Broadway is always busy. On Columbus Day weekend it’s just nuts. Cars, cabs, tour buses choke the street. The shops are awash with people chasing Halloween costumes, bargains, fake Ray Bans, I heart NY souvenirs. I’m working my way through the crowds to the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. New York is well laid out and I have a map, but I wonder if I’ll be able to find it. The jumble of police buses lining the road and the large groups of police, heading downtown in groups or milling around on street corners looking like school children about to go on an excursion, tell me I won’t have too much trouble.
I’m not sure what to expect and I feel like a bit of a fake: a tourist. I am a tourist and I feel uncomfortable about just visiting the occupation, I feel like I should contribute in some way but all I have is time and the willingness to make a donation. I know a little about what’s going on, but I’m worried that I’ll feel like a rubber neck – the kind of guy who stops to look at a car crash.
I reach the park. It stretches away from Broadway sloping down to the West. It’s not huge; maybe half the size of a soccer field, but it’s packed. There are crowd barriers erected around the perimeter and outside rows of bored police.
There’s a guy on the corner of Broadway and Liberty Dressed like Uncle Sam, he’s welcoming and friendly and he offers me a copy of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Strange how Uncle Sam, a symbol associated with the very US imperialism this protest is opposed to by so many of us who view this country from the outside, is accepted without question here.
The Broadway footpath is lined with people holding placards. They’re friendly and polite and yes of course you can take their photograph. There’s a sign down in the bottom of the square where everybody sleeps that reads ‘This is not a zoo’ but up here people are happy to be photographed. It’s a protest after all – there is a message to be communicated.
The placards and posters people carry are witty, clichéd, trite, arty and ad hoc, everything you’d expect at such a protest – this is not a literary event and sometimes blunt is best. But enough effort has gone into the signs to suggest that people have really thought about why they’re here and what they’d like to say. They’re aware that these placards are their press releases, their reception desk. They get how PR works.
Past the front line and into the square people are getting on with the business of living. There are signs: ‘People’s Library’, ‘Please clean up your mess’, ‘Poster makers, watch your paint splashes’. This is a shared (cramped) space, so consideration of others is important. No-one wants to live in a pigsty. In the centre of the park there’s a makeshift canteen. People are making sandwiches and handing out drinks. There are compost and recycling sections.
Shuffling further down the packed square I come across that sign about the zoo, just before I encounter a mass of tumbled backpacks and stuffed garbage bags that turns out to be a collection of people in sleeping bags. I tiptoe past them and take a look at the compulsory drumming band. How does anyone sleep amid all that noise? I’m reminded again that I’m a tourist. I’ll be sleeping in a hotel tonight. There will be no drum band keeping me awake. I feel like a third wheel and I wonder if I should just go.
I see a woman carrying a t-shirt that reads ‘I am the 99%’. She tells me there’s a guy screen-printing them on the north side of the square. You bring your own t-shirt and pay by donation. Something concrete I can do, plus the shirts look cool, and I am a tourist.
I find a guy selling t-shirts on the corner of the Park. He’s one of the hordes of street souvenir vendors scattered throughout Manhattan. He seems unaware of the whirlwind of activity taking place around him, but surely this must be a busier than normal day, surely this square is not usually like this?
It takes a while to find the screen-printers; I ask several people and make several circuits of the square. I see a man with a very deep sergeant major-type voice shouting in the face of a group of placard carriers on the front line: ‘Wall Street will win! Wall Street will win.’ I don’t hear what they say in return, I think they might just be smiling. As I draw near he stops and gets right in their faces (maybe he is a sergeant major).
‘What do you have to say to that?’ he yells.
One of the boys says, ‘I like your voice.’ No one laughs, but it’s close. Sergeant Major moves on.
The Broadway tourist trail is hotting up. Ground Zero is just a few streets away. Open top double decker buses pass the park on their way there. One woman with very neat bobbed hair leans out the top of a bus and gives the protest the thumbs down and yells boo. A young Grizzly Adams in Carhartt overalls and ginger beard yells something back. I can’t hear what he says, but she smiles and he smiles back. The whole thing seems ridiculously good-natured. No wonder the cops look so bored. How long will it remain so?
The night before I’d watched Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary, Living in the Material World. In it George bemoaned his visit to Haight Ashbury in 1967. He’d expected to find peace, love and people looking for enlightenment; instead he found ‘druggies and bums’. I’d wondered if I’d find the same here. But it couldn’t be any different. This seems like a place of work, or at least of keen thought.
I find the screen-printers. Just three people with a screen each and a couple of ink pots. People stand patiently waiting their turn, pressing notes into a cut down water bottle by way of donation. The printers clean their screens regularly by running the excess ink out on to sheets of butchers’ paper, turning them into posters which they hand out for free.
A guy ahead of me in line asks the printer if it’s true the protest is heading up to Washington Square at 2pm.
The screener shakes his head, ‘I don’t know man.’
‘I heard it on the radio,’ another guy behind me says.
‘Well then I guess it must be true,’ Screener says, ‘I think you guys know more about what’s going on that we do. Feels like we’re in a bit of a bubble sometimes here. Everyone else seems to know what we’re doing before we do.’
He screens a piece of paper and hands it to me. Then my t-shirt gets the treatment.
‘Don’t fold the shirt or touch the print for half an hour and tumble dry it or iron it for three minutes before you wash it,’ Screener tells me. This is a caring sharing protest complete with laundry instructions.
I move on holding my t-shirt it in front of me, by the shoulders so it hangs straight, like the woman I first saw. A girl asks me where I got it. I direct her to the souvenir vendor and the screen-printers.
It’s getting hot and I want to take off my jumper, so I move to the side and hang my shirt over a barrier as I do so. Mid change, a police man asks me politely to move on. ‘Sorry sir, but you can’t stand by the barrier and you can’t hang things off the barrier.’ I politely agree to head off. As I move on, someone else approaches me and asks about the shirt? I tell them. Can they take a photo of me holding up the shirt? Of course. What’s the 99% they ask me? I tell them. As they walk off I’m left wondering if I should have told them I’m just a tourist. Maybe I should have told them to ask Uncle Sam or one of the placard holders. I’m not sure what to feel, but I’m glad that I’m there.