Zuccotti Park, like most public places in New York City, can be dangerous late at night. Midnight attacks by street people, stolen laptops, dozing women who've been groped or propositioned: Sesame Streetit is not. But with a little bit of coordinated self-policing, Occupy Wall Street can be a safe place to bed down for anyone. That, at least, was the idea on Friday night when 68 families with young children showed up at the park, blankets and cupcakes in tow, for a sleepover.
"The idea is to let parents have a voice in Occupy Wall Street, because normally they cannot be here and also be at home taking care of their families," says Kirby Desmarais, a record label owner from Brooklyn who founded the Parents for Occupy Wall Street Facebook group a few weeks ago. She was standing inside a roped-off area near the park steps—a cardboard sign dubbed it a "Child Safe Zone"—where her 18-month-old daughter and dozens of other children played with comics, alphabet blocks, and glow sticks.
"I hope that the nation will see that the movement is not only the radical, the young, and the unemployed," Desmarais went on. "It's regular citizens like us, and it's time that our voices be heard."
"I was 100 feet from where 4,000 people were killed. Okay? That's what's missing here. You are a half a block from Ground Zero. You are not occupying Wall Street—you are occupying Zuccotti Park in my backyard. And you are drumming at all kinds of crazy hours. When is it going to end?"
So said an emotional neighbor of Occupy Wall Street at a contentious, two-hour meeting last night of the Quality of Life Committee of the Manhattan Community Board 1, the city body that deals with neighborhood issues near Wall Street. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had kicked things off with the admission that "tensions have been growing between protesters and residents." And as the meeting dragged on, that seemed like an understatement.
"I am an occupier, I am a drummer, and, despite what they say, I am also a human being," said Ashley Love, a young member of the OWS People of Color Working Group, who'd tried to organize a protest march against the meeting. "It's primarily a commercial area; not too many people live there," she went on, to an uproar of boos and hollers. "The majority of the drummers are people of color with low-income or no-income backgrounds, and Wall Street was built by slaves when they brought the Africans over here. The council people back then prohibited drumming because it was a way of protesting. It was a way of communication. And I just think you guys are scapegoating us."
As midnight approached in New York City's Washington Square Park on Saturday, 14 occupiers sat in the center of an empty fountain playing Woody Guthrie songs. "If you would like to remain in the park past midnight, you will be subject to arrest," a policeman had just broadcast through a bullhorn, sending thousands who'd come for a political rally fleeing. Backed by some 100 riot cops in face shields, an exhausted-looking community affairs officer moved in to try to talk reason. "We marched with you guys; we treated you with respect," he said, pointing out that some officers had been on duty since 3 a.m. "We understand your cause. We understand your voice. We understand what you are saying. But all we want is for you to vacate the park."
"This is political," said a man in black glasses, between drags on a cigarette.
"C'mon guys," the officer pleaded. "Why get arrested?"
The New York City Police Department has dealt with a heavy dose of criticism for the way that it has handled the Occupy Wall Street protests, with an unprovoked pepper spraying, questionably legal arrests, and a dressing down by a US Marine at Times Square all caught on videotape. But in the interactions with police that I have witnessed and the conversations I've had with officers, a more nuanced picture has emerged: one of overworked rank-and-file cops torn between following orders and sympathizing with the movement and its goals.
Protesters hold signs in Zuccotti Park. VBlessNYC/Flickr"What is our one demand?"
That question, put forth by one of the original and most iconic posters advertising the occupation of Zuccotti Park, still hasn't been answered. Many veteran occupiers believe that making specific demands would be counterproductive, while others are working hard to craft concrete proposals they think everyone can agree on.
One of the latter is Eric Lerner, a middle-aged physicist and active member of Occupy Wall Street's Demands Working Group, which on Sunday voted to push for a New Deal-style work program funded largely by ending America's wars and taxing the rich. "I think among the general public, this would have enormous support," Lerner says. "The biggest need in this country and in the world at this time is jobs."
The Demands group, first publicized yesterday by the New York Times, hasn't shared its proposal until now. The plan would involve the federal government raising about $1.5 trillion in new revenue and using it to create 25 million new public-sector jobs paying union-level wages. It would put Americans to work building bridges, roads, and affordable housing; providing free public transportation and free university education for all; staffing a single-payer health care system; and pursuing clean-energy research.