Dispatches from a failed attempt to Occupy Wall Street

Over the weekend, Lindsay and I were able to tiptoe out of DC and savor a ladies’ weekend in New York City. It was a lovely trip. We saw The Book of Mormon, walked around the city’s neighborhoods, visited the Met, navigated the subway and nibbled decadent, sculptural cupcakes.

But before we did any of those things, we Occupied Wall Street. For two hours, anyway. Zuccotti Park was our first stop off the nighttime megabus. We even had a tent and sleeping bags. Our plan was to camp for a single night, see what it was like, talk to people and make observations. We were surprised to find that Zuccotti Park is a great deal smaller than it appears to be on TV – what we envisioned as a massive, sprawling encampment was a crammed urban square no larger than a city block. And that’s in New York – its blocks are shorter than most, so a single NYC block amounts to about the distance traveled by an average sneeze. There was no room for our tent; there was barely enough room for the tents that were already there. Zuccotti Occupiers are militant about keeping walkways clear – because if they weren’t, the route to your own tent might lead you straight across a sleeping neighbor’s face.

The physical environment of the Zuccotti encampment represents the greatest strength and weakness of Occupy Wall Street. On one hand, the presence of protesters day in and day out has attracted the attention of media and passers by that has facilitated its success. On the other, the adoption of a physical encampment is flawed insofar as it bears the symbolic burden of developing the movement’s identity and conscience. Because the encampments in Zuccotti Park and dozens of other cities are the most obvious visual markers of the movement, they become the movement’s de facto representatives.

While the grievances of the 99% have been well articulated by a plethora of journalists across the world, the message one internalizes by visiting Zuccotti Park is less coherent. The New York Times has begun to ask how long the encampment will last, which I could not help but ponder myself. The granite capped square boasts a crowd of a couple hundred each night – some play chess, some browse the makeshift library, and others chat and eat grapes. You get the sense that campers have settled into a routine halfway between waiting and living, locked into the fatigue-laced zombie zone I remember from my own months of unemployment last year. While standing in Zuccotti Park, It is hard not to be taken by the optimism of what is possible, but it is harder to imagine that these people are permanent settlers. Some day, possibly soon, there will be a time when there are no tents left there. There won’t be any more donated food or books, and the square will look a lot like it used to. I asked Casey, our happenstance guide, this question. I wanted to know what he thought would end the encampment. Would it be inclement weather? A forcible city shut-down? A negotiated settlement? A revision of tax law? Legislation? Political enfranchisement? If each protest encampment is a method and not a goal in itself, then what constitutes a victory? Casey, ever the liberal, muttered that the system needs to change. I agree with him, but that is one hell of a tough standard by which to measure success. And that is the problem with the Occupy encampments – if they are leaderless conglomerations of people living outdoors and demanding a system change, their eventual disbandment is going to look like a failure larger than Zuccotti Park ever looked on a TV screen.

Although I question the rationale for a continued physical encampment, I do support the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. That’s the thing the encampment really gets right. There is something heartening about being there. It is obvious that the people care about each other, and they have been creative and kind (if not completely unfaltering) in responding to various problems and threats. The disarray emanates from a basic commitment to egalitarianism. If they can  manage to transition from grassroots working groups and drum circles to more legislatively pragmatic platforms, then that empathy and tolerance will serve my generation well. Protesters won’t spend the rest of their lives in rows of tents – but there’s a good chance they’ll continue to avoid stomping on other people’s faces.

– A politically minded Natalie

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

3 Responses to “Dispatches from a failed attempt to Occupy Wall Street”

  1. This article/blog/rant/blurb/whatever it is is both well thought and well written. Kudos.

  2. I’m still waiting for SVU to base an episode around a crime that takes place in Zuccotti Park. The question is what protest will they substitute for the Occupy DC protest, and how will they deal with the social issues it raises? Of course, I will never see that episode now that Stabler is gone and there is no one to place mis-guided well-intentioned outrage at protesters.

  3. This is a great piece of reporting! Looking forward to hearing more next week : )

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