exercising my duty (observations of the occupy wall street march)
When the pride of a person becomes a greater asset than the compassion for humanity, one by one, the bricks of mankind will begin to fall, lost and blind, unwilling to find a way back to the understanding that has always united us.
I am learning that in life, sometimes people just want to be a part of something. Wednesday night, the 16th of November, I lay in my bed for four hours, awake, frustrated that I would only be getting two to three hours of sleep. I was too excited. I remember laying there thinking how strange, after a decade of just getting through and tolerating life, that this would be what would cause the same inspired sleeplessness I experienced endlessly as a child. It was bizarre and I remember trying to convince myself that I should not be excited but nervous.
Until that point, I had only three days of first hand experience with the movement called Occupy (Wall Street). I had spent seven to eight hours over two days at their encampment the previous weekend and then I stood with them, outside, on the 15th for five hours until the city re-opened Zuccotti (Liberty Square) Park, accepted “home” to their movement. In a few hours, I was going to be participating in something I had only known as “what used to happen in America”. I had never been to a protest before.
Here in New York City, the protests have been mostly civil so far (regarding pepper spray and tear gas and rubber bullets and all). Elsewhere in the country and world, it has been a very different story. What has made me cautious, though, was Mayor Bloomberg’s admission on Tuesday (the 15th) that he, indeed, ordered a media blackout of the eviction and that he and NYPD had coordinated the raid with the Department of Homeland Security. But I was born forty miles east of here and I have lived in this city for twelve and half of the last fifteen years. I knew, deep in my heart, that both the people of this city and the protection we pay for would rise above the lustful rhetoric that the rest of the country was salivating on.
I left my apartment as a curious observer. I was going to stay in the back, on the outside, observe and understand the history that was developing in our country, in my country. I wanted to be close, but, today, I was a “reporter”, a citizen trying to make sense of a revolution that began a decade ago; a revolution that seems to be dividing us just as much as it comes full circle in uniting us.
There is an old saying, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Lately, I have become aware of an immense and constant stream of irony in this life…
The path to Zuccotti from the subway keeps me parallel with the pit that is still the undeveloped plot of land where The World Trade Center once stood. The streets are dark, dirty and cold; gray outdoor tunnels through the maze of American commerce. I keep the reminder in my thoughts of the why 1WTC stands there as an unfinished embarrassment to the unity we created after 9/11. I remember sitting in my room two months ago, wondering what was different in my life on that 10th anniversary. As I approach Liberty St, I see the army of riot police, uniformed cops and high-ranking officials of the New York Police Department. I hear the drums of the people cast over this swamp of blue; I absorb the chants of peace and strife. Overhead, there are four helicopters. Everywhere I turn, there are layers of barricades, all handcuffed together, inseparable, controlled and lining all sides of this quarter square mile of chaos. The air is crisp, but getting warmer by the minute. It’s sunrise in New York City as I walk through the hundreds of eyes of those here “to protect and to serve” and I think of the anger I have endured from friends and strangers since mentioning I would be doing my part by coming here. But, there is a huge smile on my face because I know that what these protesters here are angry about is exactly what I am angry about. So I slowly make my way through the game, absorbing everything I can, and I begin to laugh at all this irony as I arrive at the meeting point.
A dear, dear friend and mentor of mine once told me, “When standing at the edge of a cliff and staring into the black abyss of your life, you must jump. But, know that when you do, one of only two things will happen. A safety net will appear or you will sprout wings and fly.”
From an outsider’s perspective, they look like a community. They emerge like a neighborhood that grew up together, went to school together, shared lives together. I was here alone. A few friends of mine were supposed to meet up but ended up doing their own thing. I didn’t know what to expect, or what to do, being an outsider to this collective. I did my part, bought a cup of coffee from a local vendor, thought about my mentor’s words, and I jumped.
There is a freedom walking arm in arm into the unknown with complete strangers. It’s an indescribable trust. None o us knew what to expect. None of us knew what faced us when we got there, and we had no one to protect us but ourselves in case things got bad. That didn’t really matter, though. There’s euphoria in experiencing freedom, knowing that at that precise moment, I was dedicating my life to the cause of bringing justice back to the United States; That I was one of thousands of deeply impassioned citizens exercising the same right in which this country was founded on. My personal safety came in knowing that this day had already been permanently engraved into the time line of American history.
