It’s rare to feel close to history or to political action. But, today, I feel close to it. Last night, I attended a panel held by the New York Press Club that discussed the Occupy movement and, specifically, its coverage by the press. It was a fascinating evening as the panelists were from a range of points of view: Bill Buster, a representative of Occupy Wall Street, Michael Amon, a Wall Street Journal editor, Robert C. Hockett a professor of law and also a protestor with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the final person, Julie Menin, Chair of lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, the community board for a neighborhood in lower Manhattan that is close to Zuccotti Park and is therefore affected by the protest camps and all they bring to the area.
I found the range of views interesting as well as educational. It was partly quite interesting to hear from Bill Buster, the man representing the Occupiers. I have been curious to hear what the “platform” or argument of the Occupiers is, and he stated it in various ways throughout the night. It was most interesting to note this Buster’s fervor and the way that he stated the Occupy Movement’s desire to be a non-partisan and instead human movement, one that accepts all points of view. So interesting also to hear the tone of his voice as he brought up examples of police treatment and lack of press coverage. His observations that the press seemed to purposely not cover major events of violence and brutality seems a bit fanatical. I don’t know. Perhaps his observations are legit or perhaps he has drunk too much of the cool aid living down amongst the protesters. I was a bit frustrated by his lack of concrete demands–I wanted to hear some actual concrete steps he’d like Wall Street or the President to take. Instead, he repeated that The Occupy movement is not going away and will make its presence known so that Wall Street and politicians know that they serve the people and not the other way around.
It was quite fascinating to hear Julie Menin speak about the logistical challenges created by the Occupy camp down int he neighborhood. Two of the big problems have been controlling the noise created by the drum circles and dealing with police barricades that have encroached on local businesses. She stated that when each of these became a problem, the board worked with the protesters and the police to negotiate changes. For example, the drum circle was limited to two shorter time periods per day. And, she was able to have the police barricades moved so that people could still frequent the stores down in the area. She seemed to have a good attitude about the whole enterprise: she seems to see her job as working WITH the protestors, not trying to get them out or go against their cause.
The Wall Street editor, Michael Amon, had some general things to say. I guess one element of the Occupy Wall Street story that has become interesting is that because it has continued on for this long, it is threatening to not be newsworthy. There begin to be fewer and fewer new angles to take on the movement. I think that this fact itself, is kind of newsworthy. What happens when a protest movement sets up shop and becomes common place? When it doesn’t fade away but in fact becomes part of the everyday life of the area and the city and the nation? That is significant and I think the implications of this longstanding characteristic of the movement needs to be explored.
Finally, the reason I found the night so interesting is because I got up this morning and read about how the police moved in last night in the early hours of the morning and cleared the park of protestors. I wondered if Bill Buster knew that was happening. The protesters were being cleared out for sanitary reasons and also because they had been violating the rules of the park that said the park could be open 24 hours a day with free access to all. With such large groups of protestors sleeping there, free access was not being allowed to all. From what I read in the paper, protestors reconvened in Foley Square. I have to say that just looking at the pictures in the newspaper is pretty striking. Police in riot gear, protestors being tear gassed, protestors lined up face-to-face with the police. These are images out of the 1960s, although the faces and the intentions are markedly different. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a split between generations as the 60s had. There also doesn’t seem to be such a split between north and south. The issues are different.
Here’s what I also found fascinating from the discussion last night: the difference of the handling of Oakland, CA protestors versus the NYC protestors. It seems that in Oakland and Portland there has been more animosity between police and protestors. There have also been clear-outs of the parks earlier. I thought about this. The panel last night said how the attitude between the police and protestors and even the people of the neighborhood seemed to be friendly. There has been this attitude, in NYC, of wanting to give the protestors a place, or wanting to accommodate them, whereas in the west coast, things have not been that way. Part of me wonders about this. Having lived in this NYC area for awhile now, I wonder if this NYC treatment is in fact partly a cultural thing about NYC. NY likes to have room for its eccentricities. It likes to showcase them and make room for them. But, I, a bit cynically, think that the reason NY does this is because NY has money. It isn’t REALLY affected by the protests yet. Right now, these protests are an inconvenience, a spectacle, something interesting. New Yorkers with all of their money, and let’s not forget this is Wall Street money, have deep pockets from which to draw this tolerance for these protestors. Do the protestors in fact risk becoming just another one of NY’s quirky side shows that doesn’t really chip away at or affect its moneyed class? The west coast, on the other hand, has a tradition of protest that may be different in some ways, although I am not sure how it is different. There is a culture of counter culture that perhaps makes the interactions between police and protestors more genuine, more antagonistic. The difference between these two geographical areas and their treatment of protestors also rests on the fact that Zuccotti Park is a privately owned park where some of the laws about taking up space, etc can be overlooked if the owner allows it whereas the parks on the west coast are public parks and so the protestors come up against laws much more quickly. But, isn’t this kind of the point? Isn’t breaking the law and forcing police action part of what true protest looks like? Are the Zuccotti park protestors in fact just living off of the private largesse that they are protesting against? In fact, the privatization of a park means that often it has its own rules–outside of the public laws enforced for public rights. And isn’t this what we have seen in America with the banks but also in other aspects of life: that the privatized interests play by different rules, rules that are sometimes above the law or allow people to operate according to another set of laws?