Doug Tarnopol assesses the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City.
It all started in Paris. That’s where I first heard of Occupy Wall Street. My wife and I were on vacation in Europe for most of the month of September, enjoying the fruits of our luck and pluck. We’re not unemployed; we’re pretty much doing fine.
Wait a minute, you say, as did the reporters from Der Spiegel, Channel 2 in NYC, and others who interviewed me at OWS. If you’re doing OK, why are you here?
Like other love affairs, mine with OWS followed the usual trajectory. Admiration from afar. Approach. Gift-giving. Statements of support. Telling my friends how awesome the new love object is. Then, finally, union. At first, I gave money from Rhode Island. Then, I decided to rent a car, fill the trunk, and drive down to deliver it and introduce myself, shyly, tentatively.
The response was emotionally overwhelming — hugs, thanks, joy. For about $600 worth of socks, Neosporin, fleece, tampons. In my work terms, about four or five hours of private SAT tutoring. Good deal.
I returned the next couple of days, observing the organizational meetings, as anyone can on Livestream. That’s democracy in action, by the way, and that is the vaunted “point” of OWS: here, finally, is a demonstration of how you organize a polity, a factory, an office, a world: through conversation, with fairness, and ending up with what is known as “total buy-in” in the business world. Democracy, period. You know, what we’re all supposedly for.
But I was still on the outside, still a little shy. So, I went on the march on Wednesday. Amazing turn-out. Old, young; black, white, brown. You name a division, it was represented and, at least temporarily, effaced. Solidarity, period. You know, what we’re all supposedly for.
Returning with the march to Liberty Plaza, and once again wallflowering my way around the encampment, I gravitated back to the kitchen. I’d been shopping for them — more cutting boards, good knives, plastic plates. A grey-water system had sprung up overnight; more self-exemplification — here’s how you recycle and live within constraints. The older man at the sink looked beat. The makeshift sign next to him said something like, “Hey, bourgeois tourists — don’t just take pictures; join us!” Something clicked, and I finally made my move.
“Hey, let me take over.”
Relief and a big smile.
I hit the sink. Never has doing the dishes been such a joy. Total support and affection. You know how you don’t get enough of that at work? Ever been hugged tearfully for pitching in? Hard to do that when the goal of the endeavor is to give your CEO another summer house, lose more of your benefits, and help push the climate past failsafe. If you even have a job. Liberty, fraternity, equality. You know, all that stuff we’re supposed to believe in.
This is all one guy’s impression, but I have to say that the vast majority of people I spoke to were very bright, well-informed, well-read, and on the ball. A lot of talk of politics, but also of Mongolian army tactics, differences between Greek and Roman social and political systems, the Red Sox’s epic collapse, and so on. Constant laughter.
Problems? Sure! You didn’t expect any? This is a human society, not heaven. The grey-water system blew a leak and threatened a bunch of campers’ stuff. Grey matter took over, people were calmed down — the “de-escalation” guys swarmed in, spreading good-fellowship — and we took the system offline till morning, when the people who knew how to work it would fix it.
Another, funny problem was that I cut myself (not badly) with the knife I’d donated on the cutting board I’d donated. Consider it a briss, though luckily I hit mostly nail, so no actual “foreskin” was removed. I was now definitely inside, not outside.
I did get to see how medical worked, though. Competent, kind. Excellent bedside manner. Loving and caring. You know, all that stuff we’re supposed to be for.
“You guys really know what you’re doing,” I said.
“We fake it well, don’t we?”
Four hours into it, I was a veteran, showing the constant stream of volunteers how the kitchen was organized, what was where. The guy from Copenhagen on vacation who just had to come down. The architect (employed) from France who lives in New York. He was a very good sweeper.
The kitchen is right in the middle of the park; everyone eats. So, you get all kinds of questions. I finally was able to put my customer-service skills to good use — first time — and we organized some lines of communication with media, comfort (where you get clothes and other gear), medical, security, etc. Got lists of needed supplies together for media, for example. Moved forward. Got stuff done. Worked. There is an awesome amount of real work going on at Liberty Plaza.
It was hard, I admit, to concentrate fully on the dishes. Every five minutes — literally — we would get another donation of food or money. Sometimes every minute or so. People handing it over with smiles or tears; sometimes both. We were thanked constantly for doing our work. Everyone is; nothing special about us. When mail arrives at comfort, for example, the packages are opened, the heartfelt letters read — often people with nothing are sending whatever they can, full of hope for the movement, for themselves — tears shed, and items stored or distributed. The stream of packages is never-ending, as far as I could tell.
No one could keep count of how many people we fed — no time — but as the march ended around dinnertime, we worked nonstop feeding and cleaning till around 8-ish. At that point, I knew I was staying the night. The usual kitchen-managers felt comfortable enough to leave us and grab a shower in Astoria or some sleep. I’ve never felt prouder.
We took over the kitchen and, as the night progressed and traffic fell, we did a major excavation and cleaning. There have been so many donations that some older layers on the site haven’t seen the light of day for weeks. I found scissors, a flashlight, clothes, and much more. Ran it over to the right areas. Re-covered the surfaces in clean plastic sheeting, after a nice disinfection. Threw out some food that was starting to spoil. By the way, the plaza (“Zuccotti”) is usually electrified. The owner (it’s apparently privately owned) turned off the electricity, just to fuck with us. (You note the pronoun? “You” became “we” at some point early in the evening. A key moment.) Oh, well: someone donated a generator. There was a small gasoline spill around midnight up by the stairs. Security came to us; we put our heads together. No kitty litter (noted, sent to media for the daily donation requests on Twitter, Facebook, et al)…. How about talcum powder? Off to medical; back to the spill. Done. Cops came over, inspected, good to go.