I was walking in the back of the march the entire time, true to plan. Somehow, though, upon arrival at the NYSE, I reluctantly found myself at the very front of the pack. Barricades were a few feet from me where, behind them, resided a second small army matching that of Zuccotti, only this one had horses. It’s safe to say that the reality of being arrested (or worse) presented itself to me for the first time. “Trust in these people. Trust in your convictions.” Like a mantra, the record played over and over in my head.
We collectively took over the three streets still available and the chanting never ceased. “A People, United, Will Never Be Defeated.” “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” “Banks Got Bailed Out, The People Got Sold Out.” “Police, You Are, The 99%”.
We stood there, newly empowered, ready for anything, until the sit-in began.
It’s frustrating knowing nothing I could organize into words would serve justice to what it felt like sitting there on the ground, feeling the serene weight of the millions who have sat throughout history before me; feeling that connection. I have some videos posted so you could see for yourself as I will not even try to describe that at this time.
I have noticed a major criticism of this movement is that there is no purpose, no clear goals. I believe the type of linear thinking people are waiting for, however, is exactly the type of thought that got society into the predicament we seem to now find ourselves in. We have eliminated the natural instinct of adaptability. We are unwilling to change and have created our lives, our towns and our world too predictably. The point of this march was to delay the opening bell of the NYSE; for the people to send a message that, in numbers, we have the ability to do the unimaginable, peacefully. All reports in the media immediately came out that the bell was delayed by 11 minutes. Shortly thereafter, somehow reality changed and suddenly, the media was reporting that it was rung on time. For good or bad, my healthy cynicism now makes me question everything and I have learned there is always some truth on both sides. Regardless, that is the power of protest.
We were split among four corners. Sometime around ten am, a mic check went over with three waves. The entire march, collectively, agreed that the purpose of the morning was accomplished and that it was time to go back to the park. It was efficient; we discussed the important points and we decided quickly and unanimously. I do not think I will ever forget the look on the faces of all those police officers and riot cops when everyone just turned around and walked away, peacefully, singing and drumming and chanting the few blocks back to Zuccotti Park. I heard a spatter of “Thank You NYPD,” “We Love You, NYPD.” (They are not without a sense of humor.) And it was nice to see the smiles on some of the faces of the officers, to feel a little understanding. After all, their pensions are next.
(*Just a note on mic checks. It is a brilliant way for mass amounts of people to communicate. Being that this is a leaderless movement, everyone assumes the responsibility of leadership. If you have something to say, whether it be a suggestion, a point of interest, instructions, news or anything else you could respectfully think of, you initiate one. Stand among the crowd. You will feel when it is time to speak up, and you holler the words “Mic Check” in a call and answer pattern until you have the attention of everyone. It usually takes two or three times to silence the crowd. You then say what you need to say, a few words at a time, and it gets repeated by the crowd so that the people out of ear shot will be able to hear. If it is an exceptionally large group, or a separated group, like we were on Wall Street, you add waves to it. The speaker establishes how many waves, and, after he speaks, he waits for his/her message to get repeated however many times, or waves, was established.)
It is no secret whatsoever that anyone who does not know about or does not support this movement has been hoping, every step of the way, that they implode, explode or just flat out fail. To some degree, what has been drawing me to it is, indeed, that same underdog burden that they have taken on (and, yet, I still find the irony that what they are fighting for is anything but an underdog issue). Whenever a person, a group or an idea begins its journey, the “universe always conspires to help you achieve it.” (Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist) But, what happens when the beginner’s luck wears off and the work begins? What happens in a leaderless movement when drastically different voices begin colliding?
We were in the park, a couple of thousand of us, celebrating, dancing, talking, telling stories, observing and all of us wondering, in some place in our minds, What’s Next? I don’t remember how long we were there exactly, but, the rumbling inevitably began. Mic Check. I quietly heard it yelled by a few people over the massive noise of the cheering and drumming. Mic Check, beginning to grow louder until, after just a short minute or two, the majority of the thousands there (75% – 85%) all conjured together in the center of Liberty Square Park and the dialogue began.
