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Inside Occupy Wall Street: Journalist-Participant Describes What Life Is Really Like (Complicated and Inspiring) at Zuccotti Park

AlterNet reporter Gwynne experiences the life, culture, politics and challenges at Occupy Wall Street in NYC and finds an exciting, inspiring model for inclusion and change.
 
 
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Hundreds of characters buzz through the Liberty Plaza, weaving through makeshift campsites of tarps and sleeping bags, park tables, meetings, and circles of music or chatting. There are arts and crafts, guitar groups, meditation circles, nap time, and hang-outs. At the back of the park, the west end, a loud drum group beats the pulse of the movement, playing late into the night. But stitched throughout the fun is serious hard work. All through the day and into the night, working groups (and there are dozens) hold meetings to carve out their responsibilities in the movement. In the center of the park is the media center, the nucleus of the whole operation, where tech-friendly activists edit video, update the Web site, and manage social networking 24/7. A generator's hum blends with the helicopters buzzing overhead.  

Along with New York City, Occupy Wall Street (Occupy Everything) demonstrations are now sweeping the nation, with meetups in 1,383 cities. What the media once portrayed as either a lazy hippie or anarchist blip in time has become an undeniable social movement with long-term potential. And as Occupy Wall St. gains steam and supporters, the rich elites in control of our democracy have become defensive, while others embrace the movement. Those who are afraid are doing their best to delegitimize the movement, such as  New York Times columnist David Brooks, with his veiled smear of demonstrators focusing on a seven-year-old article in Adbusters he described as anti-Semitic. But as everyone knows, beyond encouragement in the magazine, Adbusters has had almost nothing to do with OWS. 
 
The most common criticisms of OWS, from corporates and skeptics alike, are "I don't even know what they want" or the allegation of disorganization. But demonstrators are not simply camping out to ask the corporate government for legislation, they are creating the change they desire; creating a democracy that is direct and representative of all members of the 99 percent. Occupy Wall St. is actually far more organized than the mainstream media and critics may suggest. The lack of one common goal is not disorganization, but freedom. I've been on the ground at Occupy Wall St. -- sleeping, marching, getting arrested, and reporting almost daily, and I can tell you that most of the media have the story all wrong. Here is what's really happening.
 
People are living, and thriving, in the space. Using donations, demonstrators have set up their own society, with free books, food and (minimal) health care. When I slept there Sunday night, I found I had almost everything I needed to survive. There was plenty of food -- baked ziti, fruit and cookies -- laid out in the buffet-style line. Between meals and late at night, there is always something to munch on, usually healthy foods like apples and bananas.  
 
After I finished eating, my friends and I searched for a place to set up camp. By 8pm, just finding an unoccupied spot was difficult. When we finally posted up by the steps at Broadway, we grabbed a bunch of cardboard signs and stacked them underneath a yoga mat and tarp, then wandered off to socialize. About 9pm, I got a text from an organizer named Anthony saying "Wall St. and Broad. Now!" I hurried over to find a sight much more peaceful than I expected.  
 
About 10 people stood on the sidewalk with their backs to a barrier, talking quietly as one man slept on the street-side of the sidewalk next to a barrier. Another couple seemed ready to sleep as well. They started to lie down, and as the police started talking, the rules kept changing. First, the police moved the street-side barrier inward so that one of the legs wasn't "on the street." Then, it was OK to sit up, but not lie down, on the sidewalk. Then, half the sidewalk had to be open. Then, we had to be moving. A group of protestors walked back and forth on the block, joking with the police about the ridiculous call with lines like "I don't mean to be a stickler, officer, but they're not moving" and "Officer! Officer! I can't walk!" 
 
Next thing you know, white-shirted cops were putting up barriers to block off Wall St. Officers were demanding people show ID to enter the sidewalk. Then all entrances to Wall St. were blocked. Suddenly, cops shouted "This is a frozen zone!" and we all had to leave. Notably, amid all the overreaction from the police, there were only a handful of demonstrators still pacing on the sidewalk.
 
After the spectacle, I drank a few cups of water, ate some cookies, and chatted with some college kids who had road-tripped all the way from North Carolina just to stay for the weekend. Before going to sleep, I went to the McDonald's bathroom to pee. Inside the restaurant (called, ironically, the "people's McDonald's"), organizers and press utilized the free wifi and pounded away at keyboards. In the bathroom, a girl charged her phone; others were in their pajamas, waiting, like me, for one last, late-night bathroom trip.
 
Back at camp, I was wide awake for hours. People were skateboarding down the sidewalk, quietly strumming guitars, discussing, debating, and arguing with the press for photographing people who were asleep. It was not disturbingly loud, but just enough to keep my eyelids forcing themselves open. When I finally did fall asleep, I slept hard. I rolled over at the crack of dawn to witness an ironic scene, blurry without my contacts, of suits surrounding the park and walking to work. When I woke up again, it was to a mic-check announcement that a girl was being arrested for writing on the sidewalk with chalk. 
 
Although it may appear chaotic to the outside observer, the decision-making process in Liberty Plaza is incredibly organized. The working groups are the subcultures of the larger movement, and within them like-minded individuals share ideas and use their own particular creativity. The working groups ensure that no ideas are lost, while the general assembly (GA) assures that none becomes tyrannical. That all opinions are considered is perhaps the best rebuttal to offer people who have yet to understand Occupy Wall St. If you are part of the 99 percent exploited by corporations and their government, but dislike Occupy Wall St., don't write off the demonstrators; join them and ask questions -- create your own change.  
 
