Pre-Occupy

Notes from Zuccotti Park.

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Fall is a season for insomnia. The temperate weather and the knowledge that Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming triggers a kind of physiological alarm, a manic desire to live the year-end. At 3:30 in the morning, after hours spent tossing and turning, I abruptly stood up and put on pants and a shirt. A magnetic tug called me toward the window. Yellow squares of light glowed from high-rise public housing in the distance; the moon illuminated the low-lying cloud cover. 

   

For the first time since 9/11, New York felt restless, pregnant, as if something unexpected could still happen, as if at this late date we could still find new ways to live in the metropolis. I threw on my shoes and stood wavering, about to leave my bedroom, but not sure of where to go. A bar? Grand Central? Maybe a friend’s place? But before a decision could be rationally made, my feet took over, knowing where they wanted to go. I locked my Brooklyn tenement deadbolt, went outside, and descended into the subway toward Zuccotti Park.

The G train platform is always empty at that time of night, desolate like a Bergman film. I sat on a worn-out bench. Waiting for the train, a song I haven’t thought about for a very long time came out of nowhere. A song called “Sleepwalkers,” on the final full-length by the seminal North Carolina hardcore band Zegota. Named for the clandestine resistance movement to the German occupation of Poland, Zegota was a kind of magnet that young activists and radicals of the early-to-mid 2000s gathered around — the spiritual force to periodically rejuvenate the political will. The band toured the world and put out beautiful handcrafted records on the Crimethinc label, the largest publisher of anarchist propaganda at the time. They played conferences, collectives, houses, and anti-globalization gatherings for about a decade before announcing a hiatus in the mid-2000s. What was billed as their last show was held in the linoleum-floored room of a church somewhere deep in Washington, D.C. after the National Conference of Organized Resistance (NCOR). The show turned out to be cathartic for those in attendance, the kids who were too young for Seattle who would later be too old for Occupy. The last song they played, a loud, exultant cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” left most of the audience in tears, Neil Young’s lyrics retrofitted to suit the schizoid Bush years: Tin soldiers and Bush is coming / we’re finally on our own.

I heard that, after going on hiatus, the members each went on to do interesting things. The Nordic-looking lead singer became a farmer. The bassist moved to Amsterdam. The petite, ever-boyish guitarist (who always seemed like the quiet ringleader of the band) relocated to Stockholm to raise his son. In short, they each continued the struggle on their own terms.

Quiet little  “Sleepwalkers” continued to haunt me. The keyboard-driven lullaby seemed like a premonition, a glimpse of what-will-come of the kind you get when reading Dostoevsky and can smell the inchoate class rage that would, 40 years later, boil over into revolution. The lyrics of the song came back to me all at once:

I had a dream I walked the city in my sleep
and that I found my way home at last
and nothing could lead me there but the things that I believed
and in the end it was all I needed

to find my way back home

The night before, I had attended the occupation of Times Square with a friend, a fellow veteran of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement. Those were the acronym years of the FTAA, the GATT, the WTO, and the G20; also, the black mask, the affinity group, the pepper spray compound, and the class-action lawsuit. Since then, time had done its work. By tiny imperceptible degrees, we had transitioned from crusty, black-clad youth into reasonable Harper’s-reading adults. But the experience with the movement informed our view of Occupy. It was disorienting to look out on all the angry teenagers and college students, drunk on their youth power and protesting the first time, none of them realizing that they were part of a lineage that stretched back to the beginning of time, each generation isolated and alone, getting older at their own speed; that they were just the latest model of youth that would soon be obsolete.

Afterward, hearing that a second occupation would be opening up, we ventured down to Washington Square Park. We entered the park and made our way into a General Assembly that was taking place in the drained-out basin of the central fountain. The facilitators of the General Assembly were all crowded up on an elevated stone circle at the fountain’s center, like a hype crew at a hip-hop club. Hundreds of people fanned out in circles around them, listening and repeating their statements. The lit-up Washington Square arch framed the General Assembly meeting like a halo. There, late one night in 1917, Marcel Duchamp and a gang of friends had broken into the Arch and climbed to the top. They released red balloons, popped bottles of champagne, and declared Greenwich Village a “free and independent Republic.”

