Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park: A Record from Tuesday, October 11

I took the following twenty-eight photographs on Tuesday, October 11 in Zuccotti Park in preparation for my third blog post on the Occupy Wall Street movement [OWS] although this was my first visit to the protesters' actual encampment.  Zuccotti Park sits a few blocks north of Wall Street and one block north of New York's National Historic Landmark Trinity Church, a Gothic Revival building designed by architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846.

Zucotti Park is a block long rectangle bordered on its east by Broadway, west by Trinity Place, north by Liberty Street, and south by Cedar Street.  Being located just a few blocks east of the World Trade Center Towers, the park--then named Liberty Plaza Park--was in need of repairs after 9/11.   The fact that at this moment it serves as the camp site for the OWS protesters is fitting, in that it also served as the staging area for the emergency operations following the 9/11 disaster.

The park had been a private park ever since 1968, when it was built by the US Steel Corp., whose building flanks its north edge. When it was redesigned and reopened in June, 2006, it was named after John Zuccotti, the chairman of Brookfield Properties, as they were the new owners of what had been the US Steel building.

We all can thank Mr. Zuccotti for generously allowing the OWS protesters to use this private park.  He has been an important public servant for decades and has been quoted as saying "my heart is in this city."  Appropriately, given the Park's present function as a place of refuge for people, many who are here from other parts of the country and the world,  at its rededication ceremony of 2006 then-Governor Pataki spoke these words:  "The park has been re-imagined as an urban oasis, and just like the new Lower Manhattan, it too will be vibrant day and night with 500 twinkling lights making the park a welcoming space for workers, residents, and visitors."  Little did he realize how bright those lights would twinkle and how special they would be!

I present twenty-eight photographs taken in Zuccotti Park, organized roughly in terms of three broad subject areas: one being the Broadway edge of the park, its most public side, and some other interactions with the city beyond its perimeter;   another being the individual people who are camping there as protesters;   and a third being some examples of the activities and organization within the campsite itself.  However, my comments that appear below each photograph won't expand so much on these three subject areas.  Instead, they will interpret a specific aspect found within the photographs--each a specific document of this day, Tuesday, May 11, 2011--as a way to connect them to the broader condition of our country.  I encourage you to read these entries piecemeal, image by image; they needn't be read as a single document, in one sitting.

Zuccotti Park: Keith, Get used to it

Keith came to New York six days earlier from North Dakota.  He left his job selling cars to join New York protests.  His inspiration were social news websites like; after spending the good part of two days on them, he packed up and left home (but he says that he will be allowed to return to his job).  For an example of the sort of commentary that he may have been watching on those two days, see this post from reddit politics.

Keith's sign is priceless, an acknowledgement of a major criticism of OWS, and yet, one of its strengths. What do these protesters want? What are they after? The answer seems at once everything and nothing. They want decent jobs, living wages, safe homes, clean air and water, good schools, affordable public transportation, you name it.  Theirs is a call for simple human dignity.

In the words of Van Jones of the American Dream movement, they may lack "message clarity," but they have an abundance of "moral clarity."  Watch this wonderful ad, less than thirty seconds, which offers an overview of what OWS wants.

But then, maybe now the time has come to present some specific demands, as Matt Taibbi writes in the most recent Rolling Stone
, and he proposes five short, powerful ones.  I encourage you to read his article.

Zuccotti Park: Justin at the Info Desk on Broadway

Anyone walking north on Broadway will first encounter this OWS information desk.  Justin, in the red cap, is talking to pedestrians and offering literature, including issues of the newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal.  He came from Michigan to participate in this event and is a graduate of the University of Michigan.

Hovering above him is a mock-up of a predator drone with a paper sign naming it Unmanned Assassination Vehicle.  It was put up by anti-war activists, although I was unable to find out who, in particular, did this, except for locating a group named AttaX which has a (musical?) piece with this name and a possible connection to an internet personality and early podcaster named Adam Curry.

The use of the word "assassination" in the name clearly contradicts official US policy in regard to the drones, in that the Administration has argued that drone strikes agains Al Qaeda and its allies are lawful military actions and fall under the general principle self-defense.  Therefore, their targeted killings are not "assassinations."  But then, in contradiction to this argument, in April the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated that drones could be used to "assassinate" Colonel Gadaffi.  So much for cooperative allies!

Zuccotti Park, Broadway Line-up: Mark, Ryan and Scott

Pedestrians walking up-and-down Broadway will encounter quite a few protesters standing with signs, fairly quietly but always ready to engage in a discussion. Mark (to the left, looking down) is from Riverside, CA and holds a sign saying "Tax Wall St. Transactions."  He has a PhD in Philosophy and had taught at a charter school until he was let go for lack of any union protections and with no warning.   Ryan (in the center) is from Asheville, NC, and his sign reads "End the wars--End the Fed (two simple ways to fix the economy)." He is a student at the University of North Carolina.  Scott is a student from Philadelphia and only came up for the day.  His sign reads "Capitalism is a religion that makes Satan a God."  Typical of the OWS protesters, these are thoughtful, intelligent and sincere fellows.