Speaking for Occupy Wall St.'s dedication to inclusiveness and tolerance is that anyone can form a working group. To create one of these panels, designed for similarly knowledgeable or passionate persons to share their insight and creativity, any individual may announce at a general assembly that he or she would like to start a new group. Once established, the group holds meetings, the time and place of which are announced at the GA, and anyone is welcome to attend. 
 
Working groups are free to act in accordance with their own desires. They may problem-solve and ask for additional help -- the sanitation group, for example, often makes announcements asking people to help clean up after themselves. But should a working group wish to make a suggestion that may reach beyond itself to affect the whole group, a representative or facilitator, often someone who is either the most knowledgeable or long-term member (and they shift) presents the idea at the general assembly. There, a vote determines whether the initiative will go forward. GA facilitators represent a working group themselves. Because they make sure the assemblies run smoothly, visitors may perceive them to be in a leadership position. But it is the crowd, not the speakers, who check egos and leaders to be sure the movement remains egalitarian. 
 
Because general assemblies gather hoards of people, often hundreds, the human microphone technique is used to amplify voices. Speakers announce part of a sentence, which is echoed by the crowd in waves. The tediousness of the human-mic process works to check the hardcore rhetoric itself: To deliver a point requires great effort and patience. To speed along the process, however, hand signals are used in communication. Circling -- or rolling -- your arms means "speed it up," and creating a diamond with your fingers suggests a problem with "point of process." This signal is used when someone's announcement is off-topic or opinionated; at the GA, only factual information is requested. Afterward, as GA facilitators often announce, there is time for "soap box." Other hand signals communicate agreement, or lack thereof. Wiggling fingers pointed upward signal "I like that" or "I'm feeling good" while fingers pointed straight down mean the opposite. The need for more discussion or uncertainty is expressed by fingers straight out in front. 
 
One of the most beautiful elements of the general assembly is "progressive stacking," a mechanism by which facilitators remind speakers to encourage diversity. While it can be a touchy subject, progressive stacking asks white males to step down and realize that others have been exploited or disenfranchised their whole lives. But the GAs and working groups are not the only times ideas are expressed. All day in the park, enthusiasts show up and exchange pertinent information. Some, like Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek and Jeffrey Sachs have been more influential than others. But aside from celebrity voices, regular people continually express their opinions as well. Mic-checks are conducted without planning, and with the voice of the crowd, one person can easily share information. Incredibly, all of the ideas and voices are out in the open -- right there to be soaked in, exchanged and debated. 
 
But as crowds gather in growing numbers in Liberty Plaza, the visibility and egalitarianism of Occupy Wall St. is challenged. Some working groups have moved off-site; not far, but a few blocks away on Wall St. As organizer Scott Simpson, 22, said, "Some people are worried that it raises visibility issues. Because it's not in the park, it's more difficult for people to know when and where a meeting is being held."
 
The influx of people at Liberty Plaza has generated a few more concerns. The communal movement has attracted people from all walks of life, and as people with personal issues and various types of self-promoters squeeze in, the ecosystem shows some fragility. 
 
There is always music and constant crowding, with people bumping shoulders and stepping on toes every once in a while. Usually, these kinds of exchanges actually end well. But sometimes, people argue -- rushing someone to hurry in line, demanding cigarettes, etc. Typically the argugments occur between some less understanding campers, and the crowd peacefully intervenes to separate them and remind them why they are there. Organizers do not accept belligerence. Not too long ago in Liberty Plaza, a long mic-checked announcement declared "This is not a dive bar...This is not Bonnaroo."
 
Yet the community has hung together despite unavoidable pressures from the outside. Marginal personalities -- perhaps those with emotional issues or on drugs -- will inevitably turn up at a space offering free food and mass camp-outs. The presence of these types has the potential to undermine the efforts of the whole, and can add tension to the ability of organizers and activists trying to keep things running smoothly. Checked behavior from the crowd is the most common response, but more advanced responses are necessary for the drug-addicted population. 
 
Pauly, a medic who did not wish to give his last name, said "Ninety-nine percent of the people are here for the right reasons," but acknowledged the safety threat posed by drug use in the park. He also said that organizers have identified a core group of drug users and are formulating the best method to deal with them. Pauly says medics will undergo training to deal with overdoses, and New York City needle exchange groups will set up nearby. The goal is not to punish or kick out drug addicts, but to treat their disease. Still, after refusing methadone treatment, a handful of drug users have been asked to leave. The problem is they keep coming back.  
 
But, according to Pauly, "It is going to work itself out very soon." The medical working group is focusing on bringing in support from the community to work on solutions.  Case and social workers, he said, could be pulled in to help diffuse situations where drug users refuse to leave by "giving them some logic." The issue, he said, is the safety of the masses. 
 
The issue of drug use also draws attention to the potential for a shift in organization. While Pauly said more organization and leadership may become crucial for safety reasons, Tim Weldon, 35, also predicts a change in organization. Not one leader, but leadership in the form of something like a council of the most knowledgeable, could "take the most pronounced symptoms and express them more clearly in a systematic manner," which would allow for "more coherence in ourselves," and the ability to "take more of a stance on specific situations."  
 
It is important to remember that Occupy Wall St. is a new movement. As ideas solidify and hardcore supporters stick around, the information and message will become more concrete. But for now, organizers are working on creating the movement, generating ideas and solidifying the process capable of sparking vital change. 

Kristen Gwynne is a freelance writer and an editorial assistant at AlterNet.