Interview Assignment: Occupy Wall Street
You can feel the bubbling energy as soon as you step out of the subway in lower Manhattan’s financial district, as thousands of citizens demonstrate against systemic problems in the U.S. political economy. Many journalists seem to be at a loss on how to cover the internet-era populist movement known as “Occupy Wall Street” which seem to defy answers the specific questions on what, how, why, who, and when that journalists have been trained to ask.
Understanding I would have a hard time grasping it from other people’s accounts, I went with 3 others down to Occupy Wall Street’s demonstration at Zucotti park with the intent of seeing it for ourselves and relaying what we saw to a skeptical public.
Walking past the half constructed Freedom Tower in the blank expanse left from the destruction of the World Trade Centers, drums and voices can be heard echoing off the surrounding high rises only a few blocks away. The camp itself brings to mind a sort of organized chaos, with large clusters of campers set up around surprisingly permanent sections for media, information, a library, food, sanitation, comfort, art, and music. Walking through, you can only take in snippets at a time—the smell of sage and food cooked on-site, out of context excerpts from conversations on politics and economics, and of course, plenty of signs and placards.
I sat down with a few groups and individuals to ask questions about how the demonstration, now in it’s third week, was playing out as well as what they thought about its future.
Alma and Catrish, two girls who said that they were 20, were quietly sitting on the steps surrounding the park when I sat down with them. They said they have both been stopping in for the past week, coming down from their home in the upper east side of Manhattan to participate in daily marches.
When asked what they thought was the most universal message of the demonstration, they said it was about equal rights for everyone, and not letting 1% control all of the money—echoing one of the more consistent themes of the heterogeneous group of demonstrators. To them, the most important issue was the “ridiculous amount of money that is used for the wars but could be going toward education and poverty.”
Alma and Catrice just moved from California, and were planning on attending school in New York. They said that they are contributing to the movement by sending photos and stories back to their friends and family across the country, as well as marching and donating to the movement.
Alma said that the crowd has grown with every day that she had visited, and with that, there are always different issues being highlighted. The wide array of grievances being voiced at Zucotti Park—renamed “Liberty Square” by the demonstrators—is clear to anyone who has visited. The movement has become a forum for all types, including the unemployed, students, veterans, artists, environmentalists, anarchists, and even an ex-Turkish diplomat who was protesting “Wall Street’s” complicity in his persecution following the 1980 military coup.
Another demonstrator I sat down with, Ryan Arnold, 22 is a student in New Jersey who wanted to highlight the unique make-up of the movement.
“[Occupy Wall Street] is being maligned in the media as directionless,” he noted. “But this is a conversation. It’s about the dialogue. It isn’t about the blame.” Discussing why many in the media have not been able to paint an accurate portrait of the movement, he added,
“The media is just waiting for a fight or violence, but no one here is going to give it them,” he said, commenting on the peaceful and largely respectful nature of the protests—even when it comes to the NYPD.
“There is an air of compassion toward the NYPD.” Most people understand that no-one is inherently violent, and many police are even standing in solidarity with protesters.”
“A cop even came over and sat down next to me,” said Nicole Ouzounis, 18, who was sitting next to a sign decorated with lyrics “we know who our enemies are” by Jeff Mangum—the iconic and reclusive figure behind Neutral Milk Hotel who paid a visit to the demonstration on October 4th. Many musicians have performed or visited Occupy Wall Street, including Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Anti-Flag, Immortal Technique, and Russell Simmons.
As someone walks by with a placard that reads, “Shit is fucked up and bullshit,” Ryan noted that there is a definite sense of humor that is present in most segments of the demonstrators.
“There is a degree of hypocrisy,” he said with a smile, referring in part to the oft-noted fact that there are a lot of middle-class youth using apple computers to connect with one another.
“But we embrace who we are. Just because some of us have been awarded a degree of privilege, doesn’t mean we don’t want to change the system to make it fairer to everyone.”
Another student, Ed Holdarbaum, 23 had a similar perspective, but came to the protests with some recent experience.
“I was afraid our generation was just going to let this happen,” he said.
Edmund claimed to have previously been involved with Anonymous, a loose and leaderless Internet activist community. Anonymous gained international fame for using denial-of-service attacks against Visa, MasterCard, Amazon and pay-pal in solidarity with Wikileaks. His involvement with anonymous-“the only group doing anything” at the time, got him riled up.
Edmund said that he would refer to Occupy Wall Street as a demonstration, not a protest. “It’s not political or about class, it’s social.”
While the three students I sat down with adamantly believed in the horizontal nature of the leadership at Occupy Wall Street was the most important aspect of the protests—since megaphones were banned, the group has been using a system where anyone can get the crowds attention by yelling “mic check,” and those surrounding you will reverberate your message throughout the crowd like a personal P.A. system— not all agree.
For a different perspective, I talked with Ron Davis, 31, an African-American New York City community outreach Police officer. Officer Davis wholeheartedly agreed with a people’s right to organize, but said that the movement needs structure if it’s going to last and consolidate its successes so far.
“It doesn’t matter how large the movement gets, if it has these holes, it’s going to sink,” he said.
At one point, he said that demonstrators were bordering on abusing their democratic rights if they don’t organize and create structure. He noted that New York is a state that prioritizes freedom of expression, unlike “Commonwealths” like Massachusetts, where he predicted the movements would face more resistance from those in power.
“I love this city,” he said, adding that if this were to happen in most countries, and even many U.S. cities, the police simply would sweep the demonstrations without thinking twice.
“Not in this city.”
This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that on October 11th, police arrested 100 demonstrators at Occupy Boston for “unlawful assembly.”
He had been stationed outside of Zucotti Park for 14 hours. At times, he digressed, and told stories and gave his opinion on racism in the Boston police department (He will never drive through the city again, he said), the N-word, his upbringing, and struggles raising his son— it was the kind of general, friendly discourse and sharing that is making the movement so dynamic.
At times, it was hard to tell I was talking to an officer and not a demonstrator—albeit a rather skeptical one. This is exactly the message of the demonstrators I talked to: This is not about class, or who you work for, it’s about blurring those very boundaries and coming together as citizens democracy is supposed to. And if the “top 1%” want to join the ranks of the 99%, they will be welcomed with open arms.