Ryan's sign on ending our wars, thus fixing our economy, may sound too simplistic.  However, the cost of our wars since 9/11 is at least $3.7 trillion and it could easily reach $4.4 trillion.  Under half of that sum would have sufficed to upgrade and modernize all of our infrastructure problems: aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, national energy power grid, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, railroads, roads, schools, solid waste, transit systems, and wastewater.  This, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has given America a grade of "D" on its infrastructures.

Zucotti Park: Henry Ford on our Banking System, Myles

Myles is an "IT-guy" from Queens and comes down to volunteer his time for the cause.  His quotation from Henry Ford hints at the longer history behind the criminal disregard for people within our banking system.  This, alone, ought to call into question the deregulation of that industry that has taken place over that past thirty years and has been promoted, in particular but not solely, by our Republican politicians.

But we could go back even farther in our history for insightful warnings about banks.  Thomas Jefferson, in the 1809 debate over the re-charter of the Bank Bill said:  "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies."  A century later, Theodore Roosevelt said that "The issue of currency protected from domination by Wall Street.  We are opposed to...provisions [which] would place our currency and credit system in private hands."

But, alas, what contemporary Republican can resist privatizing any moving body under the sun?  And so, we come to today's fiscal and economic crisis, fueled by the greed of Wall Street bankers.  Even J. Edgar Hoover realized the danger when, in 1955, he wrote, "Banks are an almost irresistible attraction for that element of our society which seeks unearned money."

Zuccotti Park: Devon, Read the Bible

Devon came up from Jersey City, NJ and already had been in New York for five days.  He came when he saw the video of a senior police officer pepper spraying two women who were talking to a representative of Democracy Now and were properly standing behind the orange netting of the police lines.  His sign asks "right wing politicians" to read the Bible and "follow its teachings!"  He then quotes from 1 John, 3:17 to illustrate the hypocrisy of many of the religious right: "If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim to love God?

Even if religious placards hardly dominate the signs at OWS, many commentators have noted a religious dimension to the movement.  Marisa Egerstrom, a PhD candidate in American Religious History at Harvard observes that the democratic society that OWS is promoting "sounds pretty Christian to me. What the early Apostles called 'The Way'...repudiates the pursuit of individual wealth in favor of building communities that care for the marginalized, the desperate and the powerless. Jesus demonstrated this by healing lepers and dining with prostitutes and tax collectors."  Others have made similar associations.

Zuccotti Park: Aly's Coffee, et. al.

Moving on to a few examples of what I call "other interactions with the city beyond," here we see the Cedar Street edge of Zuccotti Park lined with food kiosks from early morning until late afternoon: Aly's Coffee, Halal, Sam's Falafel, Smoothie and even two upstate farmers familiar to local farmer's markets, Migliorelli Farms and Pick of New York have set up tents to provide the demonstrators with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Free enterprise is alive and well, even in Zuccotti Park!

Rising above the kiosks in the background are two neo-Gothic office buildings built between 1904-07, the Trinity building and the US Realty Building.

Zuccotti Park: Chris watches as Anthony plays chess with a passer-by

Chris, from Long Beach, CA watches as his friend Anthony, from Philadelphia, plays chess with a New Yorker who had passed through the park.  This was just one of many examples of local office workers, residents, and tourists engaging with the demonstrators in their encampment.

Zuccotti Park: Construction Workers on lunch break on Cedar Street 

Workers from a nearby construction site sit on the granite wall defining the southern edge of Zuccotti Park.  Behind them can be seen some of the fifty-four honey locusts that were part of the 2006 remaking of the park and that provide the campers with the comfort of shade and protection from the elements.

Although these workers have their backs to the Park interior, many others were interacting with the demonstrators elsewhere.  Although initially skeptical about the young demonstrators, the construction workers have been won over to their support.  One worker was quoted as saying, "You are our future, and I will march with you!"  Another remarked, "'We are the 99%' is pretty f**ng genius," in regard to the main motto for OWS.  A third added, "Thank you for sparking the labor movement...and for showing us how to do it."

The most powerful endorsement of all, however, might be the first several minutes of this YouTube video of several thoughtful, and eloquent construction workers--clearly a part of the 99%.

Zuccotti Park: Kitchen

Inside, the Park may at first appear chaotic, but soon its organization becomes apparent.  Located in the center is the Kitchen, serving free food donated from various organizations, from local restaurants, and from individual, local donations at collection jars within the Park itself. Thousands are fed daily, and seemingly smoothly, even without a centralized acquisition system, nor on-site ovens or refrigerators.  As Michael Kimmelman has written in the New York Times, the demonstrators "have devised their own form of leaderless governance....[and] the governing process they choose is itself a bedrock message of the protest."