The cops, by the way, in my experience, were pretty nice to the people in the park. I think they respect effort and dedication — and, yes, order. Not bad-order but the kind of well-run, highly organized society you get with (gasp!) real democracy — aka, anarchism; aka, libertarian socialism; aka, insert-label-here. Like we should care at all what we call it.
Lost and found was kind of funny. We lost it. Like the Loch Ness Monster: many sightings, no hard evidence of actual existence. After a couple of hours fielding that question, I just grabbed an empty plastic bin, labeled it Lost and Found, took it to comfort, who were happy to “own” it, made a sign and taped it to the info desk. Done. I was a little worried that my action would be seen as “non-consensual.” You know how anarchists can be. I checked with some people — they laughed off my concerns. Sure, if someone’s pissed about it — and who would be? — it’d get taken up at the next meeting and either ratified or undone. But they’re very DIY down there.
Water is an issue, of course. Believe it or not, the office buildings around the park have been allowing people in to dump waste water and fill up with fresh water. Office buildings. In the Wall Street area. Like the many double-decker tour buses that cheered us on as they passed, the building workers are highly sympathetic. Give an ID and you’re in. The local McDonald’s, which is 24/7, has let it be known that their bathrooms are open to all protesters free of charge. The local Duane Reed, where I went to buy some water after-hours, is all for it. The manager and the checkout staff were hugely supportive.
As I tried to drag twelve gallons down Broadway in two handled bags — twenty steps, rest; twenty steps, rest — a guy in a suit and tie stopped and asked:
“You taking that down to the protest?”
“Need a hand?”
We got it in. He was hailed by all concerned. He’ll go home and think about that.
Another guy showed up at the kitchen around five. He’d come from New Rochelle. He had a full day’s work ahead, but he’d made a ton of hot tea, put it in a cylindrical cooler-thingy, strapped it into a special backpack, and delivered it to us. Wrote his name and email on the cooler — “Get it back to me when you can.” And off to work he went.
One of the many food trucks rimming the park sold us a coffee for $25 for a huge cooler’s worth. He donated all his leftovers — muffins, bagels — before he left for the day.
As did the manager of a local Starbucks. See, they throw out all their unsold food at night, along with literally hundreds of thousands of other restaurants around the country — as people go hungry. No money in getting it to the people who need food, including the one-in-four children currently on food stamps or other support. This is known as “the efficiency of capitalism.” Anyway, she’s been hand-trucking it down to us. Every day. And will continue. Small act for her — as were all of these acts I’m describing, including my own — huge impact for us.
Tea Guy also brought a pound of tobacco and rolling papers. There is a communal tobacco pile on a table that gets replenished, along with the papers, of course. By the way, I saw very little evidence of drug or alcohol use. One small empty Petron bottle. A whiff every so often. But most are not there to party, and by “most” I mean 99%. It’s hard work, though fun. There are some hippie-straggler-hangers-on. They’re at least entertaining. They get fed and are treated well, but there is a real pressure for them to behave — at minimum. It’s hard to leech when everyone is working hard, so these very few people tended to end up doing something, like picking up trash. In general, the few nutty people around are treated well but politely ignored.
By morning, I’d made some real friends in the kitchen. And OWS and I were in a real relationship — long past the honeymooning stage.
And that’s the point. I’m off this evening to help organize Occupy Providence. It’s a love affair — that’s what it’s “about.” People are waking up. When you just wake up, you’re a little bleary-eyed; you don’t know exactly what’s going on yet. People are waking up. Don’t interrogate someone rubbing their eyes about what they plan to have for dinner that evening, let alone What To Do About Everything On Earth. Give them a cup of tea and a smile. There’ ll be plenty of time to talk all you want later.
So, that’s what this affair is about: love. Real love, not some bullshit Hollywood-Hallmark parody. Love. Solidarity. Fellowship. You know, Jesus stuff, as the man brilliantly said in that viral video Fox wouldn’t dare air. The notion that it’s not good enough to just get yours and tell the rest of the species to go fuck itself. As I explained to the Der Spiegel guys, they shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not unemployed or in financial trouble. The point is mutual aid, solidarity, living like a human being should — free, in a community that cares about every member. You know, like a family, but without the tribal barriers to other such families. The human family.
Will it work? I don’t know. Nothing else has, though; that’s for sure. I’ll leave the heavy intellectual discussions for later, but for now, I’ll just point out that in a country whose citizens are highly alienated and isolated, in which institutions for and practice in real resistance are sorely lacking, the Occupy X movement is at minimum building those institutions, or proto-institutions, and networks that will be activated if and when this movement is crushed. It’s a hydra; clear out Zuccotti, and it’ll spring up in five other parks. People there are not too starry-eyed, in my experience. They get it.
But even if it fails, it succeeds in a sense. You can’t live there and be involved and not feel, possibly for the first time, the pride of living like a real human being, the spiritual buoyancy that a real community feeling can provide. People get that in churches and such; this is the same idea. By the way, some people were religious; others not. No one cared; correctly. By their fruits you shall judge them — and, I should add, speaking of fruits, that they really need bananas in the kitchen!
Bring them some bananas. Stick around. Do some work. And then judge for yourself.