Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Conversation with One of Occupy Wall Street's Organizers On the Eve of a Possible Showdown

I spent some time Thursday night at Zuccatti Park in Lower Manhattan, site of the Occupy Wall Street uprising. I went there to observe and to get a better understanding of this nascent movement firsthand and to speak with one of the original organizers. I also wanted to gauge the mood and pulse of the place on the eve of what could be a very significant turning point in the movement.

Backpedaling from his promise last week that protesters can stay in the park indefinitely, Mayor Bloomberg, at the request of the park's owner, Brookfield Office Properties, has ordered demonstrators to evacuate by 7am Friday to allow for cleaning. Afterwards, people would be allowed back in, but would no longer be able to camp out. From those I spoke with and from what I could hear from others, the protesters were preparing for an intense resistance to the evacuation, a showdown with police that surely would've turned very ugly. But again Bloomberg has reversed position and cancelled plans for the clean-up and evacuation. This is a major victory for the movement.

While I was there I saw many people with brooms and mops, sweeping and bleaching the pavement in a self-motivated initiative designed to show the Mayor, Brookfield, the police and the nation that non-violent protest and respect for the park are not mutually exclusive things. "We can do this ourselves," one young demonstrator told me. "We don't need to be kicked out to keep the place clean."

Friday's victory will surely fuel the movement and empower it to build. I was told that a major announcement is to be made imminently, perhaps Friday, which will point to future direction. Right now OWS is at a critical crossroads. It is intentionally not a policy-incubating/advocating organization. It has no leaders, no demands, and is beyond fractured. It has gained national attention because it has been an encampment: a communal mini-society of disillusioned, disenfranchised, disparate, mostly young people sharing frustrations, anger, opinions, ideals, food and living quarters. They have their own news channel (at ) as well as a newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Each night its General Assembly convenes at the park's Eastern end where anyone can address the crowd while everyone else in and around the ringlet repeats what is being said so those further from the speaker can hear.

But in the absence of a clear, coherent, consistent message, and spokespeople who can articulate that message in the media and to Americans all across the nation, it's largely been the novelty of the tent city phenomenon that's garnered much of the attention and propelled protesters into television sets across the country. It will need more organization and a shifting towards more traditional protest movements rather than serve as an emotional outcry. It's currently a highly fragmented kaleidoscope of ideas, passions and agendas--everything from unemployment, corporate greed, prison reform and fracking to anarchy and Marxism.

The aptly named Jeremy Bold is an extremely serious, committed and very likable, 26-year old librarian from Brooklyn who's been a prominent voice and presence since the movement's beginnings early last month (He's in the blue shirt seated at the table at the start of the above video, and is later shown being arrested). When we spoke across from the park he had one eye on me, and another frequently on his cell phone looking for texts alerting him to what was happening back at the protest. He seemed nervous and concerned about a possible confrontation with police in the morning, yet seemed fully prepared for that. Bold clearly shies away from being labeled an organizer or leader, instead classifying himself as one of "hundreds of people" of who helped get OWS off the ground. He's quite idealistic, yet is savvy enough to sense that the movement may need at some point soon to shift its focus, strategies and free form philosophies in order to evolve to the next level.

"I think there's a important change coming, and I wouldn't even call it a transition, but building a bridge basically. What we're doing now is focusing on dialogue amongst ourselves and amongst the sympathizers, and that's a really important stage. We have to build solidarity with each other. We have to recognize our common struggles and learn to trust each other. But in order to enact real change in a broader world, in a world that isn't just Occupy Wall Street, there's a bridge that has to be crossed. We have to build a bridge to figure out how the kinds of discussions that could be policy related, that could be conceptual, that could be cultural...those things have to translate into something broader and into the wider world. And the bridge has to be built to do that. What that is is like figuring out what the power is, how we can represent the power within Occupy Wall Street in the world that is not Occupy Wall Street. And I can't say very much specifically about it. I totally recognize it, and there's a lot of people that recognize it, but what we're doing right now, for one, is not making any demands for a very good reason because we are still learning to appreciate each other and appreciate what this movement can be."

Whether Occupy Wall Street can, or will, move beyond its current configuration and scale depends upon its desire and ability to transcend the Utopian communal spirit that currently dominates its thinking in order to grow into the kind of potent national force, like the Tea Party, that can infiltrate the political system and achieve legislative success.

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