Zuccotti Park: The People's Library

The Library, which takes up about half of the Liberty Street edge of the park and makes use of its granite wall and bench structure to serve as shelving, contains donated books on nearly all subjects, including a children's book section.

Zuccotti Park: Occupation Status Board

Posted near a locust tree is a large cardboard sheet noting that this is day 25, indicating the weather predictions, cautioning what should not be done, noting required "quiet hours" (10:00 pm-8:00 am), other important regulations and events, and updates on kindred movements in other cities around the world.  Nearby is a "Comfort Center" stocked with donated clothing, bedding, toothpaste, deodorant, all free for the taking.

Zuccotti Park: Drum Circle

At the western edge of the Park, facing Trinity Place and taking advantage of the steps that lead up into the Park from that side to form a convenient amphitheater,  drummers and other musicians entertain themselves and a gathering crowd.  At times, celebrity entertainers have joined them.

Zuccotti Park: Dancers

Festive music and a heavy beat entertain the gathering crowd as several of the "campers" perform an ecstatic dance.  One holds a sign that admonishes us:  "You weren't afraid to dance as a baby."  

In the background can be seen the black structural steel frame of the original US Steel Building, designed by the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and built in 1972.  Its site was that of the former Singer Building designed by Ernest Flagg; when completed in 1908, this was briefly the tallest building in the world.

Zuccotti Park: Sacred Space and Tree of Life

The single London plane tree, encircled by a granite bench, occupies the north-west corner of the Park.  The demonstrators have christened this their sacred space with an altar full of offerings surrounding the base of the tree.  Their intention is hardly pagan, and the concept of the tree of life, found in so many mythologies, appropriately conveys the idea that all life on earth is related.

Just out of the picture is a bronze sculpture, entitled Double Check, of a life-sized, seated man looking into his briefcase.  It is a work by the New Jersey artist, J. Seward Johnson.  Thus, at least one (inanimate) Wall Street type businessman sits among the demonstrators who are trying to change his ways.  And so, within the compass of the "tree of life" the 1% and the 99% also unite.

Zuccotti Park: Greedozer and Company, detail

Zuccotti Park: Greedozer and Company, view from behind

Zuccotti Park: Greedozer and Company, front view

Greedozer, the embodiment of human greed and industrial disregard for our environment, is the invention of the Australian performance artist, Benny Zable.  He has been using some version of this figure to protest around the world ever since the early 1970s.  Silently, as a mime, he stands, then slowly turns to reveal his full message:  "There are no jobs on a dead planet."

Assuming the form of Greedozer, Zable encourages his audience to "work, consume, be silent."  He relies on our apathy to achieve his goal of making earth a dead planet.  On the back of his black robe he informs us that we have chosen extinction.  

This is a powerful piece of performance art.  Too bad our politicians continue to approve drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal, factory farming, greenhouse gas emissions, ever increasing consumption and growth, private modes of transportation and the many other things that jeopardize our earth but increase the wealth of the individuals and industries that lobby Congress and serve Greeedozer hourly.

Zuccotti Park: Stephen

Stephen, as his sign makes perfectly clear, can't afford a lobbyist.  Luckily,  he could afford to fly to New York for five days to participate in OWS.  He arrived from Minneapolis and was inspired to come to New York in his words, "to go to the heart of the beast."  His moment of inspiration was Steve Jobs, not his untimely death, but his words about living:  "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

Zuccotti Park: Charlie

Charlie came to New York from Arkansas, claiming to have been inspired by the Transit Workers Union. His message asks our leaders to activate their conscience.

Zuccotti Park: Chris (in tank top)

I found Chris working at the Info Desk in the northwest corner of the Park.  He came from New Jersey, has been with OWS for seven days, and says that he will stay "indefinitely."  The energy and dedication of these kids is wonderful, as is their discipline to remain calm and focused.

For example, Chris told me about an encounter with a Tea Partier who was attempting to foment trouble, but he and others simply laughed at the man, rather than engage him in a challenging way.  Their mirth increased when the man tried to tell them that Eisenhower was not a Republican, and he apparently went off to find other, more gullible, victims.

Zuccotti Park: Media Center, Colin

Colin was one of several workers at the Media Center, which has computers powered by generators.  He comes from Connecticut, is interested in journalism, and claims to have been with OWS for seventeen days.

Zuccotti Park: Herbie, OWS to SCOTUS

Herbie lives near Albany, NY, and comes down to volunteer for several days at a time.  This was his third trip to New York to work with OWS.  His sign is a message from OWS to the Supreme Court of the United States, its logic clear except within the Wonderland that seems to have turned our Supreme Court topsy-turvy: "Corporations are not persons," and "money is not speech."

