Rajeev Ravisankar recounts what it was like to be there at the Liberty Plaza, the nerve centre of the Occupy movement.
In the midst of an ongoing economic recession, the Occupy Wall Street movement has sparked the imagination of people across the United States The “occupiers from below” decry the concentration of wealth and power in the top one percent and increasing economic inequality in American society.
“Occupy” started over a month ago and has branched out with demonstrations of solidarity in over 1,000 cities around the U.S. and the world. Mainstream media outlets provided little coverage until protestors endured police repression, including pepper spray, baton attacks, and hundreds of arrests. Recently, protestors based in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, the movement's primary staging ground, avoided potential eviction under the guise of cleaning the park as city officials and park owners backed down.
I arrived at Zuccotti Park, called Liberty Plaza by the occupiers, on a weekday afternoon in late September. I came just in time to experience the General Assembly, where hundreds of people participate in a democratic decision-making process based on consensus.
Initially, I found it strange that almost everyone was repeating the words of the person speaking, but I soon found out that this human microphone is a clever way to get around city restrictions on using voice amplifying devices. As General Assembly participants continued deliberating, I decided to walk around the park to get a better sense of what was happening.
People talked and played guitars softly while others napped. Onlookers watched curiously, taking photos from time to time. Protest signs were lying around in different areas, and like many other people, I peered over the messages about putting “people over profit,” undue corporate influence in the political sphere, home foreclosures, environmental degradation, and worker rights.
The space facilitated diverse interactions among people. I overheard two bankers arguing that government and regulations are to blame for the economic crisis rather than financial institutions. When they left, the man sitting next to me shared his views as one of the many jobless. A few of us engaged about the meaning of the Occupy movement; one was from Wisconsin and we talked about struggles to preserve labour union rights in our respective states.
The occupation seemed almost ordinary, and I wondered “Is this it?” But there are many faces of protest and resistance beyond pitched confrontations between police and demonstrators. That day, the inner workings of the alternative presented by the movement were on display.
Networks of mutuality had already developed, ensuring the occupation's viability. I passed by a food table offering free pizza, bread, and fruit and a medical station with volunteers. At the media centre, a team updates the website and maintains the movement's online presence. The space also includes a performance area and a makeshift library. Later, I learned that the sanitation working group helps clean the park and has developed a system to treat and recycle wastewater.
The occupiers are living an alternative to the status quo of a consumer-based society and profit-driven economic system in which individuals are reduced to self-interested utility maximizers. Their horizontal organising and democratic decision-making challenges technocratic governance driven by credentialed ‘experts'.
Rajeev Ravisankar is a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio.