NEW YORK – I came upon a child of God; he was walking on down the road. Also, he was white, bearded, and wearing overalls with no shirt underneath them, and I nearly bumped into him. Anyway, this he asked me:
“Ma’am? Ma’am. I’m currently accepting donations to the Crusty Kid Foundation. Can you give me money, cause my parents don’t got none?”
I demurred. My bank account was on its last $20, I might need to buy a new MetroCard, and I kind of thought he might be faking the accent. I tensed up during my polite refusal, expecting – after 10 years in New York, and more than that spent with self-described “crusty kids” – some hostility.
“Awwww,” he said. “Hugs?”
And thus, I came into contact with a bare male torso, for what would not be the only time during my stay at Occupy Wall Street. I don’t want to spoil this story for you, but it was the same torso both times.
I had been an Occupy Wall Street doubter. When people spoke of the “overwhelming positivity” of the camp, or of feeling “loved” there, I had greeted this with knee-jerk cynicism. As far as I was concerned, social progress was something tough, argumentative, something to be passionately fought out. Despite the arrests and the massive popular support for OWS, it felt like Woodstock to me; too much camping out on the land and getting one’s soul free, too many celebrity endorsements, too little that was concrete and actionable.
In August of this year, white unemployment rates fell to 8 percent, while black unemployment rates rose to 16.7 percent, their highest level since 1984. While conservatives push an aggressive agenda against “illegal immigrants,” undocumented immigrants remain a vulnerable and much-exploited population. We live in a country where women are still more likely to be poor than men, and where forces like the wage gap, the second shift and segregation into low-paid “pink collar” professions still restrict women’s ability to support themselves financially.
I wanted a specific answer about how these different realities of class, poverty and prejudice are being addressed by Occupy Wall Street. But to get those, one must dig.
Intersectionality in action
It wasn’t until I really spent some time at Zuccotti Park that I understood. It was night when I arrived. At one end of the park, a man was giving a speech about a plan to keep the area clean; near the floodlights two people translated into American Sign Language (ASL), and the speech itself was typed and projected onto a screen. Behind the crowd, I found OWS en Espanol, which provides a Spanish language version of the Occupied Wall Street Journal and recaps speeches in Spanish.
At this end, there was a communal library; I donated a few books and walked to the other end of the park. At that end, there was drumming and exuberant chanting. Nearby, people were sitting in a circle around a tree which had been designated “Community Sacred Space,” and which was decorated with a sign about Jesus, a statue of Ganesh, flowers, quartz crystals. I put a dollar in its collection plate.
In between all this, there was a comfort station with a bin of clothes and blankets, a kitchen with a model of “permaculture” water filtration, a massage chair, and a band playing “Sweet Dreams” on accordion and kazoo. Men and women were sprawled out on mattresses and sleeping bags, eating dinner off of paper plates, lighting up joints, chatting. I saw a girl sleeping alone, with her head on her backpack, against the concrete steps at the edge of the park.
I realized that I had never experienced that level of trust in my surroundings. How safe she must feel, I thought, to do something that every female instinct I had told me was a terrifying admission of vulnerability. Sleeping. In public. Where unknown, wide-awake men could see.
And then I hugged the Crusty Kid Foundation. That was when I got it. I hadn’t come to cover a protest. I had come to cover another world.
‘We’re all together in this’
I spoke to several women at Occupy Wall Street, about diversity and how different communities were represented there. Each of them stressed the overwhelming togetherness of the protest, the diversity and the sense of community present there.
“The diversity that you see with people working, as well as just people interacting socially, is definitely to a greater degree than I’ve seen at other anti-war protests,” or other protests generally, said Lou, who had worked in the kitchen that day. She called the protest “a range of struggles in a very compact area.”
“I do get the sense that a lot of this is about dialogue, and for us, intergenerational dialogue is something really wonderful to see,” she said.
Jillian, who said Occupy Wall Street was her first protest, and had come to protest student loans – “I can’t go to school because I can’t pay for it, and I can’t get a job because there are no jobs” – concurred.
“I was surprised that there were less college-aged students here than I imagined,” she said. “There is every generation here.”
“I’m astonished by just how many populations are coming together here,” said Roxy, at another end of the park, pointing out the presence of homeless folks, students, and veterans. Still, she said, “coming from what might be considered a privileged background, I don’t feel like anyone is out to get me or exclude me. I don’t feel like anyone’s being excluded.”
“Sexual revolutiooooon,” hollered a deep, male voice somewhere behind us, for reasons that remain unknown.
“There’s all ages, all genders, all races,” Jillian had said. “It’s unifying. Because people can be prejudiced because of sexuality or race, but we’re all together in this.”