Everything was quiet except for the words everyone clung to and repeated; The words of one voice. “We have numbers, we need to march back down to Wall Street and show them who we are.” “We do have numbers and we need to stay, here, where the press is, so we could show the world we are united and organized.” Back and forth. Do we stay or take this momentum and go? “We have a few thousand more meeting us in 45 minutes. Let’s wait for them and decide.” “This is what the police want. Here, they can control us. We must march.” Back and forth again. We all agreed, disagreed, spoke up individually and took the time to process. Then, one kid gets up and puts it all in perspective. “Whether we march, together, or we stay here, together, I WILL NOT follow anger.” With those words, you could feel a relief float across all of us. It is overwhelming, what can be heard through logical voices.
Remember that scene in Newsies, at the end, when Jack and Davy and all the other newsboys who organized the strike find themselves at the square, alone, and they realize that no one else is coming? That everything they fought for was over before it even began? Well, after a few hours at Zuccotti, that is exactly what I felt. It seemed to me that it was what a lot of people felt. Eager, accomplished knowing we did something, but a bit disappointed that we didn’t do everything. Remember, in the movie, what happens a few moments later? Well, I was near the northwest/central end of the park when I first heard the cheers. Then came that distinct sound of aluminum scraping against the cold wet concrete of the city’s sidewalks. I jumped on a table, got my camera out again and immediately started laughing. From every street on the east side of the park, people came pouring in, thousands of them. With a dozen or so news cameras mixed among them, they came flooding into the park, barricades now floating over the heads of the crowd, being dismantled by everyone. And the police could do nothing. We, the people, outnumbered them at least ten to one. Then I saw something I could not believe (something no one outside of this protest heard about). I saw various news crews establishing themselves on the front lines, pushing riot cops back and I heard them yelling at the police for their inhumane treatment of the citizens who are paying their salaries. In a matter of five minutes, our number had tripled, half the barricades were gone (most of the people rebuild them around the trees and other plants in the park to protect them) and the park was finally, once again, open to the public. During all of this, I just stood there, camera in hand, laughing. Whether people realize it or not, Newsies is based on actual protests that took place here in New York just over a hundred years ago. When I saw those people flood in I, yet again, felt that deep connection to the rich resonating history of this great city, my home. I knew, immediately, that that day was, indeed, the beginning.
As a people, we have become too accustomed to the rapid processing of information and the necessity of swift decisions. We honor and admire those who make the quickest, most confident choices. We often presume this makes them the most intelligent, therefore most accomplished for positions of leadership. In the military, quick thinking will, literally, save your life (and that of many others). In the business world, it is your responsibility to think and act quicker than the competition. And, in the news, it’s all about who gets to “break the next big story.” As we all know, when a station is trying to fill one hundred and sixty eight hours of non-stop programming every single week, sometimes the scriptwriter needs to step in. What happens then is, in order for them to constantly satisfy the generally narrow-focused, linear thinking of society, all of life becomes deduced to simple conflict with one side being wholly right and the other, entirely wrong. Because of this, what started as a complex movement of the people against the corruption of the system has somehow been spun to be a simple battle of thug against police. What is severely bothersome, however, is the rhetoric that ties the NYPD (and their obligation) to the same companies and politicians that have placed these servants of the people on the front lines like expendable pawns on a chessboard. Twenty-seven percent of my salary goes to taxes that pay the salary of the New York City Police Officer, their $46,288/yr salary. I respect them greatly for what they daily are asked to do and the sacrifices they make to accomplish it. They, similar to the military, do not have the option to say no. They do not have the luxury of opinion when they are called to strap on the riot gear and pepper-spray civilians who commit no crimes of violence. These people, these officers, understand the hypocrisy of arresting people sitting, on principle, in the middle of the street for the comfort of the people sitting in the building behind them who have admittedly stolen directly from their very pensions. So, regardless of how this movement progresses, to the people at home, following it on your televisions, online and in the newspapers, please, stop waiting for the war to begin. Violence is not what these protestors want and it is not what the police want, not when the police officers themselves have the most to lose with the failure of this movement. I can not understand why the citizens of this country are so committed to the craving of pitting the police forces of this nation against its people.
