Not an ending, a beginning: notes on Occupy Wall Street

OWS General assembly

In the past few weeks friends and family from around the country have asked me, with a deep urgency in their tone: ‘What is it like to be there? What does it feel like? How would you describe it?’ These questions throw me because, like any project of describing life as it happens around you, when you are very much in it, it feels impossible sometimes. And so instead of describing what Occupy Wall Street feels like I say: ‘It is all happening so fast, it changes everyday, it is overwhelming, I am tired but I am also excited again, I’ve made new friends, new lovers and new enemies, I couldn’t have imagined my life would be like this a month ago.’

When I said this to my friend Amy last week she laughed and replied, half-jokingly: ‘That sounds like the start of the revolution.’

‘Not yet,’ I replied, ‘but we’re trying.’

But my inability to answer this question has been nagging at me: Why is it so hard to describe what it feels like to be part of this movement that is not really a movement, this moment, this space? Maybe the fact that it is hard to describe is part of its strength?

Here is the thing: Occupy Wall Street has changed a lot over the past two weeks. It has grown tremendously, garnered more and more media attention and seems to be staying put for a while. While two weeks ago I walked away from Liberty Plaza thinking of how beautiful and inspiring it was, but also worried about how long it will be there, now the terrain of questions have shifted, it isn’t: When will the cops kick us out? but How will we grow? How do we sustain all the people that have come here? Should we occupy somewhere else too? That doesn’t mean that the cops getting rid of us isn’t still a major concern, but simply that now we feel like we are semi-established in some ways, or at least in enough ways that we can sustain something.

That said, on Friday I realized how much I have grown attached to the actual space of Zucotti Park when we were threatened with eviction by Brookfield Properties, the private real estate company who owns the park. That day I woke up at 3am and made my way over to the park, anxious and deeply sad that it might all be over. Arriving at the park I saw friends, old and new, and we hugged in the chilly pre-dawn air, ‘I don’t want to lose all of this’ I kept saying over and over again. ‘We won’t,’ they replied, ‘and even if we do we’ll build it somewhere else.’

We didn’t lose on Friday morning, and the feeling of being surrounded by thousands of people willing to stay in the park, refusing to back down even if the cops threatened arrest was powerful beyond what I can express here. The moment made me realize that the way that I feel about all this, and the way I talk about it, has shifted. All of a sudden I am using personal pronouns – this is ‘our’ movement, ‘we’ are worried about the cops kicking us out. I don’t know when this happened but at some point I started feeling some sense of ownership over this movement. And I’ve started calling it a movement. I’ve started saying things I never thought I would , things like ‘in the movement …’

OWS residents

As I wrote in my last post, I still think OWS is more of a space than a movement, a space of radical possibility, but I also think it is becoming something else. It is a space, but it is also a moment: a moment in which radical critique of our political and economic systems and the harm they have caused, a critique that many of us have had for a while, feels possible to have on a larger scale. It is a moment in which people who never thought they would be out on the streets protesting are protesting. And this is revolutionary in itself.

So what does it feel like to be part of Occupy Wall Street, to be there everyday almost? In some ways it has become an addiction, I wake up some mornings telling myself that today I won’t go by, that today I will take the day off and go back to being a graduate student. But somehow I find myself there, either to go to a working group meeting, a working group sub-committee meeting, to attend a training, to go on a smaller march, to see a performance, to hear and be a part of what is being discussed in General Assembly that night, or just to hang out at the margins and observe what is happening for a few minutes. There is the celebrity watching aspect to being in that space, as all the leftist intellectuals and left-leaning pop culture icons make their stop-by (a conversation I had with a friend: ‘I saw Deepak Chopra last night’, ‘well I saw Talib Kweli tonight’ someone else chimes in: ‘Neutral Milk Hotel a week ago was my favorite’).

But this is not what is addictive about being there. What is addictive about being there is that this space, this moment, this movement, suddenly has me thinking about things in a new way. It suddenly has me hopeful again. And it has me excited to think about my own, and all of our, potentialities and possibilities. Everything feels possible again. I never thought I would feel this way.

And I’m not the only one – like I said above, I’ve made new friends, good friends, friends all of a sudden I can’t imagine my life without. And I’ve made the occasional new enemy, the kind of enemies that you see at smile and nod at but know that you share different theoretical views, different personal views, different perspectives. This enemies are necessary too for without them the space wouldn’t be what it is: a place of frustration sometimes but yet hope and expectation too.

