UPDATE: By the weekend of October 15th, the Zuccotti campers had adopted this new plan for the park and reorganized themselves accordingly.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement has caught fire over the past week, reporters and pundits keep asking whether the occupiers can unite around a common goal. Will they tackle income inequality, corporate control of politics, Wall Street reforms? Maybe. But the first order of business is much more basic: figuring out how to organize and maintain their impromptu campground.
Prosaic as it may seem, getting a handle on the chaos in Zuccotti Park is an important test case for whether the disparate voices of Occupy Wall Street can work together. For more than two weeks, protest leaders collaborated with city planners, urban geographers, and technology whizzes to create a new, detailed urban plan for the park, with an eye toward safety, public relations, and traffic flow.
The collaborators included Jake DeGroot, a techie with experience creating computerized stage and concessions layouts for concert and event planners; Mike Esperson, a former Haiti relief worker who has worked in refugee camps; Daniel London, a doctoral student in history at City University of New York who obtained the original architectural plan for the park; and Katie Gill, a geographer with training in city planning who specializes in how people navigate urban spaces.
Their plan is an attempt to make Zuccotti Park cleaner, more welcoming, and ultimately more likely to endure as the nexus of a national protest movement. As historian London puts it: "Just like Boston was the 'City on the Hill' in its own time, right now the eyes of the world are on Zuccotti Park, and we need to create a space that will inspire them as well as serve our own needs." Here's an interactive map of the proposal, which park residents may vote on next week. Click an area of the map to see what's planned there. Map image source: Courtesy Occupy Wall Street Planning Group Members.
Every good movement needs a bus. Rosa Parks had one. Ken Kesey had one. Even freegan climate activists who get around on French fry grease have one. So why not Occupy Wall Street? After all, a bus passes Zuccotti Park every minute or so. It's most often red, double-decker, and crammed with tourists, admittedly, but at least the seats are comfortable. Or so I was thinking on Sunday as I stood in line on Broadway behind a kid with a foam Statue of Liberty crown, waiting to get aboard.
I sat down in the back between a burly Australian and a skinny German. Neither had much to say about Occupy Wall Street. Two large women in front of me whom I'd figured for Americans were actually Canadian and didn't have any opinions either. So I moved to a front row and sat down next to someone who, it turned out, didn't speak English. But at least I was close to the tour guide, Thomas Kinzey, a man with wraparound sunglasses, a stubble, and a penchant for numbers. "Tower No. 4 will house the mausoleum, the chapel, the visitors center of the 9/11 memorial," he was saying. "The mausoleum will house the 14,000 body parts that remain unclaimed due to contaminated DNA."
John Joe Baxter is a 72-year-old troubadour from Rockaway Beach in Queens. He's been coming to Occupy Wall Street every day since it started. "I think this is the beginning of something that has never happened in our lifetimes in America," he told me yesterday. "I think this is going to turn into the biggest movement ever in this country. Because all these people here feel exactly the way we feel."
Here he is singing an as-yet-unnamed song that he wrote for the movement, as cops try to keep his audience from blocking the sidewalk:
For Occupy Wall Street to keep gaining steam, it must begin to attract people who aren't part of the typical protest crowd. Based on my experience at Zuccotti Park this weekend, this has begun to happen—in spades. Throughout the day I ran into people who'd never been to a protest until now. None of them belonged to activist groups or trade unions. They'd simply heard about the occupation and decided to come. Some were blue-collar folks out of work, others college students who feared they'd never land a job. Here are four of their stories:
Kevin Monahan, a laid-off sanitation worker, says the Occupy Wall Street activists aren't scared of terrorists. "We are scared of living alone on the streets for the rest of our lives." Josh Harkinson
Kevin Monahan, laid-off sanitation worker
Monahan is hard to miss at McDonald's, where a long line of occupiers waits for the restroom. He wears long hair wrapped in a skull-pattern headband, a jean jacket with a Confederate Flag patch, and a button on his lapel that says, "The rich bailed out, the poor sold out."
About a year ago, Monahan lost his job as a garbage truck driver in upstate New York. At 24, he's embarrassed that he's had to move back in with his parents. He tried attending college for a while but dropped out when he lost his financial aid. He now competes with teenagers for minimum-wage cashier jobs. He knew that Wall Street was partly to blame for his problems, but when he saw a YouTube clip of New York cops macing peaceful demonstrators at Zuccotti, "it just threw fuel on the fire." He begged friends for gas money and drove down to Manhattan.
Monahan doesn't exactly know how to describe his politics. "I don't trust the government whatsoever," he says. He's a fan of Ron Paul and a believer in his campaign to "End the Fed." But he also strongly believes that the wealthy need to pay more taxes. He hates Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly and scoffs at the concept of trickle-down economics, which he sees as a tax on the poor for the benefit of fat cats. "Take as much as you can, that's the whole point of capitalism," he says. "Get as rich as possible, profit is the only means. So what do we do when they have it all?"
As he talks, his voice often wavers with emotion, and his eyes go glassy. At home he often feels alone; here people constantly embrace him. "I've run into socialists, communists, liberals, gutter punks, rastas, thugs, and believe it or not, everybody is getting along," he says. "We have the same common enemy. None of us is scared of terrorists. We are scared of living alone on the streets for the rest of our lives."
In the New York Metro section of yesterday's New York Times, Cara Buckley portrays the Wall Street occupiers as an unruly band of outsiders who've come to terrorize the locals. They rudely befoul restaurant bathrooms without buying anything. They crowd moms and baby strollers off the sidewalks. They flash their tits in broad daylight. The image that comes to mind is that of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd gone wild, or college tourists on spring break at the Jersey Shore.
Even if there's some truth to this, I can confidently say that Buckley and many other reporters are missing something: Occupy Wall Street was bound to happen at some point even if the Manhattan police sealed off every one of the island's bridges and tunnels. The same vast economic disparities that have outraged so many middle class Americans are only magnified here. A little-known fact about Manhattan, otherwise known as New York County, is that it has the highest level of income inequality of any urban county in the nation. The only US county with a wider gap between rich and poor is Willacy County in South Texas, a ranching community packed with unemployed farm workers where one wealthy individual owns a third of the land.
Without a doubt, many people who live near the New York Stock Exchange feel under siege. It's less clear whether most other Manhattanites give a damn. Consider this: the average price (PDF) of a Financial District studio apartment in Manhattan is more than $2,200 a month (and that excludes apartments with doormen, which cost more). According to a 2006 story in the Gotham Gazette, the district that includes the Financial District and Greenwich Village had the highest median rent of any part of Manhattan. While I couldn't find more recent stats on the area's median housing cost last night, it's pretty safe to assume that most New Yorkers who are hurting from the recession don't live there.
Why does this matter? Certainly, trashing bathrooms or intimidating stroller moms is never OK. (As for nudity, well, I'm from San Francisco). Given the social and economic divisions in New York, though, it's amazing that those are the worst things that have happened.
Going forward, the mainstream media could do a better job reporting how New Yorkers feel about Occupy Wall Street. And Occupiers from out of town would do well to consider how to bring in more locals, who could help give the movement staying power. It's one of the many things I hope to explore when I set up Mother Jones' outpost in Zuccotti Park later today.