In a corporate park in Lower Manhattan, a movement began that spread throughout the country. Now that the concept of the 99% is as familiar to Americans as the face of Tim Tebow, HIGH TIMES takes a look back at the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
By Chris Simunek
The Occupation came in stages and was very confusing in the beginning. I visited Zuccotti Park the first week and saw kids not even old enough to drink standing around in their skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors, holding placards describing their disillusionment. “Banks Got Bailed Out/We Got Sold Out.” “We Are the 99%.” “Sodomites Against Corporate Sodomy.” Some even wore bandannas over their faces in the style of the Mexican Zapatistas. It was the natural progression from all those Che Guevera T-shirts that have been selling steadily for years. Only Che never wore a mask. Che smiled for the cameras – smiled at the people of Cuba whose revolution he propelled, smiled at the boys from Quantico whose job it was to hunt him down.
The day before my visit, the NYPD had maced a row of women who were simply exercising their constitutional right to complain. As I walked around the park, I overheard one young lady giving an impassioned interview to some journo. “Do you know what it’s like? To have pepper spray in your eyes? Do you know what it feels like?” She sounded like Joni Mitchell bitching out her handlers because they served her green tea instead of chai. You say you want a revolution? “You gotta pay your dues if you want to sing the blues,” reads the Book of Ringo.
The message of the Occupy crowd – that 99 percent of the American people are getting screwed like an altar boy at a seminary meth party – is hard to dispute. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my golden years are going to look like something out of Dawn of the Dead. I’ve already saved the $300 I’ll need for my retirement – $50 for the motel room, $20 for the bottle, $150 for the shotgun and the rest to tip the maid.
The most frustrating part of the Zuccotti scene were the General Assemblies and the whole “mic check” method of communication, where one person shouts out a line and the crowd repeats it so that, theoretically, everyone gets to hear what is said. Not for nothing, but a couple bullhorns would have really moved things along. When a consensus was needed on a point, like whether or not they should all run down to Wall Street and get arrested, people in agreement were supposed to twinkle their fingers in the air like they were spreading fairy dust. Now, if your goal is to take down an evil empire, are you going to fight like a Jedi, or are you going to dick around like a bunch of Ewoks?
“This is what democracy looks like!” Someone throw a rock already. But like I said at the beginning, the Occupation came in stages, and if you’ve ever seen one, you know that a birth is a gruesome thing to watch.
Then came the morning of October 14, when Gruppenführer Bloomberg first threatened to clear Zuccotti Park, supposedly “so it could be cleaned.” For those of you not from New York and perhaps unfamiliar with our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, the 19.5-Billion-Dollar Man, he is a person who embodies the “1%” the way Bullwinkle embodies the talking moose. Disparity of wealth is a noble thing to fight, but you can’t exactly punch it in the face. So when Herr Bloomberg said he was sending his stormtroopers down to clear the park, I knew the Occupy Wall Street folks would go down swinging.
In the pre-dawn morning, I rode my bike from my Lower East Side apartment along South Street toward Zuccotti, passing by the Chinese folks who assemble at daybreak beneath the FDR Drive to practice t’ai chi ch’uan, the “supreme ultimate fist.” Like warrior wraiths, they twisted in the carbon monoxide, confronting their invisible enemies in movements so slow that they appeared dislodged from the passing of time. The Chinese know the price of revolution. Historians are still arguing over the body count, but it’s believed that Mao Zedong’s policies caused the deaths of between 40 to 70 million of his people after the Chinese Revolution. He was the most successful revolutionary of the 20th century, and today his smiling face appears on every banknote of the renminbi, “the people’s money.” Across China, Mao smiles from the face of those bills at the descendants of those who died under his reign, and in America, he smiles from 7.56 trillion of those notes directly at the imperialists who borrowed them. The Chairman was nobody’s fool.
Turning up Liberty Street, I was confronted after a few blocks by a cacophonous mob of protestors. The good news was that Czar Bloomberg had backed down, the park clearing was called off, and the Occupy folks wanted to celebrate their victory by marching on Wall Street. I followed several hundred of them down Broadway, banging drums and chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” until they hit Bowling Green and were in spitting distance of Wall Street’s bronze Charging Bull.
