So yesterday (Friday) was my day off from work and, with little on the agenda, I decided to check out Occupy Wall Street for the first time. No sooner had I boarded the “L” train did I see a middle aged man carrying a big cardboard sign saying “Bring Back Glass-Steagall Act now!” (or something to that effect…and, no, he wasn’t Penn Badgley). Once I finally got off the subway and made my way to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by a few things:
The Tourists: Making my way to the ‘tent city,’ I saw many, many people from out of town (or even foreigners) walking around with their cameras and gawking at OWS. Inherently I knew that I wasn’t so different from them even if I did live in New York: I came out of curiosity, I had no plans to join in the protests, I wanted to take pictures but failed (my iPhone was out of battery). It was an odd feeling though, particularly as I walked behind some tourists speaking Spanish, ostensibly from Spain or somewhere in South America…is this a good thing for visitors to New York (especially visitors to America) to gravitate to what is intended to be a “protest” or a “movement” as if it were a tourist attraction? Planning a Financial District agenda on, say, Day 3 of a NYC-visit: visit 9/11 memorial, go to Battery Park to see Statue of Liberty, shop at Century 21, look at Occupy Wall Street…
I’m as yet undecided whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that OWS is attracting visitors to come look at their tent city and photograph their protests…maybe it doesn’t matter one way or another?
The Press: OWS has been chugging along for almost two months now (or there abouts) and yet every two feet I saw some member of the press corps interviewing a protester with either a video camera, a voice recorder, a reporter’s notepad or some combination of the above. I’m not sure why this struck me as so strange but it gave the whole protest or movement a somewhat surreal quality that it was so flooded with media attention. I even saw an Italian journalist interviewing someone on camera.
The tent city itself: Many people have read reports about the ‘tent city’–the free, donated food, the medical tent, the library…in addition, I saw a designated “Press Area,” and an “Information Area.” I also had never been to Zuccotti Park and was surprised that it really wasn’t a park at all but more of a city plaza. That was actually the initial impression I had but the larger OWS grew and the more people there were (with reports of sanitation issues that followed), I started to think maybe this was some sort of grassy, enclosed space that you occasionally find scattered throughout New York. However, my initial instinct was correct and the “park” is in fact all stone and concrete with the exception of some small enclosed planter areas that no one would pitch a tent in. Moreover, the protesters must have been shamed a bit by all of the coverage of waste and sanitation issues in their ‘city,’ because I did not see any overt refuse and in fact saw several occupiers with brooms and garbage bags trying to clean up the space.
The People: Interestingly, the occupiers seemed to fall into two camps: the young twentysomethings (many of whom may be protesting against bank loans and unemployment) and older 60+ retirees. Not too many people from the mid-to-younger sections of the Baby Boom generation. So you have aging hippies (perhaps the oldest Boomers) and young twentysomethings bonding together. It is interesting to see how OWS keeps up its momentum. When I was there on a Friday afternoon, there were plenty of people actively protesting with signs and slogans but many people are truly passive occupiers at this point: they hole up in their tents and basically just lie low (although who knows the rhythms and patterns of these occupiers and when they decide to protest and when they decide to ‘hang’). And because OWS has gotten such attention, amidst all of the activists are many opportunists…there have been reports of homeless people seeking shelter (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you consider that OWS provides free meals) but there are also people promoting bands, trying to hustle money (one crazy-looking dude had a sign that he would “rap for money”), and being just plain weird (another guy had a “fart smeller’s movement”). Attention has shifted to how OWS will survive when the weather drops and with the first snow falling today in New York, this question is as pertinent as ever. It will be interesting to see how the occupation evolves when living conditions are less bearable.
Ultimately it was an interesting visit and I’m glad I got to see it, if only to witness firsthand what everyone seems to be talking about. I feel ambivalent towards OWS in general–the lack of a truly coherent message or game plan is a little off-putting–but some of the general principles against excessive corporate greed and wastefulness and their ilk are ones that I can stand behind. It will be interesting to see how time judges this movement–whether it will go with the 60s protests in the annals of history or be forgotten in a few years.