All photos by Eric Berkow
The history of what was intended to be the peaceful protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street is hazy at best. But by most accounts, the protests—which began on Sept. 17, in Zuccotti Park, the privately owned but publicly accessible park in Lower Manhattan—had not drawn much attention until a week after they had began.
That was when several women were pepper-sprayed and corralled into confinement by orange mesh nets by the New York City Police Department, in a bizarre and violent incident that resembled something like a scene from the original Planet Of The Apes film. The most notable offender was Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. Bologna was caught on video by spectators using smart phones indiscriminately spraying protestors with pepper spray, in a horrific scene that left several women blinded and crying, while others were thrown to the ground and dragged through the streets in flexi-cuffs.
The incident was seemingly prime red meat for any sensible news organization looking to make light of the day’s activities. Yet, oddly enough, the incident did not draw much attention outside of a few mentions on the local New York news. The only national, mainstream coverage of the incident was on MSNBC’s The Last Word, with host Lawrence O’Donnell. Meanwhile, though, social media outlets—especially Twitter—were giving play-by-play accounts of the ordeal, and then began to elevate the movement’s notoriety by giving operational updates via tweets, as the hash tag “#occupywallstreet” began to produce thousands upon thousands of search entries as the days went by. Tensions rose once again on Oct. 1, when police and protesters met head on in a showdown in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge—high above the East River—which resulted in the mass arrest of 700 protesters, including a 13-year-old girl.
The initial intention of the protesters was to march on the pedestrian walkway in the center of the bridge. But protesters claim that police led them onto the bridge willingly with the intent to entrap and arrest them. The NYPD claims that protesters were warned that if they proceeded into the roadway, they would be arrested. Yet what has been made available to the public as evidence of such warnings is highly debatable.
A young man who would only identify himself as Chris, from Nassau County, Long Island, who claimed to be in charge of the logistics and planning of the marches, and arrived on the first day of protests with the hopes of galvanizing “a global movement for the abolition of capitalism, and for a more equitable system to be put in place” told me, “There was absolutely no police presence there blocking off our path into the highway, and when we march in the streets and sidewalks, they block off paths for us all the time. So they did not block off the highway, making it possible for someone to hijack the march, or just be confused and walk that way. The police block off the crosswalks for us all the time. They did not block off that highway, so many of us went that way—I almost went that way. So, there’s two possibilities here: Either the police led us that way, which I think is most likely, to at least create as much of an environment for mass arrests as possible, or a few folks hijacked the march and tricked people into following them.”
When I asked Chris if he believed that if in fact the march was hijacked, was it possible that it was done so in cooperation with the police, he responded, “I can’t attest to any of that, but I would not be surprised at all.”
I was on the bridge, as well, on that cold and grey day, and what I can tell you is that I don’t really know if the arrests were a set-up or not. From my vantage point on the pedestrian roadway, it certainly seemed plausible. But what seems more important to me, at this point, is not whether the police set them up, but whether or not the movement’s lack of organization allowed them to be so easily duped onto the bridge. By the time I arrived in Zuccotti Park—which was once known as Liberty Park Plaza—it became obvious that a joke made by Jon Stewart on his program, The Daily Show, earlier in the week, about how the protester’s home base resembled a Bonnaroo festival hangout more than it did a political rally, was closer to reality than probably Stewart himself meant to imply. Drum circles were being held at each corner of the park, while would-be Bob Dylan’s strummed acoustic guitars and vagabond hippies that looked like they got lost along their way to the next Phish show loomed large.
The whole scene, at first, reminded me of what goes on every day in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and one could easily mistake it for such, were it not for the eventual multitude of signs bearing slogans of protest and, categorically, the rhetoric was—not surprisingly—thick. In what would seem initially as a protest of the haves on behalf of the have-nots, one young woman held a sign above her head that read, “No Bulls. No Bears. Only Pigs.” Another sign held high by a young man, who couldn’t have been older than 23, read, “Dear 1%, We fell asleep for awhile. We just woke up. Sincerely, the 99%.”
Because the protest had no actual permit (the movement declined to apply for one), tents were not permitted on the premises. So protesters, many who had been there since Sept. 17, lined the ground like refugees. Every now and then a chant of “We are the 99%!” would break out and then dissipate behind the noise of cars and trucks that passed down Broadway, which lines the park’s east side.
Naturally, it didn’t take long to find protesters parading the tried-and-true, attention-getting technique of comparing their opposition to Nazis. One man paraded around with a double-sided sign that drew correlations between Wall Street and its bankers with Hitler and the Nazi party. Some protesters weren’t even there to protest Wall Street at all, as the execution of Troy Davis was still lingering in the air, and yellow posters that read, “They lynched Troy Davis!” were being represented in mass.
It was at this moment that it became apparent to me that I was stepping into a whole heap of emotion, not just a protest aimed at one singular frustration. From very early on, it was clear that Wall Street was only just the profile that was going to be tagged in this picture, and the Occupy Wall Street protest was shaping up to become the saga of the pure, not-from-concentrate anger of the people—at everything. This wasn’t Bonnaroo. This was more like Thatcher’s England in the late ‘70s—when the garbage piled high, and life on the dole was the only reality to look forward to.
