Inside Occupy Wall Street's All-Nighter

The tense hours before Zuccotti Park protestors won a temporary reprieve.

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

"We won!"

That, in two words chanted and rechanted through the crowd, is how the news sank in early this morning that Occupy Wall Street would emerge from a harrowing night still fully in control of Zuccotti Park. At around 6:30 a.m., a half hour before an eviction operation was expected to begin, New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway called it off. The owner of the park, Brookfield Office Properties, had withdrawn its request for police assistance. "Our position has been consistent throughout: the city's role is to protect public health and safety, to enforce the law, and guarantee the rights of all New Yorkers," Holloway said in a statement. "Brookfield believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters that will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use, and that the situation is respectful of residences and businesses downtown."

The news electrified a crowd of about 3,000 occupiers that had steadily grown in numbers as the wet night brightened into dawn. Many of them had worked nonstop since Thursday evening sweeping the park and scouring its granite walkways with brushes—a calculated attempt to deprive Brookfield Office Properties of its main justification for evicting them. While the company had claimed that it only wanted to move the occupiers to conduct a thorough cleaning, it has also issued a set of rules that would effectively prevent them from returning by banning camping, tarps, and sleeping bags.

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Now approaching its fourth week in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street, or #OWS as it's known on Twitter, has become the nexus of a global protest movement with satellites in more than 120 cities. It has galvanized activists on the left and won over a substantial majority of Americans, according to polls, while also retaining its independence from either political party. While it's still unclear what kind of impact it will have on policy debates or the 2012 elections, it has served as a powerful megaphone for progressive concerns such as income inequality and the corporate control of the political system.

Those issues were vividly personified last night in people like 9/11 first responder Walter Hillegass of Jackson Heights, Queens. I found him scouring an area near the park steps while wearing a hard hat, head lamp, and garbage bag poncho. In 2001, Hillegass had worked in the bucket brigade that cleared the debris from the World Trade Center a block from Zuccotti, but he later came down with severe respiratory problems and lost his job as a plumber. Now he sells his possessions on eBay and uses the money to buy food. The wealthy haven't been contributing their fair share, he told me, "but seeing all this gives me hope."

Blue-collar workers weren't the only ones who stuck it out through heavy rain to show their support. Sitting on the sidewalk with a netbook in her lap to use the WiFi emanating from a nearby McDonald's was a 20-something graduate student who said her name was Sam. Until recently she worked as a gardener in Connecticut for a 50-year-old, retired Goldman Sachs billionaire. "I liked it as far as you can like a job that barely pays you and has no health insurance," she said. She doubted her graduate degree would help her much. "Most of my friends will never have kids, won't buy houses," she said. "They're all on food stamps." Just like her. "You don't feel bad because there's nothing you can do." Or so she thought until she heard about Occupy Wall Street and drove down from Massachusetts.

Photo: Josh HarkinsonPhoto: Josh HarkinsonThe steely determination of the Occupy Wall Street protesters was leavened, at times, by doses of the carnivalesque. Wonder Woman showed up, as did a guy dressed as Santa. Twenty-nine-year-old artist Clark Stoeckley found a parking space amid a row of television vans for his WikiLeaks truck, which, contrary to the suspicions of the Secret Service, has nothing to do with gathering news for the group run by Julian Assange. It does, however, have a comfortable couch inside.

As the wee hours set in, the occupiers battled exhaustion. Several people curled up in small plastic tubs and draped themselves in plastic. Others leaned against each other or slumped in folding chairs beneath ponchos. But as dawn approached, so many caffeinated sympathizers spilled out of the subway that the city-block-sized plaza could barely contain them. When the news arrived that the police had called off the eviction, the crowd went wild, spilling down Broadway and chanting, "We are the 99 percent!"

Not everyone in the crowd believed that the police were throwing in the towel. "It just sounds like bullshit," said 47-year-old Bill Chelsea, a professional saxophone player who'd come to protest New York City's high rents. He worried that the cops would hold off only until the media and reinforcement sympathizers dissipated. "When everybody leaves, then they'll come in." 

But other occupiers had already declared victory—for now. Sitting at a park table at the edge of a chess board, coolly pondering his next move as the cheering crowd swarmed around him, was dreadlocked Ross De Wees, 23, a football coach at a youth center. The occupiers who were arrested en masse two weeks ago "made the mistake of playing fool's mate or queen's gambit"—in other words, going for a quick win against the cops, he said. "But today I think they made a good opening play, and hopefully it will lead to a you-know-what: A checkmate against the corporate financial system."

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