by Rachel Signer
How Occupy Wall Street occupies your heart
posted on November 14, 2011
First, you tried drinking a lot, in bars, with your friends, or people who seemed like they could be your friends. But it was expensive, and you kept getting up late for work. So you tried online dating, and went to wine bar after wine bar, tapas restaurants and gallery openings, until finally you found someone to bunker down with for awhile. That ended, or perhaps never really began, and next you tried reading critical theory at night, a glass of wine by your side. Or taking knitting classes. Learning Portuguese online. Museums, there is always something new to see in the museums. You see movies: movie after movie after movie. A few new outfits here and there. Yoga, you do lots of yoga. You advance in your practice. Maybe you do a teacher training.
Then one day, you hear about the kids sleeping in a park around Wall Street. You’ve been-there-done-that, before you hit the Real World and became focused on your career. You remember activism fondly and hope the kids have fun and make some cool signs, or enjoy letting their body hair grow long, or make some bankers feel bad about themselves. You shrug. You are doing your part to get by: you are shopping at the farmer’s market, you read Chomsky, you even criticize The New York Times. You do yoga. Your online dating profile reflects your ambivalence toward the bourgeois, heteronormative standard of romance while clearly expressing that you are available for drinks with a good-looking so-and-so of a certain pedigree who has the same excellent taste that you do. Everything is going just fine.
But then curiosity gets the best of you, and anyway Radiohead is rumored to be playing. They don’t show, and instead, you find yourself in the General Assembly. People are talking about the possibility of a new society and screaming “mic check!” and wearing strange costumes, and the food is great, and you start seeing people you know. And you remember liking those people at the time you knew them, but not actually knowing them very well. And a week later, one of them sends you a text message, saying to come to the park now, there’s a march, and he doesn’t have anyone around him and is afraid of being arrested. Soon, you are walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, and below you seven hundred people are facing scores of cops, and the people in the front line have their arms linked but you see the fear in their eyes as the cops start dragging people off, one by one, to the waiting vans. The people scream out their names to the crowd on the bridge above, and you tell people to tweet the names with the hashtag so it will get publicized.
Before you know it, you are spending the afternoon in the park, dancing to the drummers, gorging on free pizza, talking to everyone. The press makes you laugh; they seem clueless or bored as they meander through the crowds, snapping pictures of the weirdest-looking people they can find. You remember that you, unlike most of them, understand what’s going on here. You realize that that understanding is something special, something to hold on to.
There are meetings, and they both excite you and fill you with impatience. The General Assembly seems to drag on and on, and you think to yourself that this system is so flawed, so confusing and bureaucratic. A small spark inside you goes off, a secret hope that this will all end, will fail, the kids will go home and go back to hacking or running info-shops or whatever they do, and you can continue on with movies and online dating and re-reading Milles Plateaus. But then you can’t help yourself and you start asking questions, start mic checking at assembly meetings, start going to working group meetings and using the consensus process like it’s a language you were born knowing. You finally sit through almost an entire—painfully long, frustrating, argumentative—General Assembly, and come to appreciate that it’s really fucking hard to keep this movement going. You see the tent city slowly emerge and the problems it causes, and the Comfort people and the Sanitation Crew and the Medics working their asses off to mitigate issues that come up. You ask yourself if you would be able to sacrifice comfort and ownership to sleep here. You are not sure.
You join working groups, and you speak confidently at meetings about potential actions. Your position on the question of demands changes over time; you were one of the skeptics who needed demands to lend concreteness to the movement, to provide a vision of change, kind of like how Obama’s “Yes We Can!” made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside just a few years ago. You wanted demands coated in sugar to suck on like throat lozenges. But as days go by you stop caring about demands, and instead you start feeling sick at the way the NYPD treats the occupiers, you grow excited that the Spokes Council is kicking off and can streamline the structure of the movement, you start having serious conversations about problems in society and how they affect you. And you stop going to movies. You close down your online dating profile. You don’t read on the subway because you are busy thinking about conversations you’ve had, and you look around at other people and wonder what they are thinking about. Are they thinking? Was I thinking before?
