Editor’s Note: Seattle lawyer William Carleton spent several days last week in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the nerve center of the Occupy Wall Street movement. He had two goals — better understanding how Occupy Wall Street works, and not getting arrested. He accomplished both. Continue reading for his report from the scene.
I flew in Sunday night and went straight from the airport to Zuccotti Park. The scene was synesthetic and, my first hour there, almost overwhelming. But once I got the lay of how the occupation organized the space — where the kitchen was, where people slept, where the library was, where key working groups were set up — it became a comfortable, inviting space.
They call it Liberty Park, or Liberty Square. Not only is Liberty the name of the street bordering the rectangular park, it’s also the name that pre-dates Brookfield Properties’ private ownership of the space, and brings to mind revolution and patriotism. It fits the scene.
Every pocket in the park was alive with activity. Drummers drummed at the west edge of the park. Along Broadway, the east side of the park, demonstrators brandished cardboard signs and chanted slogans. Throughout the rest of the park people talked one-on-one or in small groups — until it was time for General Assembly.
“General assemblies” are conducted without amplifiers or bullhorns. The sound system is the assembled audience itself, which relays short sentences or sentence fragments uttered by the speaker on “the stack” (the occupation’s term for “the floor” or “the podium”) by repeating them aloud, in chorus. In terms of communication, this human microphone is the iconic method of the occupation.
It reminded me of responsive readings in a church. Except you are not responding to a prompt with the remainder of the thought or verse; you are repeating what has been said. And by actively repeating, aloud, what you hear, I think you may listen more attentively.
I settled in Sunday evening and stayed for the first 3 hours of the General Assembly meeting. I thought I might be cool and objective at first, but began participating in the human microphone. This was my favorite sentence of the night:
If you have an expenditure … If you have an expenditure … If you have an expenditure
over a hundred dollars … over a hundred dollars … over a hundred dollars,
please talk to finance … please talk to finance … please talk to finance
before spending the money! … before spending the money! … before spending the money!
If the city were to reverse itself and allow amplified sound in the park, I doubt the occupiers would use it. (That said, the topic of improving communication came up in each meeting I attended. The Sunday General Assembly was also the first, it was said, at which notes of the meeting were being projected on a screen as the meeting occurred.)
Committees reporting on my first night — sentence fragment by sentence fragment, each repeated twice — included (but were not limited to): Inventory and Shipping, Security, Sanitation, Library, Media, Legal, Arts and Culture, and the Alternative Currency Working Group.
The occupation strives to be nonpartisan. Process, process, process, (financing), process. “Personal political views” are not allowed at the General Assembly.
I talked to two people in the Social Media and Communications Working Group to ask about the occupation’s IT strategy. The communications network of the occupation at the park itself is pretty ad hoc, or it was as of midweek. People admitted into that working group simply bring their own laptops and devices, and plug into the myriad of power strips connected to a single, gas-powered generator protected (and somewhat hidden from view) by a pile of jackets and tarps.
While I was there, four or more people at a time were continuously monitoring and updating Facebook, Twitter, and other feeds.
I went to Liberty Park in part to find out whether Occupy Wall Street is a Twitter or Facebook revolution. It is not. It’s a revolution that includes middle-class people who happen to be comfortable using consumer electronic devices in their daily lives. Occupiers throughout the park use cell phones, smartphones, netbooks, and laptops.
At early stages in some democratic uprisings in the Mideast, despots were notorious for attempting to shut down the Internet and the phone networks. I got no sense that corporate America was colluding to do that in Liberty Square. If it is happening, it wasn’t evident to me on the ground. The wheels of corporate commerce reach into the functions of the occupying community: videos upload to YouTube, FedEx makes deliveries to the Shipping and Inventory Working Group, the Finance Working Group issues prepaid debit cards to better control and account for expenditures.
The main website for the occupation is hosted outside the park, presumably somewhere safe from the elements.
For that matter, organizers and working groups met routinely outside the park. It struck me as particularly ironic that the NYPD did such a zealous job of keeping chanting protesters from marching down Wall Street itself, and yet — one by one and two by two — occupiers trickled past the barricades at Wall Street and Broadway, and other side streets, unmolested, on their way to low-key working group meetings at another public/private space, an atrium at Deutsche Bank headquarters, at 60 Wall Street.
Of course, the virtual town square extends far beyond Manhattan. Dave Winer’s blog is giving voice to many of the technology issues implicated by Occupy Wall Street. This is a very important post (every technologist should read it, I think) in which Dave talks about how our politics have become as commercialized as everything else in public life. Occupy Wall Street may not wear an overt critique of technology in our society, but it is of a piece with the recent and excellent critiques by Winer, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov.
I don’t know what the park is like in the middle of the night because I chose not to sleep there. But except for Tuesday, when I split my time to participate in the “Millionaires March” up Park Avenue, I spent the better part of my days in New York at Liberty Square.
Monday, Columbus Day and a school holiday, saw elementary school children there engaged in poster making and other activities. I saw many families, parents and kids of all ages, coming through and observing.
I’ve never witnessed or participated in a more earnest and wholesome manifestation of direct democracy. Much has been written about the lack of formal demands as a tactic, and a shrewd one at that. I worry, though, that such “praise” is overloaded with the Madison Avenue values that the movement seeks to subvert.
My own take is that the act of occupation is a performance, if you will, that invites citizens to reflect on the myriad ways in which our advertising-driven commercial and political life occupies our frames of reference and unduly influences our desires. The word itself, “occupation,” is brilliantly chosen, expressing both defiance and sovereignty.