What Went on Inside the Occupation of Wall Street

One thing that's always struck me as interesting about the occupation of Zuccotti Park is the way in which those outside the movement had no conception of the work that went into it.
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I wrote two posts ago that, from late October through mid-February, I worked between 12 and 15 hours a day on Occupy Wall Street, weekends and weekdays alike. Some readers may be surprised or simply incredulous at these figures. One thing that's always struck me as interesting about the occupation of Zuccotti Park is the way in which those outside the movement had no conception of the work that went into it. If you watched the news or read the papers or went to a march, you saw people with signs sitting around a park, walking through the streets, sleeping in tents. Didn't look like a whole lot of work -- kind of like a very cramped music festival with riot cops instead of music.

At the time it seemed to me that there were two completely different movements going by the name Occupy Wall Street: on the surface, this affair with the signs and the banners that caught so much media attention; underneath, an elaborate, frantic, chaotic pseudo-organization that was trying to build a society within a society, a village within a city. This internal organization was less about marches, rallies, and political messages than it was about food, sanitation, health, shelter, and safety: fighting crime, meeting the needs of the chronically homeless, building bicycle generators to charge people's laptops, negotiating with the fire department about the use of diesel generators to produce heat and light.

The work went far beyond logistics: we were trying to build a society, and we had to face all of the intricate challenges that that entailed. By late October, for example, it was becoming difficult for the Kitchen Working Group, which provided free meals in the park three times daily, to keep up with demand. The work was unsexy and unrewarding, and not enough people volunteered to help. The free meals drew hundreds of people, not all of whom were actively involved in the movement, and many of whom complained when the food was late or not to their liking. Some of those living and eating in the park were chronically homeless and suffering from mental illness or drug addiction. Fights occurred. Heated debates ensued as to whether the movement should be feeding everyone who showed up, only those involved in working groups, or only those living in the park. Ideological battles raged. Exhausted, the kitchen took a three-day holiday. They were accused of abandoning the homeless population of the park. Financial point people within the kitchen group were accused of embezzling money from the movement. Rumors flew.

There are many details in the above narrative that I have left out and dozens more stories like it, but one more example will have to suffice. When OWS began erecting tents to provide shelter from the elements, public space began vanishing from Zuccotti. Paths through the park narrowed and vanished. Flower-beds were camped on and destroyed. By early November, the public meeting space at the eastern edge of the park, where the General Assembly was held, had all but vanished. Vicious turf-wars occurred over sleeping space. Various ideas of private property were invoked and denied. In the privacy of individual tents, crime flourished. There was no effective way to filter who took up residence in Zuccotti, and anyway there was no consensus within the movement over who, if anyone, should be kept out. Rumors that the NYPD funneled drug addicts and mentally ill people to the park were widely discussed but never substantiated. What is certain is that many such people arrived and took up residence. Neighborhoods developed, segregated by social background, education, ideology. Mistrust grew between different group and class resentment flourished.

Why am I reporting all this? Not to answer the question that I promised to answer two months ago: why did I leave the movement? In many ways, these challenges kept me in the movement; these were worthy challenges, morally adequate, worth my energy and my time. (Those waiting to hear why I left the movement will have to wait a while longer; this is not a column for the impatient.) And I'm not reporting these things to besmirch the memory of the occupation nor to glorify those of us who worked 100+ hours a week to meet these challenges. The challenges we faced were massive, and no one who was there for these events would scoff at our failures; some of the most capable people I've ever met worked on the Occupation; but we made many mistakes, and in the end I believe we did fail -- not completely, but colossally.

I'm writing all this because this is what Occupy Wall Street really consisted of during the Zuccotti Park occupation. Yes, there were political campaigns, boycotts, and so on, but most of the energy of most of the people who worked full time on the movement went into working on this kind of problem. Why did we do it? Why did we abandon everything else in our lives to pour our energy into a foundering social experiment in a concrete park? It seemed worth it. It still does.

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