“Eyes on!” shouted a young man being dragged away, his hands cuffed behind his back. “We’re watching,” yelled several others as the moment quickly dissolved into chaos. It was hard to know where to look. In the center of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan a sea of blue descended upon another man, guilty of refusing to stand up when ordered. He too emerged in handcuffs, as did the screaming, crying woman who tried futilely to pry the gloved hands of the NYPD officers from the man now barely visible under the blue pile. As several protestors in handcuffs were lined up on the curb next to the NYPD command center vehicle, the crowd erupted in chants of “Shame!” and “The whole world is watching!”
Only it isn’t.
This was the scene around 10 o’clock in the morning, day four of the leaderless protest known as “Occupy Wall Street.” The protest is a loosely defined coalition of mostly young people raging against the death of American democracy and consolidation of wealth into the hands of the top 1 percent. In fact, many simply refer to themselves as “the 99 percent.” And while they may indeed represent ninety-nine percent of America in financial standing, the more concrete parallel might be that ninety-nine percent of America has no idea this is even happening.
“If this was a Tea Party rally, Fox News would be here with us day and night,” says Julian (pictured below), a student and seasonal worker who flew in from Oregon after learning about the protest on Twitter. Like the others, Julian has no intention of leaving Wall Street any time soon. So serious is he about this commitment that he purchased a one-way ticket. Julian was compelled to join the rally because of what he calls a “crisis of democracy” and says he is “worried about the direction of the country.”
I had only heard rumblings of a gathering down on Wall Street this past weekend when the protest was already underway. Though officially organized by no one single group or person, Canadian magazine Adbusters—whose stated mission is to “coax people from spectator to participant” in the quest for a “world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance”—is credited as the wind in the sails of the Occupy Wall Street protest. What is clear is that Occupy Wall Street is designed to harness the grassroots and spiritual zeitgeist of the Arab Spring, which has spread like wildfire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Yet while American news organizations and traditional media outlets provided wall-to-wall coverage of the uprisings from Tunisia to Libya, they have been remarkably, if not scarily silent about the unrest occurring right here at home. I personally began following what was happening on Wall Street on Facebook beginning Sunday evening and was as captivated by the event as I was by the lack of coverage surrounding it. On Tuesday morning I set out to Manhattan to begin my day with the protestors.
It didn’t take long to hear the steady, rhythmic drumbeats and chanting as I passed through the turnstile and ascended the stairs of the Wall Street station. Slowly making their way through a gauntlet of bike racks and officers were scores of young people shouting “We are the ninety-nine percent” with “and so are you” being offered in a call-and-response echo. Though already into the fourth day of protest, the crowd was ebullient, even smiling and polite to the officers and those passing by. This morning they were dispatched from their base camp in Zuccotti Park to continue raising awareness and remind the scurrying Wall Street crowd of their presence during the morning rush.
As the crowd snaked around the bike racks on Broad Street and picked its way back toward Broadway, every moment was being streamed live by two men in thin, red parkas—one carrying a camera, the other monitoring the feed on a laptop. As they paced backwards and looked warily about, I noticed a member of the NYPD on the other side of the barricade also filming every moment of the protest. I started toward the man holding the laptop but he averted his eyes and motioned slightly to the cameraman in front of him who was quite clearly the spokesperson for the pair.
When asked what this gathering was about, the cameraman said these were just “people with a common set of principles” seeking to highlight “fundamental, systemic issues.” He had a slight accent and spoke in a measured and purposeful way about the similarities between Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the uprising in Spain, which he also attended. But, he noted, this protest was “becoming a first amendment issue about the right to assemble.”
With this he was referencing attempts by the police to scuttle the demonstration by blowing the dust off an antiquated law that prohibits the wearing of masks by two or more people during a demonstration and confiscating supplies such as tents and gasoline for generators used to power cameras, laptops and phones. A handful of protestors had already been arrested for resisting these attempts and the cameraman was clearly concerned about each subtle turn of event.
At this point I decided to loop down around Broadway instead of hobbling along with the slow-moving group to capture the scene of their return to Zuccotti Park, now dubbed “Liberty Plaza” by the organizers. As most of the thru streets were barricaded off, I inquired of an officer as to the fastest way to beat the crowd to the park. As I approached him I couldn’t help but overhear him comment to the uniformed officer next to him, “This is some killer overtime.”
The sight of bearded young men with instruments and tattooed young women clad in tie-dyed shirts and plastic parkas was casually anachronistic and out of step with the modern, business-like efficiency of lower-Manhattan. Blue tarps covered cardboard signs and coolers. Some milled about with trays of sandwiches and fruit, eager to feed their cohorts. As the rest of their group crossed the street into the park, they were greeted with applause and the square again began to swell with their ranks. The happy homecoming was to be short-lived.
As the protestors reunited I was speaking with a man from Queens named Akio who said he was there “to offer smiles, hugs and morale” when the police suddenly converged in the square. Addressing the group with a bullhorn (an action that resulted in the arrest of a protestor leading a prayer the day before) an officer told the crowd to move so the police could confiscate the tarps. Apparently tents are illegal as well though these could hardly be considered such; another thinly veiled attempt to break the spirit of the protest as by now it was raining steadily in New York. One of the protestors who sat silently on top of one of the tarps wasn’t budging. Unfortunately, the NYPD weren’t either.
Within moments the scene turned hostile as officers peeled him from his perch, which was met with a mixed reaction from the crowd. Cries of “Obey!” and “Don’t give them a reason!” were mixed with “fucking pigs!” and “courtesy, professionalism and respect!”—a dig at the NYPD slogan. After a handful of arrests and angry exchanges the morning molestation of the movement appeared to come to an end.
Then, in the center of the Zuccotti Park, a man stood atop one of the planters and addressed the crowd; several were still angry, some were in tears and others just milled about in disbelief. Gradually the attention shifted to the speaker, although it was difficult to hear him as his back was turned to me at first. But I managed to hear enough to know that he was imploring the group to stay strong and stay focused.
I raised my camera to capture a glimpse of him as perhaps there was a nucleus to this thing after all and got off a decent shot only then recognizing him as the cameraman I had spoken to earlier. Confident he had control of the situation once more, the cameraman stepped down and resumed his role of real-time, anonymous documentarian—true to the moment and true to the movement.
As the crowd exhaled I stepped back to pack up my own camera, but not before deleting his picture—true to the moment and true to the movement.