Along my journey, I came across Alex, a fair-haired and slender young man in his early 20s, who came to the protests, also from Long Island. “From what I can see, the government doesn’t really serve the people,” he told me. “I mean, it’s a two party system and the populous vote doesn’t count as much as you really think with the Electoral College. But beside from that, to have only two parties represented is kinda wacky, you know? Cause there’s a lot more than two different views in this country. I don’t know if I’ll be voting next time around—maybe for a different party. But the problem is, anyone with a different view who ends up running for another party inevitably doesn’t get elected because it’s a two party system, and all these corporate donations are going to those two parties, and it’s kinda bullshit.”
When I asked him what the motivation behind the movement was, he told me something that I had already began to realize, “Everyone will tell you differently… I guess if I had to narrow it down, I would say the corporations, and the corporate involvement in government… People are greedy, and we’re just fucked because of it—and that’s not right.” I thanked Alex for his candor and continued on my way, desperately needing more insight behind this protest—besides the obvious disadvantages of a having a two-party system, the need for campaign reform, and the debate regarding man’s lust for money. After all, what is greed without envy? Everything I’d heard to this point seemed fairly obvious, and in my opinion, there seemed to be much more actionable tactics available to achieve equality besides having one giant sit-in in lower Manhattan. Just expressing that “corporations suck,” wasn’t going to cut it for me.
I came across a group of freshman from Wesleyan University. They were painting a huge sign that read, “Wesleyan supports the 99%,” complete with an image of a cardinal—the school’s mascot. I asked two girls within the group what they thought of today’s political structure, and one replied, “We’re both socialists,” before the other quickly corrected her by saying, “Well, we’re Democratic Socialists,” as if they were both unsure of what it meant to be either. Where was Bernie Sanders when I needed him? Certainly, there had to be someone here who could give me what I needed, someone who could at least solidify the particular demands of the movement, or at least present me with an agenda.
After two hours, I finally found someone whom I had hoped would be able to break down the ideology of Occupy Wall Street for me. Daniel Levine, the self-proclaimed “411 of the Revolution,” sat at a pseudo-information desk at the southeast corner of the park, and I asked him point blank what the demands of the movement were. “First, (Goldman Sachs CEO) Lloyd Blankfein, etc. all go to prison,” he told me. “Second, reinstate New Deal reforms like, refunding the SEC so that they can actually do their jobs—other financial regulatory institutions as well. Third, we need campaign finance reform so that the first two initiatives don’t get knocked down by lobbying. We might actually need something bigger than campaign finance reform, because Chase Bank just gave 2.5 million dollars to the police force. I mean, the banks are literally trying to buy the police. They’ve wanted us out of the park since day one, but it’s registered for public use, and as long as people can walk through the park, they have no recourse to throw us out.” [It should be noted that it is common practice for banks to give donations to the NYPD, regardless of the emergence of the movement.]
I then asked Levine why the organization opted not to apply for a permit. He told me, “We don’t need a permit because this is a public space. We take the streets because we are the combined will of the 99 percent of the population; that is stronger than any kind of fake legal system that has been put in place, or has been susceptible to corruption.” And when I asked why there was no leader to front this movement, he told me, “Well, we have general assembly meetings, but they usually just turn into rowdy open mics.”
Levine clearly could articulate himself in a way that was thoughtful and insightful, but one thing kept gnawing at me: Besides the obvious, why only Wall Street as the target? By his own progressive logic, why not “Occupy Lockheed Martin,” for making us slaves to the military industrial complex for decades? Why not “Occupy Pfizer” and their lobbyists for blocking critical and responsible healthcare reform in this country? “Well,” he said, “Wall Street just seems to be the head of the dragon.”
The critique on the Occupy Wall Street movement thus far is that it has lacked a direct message or an agenda. On Sept. 8, President Obama laid out his American Jobs Act before a nationally televised joint-session of congress. The proposed legislation—among many other items—called for spending for new and existing infrastructure projects, money for modernizing approximately 35,000 public schools, and back to work programs for low-income youths and adults. But suspiciously absent among what were the many viewpoints that were represented at the Occupy Wall Street protests were any signs that read, “Pass the American Jobs Act now!” This I found to be surprisingly odd, seeing that most of the protesters that I spoke to that set up shop in Zuccotti Park were either currently enrolled in college or had recently graduated and entered a world of epic unemployment rates. While they spoke in earnest terms and seemed to care genuinely about the future, many seemed to lack the acumen that allowed them to fully articulate solutions on how to bring an economy that’s lying on its deathbed back to life.
The bottom line right now is that Occupy Wall Street in its current form is like an infant that can’t express to its parents whether it needs to be changed or fed. It’s hard not to look at a crew of so-called anti-corporate activists and not laugh at the sad irony of the fact that they’re all using Apple MacBooks to transmit their agenda—or rather, their lack thereof. The same corporation that—at the time this article was written—was trading at $372.50 a share.
At one side of Zuccotti Park, Daniel Levine claimed to be in favor FDR-inspired progressive reforms, while at the other end of the Brooklyn Bridge, Chris—the organizer of march logistics—was looking for a full abolition of capitalism. And in between these two points were thousands of people who looked at the future and said, “What future?”
Some people are comparing this movement to the Arab Spring. I say, how grotesque a comparison that is! Tell that to someone in Libya right now who’s staring down a machine gun in his or her pursuit for a democracy. Some also say that Occupy Wall Street is becoming the Tea Party of the left. Well, we better hope and pray that it’s not, because let us not forget so quickly what that infant grew up to become. The last thing we need right now is another confused and divisive organization, lining up for its pound of flesh, torn from the side of a sacrificial lamb.