At 11pm on Saturday night 300 people were gathered in the fountain bowl in New York’s Washington Square Park. Half the crowd (myself included) sat cross-legged in the bowl floor while the rest stood on the rim above. The group had gathered after the day’s Occupy Wall Street rally in Times Square and it was debating whether to extend the occupation of the Liberty Square location to Washington Square Park. The movement had a very New York problem: it needed more real estate.
The gathering had urgency. In 45 minutes the police would be there “doing whatever it takes” to enforce the park’s midnight curfew. In other words arresting anyone who stayed.
The group couldn’t make up its mind on what to do, but it was also adamant that it wasn’t supposed to. Whether to stay or go was each person’s decision. The procedural leaders who guided the meeting, however, seemed to suggest that we would occupy.
This had been the sentiment of the earlier, smaller group I observed as well. “How many would stay if the group stayed?” someone asked, meaning likely get arrested. Most of the group raised their hands. Some meant it but others’ hands said, “I hope I’m the kind of person who stays if the group stays.” That’s why mine was raised.
Many of the speakers were NYU students calling for occupation. “We have NYU all around us. The school will protect us!” “I’m an RA and my hall has volunteered their meal plans!” “The whole world is watching!”
Others were skeptical. A young man named Max stood up and suggested that the movement’s goal should be to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. What would breaking the law accomplish? Are we protesting the fact that parks close at midnight?
“Mic check! Mic check!” someone yelled from across the fountain. Though there’s an official list to speak a “mic check!” can grab the floor.
Man: “I just wanted everyone to know”
(echo one) I JUST WANTED EVERYONE TO KNOW
(echo two) I JUST WANTED EVERYONE TO KNOW
Man: “That three police buses”
(echo one) THAT THREE POLICE BUSES
(echo two) THAT THREE POLICE BUSES
Man: “Have pulled up behind us”
(echo one) HAVE PULLED UP BEHIND US
(echo two) HAVE PULLED UP BEHIND US
The clock continued to tick – just 25 minutes to midnight. The conversation drifted. Someone wanted to relay a message from Occupy Austin. Someone talked about Israel and Palestine. If we stay, said another, it needs to be a sexism-free occupation.
Maybe you've been asking yourself whether you should participate. I wanted to from the beginning but was hesitant. I’ve gone twice in the past week and I’m glad I did. I will again.
The crowd is both what you think and “better” than you think. Certainly there are true believers, kids, activists, and people advocating for stuff you may feel is irrelevant. Sometimes someone will be embarrassing but everyone is sincere.
And also, well, you are there and probably some people that you know too. You’ll see some funny signs that you agree with. You can listen or you can speak. People ask questions. Some conversations are about upending the power structure and others are everyday New York stuff.
If you go will you get arrested? No. The intimidation is real but you can easily stay out of trouble. The NYPD pretty clearly defines its boundaries. In Times Square tourists cheered and waved. Around the city people smiled, cheered, or did the normal New Yorker thing.
It’s true that there aren’t answers being offered on how to fix corporate greed, the wealth gap, or the other issues. But why is it this group’s job to find them? These problems are decades-long and they’re baked straight into our society and politics. Nobody has an answer for what to do about them. Stepping out to say “I think we can do better than this” is a reasonable start.
What should Occupy Wall Street do in the future? In my opinion, make participation simple. Lower the bar. Step outside for 90 seconds at a specific time. Carry a newspaper a certain way. Wear a pin. Something small and ubiquitous can feel enormous, and it can find the silent majority. This is going to get bigger.
Back in Washington Square eighty cops circled us with loaves of plastic cuffs under their arms. Finally someone suggested a poll. Who will stay? A handful of arms went up. Who will go? The rest reached high. Though we weren’t supposed to seek consensus the answer was clear. At midnight the park was empty.