Ruminations from an Occupy Wall Street outpost.
MANHATTAN, late October, 2011 - The woman with the short gray hair looked somewhat familiar. Wasn't that her last year, standing in San Francisco's Union Square holding a red sign, demonstrating against the war in Iraq, for the Palestinians and against the Israeli occupation?
Well, in any case, on this bluish, cold autumn night she is somewhere else: in Zuccotti Park - if you can call "a Park" this little postage stamp of a place, with few trees and granite benches amid the steel canyons at the tip of Manhattan. Yet perhaps she is actually in that very same place: the place to which America and her allies will always arrive a decade late.
In her white hair, blindingly bright purple sweater and fluorescent-blue windbreaker, with a whistle hanging around her neck on a green ribbon, this woman would stand out like a parrot in a jungle in the dimming daylight were it not for the surrounding protest encampment, which is no less colorful: an unkempt and nearly impassable collection of blankets, bundles, backpacks and plastic sheeting, packed to the point of bursting out from the little plaza. Last summer's homogeneous Rothschild Boulevard encampment now seems like a boot camp during a base commander's inspection as compared to this colorful, jam-packed scene of chaos.
Protest encampments are now spreading around the world like the capitalistic retail chains against which they are demonstrating. And, like them, the various branches are extremely similar to one another: the same drunken feeling of "togetherness"; the same cluster of loners seeking to join forces and find meaning - or at least a date; the same improvised kitchen (the prevailing aroma in New York, hovering above every street vendor's stall, is currently acrid kebab smoke ); the same "library tent"; the same "cinema" - i.e., a screen hanging between trees, on which pseudo-revolutionary films (Buster Keaton comedies will do ) are screened; the same mobile media-outlet trucks with the same bewildered interviewees and the same killjoy interviewers; and the same stoned guitar players, who know that the answer, if not the career, is blowin' in the wind.
There are also all the same remarkably similar, declaimed cliches. And the Israeli protest, as decentralized and incoherent as it was, now seems in retrospect to have been articulate and lucid, in comparison with the ideological cacophony concocted here.
Groups of unsynchronized drummers are unremittingly and agitatedly whipping up the atmosphere.
A black man, who bears a likeness to Anwar Sadat, gold-framed eyeglasses sparkling along with a massive cross on his chest, is delivering a sermon in which he claims that Mayor Bloomberg is killing children wholesale. But at the same time, he is offering for sale plastic cups that flicker with blue light, promising that he will contribute to the poor "the tens of billions" he will earn from them.
A woman wearing a white beret is giving some sort of crazy salute and waving above her head a sign that reads: "The American dream: grow up, be elected president, kill people." Another poster quotes Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night."
Two young people looking like Humpty and Dumpty mutely hold up a sign: "Greed is not capitalism" - a commonly voiced distinction made on behalf of the sanctity of capitalism, which even the most impassioned speakers here meticulously point out.
A man in a long bushy beard wearing a scarf who does not look unlike bin Laden solemnly strikes a large gong as he encircles a tree, at the foot of which are placed a picture of Gandhi, wreaths of flowers, Halloween Jack-o'-lanterns and the picture of a soldier killed in Iraq. Encircling him is an arrogant throng, wearing white. An interviewee says to a blatantly hostile TV reporter from Fox News: "True, we don't have answers. We only have questions." A poster reads: "Pull out the army from everywhere!"
A demonstrator, who explains over and over that he is himself Jewish, walks around with the inevitable sign: "No to war against Iran for Israel" - which only shows us that at the end of every Tahrir and every revolution, and even every "occupation," Israel may be found, and it is immediately on the receiving end of the beating. It and its occupation.
A small staircase in the corner of the plaza serves as an improvised amphitheater for the "weekly story-sharing session." "This is where people tell why we are here and what brought us here," explains a bespectacled activist, "and because the law forbids us from using electronic amplification devices, all we have left is to use the human echo. And this will work only if everyone joins in. So please, repeat what the others are saying. Thank you!"
"Repeat everything that the others are saying. Thank you!"
Already, the crowd is echoing the speaker's intonation, as it will continue to do throughout the evening. This imparts to the occasion an unusual tone: part Monty Python sketch, part recitation of the Kaddish.
"My mother," a young Asian woman says, standing up and beginning to speak.
"My mother," the crowd responds.
"She left her job ..."
"She left her job ..."
"As a successful businesswoman ..."
"As a successful businesswoman ..." answers the crowd.
"She had a master's degree and that means that she wasn't able to achieve anything, because she was over-qualified ..."
Crowd: "... because she was over-qualified ..."
In short, this mother found work as a maid so that she could send the speaker and her brother to college, but now she had been let go: "So that is the reason that I am in Occupy Wall Street. Because America proved itself not to be the land of opportunities. Thank you!"
Crowd: "... not to be the land of opportunities! Thank you!"
The next story-sharer was laconic. She recounted how she came from India, but when she learned what the real America was, suffered a nervous breakdown (Crowd: "Nervous breakdown!" ).
After a few more stories of this sort, all eyes were directed at the short-haired woman in the purple sweater, who sat at the edge of a step, seeming to radiate authority, maturity and exalted wisdom due to her age. She slowly rose to her feet.
"Hello, I am Julia."
Crowd: "Hello, I am Julia!"
Julia: "And I'm going to cry soon."
Crowd: "And I'm going to cry soon."
Julia related how she was a retired teacher who had reached the conclusion that, "If we remember that all of us are of the same mind, and if we want others to join us, then we can someday get ... uhh ... somewhere."
"... get ... uhh ... somewhere!"
"A miracle has happened here that will change the way of thinking - the way of thinking about the right ideals, which are ... uhh ... peace, equality, tolerance and ... uhh ... all the good things! Now I am crying ..."
Crowd: "... and ... uhh ... all the good things! Now I am crying."
Julia wiped away a tear and sat down, as if she had just now given the speech of her lifetime; for its part, the crowd cheered as if they had heard the Gettysburg Address.
In the meantime, night had fallen and the cold had become unbearable. And the next day there was an autumn storm, after which not only the sudden snow and the falling leaves were cleared away, but also the demonstrators and their bundles and their stories - only to pop up all the more forcefully on another street, in another city, on another coast.
While all this was going on, work at the nearby Ground Zero continued around the clock. Hundreds of yellow hard-hats are feverishly building the sparkling new One World Trade Center tower, which is already twisting its way upward, all the way to the height of its predecessors that are no longer. Rising slowly next to it, in various stages of construction, are the fancy new towers that seem partly mourning over, partly comforting, the chaotic and castrated piece of land where the Twin Towers stood one decade ago.
I feel a twinge in my heart as I recall a previous visit, in which those two harsh metallic rectangles were still planted here like the cliffs of Gibraltar, powerfully overshadowing and dwarfing their surroundings, if not the whole world.
With the bustling mall that lay at their feet, with the serene plaza between them, which in the afternoon rush hour buzzed with young people of the previous decade: hordes of gray-suited executives and shoulder-padded, stiletto-heeled businesswomen.
This was when Zuccotti Park (named for the chairman of the company that owns the land , John E. Zuccotti) was still called Liberty Plaza Park, and Borders bookshops were still in business, and New York and America still slept securely and tranquilly at night, sated and arrogant.
Now, on the same small tip of Manhattan island, one sort of human energy is supplanted by another, one that is more despondent and perplexed, about which we will still be hearing, and on whose waves we will still be carried - and whose significance we will yet, perhaps, understand.