Aesthetically, there was something a little too perfect about this next wave of 21st-century activists. Their pore-cleansed skin and expensive-looking, fashionable clothing. These perfect specimens of youth, brimming confidence in their historical mission, looked like they would fit in as well in an iPod commercial as in a riot.

My impression of the anti-globalization years was that we must have looked like demons, world-historical gargoyles, filthy and unshaven with sideways haircuts and wearing black, patched-up clothing covered in grease and dirt, looking like we’d just crawled out of some squat hovel to protest before mysteriously retreating back up into the eaves.

A lofty, new-age rhetoric carries the Washington Square Park General Assembly forward. The facilitators repeat words like “beautiful” and “history” over and over, searing the phrases into the minds of those who’ve gathered. This moment is beautiful. This moment is history. It’s like a mantra. Later, when one woman says This moment is pregnant with possibility and the crowd repeats the phrase, a shudder passes through me, brought on by the truth of the statement. Donated pizzas are circulated throughout the crowd. My friend told me that the Zuccotti Park occupiers get pizzas donated to them so often that the pizzeria around the corner has created a special pie named after them — “the Occu-pie.”

A constant problem for social struggles is that active participation is limited to those who have the time and energy to pursue it. There seems to have been a definitive generational rupture between the last generation and this one. The window-smashing black-blocker of 2003 is now the mellowed-out supporter of 2011, showing up at Zuccotti Park to drop off books and toothpaste. In the short time that had passed since the Bush years, nearly everyone I had known (myself included) had given up activism and receded into grad school, a family, or intellectual or cultural production. Most of us burrowed into art, music, and careers, only to re-emerge as reluctant Obama voters in 2008.

I remember well the sense of doomed futility in 2002, just months after 9/11, as we marched against the World Economic Forum in New York, knowing that the effect would be negligible. I remember one moment during the Miami Free Trade of the Americas protests in 2003. While running away from a phalanx of advancing police, an unmarked van had squealed to a stop in front of a guy who was running about 200 feet ahead of me. Police dressed like black-blockers jumped out, beat him up, and then threw him in the back of the van. His friend became hysterical and asked over and over where they had taken him. We didn’t know what to tell her. The repression in those years was brutally effective. Everyone I know seemed to leave these protests with a feeling of subdued hopelessness, with a sense that none of it mattered. As a friend of mine from that time put it recently, “Now it feels like none of that stuff ever even happened.”

It should be noted that in terms of sheer numbers, the post-Seattle anti-globalization mobilizations between 2000 and 2007 tended to be larger than the Occupy events thus far. Why were those years so futile while Occupy has so easily caught on? As one of the organizers of Occupy, David Graeber, recounted in a conversation he had with an Egyptian activist named Dina:

‘All these years,’ she said, ‘we’ve been organizing marches, rallies… And if only 45 people show up, you’re depressed, if you get 300, you’re happy. Then one day, 200,000 people show up. And you’re incredulous: on some level, even though you didn’t realize it, you’d given up thinking that you could actually win.’

To put it in PR terminology, the anti-globalization movement had a serious credibility problem. There was no way a movement that branded itself as fringe ultra-left and anti-American could ever attract average, pragmatic, family-minded Americans. At nearly ever protest, some menacing-looking kid in black ritualistically broke a window and set something on fire. There were plenty of signs that said “Fuck America” and the mainstream media film crews usually clustered around the lone individual burning an American flag. It seemed as if the anarchists were usually concerned with the symbolic, militant portrayal of “an anarchist presence” rather than cooperating with other groups or making a real change. The anti-globalization movement basically just followed these international entities (the WTO, G20, IMF) around the globe and protested in any city where they had a closed-off meeting. This model was tactically inefficient and undermined credibility — the city leadership only had to cry “foreign anarchist agitators” and “conference-hopping activists” to justify a police crackdown.

