Visiting Occupy’s ground zero, one year later
It has been over one year since the eviction of Occupy Wall Street’s flagship occupation at Zuccotti Park. However, a couple hundred demonstrators still maintain homeless encampments throughout New York City.
Despite my distrust of corporate America, I have never bought into the 99% vs 1% mentality. I ended up at the Occupy encampments because I was scheduled to fly from New York to Cambodia, and since I had a few days in the city before my flight, I decided to link up with an old college friend who has been part of the movement for over a year. What I discovered was a group of articulate, well-educated, middle-class radicals embracing a homeless lifestyle alongside the Big Apple’s truly destitute.
“I feel more free than I have before,” said Leslie Miller, 26, from San Diego, who has been living on the streets at Occupy encampments since February 2012. “When I lived in a house I was working and doing the basic [wage] slave labor. Now I really don’t have anything to hold me down.”
According to my friend Zak Cunningham, 23, of Montclair, NJ, the homeless lifestyle is not so bad.
“New York City is one of the better places to be homeless in this country and in the world by a long shot,” said Cunningham, who divides his time between living in the encampments and at his mother’s house in New Jersey. “There’s not really a hunger problem at these homeless camps, because so much perfectly good food in this city is thrown out for legal purposes.”
Sam “Captain” Wood, 22, from Farmingdale, NY, who has been part of the movement since its inception on September 17, 2011, described a relaxed day-to-day cycle.
“My own personal routine is that I wake up when I wake up. I have my coffee, have my breakfast, sit around a bit and get my brain together.”
Some of the homeless protestors abandoned their homes to join Occupy, while others, such as Wood, were homeless before the beginning of the movement.
“There’s enough housing, at least in America, to house every individual,” said Wood. “We are capable of getting rid of homelessness, but we don’t, and I think that’s very cruel.”
The biggest challenge, according to most demonstrators, is the risk of arrest. Although a New York City court ruled that sleeping on sidewalks is protected free speech if done for political purposes, Occupiers still find themselves in holding cells from time to time.
Wood, who has been arrested twice, was among the first of approximately 700 protestors arrested at the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011.
“I was on the first van out,” he said proudly.
Cunningham, who has also been arrested twice, was first arrested during a march in the early hours of New Years Day 2012.
“There was about 50 of us, and the cops were tired of following us around, so they created lines around us,” said Cunningham. “We were given a dispersal order but we were physically unable to disperse, so we were all arrested.”
The city ultimately declined to prosecute the protestors, which Cunningham cites as evidence that the arrests were illegal.
Cunningham’s second arrest came after applying “self-adhesive graffiti” to a light pole.
“It was a sticker,” explained Cunningham.
Shift to the left
Most of the Occupiers I encountered espoused views that could be described as anarchist or Marxist.
“I like the word communist,” said Cunningham after I asked him to describe his political beliefs. “I think we’re at a point in civilization where we can do away with money and property and just share things. We have enough resources where it’s doable.”
However, Cunningham was quick to qualify his communist label.
“I have constructed my political views in a fun way. To anarchists, I appear to be an authoritarian Marxist. To Marxists, I appear to be an anarchist,” said Cunningham.
Wood, who described himself as an anarcho-communist, said he hopes for a utopian “gift economy” where everyone shares everything.
“You shouldn’t have to pay for anything,” said Wood. “People should see that somebody needs something and provide it. Much the way that Occupy is done.”
Occupier Fatima Shadidi, 59, from Brooklyn, provided a more centrist perspective.
“Make money, put food on the table, have a good life,” said Shadidi. “Just remember there are other people out there.”
The political makeup of the movement has moved decisively to the radical left since the Zuccotti Park eviction, according to Cunningham.
“In the year after the raid, all the liberals left,” said Cunningham, who surmised that many were absorbed into the Obama campaign. He also said that police brutality played a role in radicalizing the movement.
“If you’re beaten by the police during a protest, that will radicalize you,” he said.
As of the one-year anniversary of the Zuccotti Park eviction on November 15, Occupiers maintained a large camp in front of Trinity Church on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. They also had an encampment outside the home of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at the corner of 61st and Broadway. Furthermore, dozens of supporters (mostly veterans of Zuccotti Park) organize protests, boycotts, rallies, and other activist events in the movement’s name.
“People say that Occupy is dead,” said Shadidi. “To that I say, look at us! We’re still here.”
While Occupy may have lost the international spotlight it once had, the spirit of the movement’s heyday lives on at encampments across New York. If the protest movements of the 1960s are any example, most of the young Occupiers will return to their bourgeois roots and lead typical middle-class existences. A few will even join the 1%. As for the truly needy among the Occupiers, some will rise while others will remain locked in a cycle of poverty.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the Occupy movement has become part of the global zeitgeist. From New York to Hong Kong, Occupiers have made their mark on cultural history. For the Millennial Generation, Occupy is our 1968 — a time when the youth of the world came to political consciousness and gagged in disgust. And it will be remembered with the same nostalgic longing for youthful idealism.