Murat cem Menguc
Something universal is also particular, for it applies to all particularities, universally. In contrast, something particular remains particular, for it does not apply universally. This seems to be the most important lesson history can teach us, as in his 1964 lectures titled Freedom and History, philosopher and a founder of the New School in New York, Theodor Adorno argues so. Adorno postulates that until people become a victim of history, that is, until they are taught a universal lesson about themselves, they do not realize they were living in a vacuum. Such big lesson rarely comes in a non-violent form and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest camp at the Zuccoti Park, which lasted for two months, was one such precious lesson.
The OWS protests started in September 17, when about 1700 people marched to voice their criticism against the Wall Street. These men and women were greeted by a heavy police presence, and a group of people sipping Champaign on a balcony across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, mocking the protest. A handful of the protesters who had earlier decided to camp in the Chase Plaza, from which they were barred, cleverly moved to the Zuccoti Park, were they set a camp. I was blessed with the fact that Zuccoti Park was where I transferred from subway to bus during my daily commute, and started to interact with the camp three days after it was formed. In the beginning there were about two dozen protestors and on twitter, they amassed less than 2000 followers (today approximately 200,000 people them on twitter, and on November 17 they were able mobilize 32,000 people, whose protests were watched on live stream by over 650,000 people).
Initially, I was surprised by the lack of media coverage of the protest and I joined them after being disturbed by an image the New York Times published, which depicted it as a juvenile orgy, or a summer rave. I emailed a few columnists about this and asked why they could not talk about the protest rather than mock it with such images. Clyde Haberman wrote back “Actually, we’ve covered them every day, in the newspaper on Sunday and every day on City Room, our on-line blog. Aren’t we endlessly told that on line is where young people read these days?” So, according to Mr. Haberman, this protest was about young people, to whom his newspaper catered electronically, whereas the print readers, who were presumably older, did not need to know about it. Ginia Belefante was more articulate, stating that she was working on a large piece to be published on September 25, and asked me if I was involved or observing it from afar. I am an occasional visitor, I replied and she quickly assured me that the protest was not as relevant as I believed, and if I had spent enough time around it, I would have realized that they were an aimless bunch. When I pointed to her how the Guardian hired Amy Goodman to write a column about it, she replied that they got their facts wrong. When I asked her which facts and who got them wrong, the Guardian or Amy Goodman, and supplied her with a list of facts that I was familiar with, such as the harassment and the arrest of dozens of activists and the confiscation of recording devices and computers from the camp by the New York Police Department (NYPD) which started from day one, she stopped responding. The day before Belefante’s essay was published, NYPD kettled, beat and arrested numerous protesters and journalists. It also used pepper spray, illegally. Upon the publication of her essay, Belefante was heavily criticized for her lack of consciousness, understanding and solidarity with the movement, for she still insisted that the OWS was a useless rant.
I have never been a fan of the New York Times, and subscribe to it because my wife thinks it keeps me away from my laptop. The OWS episode made it obvious that they too lacked a clear understanding of what was taking place. At that time, the OWS was partially organized by a group of alternative media/internet activists, who were the creators of an very successful magazine titled Adbusters. This anti-commercialist journal of activism generated decent advertising revenues to support itself. For the initiation of the OWS, Adbusters joined forces with the Internet activists (or hactivists as they became known) the Anonymous. This coalition constituted an alternative media and network team far from incompetent or aimless. One of their participants whom I have interviewed for our Occupy Wall Street Oral History Project explained that the main goal of the protest was to start a paradigm shift, to make masses question the virtue of capitalism and unregulated market economy. The fact that they were able to talk about a paradigm shift alone showed how articulate they were, and that they knew a peaceful movement had to establish its strength via discourse. From the very beginning they treated Internet and independent media was their best options for spreading the movement and organizing something both local and international. They also knew that the spirit of revolution was everywhere, from Bahrain to Detroit.
During the following weeks, the OWS became a New York tourist and celebrity attraction. Being criticized for his handling of the Brooklyn Bridge protest, where 700 protesters were kettled and arrested, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was humiliated. In that environment, the camp attracted the presence of Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek, Cornel West, Michael Moore and Al Sharpton. Noam Chomsky paid tribute to them, and Paul Krugman wrote several columns praising their economic focus. All along the profile of the average protester remained diverse. On a regular day, the overnighters rose from their sleeping bags, around 10 am, and hit the lines for free cigarettes, coffee and breakfast. Children came with their parents, to do painting and reading workshops. A crowd of public yoga and meditation enthusiasts rolled their mats near the drum circle. Working group meetings about finance, small business and legal advice attracted punks with mohawks as well as men in suits. Around early afternoon, almost without fail, a celebrity made an entrance. Crosby and Stills played a set. The tent that housed the library was donated by Patti Smith. Russell Simmons dragged Kanye West into it. Most days came to close with a big dinner and the 7 pm General Assembly. Afterwards there was live music, the drum circle and other casual late night gatherings. The media team of the OWS recorded almost everything and made it available, often live through Global revolution TV. New Yorkers joined the occupation at their convenience. The civil disobedience was the new black, as they said. Some spend their lunch hour there, making friends, talking politics or simply hanging around. Others came after work, for the General Assembly or the party. On the weekends, there were larger marches, like the one on October 15 that took over the Times Square.
