Report, #ows: My Midnight Run to Zuccotti Park (to the REAL Sons & Daughters of Liberty) [Part 1 of 2]
Less than 24 hours ago, sitting in a NYC Barnes & Noble cafe, a message popped up on my laptop from one of my brothers in California alerting me that there was a crisis with the Occupy Wall Street protest. Mayor Bloomberg was demanding the park be evacuated at 7am Friday morning for cleaning and some “NEW RULES” to be applied to the occupiers thereafter.
My mailbox began to fill up with alerts from a number of political organizations whose mailing lists I had somehow made it onto.
I checked the correntewire website and a headline urged anyone who could to get to Zuccotti Park by midnight. One of its links warned about possible arrest and advised bringing something to help recover from pepper spraying.
I gulped. What on earth might that be? Well, I would opt to wear my glasses rather than my contacts. That would offer some protection. I could put a bottle of lens solution in my knapsack as an eyewash?
It seemed surreal to be considering such a situation. Surely it would not come to that. But then again, 700 innocent people of conscience had been brutishly arrested almost two Saturdays ago on the Brooklyn Bridge. I had missed that massive ambush by only fifteen minutes that rainy day.
I emailed an activist friend and told her I was intending to head down there in the next two hours and wondered if she were too.
I rushed home in the overcast night. I felt uncomfortably warm. The weather was odd, a mild to coolish temperature but high humidity. Perhaps the sudden jolt of “occupation” adrenalin was also a factor in my noticeable perspiring.
I would dress in layers I decided. Maybe bring along a small afghan. Must remember to bring my sturdier umbrella, too, in case it rained during the night.
I had a vacation day scheduled for Friday. How serendipitous.
At home the pragmatic me scurried about in preparation, in complete defiance of my more familiar, less than spontaneous, worry-wart side. Where on earth had she gone?
I wondered how many people there were in New York City at the moment hustling to fulfill this same call? I thought of those characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind who became so obsessed with an inner call to the space aliens’ mountain that they were helplessly reconstructing that destination out of things such as mashed potatoes, etc., to the dismay of their loved ones.
I knew I had to join up with those young, noble and committed occupiers downtown. I just had to. I had to do all I could to keep the occupation continuing. At long last there was a sustained expression of justifiable and accurately aimed outrage in the country. From people who were not shadow-boxing with ridiculously declared faux-enemies such as governmental safety net programs. Beating their angry drums against “socialism” the same way the label “communism” had been used to demonize the lefties of the 50s. Some of the wrong-headed protesters relied on Medicare and other government programs themselves, but found no ironic contradiction in their rage at “big” government.
These people crazymakingly, at the same time, were defending, representing and/or distracting from (the same as what the craven corporate media were doing) the real culprits of our economic terrorism, an obscenely defrauding and opportunistic profits-over-people corporatist elite. The ones that over $10 trillion of tax dollars had gone to bail out. It had been the corporatists crooked, deregulated (by so many, many bribed politicians) shenanigans that had created a national economic disaster. This tax-money-rescued “entitled” elite subsequently felt no obligation to return any financial favors to us, the now struggling taxpayers.
I also thought of my favorite Thoreau story when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry David Thoreau in jail and called out, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau called back, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Perhaps this would be my Thoreau moment! About time. I had been popping off on internet blogs and comments about people talking the talk but not walking the walk. Time to put my body where my mouth was.
Money? I supposed I had better bring a credit card. In case I needed it for bail? How much was bail for heaven’s sake? I had had to suspend my debit card a few days earlier because of fraudulent activity on it in Miami. Geeez. I was awaiting a new one in the mail. I did have some cash in my wallet.
I poured out a mountain of dry cat food in a very large metal mixing bowl for my two cats and filled an equally large glass bowl with water. If I did get arrested how long before I would get home again?
I looked around the tiny kitchen for any food that might be useful and carryable to donate to the occupation. I had a bag of peanuts in their shells and about half a dozen apples, oranges, bananas. The bag became heavy enough with just the peanuts, apples and bananas. I vowed I would pick up a few more things, lighter in weight, in a late night CVS near my subway stop.
