There’s a pretty good writeup about Occupy Wall Street in the Financial Times. It’s mostly about the “leadership” behind the scenes but they do have a pretty good account of one of the early unpermitted marches that helped the movement gain its initial momentum.
Around noon on September 24 2011, a young black man named Robert Stephens fell to his knees in the middle of the road outside Chase Bank headquarters on Liberty Street, New York City. Wearing a white fleece and black-rimmed glasses, Stephens pointed at the Chase building and wailed: “That’s the bank that took my parents’ home.”
Looking through some of my photos from late September of 2011, I realize that I was at one of the incidents the article describes.
One thing that I can’t help but notice 10 years later is the number of photographers. For every protester willing to risk arrest and help build the movement there were at least a dozen people (like me sadly) who just wanted to take photos. I think in some ways that might provide some insight into why the Occupy movement fizzled out after it was evicted from Zuccotti Park. It really didn’t fizzle out. Many of its supporters went onto “careers” in alternative media. How many leftist YouTubers, for example, got their start covering Occupy Wall Street? Occupy Wall Street was as much about the birth of the new leftist media as it was about protest. In many ways it’s inevitable that the most prominent leftist politician in American today, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, is essentially the politician as social media influencer.
This of course was the same march that continued up Broadway and ended with the famous incident of the NYPD pepper spraying kettled protesters near Union Square. I didn’t get any photos of the pepper sprayings because I left the march as soon as it reached its destination. I had learned, from going to anti-war and pro-Palestinian marches during the Bush years, that it was always a good idea to leave the area after the official march was over since right wing counterdemonstrators usually hung around to pick up stragglers and provoke them into fights that would inevitably lead to arrests. In the Bush years almost nothing interesting happened after the least official speaker had had his turn at the podium. But at Occupy Wall Street that rule had changed. Anything could happen at any time. A march would break out when you least expected it. The police could launch an attack at the moment you felt most at ease.
But that chaotic atmosphere also made it inevitable that the NYPD would win the running battle between police and protester. There was nothing more demoralizing than watching the “shift change” every night near Zuccotti Park, when one army of police officers was replaced by another. You realize after awhile that you the protesters were the barbarians facing up to disciplined Roman legions. The police got a paycheck. They got to go home every night and watch television. They could call in sick or request another assignment. Repressing protest for the bankers and the ruling class wasn’t something they necessarily wanted to do. It was their job. And how many people in the world really like their jobs?
For protesters however, demonstrations are a strange amalgam of love and will. You’re not only doing it for free, you’re essentially paying to protest (in the form of arrests, court dates, missed work days, fines). Unlike the police, you can’t just clock out, go home, and sleep it off. You have to guard against two opposite and yet equally dangerous states of mind, disillusionment and fanaticism. On one hand, there was always the temptation after a particularly grueling “General Assembly” to just say “fuck it. I’m going home.” On the other hand, there was also the tendency to put yourself in a state of mind where you would dismiss any criticism, to hate the media even more than is logically warranted (to forget that like the police they’re only doing their jobs), to accuse other protesters of being provocateurs or traitors. It’s an almost impossible balance to maintain, which is why most protest movements in the United States tend to fall apart after a few months, and why I don’t really blame the leaders for allowing themselves to get coopted. A job is always easier than an act of love.