Like drunken matadors, they lunged at the beast, which was being guarded by less than a dozen nervous-looking cops. A shoving match ensued and the chant changed to, “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” Overhead, helicopters whirled in the gray light of the new day and pigeons soared in formation. Backup arrived – a phalanx of police on scooters wearing shiny helmets and body armor, trying to get the protestors onto the sidewalk and out of the way of the wheels and axles of progress. There was confusion as the crowd marched through the cavernous streets hunting for an entrance to Wall. Inside the window of Café Bravo, a red digital ticker invited everyone to “Create your own sandwich or wrap...Create your own salad...Create your own...”
In the midst of the agglomeration, a brass marching band appeared. The Rude Mechanical Orchestra bleated “We Shall Overcome” through reeds and horns. The twisting parade met its match at Water Street, where cops started tackling and zip-tying the hands of protestors, much to the shock of people standing in line outside the Verizon store to buy the new iPhone 4S.
A cop ran over a kid with his scooter, and the OWS folks had a real problem with that.
“We are pacifists!” someone shouted.
A Manson-eyed freak picked up a garbage can and started emptying it onto the cops, protestors and journalists who were crowded around the kid who’d been hit. Imagine their surprise when they looked up at the shower of dirty napkins, soda cans, chicken bones and little bags of dogshit that had been deposited by responsible pet owners. Castigated by his fellow protestors, the freak just laughed. He was a young man who had grown into the mistakes he’d made in his life and was not ashamed to make more.
I can watch cops and lefties duke it out in the street all day long and never really get tired of it, but my stomach was growling, so I got back on my bike and headed toward Mott Street, hoping that Wo Hop was open so I could get a bowl of wonton soup. Riding through Chinatown with its sidewalks crowded with bodies and all its funky smells, I wondered what Mao’s reaction would have been to the Occupy movement and its notion of a peaceful class war. He might have appreciated the anti-capitalist rhetoric, but his advice would have been to buy some ammo. “Experience in the class struggle in the era of imperialism teaches us that it is only by the power of the gun that the working class and the laboring masses can defeat the armed bourgeoisie and landlords,” he wrote in his Little Red Book. “In this sense we may say that only with guns can the whole world be transformed.”
After Ayatollah Bloomberg’s October capitulation, the Occupation metamorphosed from its larval stage into its short-but-brilliant chrysalis phase. No longer did it sleep unsheltered beneath the New York night. Tarps, tents and improvised structures had overtaken the park, an intricate web of cocoons within which the revolutionary pupa gestated. The caliber of folks you met around the park had changed as well. As fall ebbed into winter, the fair-weather revolutionaries were replaced by a hardened cast of activists, anarchists, urban kids, street people, ’60s radicals, winos and drug cases. At jails and homeless shelters across the city, word was out about the party in Zuccotti – free food, a place to crash and pretty girls who believe you are a victim of the state. It added an edge. Mixed in with the drum circle and the General Assemblies were a few fights and sexual assaults, and a kid who famously overdosed on Robitussin. Headlines aside, Zuccotti was still safer than your average 49ers game.
I hooked up with a group of New Yorkers who lived in a multi-story structure built from tarps, discarded furniture and wooden shipping pallets called the Penthouse, part of a larger community named Swag City. Passing around a joint, I spoke with a punk named Razz, a National Guardsman who went by the moniker Captain America and a young, self-proclaimed hustler named Hairo Gonzalez (a.k.a. “Hy-dro, the People’s Hero”). Hy-dro hailed from Morningside Heights and, along with his brethren, he had a vision of a positive brigade, a thinking man’s army that would deal with the security problems that arise when a leaderless society undergoes a sudden swelling of its ranks. They called themselves the Gentlemen.
“Our job is to protect, serve and secure the people here,” Hy-dro said. “We built Swag City because we didn’t want people to get raped, we didn’t want people to get their stuff stolen, we didn’t want people to go hungry. We represent the 100%. It’s not about the 99% versus the 1%. We want to send a message of unity: It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you did in your past – it’s all about what we’re going to do now to change the world. And to lead by example, to show the world that, yes, we can change as a society. All we have to do is do the right thing.”
Hanging out with the Gentlemen that day digging the noise, the drums, the breakdancing, the open-air drug use, I knew I was soon going to miss the Occupation. Zuccotti was a lawless state in the middle of the biggest city in America. I hadn’t seen anything like it in New York since Tompkins Square Park before the riots. There was that same feeling – that this was the peace at the eye of the hurricane, and that all of the energy and ingenuity and vision that went into building this sanctuary would be matched in the end by the will and furor of those who would come to tear it down.