I feel it’s important to break here from my observations for my own personal opinion. After the onslaught of violent images that have been spread from this day of action, for the millions who refuse to take sacrificial action themselves, these images seemed justification enough to dole out the proverbial I told you so. I would like to make my point of view impeccably crystal clear right now. I do not support the instigators within this movement. And I do not support the instigators within the NYPD. Above all, though, what I will absolutely not tolerate are the instigators sitting on those couches because there are “more important things in life to focus on”. This is not about the instigators, it is not about the few. This is about the whole of humanity, the 99% of us who are losing control. I support our forces, our police and our military who are making the best of their situation. I have a choice. They do not. But our police forces need to step aside now and those who are being spoken to, who are being protested, need to stand up, in front of the people, and be accountable for what they are doing.
Unfortunately, when those small minorities on both sides are face to face for long enough, one of them is going to budge and that’s when it all starts. As peaceful as we had been inside the park, the pressure was always present around the perimeter. We had been in there for nearly four hours. We were completely barricaded in except for one slit on the north side where everyone had to come in and out of the park in single file. And, of course, that slit was where the instigators of both sides generously found all the excuses they needed.
After the newsies streamed in, most people in the park forgot about the barricades and went back to talking, dancing and assembling. Shrewdly, the NYPD saw this as the perfect opportunity to reestablish the perimeter. On the tricky north side, I was watching (and videoing) how, inch by inch, they were condensing the boundaries inward. I do not think many people really noticed this, but, it began making me wonder if this was a herding tactic. Now, on our side of the barricades, there was this one kid who definitely observed this. He stood right up front and kept talking back to a riot cop about this. The response he got repeatedly was, “Step back!” Well, tell someone not to look down and what happens? The protester decided to walk slowly down the line of barricades, giving the bottoms of each one a medium-intensity kick to push it back to where the police had initially set it. As he walked down the line, the cop would walk with him and, with every kick, he would push it back a bit further. After five or ten minutes of this, the cop eventually told him that if he did it again, he was coming in the park and arresting him. He stops, but doesn’t leave the barricades. After a few minutes, the words begin to gracefully bounce back and forth between OWS instigator and NYPD instigator. Then the kicker, still on our side of the barricade, leans over one of them to talk a little more in the cop’s face. The cop tells him to get back, of course he doesn’t, and the officer gives him a one handed push. The barricade protester then makes the ever-so unintelligent decision to flick the mask on the officer’s helmet and all hell breaks loose. It was like opening the gates of a dam. In a matter of seven seconds, a flood of blue helmets burst into the park and for the next ten minutes, we experienced the only violent chaos we would encounter the entire fourteen-hours I was there. I will not elaborate on opinions and points of view, as I feel a video I posted of it shows it all; you decide for yourself. All I will say is that, when they charged in, it was the first time in my life that I was handled and forcefully moved by a police officer. Knowing I was doing nothing worthy of my handling, it made me wonder, again, about the millions before me. It exposed the horrible reality that all great change in this country has come at the expense of nobody’s like me; people who were just there, curious, and became a statistic. To what extent will the resistance go this time?
“A person is not defined by how they accept the good in their life but by who they are when it all begins falling apart.”
I realized, as the police retreated back to the outside of the barricades, that I would be getting my opportunity to see how these people react when kicked to the ground. A lot of them were angry, I was angry, and the crucible only got hotter when a large group held fast to their decision that we all should, still, keep the numbers inside. We were completely penned in now, we were wet from the rain, we were cold, hungry, no access to any bathroom and now, collectively, we felt we were slapped around a little too gratuitously. The people spoke. All sides spoke. The compassionate, the furious, the anarchist, the rational. Everyone had a voice. I decided I needed to either be a part of the problem or part of the solution. I yelled out a mic check and everyone hushed. I stalled and stared for a second because I couldn’t believe these thousands of strangers were quiet, waiting to hear what I had to say.
