The confrontations with the police usually get the most attention, but they’re not the only thing going on at Occupy Wall Street. I went down to Zuccotti Park at about 9PM on Wednesday, 5th October after putting the kids to bed. I was alarmed by stuff on the twitter feed that detailed incidents of contact with the police but which were not clear about the location. I wanted to make sure our Park was still there.
Just off the subway, and heading down Church Street, I caught a glimpse of a march going North, up the street parallel to the east. I saw a mass of closely ranked bodies and banners and heard some vigorous chants. I wasn’t sure where they’d be going, as Wall Street is to the south. I decided to keep going down Church to Zuccotti Park and maybe catch up with that group later.
I could hear the Park before I saw it. At the western end, about a hundred people were chanting, singing, dancing, banging on drums. I hung out with them for a while. This crowd was young, fun, and a bit crusty. The financial district is usually so dead after working hours. Even the idea of a party at night here is something.
It was hard to work my way into the Park. Piles of stuff were arranged around the planting beds. Mostly disassembled tents. The police have been pretty clear that they will not tolerate “structures” without a permit, and apparently a tent is a “structure.”
A young man lay flat on his back in a sleeping bag. I narrowly missed kicking him in the head on my way by. He looked exhausted, as did a few others in sleeping bags that I found in the west end of the Park just past the drum circle at its westerly end.
Under the sound of the drumming was the thrumb of a generator. A small knot of young men crouched around it, powering up devices. Most of the signs of organized activity were east of the crumpled tents and random sleepers. Knots of people clustered around tables dedicated to one function or other of keeping the Park running.
Here was where I found people you might think of as “anarchists,” if only in the sartorial sense. People who have some experience at self-organization. Otherwise the crowd was mostly dressed like any other crowd of college or post college age young people in New York City, although here and there you would find older people as well.
A young woman explained what was “problematic” about the occupation to two friends, and allowed me to listen in to their conversation for a while. There were a lot of small groups talking amongst themselves A man in a business suit raised a red and black flag, while talking to another man in a track suit and hoodie.
A woman smiled at a man sitting on one of the stone benches. She parted her thighs and planted herself on his lap. He kissed her; she kissed him back. Her hands were in his hair. I thought of that line in Raoul Vaneigem about those who go on and on about class struggle without speaking of love. They speak with a corpse in their mouth, he says.
An older group, earnest, weathered, held up signs about class struggle so that the TV crew on the southern side could see them. They did not have the curious, expectant, hesitant look of some of the younger people. Not everybody finds all this so surprising. As another Situationist writer, René Viénet famously put it: our ideas are on everybody’s minds.
At the eastern end of the Park was a group, about the same size as the drum circle, who preferred to chant slogans. They were standing tightly packed in an oval, doing call and response chants of the popular slogans of the occasion.
It struck me as curious how the Park was polarized between these two ambiences: the drum circle at one end and the chanters at the other. The drum circle understood the place as something like a festival. They weren’t for or against anything, they just were. Here, in this improbable, unlikely place.
The chanters felt more in need of a binding ritual that would settle at least for the moment who we are and who we aren’t. They seemed more interested in making explicit the terms of the coming together and the cleaving from.
The northern side was strangely bare. It is supposed to be an area for art and signs, but something about that part of the Park didn’t seem appealing, even though people were tightly packed into the middle. Along the northern edge were hand made posters, arranged so they could be seen in a stroll down that side. My favorite was “the medium is the message.” Done rather patiently in several colors.
Someone waded in with a stack of pizzas. The food carts that are usually here anyway were still open. I would have liked to know what they made of it all, but they were doing a fairly brisk business and I didn’t want to hold anyone up. Both cops and occupiers lined up for coffee, and perhaps a few office workers held back late.
A police truck arrived and barriers were slid off and erected down the southern side. Quite a few people got up to watch. A rise in the level of tension was palpable. Who knows who ordered the new barriers or why? It could just have been to make people a little tense.
The police seemed relaxed, however. A policewoman leant against the barriers on north side and chatted on her cellphone. A cluster of maybe ten blue shirted officers leant against the wall outside the Brooks Brothers store on the other side of the street. A white shirt rested his bullhorn on the barriers for a moment. It isn’t always like this, of course. I saw police arrest three people in broad daylight just a few days ago. At this moment all was calm. Nothing is forever in these kinds of situations.
Wandering around the Park, I talked briefly to a few people. I steered away from people who looked like old hands. I was interested in those people who seemed in a sort of a fugue state. Mostly, they could not quite find words to describe the sensation. There was just something about this moment in space and time that was hard to describe.
It wasn’t obvious what one should be doing. It isn’t work; it isn’t leisure. There’s nothing to buy. The union-organized marchers were long gone by the time I got there, so there wasn’t really any protesting to be done. In the Park at that moment there were no police to confront. If you wanted to make the moment intelligible to yourself, you had to find your own way to do it.
The chanters and the drummers were two ways to go about it. Or perhaps it was a good moment just to try and sleep. There’s always something to organize. There’s always points to debate. Or, you could just be there. In some ways that’s the hardest part. To just be there, in a moment carved out of the division of daily life between the time of work and the time of leisure. In a space that is supposed to be where office workers go for coffee and a cigarette on their breaks.
There’s a division of the space of the Park into functions, and usually this does sort of function. At night, with such a big crowd in it, the space had started to redefine itself a bit, and more by ambience than function. People arranged themselves in it more according to how they felt about it. There was an unanswerable question in the air, or so it seemed to me, about what forms of life are possible. In different parts of the Park people gravitated toward different answers. This is what you might call the psychogeography of the place.
When there’s nobody really watching, when there’s nothing to confront, when there’s nothing to debate—this is what’s left: How is it possible to create forms of life for ourselves, even if it’s in the shadow of tall buildings that cast long shadows?
I left the Park and headed back to the subway. I had to get up the next morning to get the kids off the school. People were drifting away, although it was clear that a fairly large group would stay on for most of the night. And others would be back in the morning.
Not many people can inhabit this place outside of work time, but a lot of people come to visit, and to glimpse something of another way in which the city might function. Other lives are possible; sometimes they even actually exist.
No matter what happens here next day or next week, I just wanted to record the fact that this actually happened.