“Me and my friends, we was sleeping and I woke up to a ruckus, and we say, ‘Wake your boyfriend up! Wake up!’ We got dressed and, as soon as we come out, we see a whole lot of cops trying to come in the park – they weren’t coming in yet, but they was doing all sorts of stuff. We started to leave and they kept pushing a lot of people from where McDonald’s is at, all the way up Broadway, to the church and so on. They started putting tear gas here – it was just reckless, man. It was like...they killed two puppies. They were macing the tents and everything, and there was puppies in them. We had a mother dog, and they maced the dog just for walking. It was just all fucked up. They started beating up on people, arresting them, everything. We went to Foley Square so we can support the people that was in jail and everything. There was one lady that came out of booking, her face was all beat up, like...her whole face was beat up. It was wild horrible – rubber bullets on tents and everything. My half-brother got shot in his thigh. We was just going crazy. They kept pushing the barricades in; they made an old man drop and everything. Everything was happening too fast, and it went from one o’clock to three. My whole head is going up the wall – I don’t even know what to say anymore. There’s a whole lot of emotions going. I can’t even say what it is.”
That’s the raid as it was described to me by Jonathan, a native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a friend of Hy-dro’s who’d been living in the park for the past seven weeks.
“Was it worth it?” I asked him.
“I believe it was worth it,” Jonathan said. “Us protesting...it was worth it.”
I’d met up with Hy-dro in Zuccotti the second night after the cops had come and cleared away the protestors. With 25 trucks lined up, sanitation men had hauled away tents, sleeping bags, drums, guitars, books, cigarettes, Chuck Taylors, cooking pots, cash boxes, “Debt Is Slavery” signs, laptops, medical equipment and bicycle generators. At dawn, cleaners spray-washed the concrete and marble until Zuccotti looked like it had before the Occupation – a drab rectangle of stone, devoid of folk. A court order let the protestors back into the park, but they were not allowed to bring tents or any other tools of Occupation. About 50 protestors stood around in the rain being watched by as many cops. The rest of the Occupation had grown wings and split.
I talked to Andre Medina from the Bronx, “Tigger” as he was known among the Gentlemen. Tigger was one of those dreaded parolees that the New York Post had ranted about, coming to Zuccotti after doing two years for a crime he declined to speak of other than to say that he had taken the rap for someone else. But he was not some thug; he was a Gentleman, and the act of becoming a Gentleman had changed his life.
“I came down here because I just finished doing my time,” he told me. “It took me about two weeks to be productive. I had to see people’s movements. I had to see if they was feeling the same way I was feeling. And I seen it. I felt the love and I gave it back. I gave it all back. And I’m still willing to give some more. Before, I wasn’t willing to give no type of love to nobody. Since I’ve been here, I’ve opened my mind. I’m not always mad. I participated in things I would never participate with or for. I surprised myself a hell of a lot. I’m just happy that I’m not a person who’s always in a shell. It broke that whole eggshell – it had to crack. I’m going to be a part of this shit until this shit is done.”
Someone came with a bag full of books and tried to set up a little library. It was nothing like the 2,000-volume repository that had been there two days before, just a sad little row of about 15 books laid on a bench in the rain. When he was done, the cops got on their walkie-talkies, and soon one of them rolled a garbage bin over and started throwing the wet books into it. The Occupy folks lit up.
“Shame on you!”
It was a drag. I know that Occupy Wall Street is not going to change the course of American economic policy – that ship has already sunk – but if it means that there will be a few more Gentlemen walking the Earth, then I’m all for it, because this world is far too rude.
After saying goodnight to Hy-dro and Tigger, I hailed a cab home. We drove past City Hall, the fortress of Brother-Leader Bloomberg, Lion of Africa (Ozymandias, King of Kings), made a right on Worth Street, and then I was in Chinatown again.
As we drove up the Bowery past Confucius Square, I saw the modest statue of the man for whom it was named, shining in the rain, his mustachioed face lit yellow by the sodium-bulb streetlamps. I was glad to see him, for this was a night that demanded ancient wisdom, and I remembered a warning of his that I received in a fortune cookie once – one that, given the context of struggle and revolution, still worked for me:
Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.