoffman once said, “Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit”. By living in the shadow of corporate greed, we are stifling our own humanity. Speak up, be heard, take part – ensure that the occupation transcends physical spaces and enters the collective consciousness in the name of justice.