I don’t care what we do, but, regardless, you must remember that this is a peaceful protest! There are thousands and thousands of people all over this country and all over the world, right now, watching live feeds, taking direction from what we decide and do right now, in this exact moment. We hold the responsibility and the integrity of everyone in this world with this decision right now, not just us here and not just this city.
It felt good. It felt liberating, to know I had a voice. And I felt grateful to have found a community and a city that encouraged me to use it. What got deep, however, was that there was no glory in it and there was no reward. A few people nodded their heads at me and the general crowd’s temperature check was very positive in its response, but, just like that, the debate continued on. A voice among many, steering the path. It was I have been taught about Democracy from a very young age. It felt reassuring to know it really existed.
When making a big decision, they are very clear that majority does not rule and that they will debate as long as they have to until the consensus is in agreement. After some time, everyone could finally agree that it was too dangerous to stay in the park, not to mention that almost everyone was too angry to stay. They organized in two groups and approximately 80% of the people inside the park began marching north to Union Square, where the major unions were going to join the student strike that was to begin at 3pm.
I truly believed that once the group left, they were all going to dissipate after a half mile or so. Union Square was not around the block. So, I decided to stay, for the same reason I came in the first place. I was curious. I felt that this day of protest was over, but, I found myself lingering just a little longer. I knew there was supposed to be a demonstration at Foley Square, but, I was at the last one at Foley on Veterans Day and no more than a hundred or so people showed up. After some conversation and further decision making, representatives from the Lawyers Guild (the organization’s representation) stepped forward and they advised us that it was not safe inside the barricades; that now that we were once again outnumbered by the police, there was a good chance orders would come down to begin arresting us for being inside the park. I decided this day was over for me. I felt I had done my part, I was floating on clouds and my feet were soaked through.
I could not get on the subway before I used a bathroom, because it had been nine hours since I last experienced internal relief. I took detours through the streets and finally found a diner with one. As I had not eaten yet either, I ordered a BLT and sat for the first time all day. My body melted, the slow drip of adrenaline faded from my blood, replaced with the persistent drum of exhaustion. NY1 was on the television and the diner, not surprisingly, had the volume turned up. (For those of you who don’t know, NY1 is a free, NYC-only news station.) I began listening to the coverage and within a few minutes, I knew my day was not going to be finished. Protesters violently clash with cops, injuring police officers and instigating disobedience. Then they interviewed some regular people uptown of us and all the chatter was about how much chaos these protesters were causing. I started remembering Keith Olbermann’s rant the day before, “…if you want to tie up a little traffic during a protest for equality and freedom from corporate domination on a bridge in New York City — you will be arrested. But — if you want to tie up all of the traffic during a goddamned movie shoot for the financial benefit of corporate domination — the city of New York will embrace you and give you tax breaks.” They kept showing the kid with the busted head, as if this was the theme of the day. They showed mayhem and chaos, but they never showed the thousands of people singing the Star Spangled Banner. I wasn’t seeing the recap of how Retired Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, in full uniform, gave himself up to be arrested and was taken away by the NYPD in handcuffs. There was no video of those news crews pushing back and infuriating the police on the barricades. Their angle couldn’t be any further from what had been going on all day. I was furiously annoyed, so, I decided I was going to pop my head out at Union Square to see if the disenfranchised people of Occupy Wall Street were able to stay gathered among the streets of New York.
For me, I feel this has been the beginning of a personal journey. I have always been an activist but have tried to hide it in something else. Growing up, I was taught it was shameful to be an activist. They disrupt things, create chaos, they are irresponsible and have no direction. Pretty much the same as most people say now. I have been searching too hard these past few years to find something I’d want to commit my life to doing. Lately, I have found no fulfillment in striving for personal gains. I have had amazing personal achievements, yet I never feel they mean much to anyone but myself. My actions might encourage a moment of inspiration, but, nothing I have done in my life bears the weight of assisting mankind. When I walked out of the subway at Union Square, turned right, got on my toes and saw people in every direction as far as the eyes could see, I knew my life was going to change. I knew, whether through writing, or theater, or anything else that I choose to do, I am now forever an activist.