I checked my emails once again and my activist friend confirmed she was intending to go. Hopefully we would find each other.
As I closed my apartment door I noticed my shaking hand as I twisted the key in the lock. Was that about the possibility of getting arrested, or a more imminent danger of jumping onto a nearly empty 6 train at such a late hour on a week night.
The subway trek to Wall Street wasn’t bad. The 5, in fact, had come on the local 6 track so I didn’t have to change trains. I noticed that the few people boarding the car at that hour after 42nd Street were wet with rain. Oh boy.
I was disappointed when only two of us got off at Wall Street. Where were my fellow Close Encounters types?
Of course, I had automatically headed to the nearest exit which turned out to be inaccessible for that hour, so I felt a little jittery walking along the long empty passageway to the other end of the terminal. The other passenger had not made the same mistake and was almost down there already. I was surprised at a sudden movement from a bench against the wall. A man was laying upon it sleeping, his back to me.
The rain was steadily coming down as I emerged. A plastic parka would have been smarter than just my sweater hoodie over a T-shirt with an umbrella. I had put another shirt into my carryall but realized another pair of shoes and socks would have been a lot smarter. I quickly opened my umbrella.
By the time I got to the Park the rain had intensified. I was startled to see half a dozen or more young, parka-ed people zealously sweeping the sidewalks of the plaza, with random people like me having to jump out of their determined ways. I marveled at how they simply ignored -- defied -- an angry driving rain.
I wondered which of the large clumps covered with plastic tarps all about me were actual people and which were just “stuff.” I thought of how vulnerable these protesters were each day to the elements without inside shelter. I also thought of the vulnerable homeless people scattered throughout the city, facing down this weather tonight as well as another upcoming winter season. How many would not survive that challenge?
I looked up and noted that the picturesque, lacy-leafed tall trees throughout the square offered little protection from the wind-driven rain.
I dreaded the idea of lightning which blessedly did not seem to be occurring. Every once in a while thunder boomed. Each time it was met with loud and spirited cheering from all corners of the plaza. I laughed in surprise and delight. The occupiers, vertical and horizontal on the square, took that opportunity to express their brave, defiant, collective spirit, even to a challenge from Mother Nature. How could one not LOVE them?
My first verbal contact with a fellow protester was a woman in a bright green slicker, with bright red hair and an even brighter smile. She seemed younger than me, but older than the protesters I had seen so far. Forty-something? The others around us seemed predominantly twenty- and thirty-something year olds.
The rain was not conducive to chatting but we tried. She was trying to locate the place to stow the personal baggage she had brought earlier in the day. She said they had all been working hard with various focuses, renewing the little park. She had tended to the flower beds. Through the veil of rain I noted even in the dark how pretty and well groomed they were.
She disclosed that she had decided to take a week’s vacation from her job in western New York state and spend it with the occupation. I loved it. Here was one of my full-out Close Encounters of the Third Kind committed ones who had responded to the call. In fact, I suddenly felt like a pathetic part-timer. Only committing to the next seven or so hours.
She was so enthusiastic and confident about the upcoming experience. I was worried that the occupation might be sabotaged to end by morning, she was confidently intending to be there for the next week. The occupiers needed fresh and optimistic recruits and were getting them, thank God. I wished her luck. I told her I was looking for a friend somewhere on the square along with whoever one turned over food donations to. We parted ways but both expressed hope we would reconnect before morning and that a showdown between police and activists did not happen.
At that point the heavens opened up and the rain was merciless. I stood there getting helplessly and thoroughly drenched, despite the umbrella. Was I really going to spend the next seven hours in such a ridiculously soaked condition? Thank God it was not colder. I told myself at the end of seven hours I would be able to peel off the wet oppressive clothes and have a nice warm shower back at home. A luxury many of my fellow activists would not get to enjoy.
I walked over to a cluster of people behind a table marked “OWS Kitchen.” They had a kind of lean-to thing going on under which they were huddled. I asked if I could turn over the food but the rain was so fierce I was as reluctant to open my waterproof carryall as they were to open their plastic bins. They asked me to come back.
