Occupy Infiltrates Financial District with Creative, Decentralized Actions for First Anniversary

What started as a couple hundred people in a park with no plan has turned into a decentralized, distributed network of activists.

People gather in Washington Square Park in New York on September 15, 2012 during an Occupy Wall Street One Year Anniversary Convergence Weekend. Occupy Wall Street will mark its first anniversary on Monday by attempting to blockade the New York Stock Exch

There is no longer an Occupy Wall Street.

That's what all the mainstream outlets are saying this week, and they're right in one way. What started as a couple hundred people in a park with no plan has turned into a decentralized, distributed network of activists, affinity groups, organizations and organizers, working on everything from free education to fracking. And so as New York's financial district was choked with glitter, balloons, dance parties and a whole lot of police, Occupy's anniversary feels less like a celebration of what was and more a demonstration of what's becoming.

The plan on paper sounded much like November 17th: Shut down the NYSE bell. But it quickly became very different. Maps handed out over the weekend (along with pre-coordinated text message lists) separated the Financial District into quadrants, each with its own theme: the Eco Zone, the Debt Zone, the Education Zone, and the 99% Zone (which includes the original occupation site at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza). At 7am, groups assembled in each zone to spread throughout the financial district, staging creative actions as well as old-fashioned sit-down protests, designed to confuse, distract, and infiltrate the heart of Wall Street. 

From the red cube across from Zuccotti Park, one march headed out and down Broadway, to run straight into the police barricades at Wall Street. But unlike last fall, when the confrontations wound up as heated stare-downs between occupiers and police, this time groups of people splintered off and set off to do their own thing. The maps had marked strategically important locations--bank and corporate headquarters, the US Bankruptcy Court, Emblem Health, TD Ameritrade, and many more. 

The NYPD, meanwhile, had set up its own occupation, more thoroughly shutting down and annoying the residents of the financial district than Occupy ever did. Barricades closed off all access to Wall Street and many other locations as well as encircling Zuccotti and lining both sides of Broadway. We spoke to one woman who was headed to her first day of work on Wall Street and was not allowed through the barricades because she did not yet have an ID--she struggled with tears as she told her story. 

The police moved away from kettling and mass arrests a while ago and have settled on a much more terrifying tactic--seemingly random snatch and grabs, yanking people off the sidewalk out of a crowd. Artist Molly Crabapple was one such arrest, seized at around 8:00 AM from a march on a sidewalk near her Financial District apartment. So too was student organizer Isham Christie, grabbed off the sidewalk in front of me, seemingly for crossing the street at Broadway and Wall Street around 9:30 AM. While Christie is a longtime Occupy organizer, Crabapple is an internationally-known illustrator and artist (and, full disclosure, a sometime collaborator with this author) whose Occupy-related posters and prints have been wheat-pasted around the globe. According to National Lawyers Guild New York president Gideon Oliver, the 100-odd arrests by 11:00 AM also included a working legal observer, Damen Morgan, arrested while taking down names of arrestees. The arrests have tended to be quick, sometimes brutal, designed to intimidate and unnerve.

Some occupiers, meanwhile, managed to get away with much more than even they seemed to expect. After we followed directions from the debt bloc text message feed to regroup at 55 Water Street, we found a quick direct action spokescouncil happening, as affinity groups rested around the small park and a double line of riot cops stared impassively. After the council finished, groups departed one by one, leaving a few minutes between exits and each heading to a location known only to the members of that group. The affinity group model is an old one for the left, but in a movement like Occupy, suffering from a lack of a central location and trust problems from months of infiltration and debate, it makes a lot of sense. Friends look out for friends; information is shared on a need-to-know basis. Overarching plans are so public that the movement held its last pre-S17 spokescouncil at One Police Plaza Sunday, as if daring NYPD to shut them down, but individual plans are kept secret. 

We watched the "balloon bloc," "writer's bloc," and free university blocs head out, and then an organizer I've known for over a year grabbed my arm and told me "You don't want to miss this." 

I fell in with her and a small group that wouldn't tell me the plan but warned me that arrests were possible, and we moved down Water Street to the Chase building around the corner, where I fell back and watched the crew stroll unhindered through the revolving doors--and pull out bouncing balls, confetti, and a letter to Jamie Dimon, which they read out loud--until the cops finally came in. Most of them, including longtime members of Occupy's Direct Action Working Group, made it out again just fine, though a few arrests were reported, among them possibly NYU professor Andrew Ross of Occupy Student Debt.

JP Morgan by Sarah Jaffe

Reports reached us that a group of clerics and other Occupy Faith members were planning a symbolic sit-in in front of the Wall Street Bull, so we headed that way next but found ourselves instead in a scrum on the sidewalk on Broadway where more seemingly random arrests happened. 

Other reporters scattered throughout the Financial District caught other actions; Nick Pinto of the Village Voice tweeted that the education and debt blocs were joining up briefly to "symbolically enact their interrelation" by shutting down an intersection and stopping a police truck. Molly Knefel of Radio Dispatch reported "Just saw a cop walking w a giant pink cross, I assume confiscated from Occupy Faith". Citizen Radio's Allison Kilkenny saw "Two men in suits standing on corner quietly talking. Assumed they're wall street until I heard them discussing #ows tactics." 

Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine commented "When #OWS succeeds (tactically) make no mistake, it's a product of a creative well-spring w/ distinctly anarchist roots." He's right; it's been the strength and the weakness of the movement for a while. Today showed it, for a little while, at its best--joyous, thematic protests with (multiple) specific goals, coming together and breaking apart spontaneously, thinking on its feet and rolling with the punches, unable to be broken up by arrests, even targeted arrests. The protests were cheerful and celebratory; party hats and glitter abounded. It's been said by many, including Naomi Klein, that building a mass movement requires for the left to demonstrate not that it's right, but that it's having more fun, and today it's clear who's having fun: the activists, not the cops. It's also clear who's causing the traffic jams and roadblocks in the financial district: NYPD. 

Today isn't about mass movement-building, though. That's the work these groups are doing day in and day out, off the streets, in their communities, with friends they met in and out of the park. Instead, these days now serve as a moment for the diverse parts of left movements to come together, to remind the enemy--financial firms and other big corporations--that they haven't forgotten. 

AlterNet / By Sarah Jaffe

Posted at September 17, 2012, 9:53am