The first thing I felt when I arrived at Liberty Park in New York City this past Saturday was the energy. It brought me back to the late ‘60s when I was a graduate student in Wisconsin.
Now, in what might become the American Autumn, hundreds of men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were participating in group conversation, talking to passersby, painting signs, organizing the communal kitchen, role playing (cops and protesters), making music or silently meditating. In Week Three of Occupy Wall Street, the occupiers were engaged in class warfare and no apologies were needed. They proudly represented the 99% of the population that’s been harmed by “the greed and corruption of the 1%.”
That’s why they chose Wall Street as their target, recognizing the role that the huge investment banks and corporations played in plunging the country into economic crisis. And their anger surged when their elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, bailed out the banks and subsidized corporate America while the rest of the country ended up foreclosed, unemployed or saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media ignored the encampment until an incident of violence occurred on September 22nd. The perpetrator, a police supervisor, swiftly moved to an area where several young women were penned in by police netting on a sidewalk, and, without cause or warning, pepper sprayed them. The attacker just as quickly left, but Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna didn’t count on being caught on film and identified. The video not only made it through social media, but a still shot hit the front page of New York’s Daily News.
Bologna and the other ranking officers of the NYPD wear white shirts to distinguish them from their rank and file brothers and sisters who wear blue. All around the perimeter of Liberty Park — a football-sized space which acts as a kind of traffic island in the midst of the hubbub of lower Manhattan — are dozens of blue-shirts. I watched these men and women standing there, talking with each other, looking bored and I wondered what they were thinking. Did they identify more with the occupants of Liberty Park than the traders a few blocks away who brought us the financial crash in 2008? The protestors sometimes engaged the police in conversation, making the case that they are also part of the 99% and need to have their pensions protected.
Perhaps 100 or more folks sleep out in the park and the numbers grow as the day goes along. Their signs read, “Jobs Not Cuts, End The Dictatorship of Wall St.,” and “You Should Be Here; Occupy the Hood.” After listening to a discussion about the law, I struck up a conversation with a guy who had come up from Philadelphia. He told me he wasn’t going to get arrested, but he felt he had to be here and had stayed the night. To escape the heavy rain the night before, he and many others left the park to seek shelter in the entrance to a nearby subway station. They caused no trouble and the police responded in kind.
By 3 o’clock over 2,000 people, still mostly youths in their 20s and 30s, but some old-timers and families with children had entered the park. We had all been alerted to a march starting at that time and it proceeded, slowly but not quietly, on the sidewalks not far from Ground Zero and City Hall. We were favorably greeted by passersby on foot and in cars and by tourists on the upper decks of the colorful tourist buses that constantly drove by. I didn’t know the destination of the march but soon saw the steel cables and stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. With a police escort we marched to the upper level of the pedestrian walkway and slowly passed over the East River. The balloons, the signs, the chanting and the hopeful energy kept us going. There were, however, rumors of the police closing off the bridge and as we looked below to the lower level, saw that the police had blocked off traffic and had parked several police buses on the side. Soon we could see a few marchers cuffed and under arrest though we didn’t know why.
I left the march on the Brooklyn side, took a subway to Manhattan and later, a train back home to Massachusetts. When I turned on the computer in the morning, I was shocked to learn that 700 protestors had been arrested. Why? One narrative had the police leading the marchers onto the lower deck and then entrapping them and a second had the protestors sitting down on the pavement despite police warnings to disperse. A third narrative combined elements of both: a small group wanted to get arrested while the rest got caught up in the police dragnet. In any case, those arrested remained non-violent, and virtually all were released after being booked in local precincts.
The feeling that I’m left with is that this generation of Americans is not going away – not from Liberty Park nor from their principles. At least not until we have an economic and social system that provides the opportunity and quality of life that we all deserve — the 99% along with the 1%.