And if you were thinking, you begin to forget everything you were thinking about. New thoughts occupy your mind. Mic check! Mic check! We need to discuss the impartiality of facilitators. Mic check! We need money for a battery pack. Mic check! What do we see as the next step for this movement? Mic check! Student loan debt betrays the American Dream. Mic check! Can we get a temperature check on this proposal? Mic check! Mic check! MIC CHECK—
And you realize that it’s not a dream, not a spectacle, not a trend on Twitter. It’s a sweaty mass of bodies, it’s a cold, hard, concrete ground, it’s a looming and armed police force, it’s a careful orchestration of radically different opinions and needs and values and beliefs. You find yourself returning day after day to the park to participate in an ongoing Think Tank, where people speak freely about their anger, their confusion, about their visions of a better world, about the meaning of all that surrounds you in the park. And one day you are sitting with that group, discussing the role of celebrities and public figures in the movement, and a man says that we are all intellectuals; we are the celebrities, the ones worth celebrating. This is the people’s Think Tank, and our ideas matter. And then it hits you that your mind and soul, until now, had been colonized. You had so completely relinquished the notion of ever demanding a better world, a better life for yourself and for those who suffer alongside you and more profoundly than you, that you would simply prefer that your imagination shut down entirely. Instead of occupying the spaces that cause you to feel pain, to be isolated, to be lonely, instead of believing that a better world can exist, you have hidden away from those spaces, pretended they didn’t exist, masked them with cheap wine and internet chat and downward dog.
And just as the group is concurring on the need for the movement to treat celebrities as normal people, Russell Simmons shows up and demands to skip stack because he is late for yoga; he is denied and sulks away. You look around and realize that you care about these people, their thoughts and experiences, you want to sit for hours with each one of them, hear about their mothers and fathers, what they were doing on 9/11, how they make a living, what kind of music they listen to. A baker from Santa Fe says that everything that’s happening in the park is beautiful and that he wants to break bread with the group; his loaf is passed around and is delicious and nutty. There is a journalist, and he doesn’t get it. He asks all the wrong questions but seems pleased with the answers.
At night, you march on Wall Street with a group of people, all silent, with a person in front holding a black flag on a tall pole. There are about four cops per marcher following on motorcycle. The lack of speaking is chilling and you march with loud footsteps over the silence, listening to them echo against the surrounding concrete. It’s an odd tribal dance, the cops in the street, marchers on the sidewalk, eyeing each other; representatives from the National Lawyers Guild keep pace, their neon-green hats like beacons of safety amidst the dark of night and the cluster of cops. Upon returning to the park, people hold fists up at you and smile, and everything is so alive, like a flourishing ecosystem overtaking an alien structure and making it home. And you realize that you are at home, mostly, or at least something close to it. But you head for the subway, where your actual home is, the home you pay rent to live in, where you have art on the walls, books on your shelf, a cabinet full of Yogi Tea. It’s only temporary, anyway; you’ll be back tomorrow at your real home, this weird place that has come to occupy your heart, this place that holds you close and tells you that you’re beautiful just the way you are, that understands you and sees how amazing you can be, this place that was made for you, that you helped to make, this place where you can never be alone, can never be lost, can never be afraid as long as you can make it work, can work with each other and respect each other’s sacrifices and needs and human imperfections, this place where there is nothing to do but occupy, which is really everything we need to do and everything you want to be; it’s everything.
Rachel Signer is an anthropologist and journalist who lives in Brooklyn, NYC.
- MIC CHECK: We are No Longer Free (sourceconsideration.com)
- Occupy the Education System: Students, Teachers and Parents Find New Spirit and Challenge the Attack on Public Schools (charlog.me)