Beyond Liberty Plaza
November 16, 2011
By Khujeci Tomai
October 28th. After weeks of impossibly upbeat posts (impossible because no movement can have an ever-upward arc), I finally sounded a worried note.
My blog for that day:
This afternoon, there was intense rain. Although the tents stayed up, most people decamped to a nearby church, as well as the public atrium at 60 Wall Street. Someone said, “There may be snow tomorrow”. I’m wondering how long protesters can hold the park, with their minimal tents, as temperatures drop further. Before the winter sets in and manages to clear Zuccotti (Liberty Plaza), exactly as the city hopes will happen, it’s very important that people figure out where affinity groups, infrastructure, and networks will go next. The movement needs to evolve beyond holding on to this one block of city land.[i]
October 29th. The previous night’s meeting at 16 Beaver was about “Artists. Role in the Occupy Movement.” The presentations went on too long, the discussion section was shorted and frustration about lack of holistic thinking was in the air. Online, the Arts & Culture committee was vibrant, but face to face, some members keep expressing worry about what will come next. In the middle of the meeting, Beka Economopoulos of Not An Alternative gets an SMS about a security issue at the park. Later, she says to me, “Holding on to, and maintaining, Zuccotti Park, is taking up all the energy of the organizers.”
That day, my blog had a change in tone. Now I finally mentioned what I had left out of the previous day’s post. Beka had reminded me that there were many worries beside cold weather.
The success of the movement has attracted hustlers and provocateurs. When rain had driven people to the church and there were only a few “peacekeepers” at the site, two very aggressive men used that opportunity to try to start a fight over each other’s signs (“you got to take that sign down”). The police watched and did nothing. I had the feeling they did not mind. The colder it gets, the fewer people at the site, the more these negative elements will have space to flex muscle. The media is also waiting for that moment, of course.
Do we have to make a fetish out of this space? The dedicated organizers already have their meetings at 60 Wall Street and elsewhere. Work is getting done in small groups. The “Spoke” model passing in General Assembly is an acknowledgment of that fact. Why not spread the movement to other decentralized locations? In fact, why not use some of the money donated to the OWS movement to rent a large space for a year, and use that as an organizational hub.
A few days later, Caroline Busta from the Wall Street Occupennial artist group highlights an article by Matt Harvey about destructive elements within the movement. Among other saboteur elements, the article highlights Gary Phenof:
With his bear-like size and self-professed “combative style,” Gary Phenof, a 50-something Staten Islander would be hard to miss in any crowd. Wearing a Russian hat, waving a full-size main-land China flag and giving out copies of the China Daily—even at the far edge of Zuccotti Park—Phenof stuck out like a sore thumb.[ii]
I look at the photograph of Phenof and realize this is the same man who started the argument on the day of the heavy rains. Interestingly, he started it just when most people were taking refuge from the rain in the church, so there were very few peacekeepers around. It seemed designed to cause maximum harm and bad press. Agent provocateur.
I hesitate to highlight this news because I worry they will take the wind out of the movement. What should we do? But how can we stay silent as race/gender safe spaces erode…
Chris Kasper pointed out:
I think not talking about this presents us with more of a threat, of taking the wind out of the movement, than getting it out and talking about it. I think the erosion of safe places makes it more urgent to talk. We’ve survived infiltration by James O’keefe, right wing attack ads, ”oath keepers” and other libertarian groups, a bs Brookfield eviction, police violence and are having some success mediating with the drummers. We need to find a way to work through this if we want the movement to go further.
November 14th. Adbusters presciently publishes a new tactical briefing. Although credited for giving the first call for September 17th (along with Anonymous, who seem to have lost interest as OWS became mainstream), Adbusters had been quieter in the discussions around the movement. But this new briefing called for regrouping as winter approached:
We declare "victory" and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we've come, the comrades we've made, the glorious days ahead. Imagine, on a Saturday yet to be announced, perhaps our movement's three month anniversary on December 17, in every #OCCUPY in the world, we reclaim the streets for a weekend of triumphant hilarity and joyous revelry. We dance like we've never danced before and invite the world to join us. Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and myriad projects ready to rumble next Spring.[iii]
I say prescient because, the night after this briefing comes out, New York City launches the notorious 1 am surprise raid that clears out Zuccotti and destroys two months worth of infrastructure (claims that all of it can be recovered from compounds are later proven false, as with the largely missing 5000 book People’s Library).
By the way, I am always reminded by others to call it “Liberty Plaza”, but the November 15th action reminds us that the state will continue to try to enforce “Zuccotti”, by force. Should we continue to trying this rebranding, this “liberation”, or find other, more hospitable, Liberty Plazas?
The day after the raid, Noah Fischer, one of the organizers of Occupy Museums, sounds exhausted on his Facebook wall, highlighting how the city’s repressive tactics are burning up our precious energies:
So for the rest of the middle of the night and early morning, we few hundred people leaving the park or rushing to the scene got caught up in a demoralizing series of police traps in lower Manhattan… In the morning, there was an attempt to “take” another park on Canal Street. That failed, since the space was ominously enclosed like a big trap, and most people left before the police forcibly removed the hard-core protesters.