All along, the NYPD circled the park resembling a pack of wolves, looking for a lonely sheep who wondered far from the herd. I saw a woman being arrested for writing “Good morning NYPD” on a sidewalk across the street from the park. A police officer told three protesters that if a fourth person who also wore the Vendetta mask joined them, they will be all taken in. Yet, nobody was intimidated. Except the chief of NYPD, Raymond Kelly, who loved to brag about his men’s capability of shooting down planes and whose son worked as a local Fox TV anchor that hates the OWS. Except the mayor Bloomberg, the 12th richest men in the US and whose girlfriend sat at the board of trustees at the Brookfield Properties which owns the Zuccoti Park. Except the Wall Street and its close servants like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
During his address, Zizek told the protesters “communism is dead, but the commons are alive,” and he was cheered full heartedly. In a televised interview, the Republican hopeful Mitt Romney declared the OWS was “class warfare,” and banners were raised declaring that yes, he is right, this is class warfare. My favorite sign read “Screw with us, we multiply.” A week after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, and two days after some 50,000 protesters flocked the Foley Square, on October 7, Friday, the irony of watching Bertold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music wasn’t lost on the New Yorkers either. When Macheath delivered his final speech on the third act, declaring he was only a small criminal in comparison to the bankers and industrialist who took the society they lived in as a hostage, the audience treated him with a strong applause.
We started the OWS Oral History Project in this environment. The first person I interviewed was an anarchist and an MIT drop out, who described himself as an activist photographer. He had an untamable energy. All my life I have been told I was smart, he said. But I found myself a family for the first time in here and I will never walk out on them. Another interviewee was a female priest from New Jersey, who brought vegan food to the protesters for dinner. Many of them are vegetarians, she informed me, and many are vegans. She said after delivering them the food, she collected memorabilia from the camp and send them to her son who had to move to China, because there were no jobs in US. One woman was flown in from California by legal marijuana growers who were disappointed with the federal law that banned their practice. They promised to fly me to every single OWS protest in the country, she said, so that I can communicate their support. On the night of November 15, I met an iron worker from California. He came to New York for a short term contract, because there were no jobs where he lived. I rented an apartment in a noisy neighborhood, he joked so come to OWS to find some peace and quiet. He said he missed his Harley Davidson and going fishing the most, but it was time to protest.
When I left the park, there were hundreds of people. Some were returning from their daily assemblies and workshops, and heading for the food line. The library was packed. Six or seven hours later, in a coordinated federal effort, with the assistance of FBI and CIA, some 18 different OWS camps around the US were attacked by the police (and about which the President Barak Obama was most probably briefed). I watched the NYPD raid the Zuccoti Park, get it washed with Clorox, pressure hose the whole scene and surround it with barricades, on my laptop. Although a judge ruled against this eviction, the mayor Bloomberg up held it until he found another judge to rule in his favor, and guarantee that there will be no tents or tent like structures. By 3 pm, a great crowd had gathered outside the park, waiting for the final verdict. On the Internet, the activists’ camera focused on a group of police officers and private security guards who stroll the empty park, along with a half a dozen of pigeons. This negative image of the previous day, where by the people of the camp were kept outside and the police of the outside were gated in, was an extremely disheartening thing to look at. Where once lived and grow an alternative political life, now stood a clean concrete desert. It was as if liberty wondered off, and we were left to wonder if it will ever return and in what shape.
On November 17, the liberty returned, and according to the NYPD’s estimates, it was 32,000 people strong. Those of us who became involved knew that the OWS was not about tents and sleeping bags. In New York, at the aftermath of 9/11, the experience of political inclusion became fragmented especially for the liberal minded. Since 9/11, New York resembled a disjointed puzzle, which struggled to keep itself together, as popular conservatism and gentrification tore apart its multicultural fabric. The US mainstream media perpetuated an appalling ignorance of the World’s people, economy, politics and history. Like Zuccoti Park, many public spaces were privatized, patronized and patriotized, often with blunt expressions of Americanism that had outright fascist tones. Political solidarity became a personal matter, meaning that it had to be experience behind closed doors, and only in the company of one’s immediate family and friends. The OWS camp at the Zuccoti Park changed that. Here, political solidarity did not go home, and stayed in the public sphere. It refused to be privatized. For those of us who were caught in its orbit, who kept going back to meet with more people, exchanged political ideas, and paid respect to the hundreds of men and women who slept on a concrete floor for two months in the name of something they believed in, this camp was a liberty square. Its existence proved that in the desert of US politics, someone rode something as distinctly American as a Harley Davidson, and he was our brother. Today that experience must be put on paper in the past tense, which confirms that something happened. Many of us believe that it was for better.