What It's Like To Be An Occupier At Night: A Firsthand Account
An Occupier isn't just your casual visitor to Zuccotti Park, or a sometime demonstrator for the Occupy Wall Street cause. Occupiers are those who actually sleep out in the concrete square, enduring the bitter New York night to prove their point.
It is those nighttime hours that make Occupy Wall Street such a particular protest, so AOL Jobs decided to join the Occupiers for a night, and get a nocturnal taste of the action.
There must be at least 1,500 people here, mostly crowded around the east end, where the General Assembly -- like every night -- has been in full force since 7. It's high dinner hour, and I hop in line for a plate of vegetarian chili, couscous, grilled beets, mac and cheese, and chicken. Two men jam on their banjos nearby.
As I eat cross-legged on the cool pavement, a woman comes over and asks if I need warm socks. My feet are fine, thank you. The woman smiles and says to come to the Comfort Station if I change my mind.
The General Assembly has been powering on for 2½ hours now, and at least 300 people remain packed around the Zuccotti steps.
"Well, look who's still here!" yells one girl. The world cheers.
Topic of discussion: Metrocards. The next day -- the Global Day of Action -- is the day of the scheduled Times Square rally. Facilitators are asking the crowd if they should purchase $2,500 in subway cards with their $300,000-or-so budget, so that Occupiers can hop a ride to the festivities.
The motion needs a 9/10ths consensus to pass.
"I cannot guarantee what will happen," says one facilitator about tomorrow's plans (over 80 protesters were ultimately arrested). "We're hoping some people will stay, and not leave the park vulnerable." Just that morning, protesters had resisted police attempts to clear them for a 7 a.m. cleaning. Occupiers considered it a landmark triumph for the protest.
The motion fails.
Deep in the park, a policeman approaches one camp, which has tarp taped up to create a makeshift shelter. "The Constitution doesn't protect tents," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a recent news conference, and policemen have been trying to enforce a no-structure policy. But after three weeks, people's campouts have become increasingly elaborate.
The policeman knocks on the tarp's entrance. A young man emerges, who seems a little sleepy, or a little high, or a little both.
The officer tells the young man to dismantle his structure. The man picks up the piece of cardboard that had been resting atop the tarp, which explains, in marker, that the hut is a sukkah, the temporary structure built for the Jewish festival Sukkot, which is therefore protected under the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.
"That's not a sukkah," says the policeman gruffly. "Take it down."
The man continues to hold his ground, waving the sign, and preaching the sanctity of the First Amendment.
"That's a tent in the disguise of a sukkah," the policeman says, with no hint of a wink.
Five or six police officers gather, a crowd forms, protesters whip out their cell phones and click "record," the blinking lights daring the officers to make a wrong move.
The young man takes down the tarp.
At least a few dozen Occupiers have already cocooned themselves around the park. It's difficult to know where to step, since the layers of bright blue tarp and blankets look mostly the same whether or not someone is under them.
The General Assembly has broken into three smaller discussion groups. They're debating how to deal with the mostly white and mostly male representations of Occupy Wall Street in the media. Most agree that white men have been the most outspoken so far, which is a problematic image to project for a movement that claims to speak for the 99 percent.
"Racism is inherent to any large gathering of people," says one young woman, "or small gathering of people."
Some suggest that at the rally tomorrow protesters should defer to a woman or a person of color whenever the media requests a comment.
Others call that censorship.
The General Assembly reunites. "As a woman, it's intimidating," says one protester. "Almost all the outspoken people are white males."
"The General Assembly finds it absolutely vital that women, people of color, and other marginalized voices are brought to the foreground," says a black female facilitator.
It's unclear, however, how that noble idea could be practically enforced.
"Marginalization in the opposite direction is not a solution. The face of this movement is a multicolored one," pipes in one Latino male. "Manufacturing diversity is not the answer. As a minority I find that patronizing and a little offensive."
The crowd cheers.
After over five hours of tense debate and sometimes clumsy procedure, the General Assembly finally breaks up. "This might sound a little old school," yells one girl, "but power to the people!"
A few dozen people stay hovering around the steps, critiquing the meeting. "I had difficulty hearing people over 10 competing egos," complains one young man.
Cupcakes at the kitchen.
A Duane Reade truck rolls by, honking for the protesters.
Around 150 people are now tucked up asleep. The kitchen has stopped handing out hot food, but peckish protesters can help themselves to tortilla chips and pumpkin seeds.
A few Occupiers play chess, while a handful of others kick around a soccer ball at the side of the encampment. A few policeman hover nearby, and look like they might break up the game. They don't.
I visit the Comfort Station to scrounge for some supplies. There are no more sleeping bags, blankets or jackets, but there's a plentiful stock of scarves, gloves and underwear. One man hands me four chemical hand-warmer packets.
The camp has quieted to a soft murmur, with only a few pockets of people awake. The Medical Tent is light and lively, however. A small white board nearby reads "Number of medics arrested" with a tally of nine. Below that, it says, "Number of medics discouraged." There's a big zero.
I am awoken from my uneasy slumber in a western corner of the park. A few men sitting around two feet away are dealing small baggies of cannabis to friends, and trying to start fights with passersby.
One of the less publicized issues at Zuccotti Park is the growing number of criminals who have staked out a home there, slipping into women's sleeping bags at night and looting unattended camps. It's a hard problem to tackle when the movement has declared itself open to any and all. Any and all in New York City can be a very mixed bunch. In response to some concerns from female Occupiers, there is a demarcated "safe area" for women to sleep.
I decide to find a new spot in the camp's safer and livelier east end.
There are around 60 or so Occupiers still awake. "Good evening," says one man as I walk by. "Welcome to the party," says another.
You can hear snatches of conversation as you dance your way among the breathing bundles. "The world's burning up or cooling down, who knows?"
I wake up. Downtown is still dead and dark, but the air in Zuccotti Park is vibrating with the beginnings of another day. Volunteers at the kitchen are busy slicing bread for sunrise, and at least a hundred Occupiers have already launched into their morning debates. Or perhaps they're still the evening ones.
I go home.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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