“This,” I realized, “I’ve got to see.”
In and out of grass-roots politics my entire adult life, I’ve marched, demonstrated, phone-banked, written letters and e-mails, signed petitions, sold buttons, attended meetings, gone on the radio, made documentaries, and helped with organizational duties. Early this October, I had joined in one Occupy demonstration in Washington Square Park. But this combination flash mob and sit-in group camping out in downtown Manhattan embodied a revolutionary new tactic. I needed to check it out for myself.
I had time late on a Saturday afternoon. A friend was joining the Occupy demonstration in Times Square, which struck me as a terrible idea. Jam together protestors, cops, shoppers, tourists and your run-of-the-mill Saturday night drunks– as they say in the sitcoms, what could possibly go wrong? I decided to check out the General Assembly in Zuccotti Park instead.
The place wasn’t difficult to find– I just followed the tourists enthusing to each other about it. “We’re from Red Hook– where’re you from?” “Sweden!” I arrived at the park– really little more than a square– at about 7 p.m.– to find it strangely quiet. A couple of families stood on the outskirts, the parents explaining the scene to their children. Before us stretched a low-built landscape of blocks of undefined objects covered with plastic tarps. A walkway wound through it. The General Assembly meeting quietly echoed through the air via the Human Microphone.
At the edge of the park, a sixtyish man in a loud tie held up a sign with some dollar bills stapled to it; the sign reminded us that human beings are more important than these little pieces of paper. We fell into conversation; turns out he was a former Wall Street employee. “Lots of us were horrified at what was going on,” he told me. He indicated the encampment behind him. “I love this, I love this place, I come here every night. Nobody here is advocating anarchy– we just want reasonable regulation of the system.”
I stepped into the park itself, making my way along the path. Little signs designated the Library, the Media Center, the First Aid station, the desk for Spanish speakers, the kitchen at the heart of the encampment. The light from little electronic devices provided the park’s sole illumination. The Occupiers posted at their desks might have been alien creatures, their upper bodies naturally inclined forward, their faces radiating a quiet blue-white glow.
At the area designated The Library, I saw a petite young woman doing some cataloguing. “Excuse me,” I said, “Are you the librarian?” “Yes!” she replied, with the brisk enthusiasm of librarians everywhere. Something occurred to me. “Do you need more books?” “Always!” she beamed at me. “Excellent,” I said, “I’ll bring some.” As I continued down the path, I mentally selected two volumes to contribute: a thick short story collection given to me by a 90 year-old friend, a lifelong political activist who’d spent the last decade in rage and disappointment over her country’s descent into oligarchy, and a novel given to me by a well-to-do friend whose husband works as a CFO.
At a makeshift little photo studio, a smiling woman was taking a portrait of a little boy proudly beaming as he held a sign identifying himself as “One of the 99%.” As I continued, I noticed that the flower beds, mounds of little orange and white blossoms, bloomed pristine and untouched. Nobody had trampled the flowers; as far as I could tell, no one had even picked any of them.
Near a food truck with flashing lights, a middle-aged professor type informed a small group of younger people about Article Five of the US Constitution, and how a Constitutional Amendment could overturn the Citizens United decision. The kids offered theories, questions and suggestions.
As I made my way through the encampment, I thought about the people I knew who’d been devastated by the economic collapse. A single mother and former dancer now hobbled by arthritis, who lost her job and then her home, and bounced from city to city and friend to friend in search of a stable situation. A friend whose home business as an independent accountant had evaporated; she lost her apartment too. Last I heard, she was sleeping on the couch of her sister’s ex-boyfriend; the sister had moved in with her current boyfriend, having lost her job and apartment as well. And I thought about the super-rich people I’d encountered in my life — some friendly, generous and well-adjusted, a few in a constant state of defensive hostility, as if bewildered that their wealth brought them no peace, security or fulfillment at all.
The General Assembly continued, endless details about endless points of procedure repeated and repeated in waves of sound for and by the patient participants. This, I thought, is what you call dedication.
As I started home, I made eye contact with a young cop, said I was surprised at how quiet this whole operation was. With that defensive/derisive demeanor of the rigid and challenged, he huffed, “You should see Times Square.”
“Something happen there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “Times Square.”
The video of the Commander pepper-spraying a couple of young demonstrators had been all over the Internet the past couple of days. “I’m surprised there was any friction between the police and the demonstrators at all,” I said, “I’ve been in countless demonstrations here where the cops had been nothing but professional.” (This was true. Before Homeland Security militarized our local police forces, the NYPD genially patrolled the edges of any demonstration I’d ever been to, directed traffic, and, I’m guessing, whiled away the hours mentally calculating and spending their overtime.)
