UNOCCUPY THE MIND FOR CHANGE
We’re so busy with our own thoughts and opinions that we miss the opportunity to learn. Fear keeps us away from connecting to different view points and blinds us from the value of destabilizing situations.
The smell hits me before the invasion of Zuccotti park does. I approach from Broadway (where the subway spit me out) curious to find out what is happening at Occupy Wall St. Hinting at how things are not exactly what they seem, Wall st is literally a few blocks away from the headquarters of this revolution.
A sea of bubble blue tents stretches below autumn trees that rain down golden yellow leaves. A few people stand on the sidewalk holding signs. I approach the tents and the smell of urine and human stench makes my nose burn and retreat disapprovingly. My feet walk lightly over the cement imagining how it has been used as a portable toilet. Stickers and words are plastered on the temporary housing and I proceed West down the sidewalk. A small green tent has a tall pole with an american flag hanging upside down, a cry of distress. Two large military tents loom over its surroundings: the first one has peace signs hanging outside and a hand written message: ‘Strong Women Rules’; the second one has a large sign over the entrance: First Aid. Standing inside his tent and popping out of the zipper window, a tall black man with a wool hat expresses his opinion while a young woman with a professional camera in her hands listens attentively.
Drumming reaches my ears and I realize that the action is at Trinity place. As I advance, I see that the side of the wall is covered with signs asking for support and donations, providing information, and asking for action: occupy this! Occupy that! Occupy Central Park. Several drummers stand proudly in front of a flag controlling the pulse of the afternoon. ‘USA is occupied’ another sign tells me and I believe it. People take pictures and observe the spectacle feeling they are part of history. A large bus has stopped behind me and I wonder if this has become a tourist attraction.
The alluring smell of incense draws my attention to the shrine set up around a thin tree trunk. Statues of smiling buddhas, catholic candles, symbols and images from different religions and spiritual groups intermingle. People sit around this area connected in worshipping the divine. Or maybe condemning the profiteering minority? A woman petrified to her chair by the cold humid air sells pins: ‘99% say no to corporate rule’, ‘Corporate got bailed out, we got sold out’, ‘There is no such thing as too big to fail’, ‘1% control 38% of the wealth’. The artist De la Vega has signs spread around saying ‘I am the 1% that supports the 99%’, ‘Become your dream’, ‘We have so much to unlearn here’. ‘This movement is more precious than you think’.
I’ve been timidly walking around the perimeter of the park and I decide to infiltrate the camp. What are these people thinking? What are they doing here? Are they hippies who have nothing better to do? Approaching a table of diverse individuals I stand in front of them and simply ask why they are here, inevitably triggering a heated debate. A passionate young woman says that the end of the tyranny of capitalism is near and that they are here to bring it down. I’m curious to know what her proposed alternative is. The answer doesn’t come. Anarchy? I suggest they focus on what needs to be changed. A vacant space in the sphere of power only generates more problems. I realize maybe their job is only to bring awareness and let other’s bring about a solution.
“How long have you been here?”, my next question has a finite answer. “45 days”, “since September 17”, they reply proudly. A male in his twenties with dark curly hair talks angrily about the two individuals that were arrested violently yesterday because they were dancing on the street. The police bashed one of their heads against the asphalt and took them in. Another man jumps in and says he was taken to jail in Boston and he was passive when it happened. The tension with the police is palpable. “When working for a higher goal, you should have discipline”, I suggest. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices and avoid things that provoke the police so that your mission can be successful”. They will not bow to the unjustified abuse of the police.
I notice a heavy built man with a guitar hanging from his back nodding when I speak and I sense he supports my opinions. He ends up introducing himself as the producer of a radio. He’s gathering people to talk on his show tonight and he’s ready to go on the air soon.
Walking away I read the photocopy of a handwritten handout titled “A Pointless Protest”. It agrees the movement won’t have one specific solution. It says “this protest is to get people to start thinking for themselves, to start doing their own research, to learn and discover for themselves why things need to change”. Then it invites everyone to stroll through the occupation, sit and talk for a while. I decide to continue taking on the task.
My eyes are drawn to a Native American with a bandana over his forehead. A poster with the face of a long haired native reads ‘Decolonize Wall Street’. His table is covered with button pins, a large sign explains how they need support and a large plastic container accepting donations. While we talk a chill creeps up my legs into my body, so I ask him when they’ll leave the park for the winter. He says they have no plans to leave but I find it hard to believe that they could physically withstand the low temperatures. “Why don’t you retreat for the winter on a set date so that the movement doesn’t thin out? Then you could come back in March?”, I suggest. He just shakes his head gently disinterested in abandoning his post. They are here to stay. I begin to feel a sense of respect for their determination and courage to fight for what they believe in.
A towering sign tells me this is the food station. Walking around it I see boxes of canned and other non-perishable goods piled up. “Are you accepting donations?”, I ask the blond lady, catching her attention with this question. “Yes! They can be dropped off here”, she says. I ask her a few more questions and she tells me they get support from many restaurants in town. There’ s a female chef that lives in the city but has been here since day one working like crazy to feed everyone who has made Zuccotti park their home.
The coaching stall is an unexpected element. It’s there to provide information and train people to be part of the coalition. A large sign asks: What is your purpose in this movement? How can you create the most effective role that connects you to your passion? What action steps will you take? I see a man intently sharing his knowledge to two others. I wonder if they’ve moved recently into the park or they’re poking for information like me.
My eye catches a glimpse of something and as I turn around to focus… a New York police department control tower hovers over the park with eagle eyes! Then I notice the metal barricades and the row of police cars parked side by side with cops waiting casually around them. This visual image reaffirms the sensation of divide between the occupiers and the city’s armed forces. A policeman rests on a motorcycle watching people cross the street. I explain that I’m walking around, talking to people and observing the scene. “The campers feel that the police are against them”, I say. He shakes his head calmly saying that’s not how it is. I point at the lineup of police cars and barricades as evidence. “Why don’t you mingling protecting the people in the park?”, I ask. He shrugs telling me he wouldn’t have a problem with that. He seems to approach his uniformed job with respect.
A brunette girl sits placidly in front of her tent as if she were on a camping trip on a mountain. The cardboard sign hanging behind her makes me smile: Parking for residents only. Paying closer attention, I notice another sign on the floor that offers poems in exchange for $1. I kneel down next to her and eagerly ask her for one. She opens up her journal and pulls out a ripped up paper with her inspiration. I take my time to read it… It’s about an older man she observes smoking, understanding he knows many things she does not. Beautiful. Upon my request she signs it for me and I feel honored.
The night is on free-fall and it’s getting dark fast. I make a double take on the old ladies knitting and crocheting on their foldable chairs. They are lost in their own world, unfazed by my pictures or the people rushing past them. Slightly out of breath, a man is peddling on a stationary bike. What, they also have a gym!? A few men are hunched behind him with tools and cables in their hands and a light turns on in my head. They are generating electricity! Two guys energetically explain how they started the project a month ago, they just received more stations to charge the batteries, and this pile of bikes has been donated from different groups. Each area of this new community is now responsible for their own generation so they start to become aware of how much they consume.
A large trash can is full of resting brooms and the sanitation sign speaks up for them. I’m wondering who’s in charge of cleaning up… there’s no one to talk to. What time is it? I believe I’ve accomplished my mission to learn more about this vibrant community and decide I’d better leave before I get assigned to this post.
‘Keep your coins. I want CHANGE!’