Yesterday morning I spent a few hours at #occupywallstreet. It seems a bit silly – to drive more than two thousand kilometers over a weekend and only spend a few minutes at the ground zero of the occupy movement, but for complex reasons and the fact I was travelling with a dozen others, this is what was possible for me.
Even in such a short time, I was able to gather some significant impressions. The first thing I noticed was that the park where the protestors are located is very small – significantly smaller than St. James park in Toronto where the occupy movement is centred here. The park is covered with tents, but I’d say that in general the Toronto site is more impressive – more developed food tent, more shelter, more tents, more space. But, the impressiveness of the site itself is not the point of the occupy movement – the fact is that occupation has been going on much longer (since sept 27th, not oct 15th), and their general assemblies are much larger than ours (although I did not actually get to attend one).
The protest is right in the centre of New York. That might not mean much to someone who hasn’t been to New York, but I’ll try to give you an idea. The park is literally right next to the World Trade Centre site. Across the street from the tents, is the construction site of the WTC memorial, and the new “Freedom” tower being built there. Right next to the park is that little church and ancient cemetery which you probably saw in the twin towers disaster TV coverage. Right above the park is the famous “fancy” Mcdonalds which has a Piano and table service. In other words, it’s in the heart of the wealth and power of America – we say “Wall Street”, but it could as easily be called Occupy Financial District, or even Occupy WTC. The protest there looks and feels out of place – it’s not the part of NY where you’d expect to see activists.
This might be obvious, but protest has become a tourist attraction. Up along the right side of the park (looking uphill, I’m not sure about the compass coordinates) there is a walkway divided off from the tents so people can walk up and down the sidewalk. Along the walkway are various food vendors. There are photographers everywhere, usually not “real” photographers but tourists wearing overpriced point and shoot cameras around their necks. People there find this a bit obnoxious. In one conversation, some students who had come down from Chicago for one night and the general assembly decided to start talking to people taking photographs – not so much to tell them to stop, but to engage them in conversation. Because, as they recognized, these people are the 99% and their experiences at occupy wall street will filter back to their friends and their communities, so everyone there is the face of the movement. Several conversations I had there worked along the theme of trying to see past conflict, trying even to see the police as not essentially anyone’s enemy, at least not insofar as they are individuals. People were also in agreement, however, when I pointed out that the institution of the police encourages a kind of in-group loyalty which is expressed in the way the police tend to protect each other when they commit crimes, and that this isn’t an accident but actually an essential part of how a police force operates.
What struck me most about the people I met there was the sense that it truly was a representation of “average” americans. I realize I will take flak for saying this, but at other occupy sites I’ve visited there is a sense that what you are seeing there is the local protest/activist-class all uniting on a piece of land, and talking to each other. And that’s great – that’s an important thing to happen – for people who have causes to have a place where they can go and meet each other and support each other. But what I saw in NY was something a bit different, not people who are pushed to the margins of society by their beliefs and causes, but people right in the middle of the American social norms – both middle and working class people who believe their government shouldn’t be owned by the financial sector, who think taxes are essentially something good, and who think everyone deserves a decent life with decent work and respect. Also, I met mostly people with very normal social skills – really people who are not especially marginalized by the system, but who believe the system is unjust to the point where something has to be done about it.
Perhaps this reflects the extremity of the situation in America. It really is much worse there than here – and I don’t think this means we shouldn’t occupytoronto, but I do think it means that the occupation here might mean something a bit different, a bit more of a defence of the bits of sanity that still exists in our government, and a bit less of the need to attack the neo-liberalization which has already taken over the United States. That said, if the inequality in Canada continues to rise at the current rate, it won’t be long before we have a very similar situation here as there.