Reporting On Occupy Wall Street: Still Trying To Figure Out What They’re Doing
Editor’s Note Josh Sternberg is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. His articles have been published in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Mashable & Mediaite. His blog is The Sternberg Effect. He recently published a first hand account of Occupy Wall Street, which is republished below with his permission.
Upon exiting the 2/3 at Wall Street, I was expecting to be swept up in a crowd of people marching down that corporate alleyway, playing music and chanting, “We shall overcome.” Or, at the very least, see some of New York’s Finest pepper-spraying protesters while men in $5,000 suits stood back and watched. Instead, I saw the typical throng of tourists gawking at the Fed, taking pictures of the George Washington Statue and lining up to pose with the New York Stock Exchange in the background. I also saw steel barricades, which obviously meant protest.
I continued to follow the barriers along Broad Street, and saw a real-life protest. Only this wasn’t the Occupy Wall Street protest. It was the Airline Pilot’s Association union protesting lack of progress on collective bargaining agreement between them and their employers, mainly Continental and United. The two companies merged last year and apparently haven’t made any movement. The pilots were organized, marching in uniforms and in shifts, carrying signs that read, “What’s a pilot worth? Depends on your perspective,” with an image of the famous Hudson River landing plane, and “Management is destroying our airline.”
As one NYPD officer told me, “These guys…these guys are pros. What they do, they should protest. They’re (employers) are taking away their benefits, making them work ‘til they’re 70. Who wants to work ‘til they’re 70?”
After seeing the pilots’ professional protest, I made my way to Zuccotti Park, which sits in the shadow of the under-construction World Trade Center. It could easily be misinterpreted as a pre-Phish show parking lot. Cardboard signs, guys playing guitar, girls holding their fingers up for the international symbol for peace. There’s somewhat of a Shakedown Street with Halal carts, fresh fruit stands, smoothie hut and a bread stand. Oh, and a typical New York souvenir stand. There are sleeping bags and mattresses, couches and tables, even a little legal corner where people can go get free legal advice. Though, while I was there, there were no attorneys in the “legal center.”
At the top of the park, I found Robert Daros, from Florida, sitting in a chair behind a table with a sign that said, “info.” Originally from Florida, he saw a poster in a café and wanted to participate. So he quit his job and came to the park. He, like everyone else who is taking part in the Occupy Wall Street protests, is still trying to figure out how to successfully organize.
As of now, it’s a haphazard process, as there’s no leadership, no message. Nothing but a group of a few hundred people – and of that group, I saw about 10 to 15 actually take charge of something – trying to figure out what they’re doing.
“All decisions we make as a group are decided in a purely democratic process, which is extremely cumbersome and slow moving,” said Daros. “There are no elected officials. There are people to take responsibility, like myself. No one told me to come sit here. I just sat. Some people take into their own hands to distribute fliers. But no is telling them to do so. And no one is essential organizing anything.”
Leia Doran, who has been at Zuccotti Park, for the past two days, echoed that sentiment. She explained that the messaging is still a process and it’s still being refined as the collective group is trying to figure out what to ask for.
“I’m here because I want to see the people responsible for the financial crisis to be investigated and tried,” she told me, as we stood about 20 feet away from the afternoon’s General Assembly.
While there is a lack of organization in regards to leadership and messaging, they have at least figured out how to organize their day. In several spots throughout the park there are boards that give an hour-by-hour agenda. They hold these General Assemblies several times during the day to try to figure out what it is they are doing. As with other assemblies, there is division between members: some want elected leaders, some don’t.
Jesse Levy doesn’t want elected leaders representing the groups. “We need to prioritize consensus,” he said.
Doran explained that “the majority opinion here is that there should be no leadership, as people take offense to others being in charge.”
Besides selecting people to represent the group, the biggest problem is that there has yet to be a cohesive message. Their objections are not directed against any particular part of the political or economic system, however, it seems two broad themes are rising to the top: accountability for corporate and political malfeasance and limit the relationship companies can have with politicians. The protests appear to function as a way to highlight that the system is a production of the wealthy, and it’s time for reform.
Doran, for example, wants to prosecute those responsible for the financial collapse, but also to have lobbying reforms and campaign finance reforms.
Levy wants for state reforms to make new laws regarding the relationships between corporations and politicians.
Rob Daros sums up this multi-issue, lack of message problem. “We aren’t one organization. We’re trying to become one, and I feel we are, because there are a lot of us, and a lot of different people here, are the collective voice, the collective conscious, of the nation. Essentially there are too many demands for us to have one demand. Very vaguely, I would say you could take down corporate influence out of the government so we are better represented and that our country doesn’t do anything that is so terrible.”
In addition to these internal hurdles, denizens of Zuccotti Park face external challenges. As of now, they have no official legal team to help advise on large matters such as arrests, or small matters like securing places for signage or even having amplification. During the General Assembly, they use a ‘human microphone.’ To start speaking, a presenter will say “mic check” three times, and each time the audience will respond with “mic check.” Following that, the speaker launches into what he or she has to say, pausing after ever few words so the larger audience can repeat, and amplify, the speaker’s message. A bit tiresome, yes, but somewhat effective, as one can stand at the other end of the park and make out what’s being said.
Since there is no amplification, they also use hand signals during the general assembly to indicate their approval, disapproval or even point of process. Don’t be confused when you see jazz-hands, it means they approve; fingers pointing down is disapproval, and co-opting Phil Jackson’s Triangle Sign, they use it to indicate it’s a point of process.
Over the coming days, should this group of disaffected citizens determine leadership and a message, we may see this group get larger. With Susan Sarandon popping by today and Michael Moore, yesterday, along with Noam Chomsky’s support, celebrity activists are bringing media with them. Bloggers and journalists are starting to migrate downtown. There were about a dozen journalists with notepads, many more with video and still cameras, and at least one foreign crew from Hong Kong – two girls, one camera – patrolling the park.
People participating in Occupy Wall Street told me they are staying there for the long haul. They have food, water and sleeping bags on mattresses. The only thing I didn’t see was a portopotty. But as the protesters planned for their “Closing Bell March,” even the NYPD were in good spirits today. Many of them are working in 12-hour shifts, and are enjoying it, as it’s overtime pay.
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