A little too much diversity
This sense of community is obvious. The ASL translation and screens for typed speeches, the Spanish-language booth, the free food and clothing and books and even sacred spaces where Ganesh and Jesus share focus: Occupy Wall Street has clearly gone out of its way to be inclusive and accessible. This is the foundational idea of the “99 percent,” the idea that belonging to any class that is not the extreme high end of the ruling class creates common identity with everyone else; it’s why there is a call for everyone, no matter what their political position, to join the occupation.
In my experience, common identity did not work that way, even within progressive movements; it was a complicated claim, a largely functional one, that left room for all sorts of aggressions, rivalries and appropriations. But against all odds, “common identity” seemed to be working at Occupy Wall Street. I was happy to be proven wrong.
And then, at the fringes of the protest, behind the stage, I saw a young white man who seemed to have a very definite position. He was holding a sign that read “ZIONISTS CONTROL OUR NATION TAKE IT BACK,” and underneath the lettering, it had the symbol for crosshairs. I asked the man if I could speak to him for a piece, and he agreed.
The American political process, he told me, was controlled by Zionist groups. Also, the American banking system: He named several firms which he assured me were Zionist in nature. He was calling for “an end to ethnocentrism.”
“It’s not about all the Jews. There are some decent Jews,” he assured me, adding that “if the decent Jews want to protect themselves, they should really just turn over their criminals.”
I asked him whether the other protesters had taken issue with his sign, or told him that his positions were anti-Semitic. He said that one man had called him “evil,” and gestured to the park.
“There are plenty of people in there who are saying racist things against white people, and no-one’s saying anything to them,” he said. “It’s a double standard.”
I had heard that a man had been recorded making anti-Semitic statements at the protest. I checked YouTube to see if it was the same man. It wasn’t; this one was new. I started to see some of the problems with a movement that anyone could claim to join.
The park is not the movement
“The scene at Zuccotti Park can look a little like Beyond The Thunderdome,” my acquaintance Andrew Krucoff told me in an e-mail, “but I love how a woman told the crowd there the other day, ‘We have to remember this is not Bonnaroo. This is not a hippie commune.’ Obviously some people are drawn to that and living in the park is going to draw a certain kind of crowd but I think it’s important to make distinctions between Zuccotti Park and the ‘movement.’”
That movement owes a lot to the labor protests that have been occurring this year, especially in the Midwest, where threats to collective bargaining sparked widespread protest. When I asked around for people who could tell me about the differences between these two movements, I was pointed to Ed Knutson, who had been part of both.
“In Wisconsin, there was immediate, broad public support for the movement because of the common cause of preserving public employee collective bargaining. The community that developed was eventually whittled down to younger people, mostly students, who were more radical,” Knutson said. “In NYC, it is the opposite: it seems like the radical core assembled first, and more ‘average’ people are slowly working out how to participate in their own ways.”
This need – to find a way for the message of Occupy Wall Street to translate to average people – was stressed by Krucoff as well.
“The face of this movement cannot be the students or Zuccotti Park regulars, who are kinda like the Marines of protests, the first ones in. We need the working (and non-working) families who most of America can identify with to be the second wave.”
An urgent, simple request
As I wandered around, the Crusty Kid Foundation approached me again. We hugged. I was on my way home when I met Marcela.
“I definitely thought I would see more pregnant women here,” she said, “and it seems like I’m the only one.”
People asked to take a lot of photos, she said; she had “Save Me” written across her pregnant belly. It was mostly men who commented on the pregnancy, beyond just taking the pictures. One man had started touching her: “He was just rubbing my belly and telling me it was going to be okay.”
I flinched. That sounded invasive, to me; objectifying, even sexist.
“Mar-i-JUA-NA! Mar-i-JUA-NA! Hey HEY heyyy! Get hiiiiiiigh,” sang a girl sitting a few feet away.
Marcela told me that one protester had suggested she paint a pot leaf on her belly. It wasn’t exactly the message she was there to send, we agreed. I asked her whether she felt any special strain, being a woman and a mother in this economy.
“So far I haven’t seen much difference in that, the people around me that have lost jobs,” she said. “It’s just a feeling of helplessness. We’re all screwed, men and women.”
A man came over to her, and they spoke to each other a bit in Spanish. She introduced him to me as Arturo, the baby’s father. I asked him whether Marcela’s pregnancy had played any role in his attending the protest.
“I want change,” he said. “I want it now. I have more reasons.”
It wasn’t a hug, and it wasn’t an altar. But it made as much sense as anything else I’d heard at Occupy Wall Street. In fact, it made more.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.