Yes, the struggle is also the movement. As resistance has mounted, the movement has grown. In a display of battering ram polemics, Keith Olbermann calls Mayor Bloomberg a valuable asset to the Occupy movement:
American freedom has not flourished in spite of these morons of history, it has flourished because of them — because they overreacted, because they under-thought, overreached, under-understood… Who else but a cliché like Bloomberg could take a protest beginning to grow a little stale around the edges and vault it back in the headlines, complete with mortifying scenes of police dressed as storm troopers, carrying military weapons, using figurative bazookas to kill figurative mosquitoes? …
Who else but the epitome of tone-deafness that is Bloomberg could have better illustrated the fundamental issue of Occupy, when he puts the entire weight of the most people-driven city in the history of the Earth behind already-crushingly rich and their efforts to grab themselves still more advantages from those people and he, himself, is the 12th richest man in America? Who else but a publicity addict like Bloomberg could have enabled the arrest of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge and yet, two months later, frozen 20 square miles of New York City in gridlock traffic over two days, so somebody could film another goddamned Batman movie on the 59th Street Bridge?[iv]
So indeed, it is true, through his “get a job” moralizing, bullying tactics and this raid, coordinated with other city mayors across America (inadvertently blurted out by Mayor Quan), Bloomberg has repeatedly galvanized the movement. The evening after the raids, an hour after the park was finally reopened, the crowds at the General Assembly had gone up tenfold. I couldn’t remember a recent GA that had been this large in the last few weeks. The air was electric again. But this energy can also be misleading, we should not be seduced into thinking temporarily being “allowed back” into the park, is what is best for the movement.
Even some of the more junior police officers look exhausted and tired of this endless policing of peaceful protests. A group of officers in CPR (Community Police Relations) jackets try to make some GA attendees get off a park ledge where they are sitting, citing concerns about “safety.” Within moments, the meeting is interrupted and “let them sit / let them sit” chants fill the air. I don't find this a jubilant or important moment. The officers are very junior (interestingly, all African-American), and probably too scared to go back to their commanding officer and say “Sir, they want to continue sitting.” Is this confrontation the best use of our energy?
After the GA ends, Haig Aivazian who had been at many earlier GAs said to me:
There is no sense in being prisoners to our own symbolism, and there is no need to exhaust ourselves for sheer hard headedness. All for a park that is increasingly limited, policed, trivialized and symbolic. There is a victory in today’s mass showing, but it is also a perfect time to rethink the strategy. Let us fragment the struggle, make it networked and decentralized– like the forms of capital we are opposing. And reclaim Liberty Square whenever we please for GA.
The next day, November 16th, there is rain all afternoon. On ustream (which had stayed live when livestream was knocked off air after the raid) the “other99”cameraman was broadcasting again from Zuccotti and saying, “People, please come down here. Our numbers are small today. The CNN truck is here. We need to show them we have numbers in the park.”
Behind him the camera picks up scattered groups of wet protesters, and just as many police officers and park officials. Apparently Fox News was jubilantly declaring “Occupy is over.”
Why do we need to show CNN or Fox anything? We are meant to be building alternative systems for our future, not participating in the mainstream media’s 15 minutes of flickering interest circus.
We do not have endless energy to spare, to wage daily cat and mouse sorties with the police (“Miss, no standing at the intersection” the moment someone even slows down their pace). At the end of the day, the police are still drawing overtime, so they can rationalize it by saying, “this is my job.”
What do we get from this endless rubbing up against police barricades? Personally, I am really tired of going on marches while being penned in by those interlocked metal barricades. We need to save some energy, to organize, create and build. Astra Taylor, co-editor of a forthcoming Verso Books anthology of OWS essays, says:
A semi-permanent encampment is not the only way to occupy. And tweaking our methods may actually help make the movement more inclusive, as not everyone who is sympathetic to OWS can or wants to commit to living full-time in a tent. The Occupy movement, after all, was never about holding a single piece of ground, but changing the world.[v]
Two other organizers, Zoltán Glück and Manissa McCleave Maharawal, write of the need to focus back on our important tasks:
This spectacle of repression should not distract us from the important tasks we have at hand, nor should it overshadow the great strides we’ve made in the past months. There is no evicting a movement… We are just beginning. Working groups from OWS have meetings and events planned for months ahead. They will continue to meet and they will continue to grow.[vi]
I just looked at the New York General Assembly’s Calendar of Events. Starting off with the first week, when this looked like a simple Google Calendar, it has ballooned out to an endless list of events. For today, there are multiple events every hour on the hour. Looking down, I see the page button goes up to 1,452.
Page 1,452 shows that the event calendar has items (set on “repeat daily” or “weekly”) all the way up to December 31st, 2012. Planning events for a year from now seems slightly fanciful. Then again, it also seems optimistic.
Laboni Rahman, a lawyer defending homeowners against foreclosures, reminds me that we need to be reflective, celebratory, practical, forward-looking, and inspiring — all at once. So let us start on a macro and micro, holistic and granular level. Find a project, an affinity group, an alternative art space, a progressive organizing space, a classroom, an immigrant rights group, a trade union; anything, everything, somewhere in your neighborhood, in your city. Start building something specific, tangible– linked to the larger Occupy project of economic justice and resisting corporate control over democracy. All in preparation for spring, when people will start coming out in large numbers again. Don’t be afraid to go against some of the fetish of horizontalism; the movement needs some leaders as well. Time to move to the second phase.
[ii] Matt Harvey, “Are Occupy Wall Street protesters their own worst enemies?”, Animal New York, 10/31/2011, http://animalnewyork.com/2011/10/are-occupy-wall-street-protesters-their…
[iii]Adbusters, “TACTICAL BRIEFING #18: Occupy the High Ground!”, http://www.adbusters.org/blogs/adbusters-blog/adbusters-tactical-briefin…
[iv]Keith Olbermann, “Why Occupy Wall Street needs Michael Bloomberg”, Countdown, 11/16/2011, http://current.com/shows/countdown/videos/keiths-special-comment-why-occ…
[vi]Zoltán Glück and Manissa McCleave Maharawal, “A Day in the Movement: November 15th, 2011”, In Front and Center, 11/15/2011, http://infrontandcenter.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/a-day-in-the-movement-n…