I squished, in my soggy sneakers, through the puddles farther along down the maze of tarp-covered people and supplies. I spotted my friend near the pedestrian sidewalk. She was sporting far wiser clothing than I, a long raincoat and boots. She was holding an umbrella over herself and a young man with an impressive video camera pulled tightly against his chest. They were deep in conversation. She introduced me to the genial young man. She had been telling him about her own admirable and long-term anti-war activities. When a lull in the rain finally came he began to film her.
Wanting to lighten my bag I went off to revisit the kitchen area now that the rain had nearly stopped. I noticed a cluster of people standing around a tall young man wielding something in his hand. A Sharpie? He seemed to be writing a phone number on people’s forearms. “What is that for?” I asked. “The National Lawyer’s Guild,” he announced. I gulped and held out my forearm to him as he wrote "212-679-6018." “Call it if you get arrested.” “In fact,” he added, “memorize it in case it fades during the night.” I looked down at the number. My exposed arm around the black digits began to glisten from random rain drops.
I found the kitchen area once again and turned over my foodstuff to them, grateful how much lighter may bag had become (I had added a few more things from the drugstore). I walked back to where my friend was.
She announced she could use a coffee. The young camera man pointed us to a McDonald’s that was open all night, almost kitty-corner to the plaza on Broadway. I realized that would have been a wise place to have hustled to during that torrential rain ambush. A bathroom break was a good idea. There also seemed to be a place at the other end of the square called Charley’s that was lit up. But the young man assured us McDonald’s was the wiser destination since it had that precious all-night bathroom. I pumped his hand, as I would all the occupation residents I would meet, and tried to express my gratitude and how important their mission was to the rest of the country. They were igniting hearts, even internationally, to fight the good fight to end profound corruption.
As we walked into the neon-bright McDonald’s there seemed to be about a half-inch of water covering the floor. I walked or rather squished my way gingerly across it to find the ladies’ room. My friend had announced she had changed her mind about coffee from there and wanted to try that Charley’s place later. She stayed near the door. I told her I might get some food, too.
The McDonald’s had an up and downstairs. The downstairs was filled to capacity. I noticed a rope across the bottom of the stairs going up. That seemed oddly inhospitable and ridiculous, given the number of people in there and the heavy lines for both food and toilet. Again, mostly twenty- and thirty-something year olds, at all energy levels and states of wetness. Some eating, some not. Some talking excitedly, some looking weary and bedraggled, some with their heads cradled in their arms on top of the tables trying to sleep. At that point it was well after 2am.
I sought out the women’s bathroom line and noticed my friend near the door was again very animated in deep conversation with another young protester. Good for her since the bathroom line was not short and I’d clearly be a while.
I found the women’s lavatory and waited in line. There was an air of patient good will among all of us in the line. As I got closer to the open door I noticed a woman earnestly trying to dry off one of her socks under the hand blow dryer. She pulled back to let anyone who needed the dryer go and then resumed the ambitious project. Another young woman rushed in and deposited a pile of paper napkins on the sink since there was no toilet paper left in the stalls. A very thoughtful gesture and we thanked her on her way out.
I waited in the order line for about ten minutes and then bought a diet soda and Big Mac from a tired looking cashier. I also reaffirmed from him that the restaurant was a 24-hour one. I would be back to use the bathroom again I was sure.
My friend had allied with a young man in a poncho near the door who announced he had been up for three days. He was nursing a coffee. We squeezed over to three open chairs available at two tables already occupied. The sitters said they certainly didn’t mind sharing the space.
As I clumsily negotiated my first bite of Big Mac I got a few wistful looks from those around me. Oh dear. Hunger? I suspected they might be cash strapped. I chatted with the handsome young man nearest me sitting next to a woman who had her head in her arms on the table, perhaps sleeping. He disclosed he and his friends had been camping out of state and they had come down to join the movement.