The young cop seemed surprised. “Well, thanks!” he said. I told him I’d heard about the Times Square march, and thought that the population mix was a really really bad idea. He finally looked me directly. “Don’t go to Times Square,” he cautioned. “Naw,” I said, “I’m too old to get arrested.” He nearly cracked a smile.
An extremely stoned-looking young guy stumbled up to us, his face smeared with dirt, his eyes bloodshot and bleary, his hair swirling up in little greasy peaks. He looked like Sean Astin in those Hobbit movies, assuming the Hobbit had just staggered out of an opium den. The little stoner extended the bottom half of a cardboard box, in which lay a handful of dirty coins and a few grimy dollar bills. “Excuse me, miss, do you need any money?” he asked.
“No, I’m OK, thanks,” I said.
“Then could you donate something?” he asked.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t have much cash on me.”
Incredibly, he turned to the cop. “How about you, you need any money?”
“No,” said the cop, “I’m good.”
We watched the young guy wobble away, and exchanged raised eyebrows and suppressed smiles.
Finally realizing that the cop had probably been instructed not to engage with the public, I said “Good night” and headed off. He took a step forward and reached out to me with his hand, as if to make sure I heard his message: “You have a good night,” he said.
Ten days later, I met some Occupiers as they joined a demonstration in which I was participating, to demand the restoration of St. Vincent’s Hospital. The previous night, the Oakland police had fractured the skull of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen during a confrontation there the New York Occupy demonstration expressing solidarity with him monopolized the press.
A couple of weeks later, the books I was planning to donate waited at the edge of my desk. I went to the Occupy website, as I’d been doing every night since my visit, and was horrified to see the message about the police ambush clearing the place out. I stayed up all night riveted to WBAI, as their reporter remained on the air till his cell phone batteries ran out.
How could this be happening? How could these mild-mannered, cheerfully determined people be roughed up and rousted out like vermin from an attic? How could it be a greater crime to pitch a tent in a park than to crash the world financial system?
I wondered if the young cop I’d met had taken part in the ambush. Did he attack the former Wall Street clerk or the cute little librarian? Was he one of those who ripped down the library and tossed her precious books onto a trash pile? The professor and the kids discussing the Constitution, were they dragged out of their sleep and roughed up as well? And that harmless little Hobbit kid– I couldn’t imagine him moving fast enough to protect himself.
I grew up in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, where I heard police officers brag about how many demonstrators they’d beaten in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention; I later lived over an alley that served as a drug market, where I watched the police beat people up for fun. Spent a couple years in Los Angeles during the regime of Crazy Ed Davis, the police commissioner who occasionally bulldozed the wrong house in his crusade against drug dealers.
I couldn’t imagine Michael Bloomberg, Mayor Mom, the man who scolds us to Watch Our Salt Intake and Put Out That Cigarette, directing his force to indulge in this kind of preposterous overkill. I don’t like thinking about police brutality at all. I’d rather think about the time that the Chicago police rescued me from a notorious stalker of journalists, about the L.A. cops who grew up with my boyfriend, pulled out the bullhorns outside my place one morning and demanded, “Come on out, Gary– we know you’re in there!”. I’d rather think about the cop in upstate New York whose voice I remember saying “I don’t want to wait,” after I was seriously injured in a car accident, and who held me steady in the front seat of the squad car as he sped to the emergency room.
During the 2004 Republican Convention arrests introducing the harsher tactics against protestors, I only met friendly and accommodating cops while reporting a Convention story. But it’s necessary if difficult to accept that those people in the dark blue uniforms, who are generally employed to keep traffic moving the right way and drag the abusive husband off his battered wife, are sometimes ordered to betray their own class and interests, to preserve and protect the one per cent.
I wondered if, someday, some self-serving politician pushes through spending cuts to avoid imposing a couple of additional tax dollars on his corporate donors, and those spending cuts cost the young cop his job, it will occur to him that that those wool-hatted characters with the blue-white glowing faces, the librarians and the clerks and the law professors and the little stoners, camped out before him in Zuccotti Park, were doing it for him.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Christine Nieland graduated from Northwestern University. She has worked as a filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and story editor in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. She worked as a staff writer for the late Chicago Daily News, and her work has appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered news broadcast, Esquire and other publications. Her stage plays have been presented at the Quaigh Theatre, the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Summer workshop, the Pearl and WPA Theatre companies. Her play NINETEEN MEN was named a finalist for the 2008 O’Neill Theatre Conference. She currently works as a writer, researcher and story analyst for RHI Entertainment, and in her spare time, she’s a figure skater.