Michael Riley confidently navigated the crowd in his corduroy fedora as we guided the two hand trucks down lower Broadway. Having done this four times that day, he knew the route well. At first, few people paid us any mind, but as we got closer to the park all eyes were on us. Maybe it was Ethan’s wild blond hair and unicorn T-shirt that gave it away. Or maybe the assortment of packages just seemed too hodgepodge to be going anywhere else. Some people expressed their gratitude, while others only had looks of skepticism. Once we pulled into the park and began unloading, all of them had questions. After all, a haul of 30 or 40 donations from around the country for a group of people hanging out in a public park is bound to inspire some curiosity.
I felt very little of this curiosity when I first heard about Occupy Wall Street. Within a week the cops would run them out or they’d give up, and that would be the end of it. Three weeks later, of course, I knew it was time to go see the commotion.
I’d only seen Zucotti Park empty while riding my delivery bike at night, but on this Thursday afternoon it was overflowing as far as the police and their barricades would allow. A line of picketers stood on Broadway and a drum circle played at the Church Street entrance, but it felt more like a village than a protest rally. Encampments of tarps and sleeping bags lined the back portion, and up front they had everything from a makeshift library to a buffet line. In the center of it all, a wall of totes and boxes had been formed around people working on laptops, guarded by a serious-looking man in combat boots with a name tag that read “Brendan.” Nearby, someone was getting his head shaved in a barber chair while being interviewed. Everywhere I looked, people either had a camera or a cause. One woman even stood topless with a painted mustache, nonchalantly chatting with her friends.
Not only had these people completely altered Wall Street’s usual reality, they’d created a whole new one.
I got a cup of coffee from an entrenched food cart and walked around for close to an hour just observing. The signs for “Press” and “Info” were prominently displayed, but I knew most of that information was probably in the handful of literature I’d already been given. When Michael Riley initiated a “mic check” — the call and response announcement system formed after bullhorns were banned — looking for volunteers, I knew it was time to join in. C.J., a fitness trainer who’d been coming for over a week, and Ethan, a truant college student who’d driven from Colorado, had the same idea. Even with everything happening, it’d been hard for them to find ways to help.
“This is something I can do. I can carry boxes,” Ethan said gratefully.
After getting to know each other on the UPS trip, we hunkered down with our boxes at a stone table to catalogue the haul. C.J. recorded names and donations for thank you notes, while we organized the pile. At first I looked to Riley, the official community relations rep, for direction but he was too harried. He’d been going home at night, but could barely sleep and was noticeably losing his voice. Instead, I just played into his sense of urgency as if I was back unloading a pallet at Staples. Aside from jotting the packages’ categories on torn off return labels, there was little of the organization that old job had required, though once we started opening the boxes none of it mattered.
The feeling of goodwill emanating from these packages was so strong it even cheered Riley up. Sent from all over the country by grandmothers, anti-establishmentarians and anonymous donors was everything an occupier could ever want. Using my keys to cut through the tape I pulled out: canned goods, granola bars, clothing, boxes of pastries from a Detroit bakery, tampons, computer cords, emergency blankets, playing cards, gauze pads, books, posters, bars of chocolate, the works. Someone from Alabama even sent two old Beatles records. At one point a random woman claimed she smelled pot coming from the pile, but C.J. quickly told her that wasn’t allowed in the camp.
Once we got enough for a particular station — Food, Comfort, Media, Art or Library — one of us would cut through the crowd for a delivery. The looks this inspired ranged from bewilderment to effusive gratitude (Brendan the guard even cracked a smile), but the collective feeling of relief was the same. Over three weeks into the occupation, people knew and they cared. The scale of deliveries had become so big — over 200 packages per day — that Riley was hoping UPS would deliver directly to the park the next day.
After an hour or so of unpacking, Riley had no need for my services and I resumed my rounds. Over in Media, Brendan had been replaced by the equally imposing Orlando. His title simply read “De-escalation.” Noticing that the Detroit baked goods were out, I sampled one to my enjoyment. With no clear path left, I decided it was time to hit the Press table. Staffed by two men with laptops, a box of random newspapers between them, this seemed far less official than the other stations. Jeff Smith, a middle-aged man in a plaid shirt had me sign a clipboard and asked my intentions warily. Once he learned I wasn’t with a major news organization, he stood up to talk.
Over the next few minutes, with the crowd often listening in, I learned just how lucky this movement truly was. With no official leaders, no clear staffing schedule, little coverage from mainstream media, direct scorn from Bloomberg, minimal recognition from Obama and routine roughness from the cops, this thing was somehow stronger than ever. Having seen how massively successful our corporations have become while working on their ad campaigns, Smith said he wasn’t surprised at all. In a country where wealth inequality seems to grow exponentially, apathy has turned into helplessness.
“What draws people here, is that the stuff we’re talking about here, no one else is talking about, and they’ve been dying for this conversation for so long,” he said.
Coming down every day to work at the information and press tables is Smith’s way of opening up the discussion. After seeing so many different causes find common ground here already, he’s truly confident that this could lead to a serious role in politics, if not create a whole new party. That doesn’t mean the occupiers have interest in such specifics just yet.
“This thing is totally non-partisan… there’s nothing about deficit reduction here, you know, nothing specific, the Dodd-Frank bill, that’s not what this is about. This is about some things are just right and wrong.”
I didn’t necessarily agree with all the fine details, but his point about how the cops across the street earn as much in a year as “the guys up there in those fancy offices” can make in a minute was hard to ignore. Growing up near some of Maine’s richest towns and working at the Odeon in one of New York’s richest neighborhoods had made quite aware of how divisive the wealth gap can be in conversation.
“I mean people don’t really talk about these things in public to each other,” Smith said.
Realizing this was finally changing was so refreshing that I didn’t even mind when an old man interrupted our conversation to ask about the Naomi Klein speech. With Jeff glad for the chance to share his views and me glad to have heard them, we parted ways. I’d been trying to find the places where people’s worlds meet all year, and it seemed like I finally had. More than anywhere else in the city right now, people were voluntarily coming together in droves, myself included. On any other Thursday I’d have been trudging home from waiting tables. Instead, I found Ethan nearby and he read me some of his “poetic nature writing” about rock climbing. Upon hearing a mic check for an imminent meeting, we headed off to learn the principles of direct democracy.
Sitting cross-legged in a circle, the Freedom Towers rising across the street, I listened to a veteran facilitator named Greg explain the procedures behind their daily General Assemblies and smiled. People on the sidewalk — businessmen, tourists, even some old customers from the Odeon — had come over to gawk and take photos. To them I was a part of this, and after five hours maybe I was. Earlier I’d been just another confused journalist, but as Greg talked about the finer points of “friendly amendments” and why they prefer not to vote on anything, it almost made sense. Maybe people were so happy to finally meet some like-minded citizens that they could work effectively enough to make the old rules irrelevant. Without a leader, specific goals or a UPS-recognized address I didn’t know if they could, but they sure were learning fast. During our session, Greg fielded every question with poise, as if he spoke for the entire movement.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this is a new and imperfect system for us,” he said frankly at one point.
It may be new, but as I ate an apple and walked past the massive crowd assembled to see Naomi Klein, it looked pretty damn good for three weeks. The park had somehow become even more energized after sunset. Nearly 150 people slept on site that night with many others working through the morning. Whether or not they can keep this up remains to be seen, but no matter what, they’ve already been successful. The occupation has given people who felt alone in this great big isolating city a place to finally be together.