But what does everyday life look like at OWS? This is hard to describe because it changes depending on what time of day you are there, what day of the week it is, what the weather is like, who is there, what is happening there. It can seem both incredibly chaotic yet incredibly organised. It can seem underwhelming yet overwhelming. Sometimes it seems like just a bunch of people standing around holding signs or sometimes it looks like groups of people milling about, sitting on the stairs, on the ground, sleeping on top of tarps. But look more closely: what these people are actually doing, what this space is actually doing, is shifting the terrain of our imaginations. These bodies in this space are inherently challenging.

More pragmatically though: You can hear OWS before you see it now. If it is during the evening General Assembly, which can last for hours, you can hear the voice of hundreds of people talking in unison, amplifying one person’s words so that everyone can hear them – the General Assembly has grown so much in the past two weeks that now the ‘People’s Microphone’ needs 2 and sometimes 3 waves through the crowd so that everyone knows what is going on. I get chills every time I see this process in action – something about the way it makes everyone listen, repeat and really take on what someone is saying. You can also hear the drum circle on the west side of the square that has hundreds of people playing in it, dancing around it, the rhythm they make bounces off the walls of the office towers around the square and reverberates throughout the square. And above all this you can hear the general din of hundreds of people in one space together: talking, debating, arguing, or just sitting with friends and being in that space together. Every time I bike towards Occupy Wall Street, dodging cars and buses and taxis on Broadway, my heart starts beating a little faster when I hear this din, I start biking faster and I can’t wait to just be there. To hear what is being discussed in that night’s General Assembly, to meet my friends, to attend a meeting or just to wander through and see what there is to see, make a new sign, or browse through a book in the library, eat something from the food station or just generally observe the beautifully overwhelming spectacle of it all.

A few nights ago I was there around 10pm when it was drizzling and everyone was getting under their tarps and sleeping bags and settling in for the night. I was with a friend from out of town who is trying to start up Occupy New Orleans. She is also a street medic, so we made our way over to the medic’s station, someplace I have only wandered by but never stopped at. The medic’s station is impressive in that you can smell it before you see it: it smells of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol. And indeed while we were standing outside of it they were disinfecting and washing down their entire area, scrubbing the concrete and all the surfaces clean. The medic we spoke to was slow speaking and one of the calmest people I have ever met.

‘Oh yeah we’ve had to deal with some serious stuff,’ he said, ‘but this is one of the best teams I’ve come across.’ He went on to describe how they had doctors and nurses on call, a whole team of street medics at all times, as well as access to low-cost or free clinics in the neighborhood. He offered help to Occupy New Orleans in whatever way he could, and together they brainstormed supplies and ways that OWS might be able to help.

Thinking about this moment of solidarity and support while winding our way out of the park around all these tarps with people’s feet poking out at the bottom of them made my heart swell for a moment. When I got home I joked to my roommate: ‘If you get sick, go to OWS, they have better free healthcare there then anywhere.’

And in part this is the point: that OWS is such a challenge to the state because it is, in many ways, functioning by itself. It is governing itself, it is feeding itself, it is making art, making music, reading a book, sitting on the steps and talking to friends, it is taking care of itself. This is radically different than a march or a rally, which have ending points. I realized this last week when after the big Wednesday march (which my friend Sonny writes about), I got drinks with some friends, and we all sat around and talked both about how amazing the march was but then we also asked the inevitable question of ‘What’s next?’ And as this question was being asked, I realized that it was the wrong question for OWS. It is the wrong question for a few reasons: because when we are reproducing everyday life we don’t need to ask ‘What’s next?’ because this question is already answered. But it is also the wrong question because in a movement without leaders and without demands, the question isn’t ‘What’s next?’ but rather: ‘What do I want to do next?’

Wall Street occupation

The next day on the subway coming home from another evening at OWS (7pm General Assembly and then an awesome dinner from the food station: beans and rice and pizza and apples and ice cream and salad and macaroni and cheese. While in the food line someone came and made everyone sanitize their hands and then passed out plates and I felt so well-taken care of for a moment), the people I was with asked each other exactly this question: what do we want to see happen here, in this movement, in this space? The answers were varied: Z. wanted there to be more occupations, C. wanted there to be walking tours of banks, A. wanted more dancing and singing, I wanted to re-write the declaration. This moment felt so different than the night before, and this difference matters because it is the difference between endings and beginnings.

Occupy Wall Street is not an ending, it is a beginning.

Cross-posted on In Front and Centre.

Manissa McCleave Maharawal

More by Manissa McCleave Maharawal ›

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  1. As someone who writes about the last great Crash, and how individual Americans withstood it and survived it, I enjoyed the essay here. The scene reminds me of the Velvet Revolution. I wish Vaclav Havel would come visit….

    Does the music have to be drums? I’d love to see the crowd doing Handel’s Messiah….yes, in their bunny hats!

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