I wrote this feature for the Independent today – there wasn’t space for them to include the full piece in the paper, so here it is. Good luck to everyone taking part in #S17 today, I’ll be there bright and early.
Rina can’t sleep. It’s two-thirty in the morning and on Wall Street, on a small strip of pavement outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, about fifty people are sleeping rough. They are rolled in blankets and sleeping bags, their hoods pulled up around their ears against the drone of traffic and far-away sirens. One police car is on patrol to keep an eye on them. They smoke and ask passers-by for water. Some of them are a bit grubby. A slogan chalked on the pavement reads “the dirty ones are on Wall Street.”
There’s a point being made with this strategic sleeping. “Look, here in the heart of the financial district of the richest city on earth there is still the puzzling problem of homelessness,” says Rina, who is 19 and wearing pyjamas under her dress. “There are abandoned spaces in urban centres all over America, and yet people still don’t have homes. Why is that?”
One year ago, a few feet down the road, Occupy Wall Street began – the first protest camp at Zucotti park igniting a wave of anti-capitalist, anti-austerity protests across the world, from Melbourne to London. Tonight it’s just these few sleepers, and one reporter, me, where a year ago you couldn’t move for press. What happened between then and now?
Contrary to popular opinion, Occupy never entirely went away. There are still hundreds of people across New York, and thousands across America and Europe, whose lives are still devoted to what became known as the Occupy ‘movement’, most of them very young and socially precarious. Many gave up everything to be part of the occupations that sprang up across the world, and now they have nowhere else to go.
In the city where it all started, regular meetings still take place, and organising is going on in the boroughs, but media interest has dwindled. Celebrities and big brands are no longer falling over themselves to access this twist in the zeitgeist: radical is no longer chic. Last week, multi-millionaire rapper Jay-Z, who cashed in at the height of the Occupations with T-shirts reading “Occupy All Streets,” told the New York Times that he never really knew what the whole thing was about anyway.
Across the world, the question being asked in time for the anniversary is: “What happened to Occupy?” The question implies that the occupations simply drifted. It implies, falsely, that the activists involved involved lost interest and lacked direction.
But none of the major camps disbanded of their own accord: all of them, from New York to London and beyond, were evicted by force, with batons and tear gas and hundreds of arrests, by police forces bent on ensuring that sustained dissent against big banks and government-imposed austerity would not be allowed to continue. Without police intervention, would the protest camps – some of which withstood blizzards – still be standing? Somehow, our collective memory has refused to accommodate that possibility. Somehow it’s easier to believe that the hippies just got bored.
“Support from the mainstream has slowly dwindled, and it’s dwindled for the wrong reasons,” says Logan Price, a longstanding organiser with Occupy and radical groups in America. “The police had a carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to, and acted within the interests of the Mayors and Homeland Security, to go and break up the occupations and never let them come back. Here in New York, it’s become normal that every time anybody tries to protest, the police will react heavy-handedly. In effect, the right to civil assembly has been suspended in New York.”
Back outside Wall Street, another young man is being arrested. His crime was knocking on the window of the police car to wake up an officer who had fallen asleep on the job, at which point five more police officers swooped down to cuff him and take him away. The noise wakes most of the sleepers: those on their feet yell “we love you, Will!”
Will is one of the first activists to be arrested during the days of action planned for the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Hundreds are flocking to New York to take part in actions that include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning, and the officers of and the officers of the NYPD are waiting for them. In the past year over 7,500 activists have been arrested for being involved in peaceful Occupy actions in America alone, drawing criticism from across the world, including from the UN’s “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, Frank La Rue, who said crackdowns appeared to be violating the demonstrators’ human and constitutional rights.
“I wouldn’t vote in this election even if I could,” says one protester, who just turned seventeen and gives his name only as ‘Envy’. “This election is kinda funny. It seems like we can either choose going downhill gradually, or going downhill fast.” He sits swinging his feet off the scaffolding, a young black man without a secure future watching the police drag away another young black man without a secure future for the crime of demanding one. It wouldn’t be an unusual sight in the deprived boroughs on the outer edge of Brooklyn. This, however, is the Financial District.
“In the beginning, Occupy was a sanctuary, a safe haven for me,” says Envy, grinning at the memory; he has multiple piercings that sparkle when his face moves. He tells me about dropping out of school because there didn’t seem to be any point and going back because now there does, now he has experienced a loving community and something to fight for. “I will never forget my sixteenth year, ever.”
Franklin, Envy’s on-off boyfriend, a burly white kid in a baseball cap from Boston, has finished yelling ‘shame’ at the police. The pair of them met at Occupy Washington a year ago; there are lots of reasons why young people might need to leave home and find sanctuary, and most of them are political. “Do you love me?” says Franklin, popping his head between Envy and the tape recorder and kissing him.
“Yeah,” says Envy, shyly.
In ten years’ time when people tell the story of Occupy Wall Street, I hope it will include this. Not a great big story, but a constellation of small stories, of lost kids finding each other, of old campaigners finding a purpose, a great coming-together of the anxious and angry, not all of it utopian.
One of the police officers who just arrested Will comes back to remonstrate with the sleepers camped on the sidewalk. “People are trying to sleep around here,” he says. The occupiers tell him that they are being robbed by the people across the street at the Stock Exchange, and could he possibly deal with it? The officer tells them all to keep down. He says, it’s been a year. He says, the police have been more than patient with you people. Please, please just be quiet now.