Across 15th, down 5th, right at 13th then cross over to 7th. From there, south, left on Canal then a weave in and out of the streets through Chinatown. It was like nothing I have ever seen in my life and definitely like nothing I have been a part of. People hanging out of buildings, filling the sidewalks, honking and opening their windows in support of this river washing through them. It was refreshing to see all those smiling faces who were not marching, the happiness, the curiosity, shaking hands with thousands of protesters as we passed by and joining in the chants. At that moment, thirty two thousand, five hundred people marched, peacefully, through the city streets, finally arriving at Foley Square. Thirty two thousand, five hundred people united by the very streets we just took over. The people who were protesting might have filled up every square inch of Foley Square (and then some), but during that march, there were hundreds of thousands of people cheering, whistling, honking and joining this movement.
“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)
It is very easy to dismiss what it is we don’t know. When a person with an extreme personality enters your life, it takes far less effort to cast him off than to take the time to understand him. And, mind you, I do not imply acceptance when I say to understand. I mean simply to listen and not form a conclusion until you are long back into your own life, and you have the silence and the safety of your personal space to observe how your virtues and theirs fold together. Looking past the words and understanding the lifetime of experience that has drawn those words out of another person is what humanity is about. We have forgotten that we have the power of reason, that just because you are not with an idea does not mean you must be against it.
We are here. There are three hundred million of us, and that’s just under this flag. Whether we are strong enough to admit it or not, every one of us is responsible for the condition of the United States of America today. There is not one person exempt. We live in a Democracy. We fight for this Democracy daily. We send our family members and high school friends to be sacrificed because we are so adamant about clinging tightly to the idea of this Democracy. Choosing a representative from among us every two to four years while exonerating ourselves is not how Democracy works. It means effort. It means, every day, you educate yourself, read and discuss information you receive, know what bills are on the floor and what they mean, attend town hall meetings, attend city council meetings, sit in on court houses when in session…it means constantly making your voice heard and being an active component.
To me, that is what this movement is, what it means. Sacrifice, the one effect of our nature that we are adamant to deny.
There are people, A LOT of them, who believe that OWS needs a big march or demonstration in Washington, at least 500,000 to a million people, in order to prove legitimacy and to create any real change. I hope they do not follow that advice. This is about implementing change at home, not over-throwing the government. I’d rather see 50,000 people marching on their capitals in 10-20 states nationwide. If it truly is a horizontal movement, then stand up from “sea to shining sea”.
No one really wants every bank to close down and anarchy to reign. What people want are their voices heard. I had my voice heard the other day and I am still riding that high. My adrenaline still gets flowing when I think about the thirty two thousand, five hundred people surrounding me, all equally discontent with the state of the this nation, but united, peacefully, to begin the slow process of change.
There is comfort in knowing I do not need to believe what is told to me because I have seen it all myself. I am part of active Democracy. I am the voice of the people because I am one of those people. I know you are as well. This movement, to me, is a platform to allow you to come out, talk with random strangers, your brothers and sisters who all live by the collective rules of the Constitution and the various other founding indoctrinations that have guided the formation of our society.
Whether you are conservative in your belief or not, whether you identify with a political party or a religious faction, we all want health, we all want to be happy, we all don’t want to be told what to do and we’re all pretty sick of people not listening to us. This is not a corporate vs. government issue. They are both wrong, and we are better with neither if we do not hold them accountable to the same principles we abide by in our own personal lives. When I was alone in this enormous mob of people and I knew that I could find a friend among any of them, that I could find food or water or an answer or just someone to be there regardless of where or who I turned to, I finally began to understand what we are about, what this is about. It has reconnected me with the spirit of giving, with my humility and with the knowledge that my life begins at my compassion for others and continues through the selflessness of needing others.
I wish people would speak a little less and listen a bit more. This is not an organization. This is just you and I, talking, listening and slowly, one person at a time, trying to figure this whole thing out, and to collectively understand how to improve it.
I am grateful to have gotten this experience and grateful to be living in this moment in human history.