NEW YORK — The “Occupy Wall Street” protest in Manhattan’s Financial District and the spin-off “Occupy” protest it has inspired in Binghamton, now in their sixth and second week, respectively, continue to disrupt the ordinary landscape of these cities’ downtown areas with encampments of citizens expressing anger at what they see as corporate financial practices and government policy that brought the world economy to its knees in 2008 and, three years later, still result in high unemployment and increased income inequality.
Protesters at both locations said they have no plans of leaving anytime soon.
OCCUPY WALL STREET
In Manhattan, protesters have held Zuccotti Park, a one-block pedestrian plaza a few feet north and west of Wall Street, as their headquarters since Sept. 17.
Since the protest’s genesis, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) attempts to quell the protest — which ranged from blocking off Wall Street to using large-scale riot control tactics like kettling, or halting and trapping protesters with nets, mass arrests of hundreds, tear gas, pepper-spraying and direct force — have only added gravity to the Occupy Wall Street movement and earned it increasing media and Internet attention.
Zuccotti Park has proved a useful base of operations for Occupy Wall Street because of its location adjacent to Wall Street and because it is privately owned by Brookfield Office Management, a company that allows the space to be used openly by the public. For this reason, the protesters do not need a permit from New York City to stay there, and police on the scene — though they numbered in the dozens Friday night — remain largely on the sidewalk encircling the park and do not venture into its midst.
Claudia Mera, a NYPD Community Affairs officer normally stationed at the 46th precinct in the Bronx, said she was relocated to the sidewalk on Broadway in front of Zuccotti Park to help deal with the flow of foot traffic.
“[The Community Affairs Bureau] use a softer touch, so the public is more comfortable in approaching us,” Mera said. “All we’re doing is keeping the sidewalk moving. Today was my first day here … It was a good day, it was quiet.”
PROTESTERS TURN ZUCCOTTI PARK INTO POLIS
The encampment inside Zuccotti Park resembles ordered chaos. Thousands mill around, passing out pamphlets and other literature, speaking to crowds of onlookers, holding signs or talking to reporters and TV cameras. Some are busy signing others up for campaigns, newsletters, teach-ins, marches or registering them to vote, or are engaged in political and philosophical discussions and arguments. Others serve food, play musical instruments, collect donations or simply attempt to sleep in tents or on cardboard flattened on the concrete.
Occupy Wall Street has organized into work groups and committees at Zuccotti Park that handle various logistical tasks or bigger-picture functions, with names like “press,” “media,” “sanitation,” “security,” “kitchen,” “outreach,” “legal,” “medical,” “environment” and “facilitation.”
There are about 30 work groups, according to Mark Bray, a 29-year-old doctoral candidate at Rutgers University and a member of the press work group.
“There are about 20 of us in the press work group,” Bray said. “As a group we talk about how we want to talk about things. There a lot of perspectives here, so we don’t want to prioritize. Most generally, [Occupy Wall Street] is about economic justice and participatory democracy.”
The protesters are essentially attempting to, within the confines of one city block in Lower Manhattan, operate a direct democracy in the vein of ancient Athens, only one that includes anyone who chooses to show up.
Each evening at about 7 p.m., Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly convenes on the park’s steps on Broadway . At the meeting, any participant can discuss whatever issues he or she wants to raise, be they about a need to hire a truck to transport clothes and sleeping bags to be laundered, as happened Friday, or about the movement’s methods and goals.
Because the NYPD does not permit the protesters to use amplification equipment, like megaphones, the protesters have improvised a system whereby a speaker utters a few words and then pauses while those in earshot repeat his or her words loudly and in unison, thus conveying the message through the crowd. Communicating using shortened phrases, with this means of amplification — which the protesters call “the people’s mic” — causes debates to take a very long time.
Members attempt to keep the conversation inclusive but efficient by instructing participants to use silent hand signals to say things like “get to the point,” to ask for a “point of information” or “point of process,” and to show approval, mixed feelings or disapproval.
PROTESTERS CONSIDER MOVEMENT’S PROGRESS
Bray said he thought Occupied Wall Street’s structure, with a General Assembly and work groups for different tasks, is working well.
“You can gauge a democracy by these criteria: Is it inclusive and participatory? And does it get things done?” Bray said. “[At Occupy Wall Street] the answers are yes. We include everyone here, and we’re already the most significant social movement in this country in decades.”
Bray was quick to assert Occupy Wall Street’s place in history. In one movement, the movement sparked sister protests in cities around the U.S., from Binghamton to Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as around the world, from Buenos Aires to Melbourne.
“The normal way of doing things — writing letters, donating, joining political parties, etc. — isn’t getting the job done,” he said. “But an independent social movement will create a base of power to get our voices heard. I think in the future, Occupy Wall Street will be looked at as a turning point in how we viewed money and politics, and in how we do civic participation.”
Chris O’Donnell, a 24-year-old man from Brooklyn, said the Occupy Wall Street protesters “want society to function like it does here.”
“If you want food, you’re fed,” O’Donnell said. “If you want to talk peacefully about complicated issues, you can.”
O’Donnell said Friday that he had been in the park for about 20 days, though he doesn’t always stay overnight. A trained chef, O’Donnell works on the kitchen committee, which serves three full, free meals to about 2,000 people a day. He said the kitchen committee uses donated funds the finance committee disburses to them — about $1,500 a day — to purchase breakfast and lunch foods from local eateries, and they prepare dinner themselves at offsite kitchens in Brooklyn before driving the food back to Zuccotti Park.
“There’s also a link online, people from as far away as California have used it to order and pay for pizza from local places to be delivered to us here,” O’Donnell explained.
He said that his frustrations about the economy as well as the good vibrations of the crowds drew him to Zuccotti Park.
“I lost my job a few weeks ago, and had been kind of moping around,” O’Donnell said. “A friend of mine was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was down at the [police] station, waiting for him to get out. I felt the energy of the crowd of people from this movement there, and knew I had to come down.”
Tyler Albertario, a sophomore majoring in political science, was among the 700 protesters the NYPD arrested during a “Solidarity March” across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, Oct. 1. Now back in Binghamton, Albertario was hanging out in front of the miniature-scale “Occupy Binghamton” protest at the corner of Court and State Streets Sunday afternoon Downtown.
“I think this movement will only get violent if the police get violent, like we saw in New York City,” Albertario said. “Even when [the police] did, the protesters stayed non-violent.”
He said he thought Occupy Wall Street benefited from being a loose amalgam of popular frustrations and protests in different cities.
“I think a lack of a set list of demands or a leader is a good thing,” Albertario said. “You could discredit or assassinate a leader. And if you have a list of demands, it will leave someone out of the process, especially if you just choose the mainstream, reform-minded demands. Most of all, a list of demands lets the government placate the movement by acceding to just one or two of them while forgetting about the rest.”