We all know about the Citizens United v. FEC case, to which his first statement about corporations refers.  But the Roberts' court has come out with several other decisions that would seem to be giving corporations free rein to completely handcuff workers and individuals.  Wal-Mart v. Dukes, essentially says that there can be no class-action suits, that some companies are just too big to sue; so does AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  Then, going further through the looking glass, in Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, the Supreme Court essentially has allowed large financial companies to produce false prospectuses and lie to clients with impunity, simply by doing so through dummy corporations.

As Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate in July of this year, "the Supreme Court is giving corporate America a handbook on how to engage in misconduct."  Ralph Nader, in a scathing analysis of this most "activist" [my word] Supreme Court ever, whose majority is completely beholden to big business, concludes an article entitled "The Corporate Supreme Court" (July 18, 2011) with these words:  "Never have I urged impeachment of Supreme Court justices.  I do so now, for the sake of ending the Supreme Court's corporate-judicial dictatorship that is not accountable under our system of checks and balance in any other way."

Zuccotti Park: Just waking up, Kaley

Kaley, in her fake fur boa, arrived the previous night from Sarasota, FL, along with twenty-five other students from the New College of Florida.  They all decided to come to volunteer with OWS during their Fall Break.  Now, isn't that a change from college students using their break to party in Ft. Lauderdale!

Zuccotti Park: Rae and friends

Rae, the gal in the center with her head turned down to her right, came from Michigan for a few days with the blessings, so she says, of her professors.  her sign reveals the disillusion of so many of our youth:  "They call it the American Dream--you have to be asleep to believe it.  WAKE UP."  

Zuccotti Park: Library Reference Desk, Sam

Sam, who is working the People's Library Reference Desk, has been helping OWS for the past five days.  he arrived from Pennsylvania in order "to be productive," since, in his words, "America today has no work for people."

Of course there's no work for Sam and millions of others.  Senate Republicans have blocked the American Jobs Act and won't allow it to go forward in the Senate, even though it would likely have led to the creation of 2 million new jobs.  And House Republicans, after claiming to be in favor of infrastructure investments, blocked the Infrastructure Investment Plan.  Sorry, Sam, you may have to stay in Zuccotti park a while longer, but you're in good company.

Zuccotti Park: Paul

Paul, who was a veteran and served in Iraq, came down from New Hampshire, although he first volunteered for one day in Chicago and then in Boston.  He says that he will remain in New York "for the duration."  His sign captures many of the uncommitted of the 99%, and he becomes their surrogate: those who can't, those who won't, and those who are too afraid.

Zuccotti Park: The Undocumented

The undocumented may well be among those too afraid to protest, so Paul can serve as their surrogate.  What are we to do when some of us legislate against others.  Alabama is seeing Hispanic students disappearing from school rosters, too scared to attend classes.  It is losing Hispanic farm workers for the same reason, threatening to lead to millions of dollars lost in unharvested crops.  Michelle Bachmann has pledged to build a double fence the entire length of our border with Mexico; so has Herman Cain, an electrified fence twenty feet high that can kill, topped with barbed wire, and guarded by military troops.  Won't that be beautiful!   South Carolina, Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia are all calling for Big Brother Government to check immigration status, as is the Tea Party in Texas.

These people are part of us.  They are part of the 99%. How pathetically shameful we have become!

Zuccotti Park: When Texas Executes One

Among the many signs waiting for a march is the one in the center distance: "I'll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one."  More shame on our wonderful country.  Texas Governor Rick Perry has been in office eleven years and has allowed 234 executions to take place.  This number is more than executions in the next two states, not in eleven years, but in the thirty-five years since the death penalty was restored in our country.  Those two other states, California and Florida, even have larger "death row" populations than Texas.

Given the fact that Texas has spent $700 million on those executions, we must question Perry's claim to being a fiscal conservative.  We already know that he isn't a compassionate conservative!

Zuccotti Park: Sleeping Inside
If you are counting, you know this is photograph 29 (out of my stated 28).  It was taken by my friend, Leslie Wagner, who sent it to me with the following poem that she wrote. I thought that her poem was the perfect way to conclude this post, and so it is the companion to this twenty-ninth image:

the park

trees and flags

trunks and poles

for catapulting and leaning on

for belongings

like friends

leaves falling, now, my bed

a blanket of stars

and stripes

this park to sleep in


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  2. Thank you, Tyko. You are right. The question of "What they want?" seems to me so blind to what is so obvious. The very presence of the people is a powerful statement of the first three words of the Constitution "We the people" that have been forgotten by the big businesses and politicians. We the people are so invisible that our very existence is reduced to some numbers of demands, as if once they are clear, we can disappear, and the only corporations stand as real persons. How alienated this is? Where is the humanity?