Occupy seems to mark a significant evolution. It seems like the early-to-mid 2000s were like the grim, nihilistic, Narodnik late 1800s compared to the current populist 1905 moment. The anti-globalization movement possessed none of Occupy’s non-violent patriotic sheen. Occupy is about starting where you are — building up a community and working on your home turf. Affinity groups are much more cautious than they were in the anti-globalization years. They sit down and discuss what they’re going to do before they do it. Inclusion and a lengthy democratic process are emphasized. This is important because if the goal is democracy, then this has to be practiced throughout. As David Graeber put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the ends and the means have to be the same.”

New York’s Financial District takes on an altogether different character at night. I find it bewitching to wander downtown streets in those quiet predawn hours when the brokers and marauding hedge fund managers have all gone home to Staten Island and Jersey. The narrow, labyrinthine streets are more Arthur Conan Doyle than Michael Lewis: storefronts shuttered, steam pouring from grates. You can almost feel the briny old New York rising up from beneath the cobblestones. You can sense the rhythmic waves beating against the Battery just a few blocks away. At Broadway, I turned South and headed toward the matte-black Death Star skyscraper that overlooks Zuccotti Park.

Framed by low clouds and the gap in the sky of the missing Trade Centers, the Occupy Wall Street tent city looked like Five Points reincarnated, the rough, rakish, homesteaders’ New Amsterdam revenging itself on the sleek, technocratic future. The cops standing guard at the edges of the encampment had glazed-over eyes; they looked like bored teenagers forced to do something they don’t want to do. A few scattered groups were awake, perched on the marbled benches throughout the park, sharing cigarettes and talking in whispers. Most were asleep. A huge Marine in stripped-down fatigues paced the perimeter of the square, chain-smoking. A young man with a fiddle and old-timey clothes played softly by the 24-hour concession trucks.

Adults have so few opportunities to watch large groups of people slumbering together. There was something deeply comforting about the experience — long-forgotten memories of a nursery, of a lock-in at church, sleeping bags strewn across slick polyurethane-coated floors. Bodies were rolled up in crinkly blue tarps or hidden in cardboard box castles, sprawling across the park in various states of improvised comfort. Most slept out in the open air on that perfect fall night, lined up in mummy sleeping bags, faces poking out, eyes closed. There was something mystically subversive about it all, as if they were spending the day in occupation, but were also all meeting each other again at night in the world of dreams. I found myself staring at a man as old as my grandfather asleep in a nylon sleeping bag. His face was thin and gaunt, hair shock white, skin wrinkled to leather. He looked like a cadaver. But he was smiling. 

After circling the perimeter of the park a couple of times (and giving out the rest of my cigarettes), I realized there was an undeniably strange cosmic symmetry in the fact that the agglutination of human warmth and positive energy that is Occupy Wall Street had materialized just blocks away from the festering wound of negative energy that is Ground Zero.

People like to go to Occupy Wall Street because it is a tear in the commoditized social fabric of New York City. It just feels good to be there, as people say. Tourists snap pictures. Residents stop by after mimosas and brunch on Saturday afternoons. But mostly, people go down because they are lonely. The best place to go when you’re lonely is the Temporary Autonomous Zone. You might see someone you know. You might have an interesting conversation with someone you don’t. Normally frigid social relations are warmed up and people can interact with each other on an even playing field, without being dogged by hierarchy. It’s like the YMCA of yore, the place to go when you’re feeling down, where you can pick yourself of the ground. The sense of something bursting from the earth of Lower Manhattan, of something dead coming back to life. You too can come and bask in the warmth of the Commune. • 11 November 2011

Aaron Lake Smith is a writer from North Carolina who writes the fanzine Big Hands. His work has also appeared in Time, Vice, Newsweek, and n+1.

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