Just as Occupy Wall Street kicked up in September, my cat Lucy got sick and I spent the next few weeks nursing her while following the occupation on the TV and internet. I took time away from Lucy to attend the Occupy Santa Fe rallies held on Saturdays outside of the B of A down the street from where I lived. It felt civil to make the small contribution from my otherwise lay about presence to what seemed a righteous and apropos campaign.
Lucy died at the end of the month and the occupation was heating up nationally, but not so much in Santa Fe. I attended the largest demonstration of maybe 200 people on October 1, but my heart was heavy with loss and I found no solace there. It was mostly a bunch of old people – people my age – wearing their old peace symbols from decades ago, slapping each other on the back, shouting of injustice, in the wind. The young Hispanic cops keeping an eye on things looked bored.
Back in my Lucy-less home that night, I determined I’d go to New York. I didn’t want to be cheering from the backwoods where no one could hear, I wanted to be where it mattered. I wanted to march down streets like Wall Street and Broadway, not Paseo de Peralta and Guadalupe. If I would be willing to go out and get arrested, if I would be willing to possibly get pepper-sprayed or billy-clubbed, I didn’t want to it to be by an anonymous New Mexico trooper, and I didn’t want to end up sitting in some sleepy adobe hoosegow with a couple of old, retired people. If I was going to get arrested, I wanted it to be in a passionate crowd of protestors and in the capitol of the world, and by no one less than New York’s finest. I wanted it televised.
As long as I was going to be in New York, I could also visit my big city amigos and eat some good food. I could see the DeKooning show at MoMA and the new Islamic wing at the Met. But what mostly inspired me to make this journey was the idea that I could become at least a small part of what was possibly a monumental moment.
I went on line and, being a poorly victim of Wall Street’s greed myself, I had to opt for the cheaper fares a month away. I bought a ticket to spend the first two weeks of November in New York and I reserved the couches of a couple different friends. I could only hope that Occupy would still be going on.
A few people inquired if I was going to photograph, but I’d reply that I’m not a journalist. I didn’t want to carry a camera bag and a bunch of lenses around New York for two weeks. I didn’t want a job. I wanted to participate, not document, so I planned to carry only a little point-and-shoot that fit in my shirt pocket.
October seemed unending, but finally I landed in Gotham.
I was staying at first with friends who lived only a few blocks from Liberty Plaza, as it was called, so I had ready access to Occupy.
On my first viewing of the occupation I was exhilarated. It was like nothing I had previously seen, unlike any public event I had ever been to. People were demonstrating but it wasn’t a demonstration or a rally. It wasn’t a parade, a festival or a concert. It was actually and indeed an occupation. It was a full city block, right on Broadway, just up from Wall Street and just down from City Hall, seized and controlled by what looked like a mob but what was also obviously something subversively coherent. There was a well organized library, an information center, a kitchen that regularly served food to whoever stood in line, a red cross table, an internet zone, the drumming circle, dozens of people holding signs expressing a multitude of grievances, gawkers, hawkers, passers by, a swarm of both professional and amateur media, and hundreds of cops.
Over the next five days, I regularly dropped over. Sometimes I’d spend a few hours and other times I’d just pass through while on my way elsewhere.
I related to and made conversation with the people on the sidewalk who weren’t ongoing residents but seemed rather to have shown up to express support, perhaps hold a sign aloft temporarily, and then get back to their life. Most stayed on topic, talking about Wall Street greed, income disparity, student debt, mortgage abuse, etc., but a few branched out, going on about the environment, the Mid-East or the Fed. One guy was there every day yelling something about China and another guy was there every day yelling at him he was wrong.
The innards of the park were self-contained however, and I never felt an entree to the occupation itself or a rapport with its occupants. One could wind one’s way through the narrow passageways and browse the library, get a snack at the kitchen, watch the drummers and marvel at the clutter of tents, but otherwise there was not a lot for a visitor to do.
There were a few random clusters of folk in earnest discourse, finger signing, but they often forsook the human microphone and it was difficult to hear what they were talking about. When they were audible, it was usually on topics either too obvious or too obscure to be inviting.
Three times I got in line and ate some food. I had an organic bean salad with a chunk of an excellent thick crust bread one evening, a scoop of chocolate Ben & Jerry’s one afternoon, and some Kellogg’s Smart Start and a Krispy Kreme early one morning.
An inconspicuous group of guys who spoke quietly among themselves in the shadows of a tent labeled “media center” looked like they were the brains of the operation, but they seemed too preoccupied to discuss things with a tourist.
The tent-dwellers – the bodies needed to maintain the sense of a 24/7 occupation – employed an alternate set of social skills than I rely on and my discourse with them was circumscribed. Their favorite topic centered on the spare change required to keep the revolution afloat, emphasizing how while large donations were appreciated, but no amount was too small.
A few blocks to the east there was a troop of ominous, paramilitary looking riot police, but they were just standing around, smoking in their armor. The cops actually patrolling around the park were your standard-issue, New York City flat-footed beat cops. “Move along,” they’d say. There was no contention about the occupation on the days I visited; it was just there.
If you walked one block either north or south on Broadway, you wouldn’t have even known there was an occupation taking place only a block away. It was lost in the everyday hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan.
I’d mill about for a time and I’d point and shoot my camera but without any real goal in mind. I’d ask myself why was I shooting Occupy at all, and the only answer I came up with was that it was something that looked and felt different, and there I was with a camera. A couple of times I really got into the shooting, but even while doing so I doubted I’d ever work on the pictures, so I tempered my passions, and eventually I’d wander away.
After a week Downtown, I moved to another friend’s flat in Mid-Town. I hadn’t mean to forsake the occupation but once away from downtown, I never returned. My interest had waned. I had museums to attend, friends to meet in restaurants, shopping and other pleasures to pursue, none of which challenged the status quo.
The occupation of Zuccotti Park had occupied my imagination greater from afar than it did when I was there. It existed better as an idea than as a place.
When I awoke on the morning of the 15th, the day of my scheduled return, my friend informed me that Bloomberg cleared the park during the night and hundreds had been arrested. There was going to be a rally in Foley Square and the cops were out in force. Tempers were ablaze.
If I could have stayed just one more day, I could have gone out and protested, not with the denizens of a park, but with an outraged crowd in a direct face-to-face with authorities. I could have been arrested. I could have been somebody.
Instead, I had to sleepwalk the day confined to the purview of the air travel industry. I sat in seat 34F.
That night I was back in Santa Fe. Quiet old Santa Fe.
After a week, I finally looked at the photographs I had taken and I liked them. I edited them, cleaned them up and sequenced them. I worked on them after all.
They may not say much about Occupy Wall Street. They don’t show anything about the conditions that inspired it, the passions it inflamed, what its effect on American discourse has been, or what is yet to come. They just show some things I saw in Zuccotti Park on a couple of piquant autumn days in New York.
The De Kooning show was great.