As I finished rather guiltily gorping down my burger I toyed with the idea of slyly slipping a bit of cash to the young man for him and his friends. Suddenly about half a dozen police pushed their way into McDonald’s and a woman officer began bellowing “EVERYONE BUY SOMETHING, NOW!!!!” Say what?
My friend angrily flashed out to those of us at the table, “That is not legal!” The young people around me looked up alarmed. It seemed so gratuitously cruel, given the insane rain that had occurred outside just a short time ago. Also, considering the time of night, and the fact that the past five weeks was probably the best overnight business this Mickey D’s had done ever. What was the problem letting them use this temporary shelter at the 3am hour to manage to sit down in a dry and warm place?
I suddenly thought of the obscenely wealthy Wall Street execs, their towering offices all around us. I thought of one of the top 10 hedge fund executives I had read about who in 2010 earned $900,000 an hour! For doing what, ripping off America? And here were these precious young adults around me, unable, some, to afford even something from the dollar menu as they fought for our democracy. Called out the corruption of the corporate gangsters!
I considered also how much money collectively the parents of these young adults had given in buying Happy Meals, etc., over the years to help make the McDonald corporation the wealthiest in the entire world. Now when this teeny percentage of noble and earnest young people were striving to help our democracy, sacrificing so much in terms of physical comfort and even risking arrest, there was NO COMPASSION for them, not even a crumb, despite them continuing to be still frequent consumers? Something was very wrong with this picture. All the happy time advertising for McDonald’s and the rest of corporatism certainly covered up that rigid quid-pro-quo profits over people code of business. Granted, McDonald House is a great charity. But, come on!
Did McDonald’s overnight management call in the police, or was the police eager to use any excuse to inconvenience the occupiers? Maybe both? I wondered how during the day the other retail area shops were treating the occupiers. I also wondered if this sudden police flexing in the middle of the night was foreshadowing for more serious flexing of intolerance to come at that promised 7am showdown.
I leaned over to the young man I’d been chatting with and whispered, “Are you guys strapped?” He smiled and shrugged, averting his eyes. I pulled out a bit of cash and pressed it into his hand. He began to protest but suddenly the young woman who had had her head in her arms, now rallied from the rude hollering of the police woman, shot me the sweetest “thank you.” The young man looked at her then back at me and nodded his thanks, too.
I grandiosely (considering I was having my own chronic economic challenges) wished I had money to buy something for every customer there! It made me wonder how these young people were doing financially, given how expensive New York City is, especially the “inconspicuous consumption” that could add up cruelly, even of having to buy a product to be able to use a toilet.
The rain had fully stopped as we exited McDonald’s. I was angry and curious about this sudden police presence, but I had finished my food and my friend had put off getting her coffee long enough. We left to walk back through the square to the opposite side. Also to check in to see what was happening on the square.
The young man who had bonded with my friend decided to hang with us further. My friend and I both commented on the book he carried with him, “The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire.” Seemed a perfect read for the OWS protest. He said he got it from the OWS library.
He told us a bit about the OWS organization, that he helped with the “comfort” area, in fact, seemed to be actually employed by the system. He confided he was very concerned that some friends he had made while there were now missing. They had participated in one of the marches outside Liberty Plaza and had not returned. Were they locked in jail somewhere? He was also dreading the upcoming showdown at 7am with the Bloomberg cleaning crew and the police.
At one point I was telling him about my own shaky corporate job status. He became concerned, and then asked me if I too wanted to work part time during the OWS occupation with one of the focus groups. This was so startling to me. So spontaneous and generous. Here he was living in this “in the moment” environment and yet was altruistic enough to try to help me, a middle-aged plus woman to share the benefit of their assuredly precious and modest paid employment there. My eyes burned with tears at such thoughtful concern for a relative stranger. Empathy. Something I kept writing about, well the lack of, in our American government. It seemed to exist a hundredfold with the citizens of OWS!
I had been dazzled by each of the activists I had randomly met so far. They seemed to carry an extra measure of serenity, intelligence and generosity. Not to mention courage, which I would get to witness collectively, as well as my own, first hand, in less than three hours.
End of Part 1 of 2 [To Be Continued]