A man is sitting next to Mohammed. He has the long, unkempt beard and collared white shirt, dark vest and wire-rimmed glasses that I usually associate with orthodox religion. With the extra layers of clothes and hat and scarves, I can’t put my finger on whether he’s Russian or Greek, or even Jewish. Regardless, what he’s doing is of note: he has his arm around Mohammed, is speaking in low tones with a nodding head. A little while ago Mohammed shouted, “They kill my family. Thirty-two family I have, now I have none. Stop bombing Afghanistan.”
The two alternate taking swigs from a plastic bottle of gin. At one point, they both laugh while staring at the ground. On its own, the episode is not so uncommon in New York City in 2011. But something about the fact that we’re here, on Christmas Eve, on day 99 of Occupied Liberty Plaza, gives it a deeper significance, a sense of connections being formed at a foundational level, a flavor of renewed hope.
A proposal at the General Assembly to “prohibit” working groups from meeting during GAs and Spokes Councils is blocked by a few who have ethical concerns that it will infringe on the autonomy of others. None of the speakers question whether or not we should be encouraging people to attend GA, but the procedural constraints (questions, then concerns, then amendments) steer people away from a more natural discussion that might encourage finding common ground to start from. At this point, some regulars start breaking process and responding out of turn, shouting at people who they think misunderstand the proposal. This leads to others shouting back at them to respect the process. I recognize a familiar pattern of dissolution among largely agreeing parties, and start to withdraw a bit.
The proposal does not meet this criterion. Consensus is declared “not reached,” and the proposer is swarmed by individuals who want to help him improve the language. This conversation will continue. At this point, a call comes out from the crowd. “Mic check! Arts and Culture would like to request a ten-minute break to pass out some candles!” A&C had planned a 9 p.m. candlelight vigil. Consensus is asked, and quickly achieved without needing to count. We gather around. I look in the bag next to the woman who announced the break and find an exquisitely detailed wax candle in the shape of a fist, with its middle finger raised.
Brilliant. We’re asked to grab some candles and stand in a circle around an area that used to be filled with plants. (They survived our Occupation, thanks to the work of several volunteer gardeners, but they did not survive the police raid). At this point, seemingly out of nowhere, my friend Becky appears. I had emailed some friends earlier to let them know where I’d be and to tell the story of a caroler who sang earlier—“I’m dreaming of an Occupied Christmas…They say protesting’s illegal/But we’ve got Norman Siegel…” etc., etc.—and of Mohammed. This apparently inspired Becky to swoop down from her sickbed to join. She is one of my oldest friends. We met in college, about ten years ago, and it seems she’s around for many of the important moments of my life. We both came to Occupy a few months ago, organically, though neither of us was surprised to find each other there. I’m grateful that I have her as a witness for what happens the rest of the night.
The artist—Mr. Matsumoto, I didn’t catch his first name—stands up on a bench and describes the candles to us. “Mic check! This is my Christmas present to you guys. I want you guys to get around and light this for me. I nearly lost my middle finger—my real middle finger—the other day. I’m a woodworker, and I make my living with my hands. While I was injured, I thought about a lot of things. I thought about my life without my middle finger. [Crowd laughs.] If I don’t have my middle finger, it really, really sucks.” [Laughs again.] “It really sucks…because it’s like losing a voice.” [Cheers.] “My middle finger.” He raises the candle. “YOUR middle finger.” Vigorous twinkles—of our middle fingers. The candles are lit and several are raised toward the Brookfield building.
I’m glad this movement began in New York, not just because I’m here and get to experience it, but because it has acquired a certain New York flavor in both work ethic and brusque humor that helps to take the edge off of the struggle. The movement retains its hard-nosed character throughout; you’ll never mistake our laughter for weakness. Here’s an example: A call goes out in the best Brooklyn accent one can muster and still hope for the human mic to accurately reflect: “Mic check! Fuuuuuuuuck youuuuuuuuu!”
We gather in a circle, sort of, and some use the human mic to announce why they are lighting the candles: for the loss of our civil liberties, for the dogs who died in the raid (this is the first I’ve heard of that), for the library. I feel that while this might be appropriate to the intention, it somehow derails the festive mood that we’ve built in spite of the cold, and I call out that I am lighting this candle to celebrate the rebirth of our democracy. A small, cheesy break, but I hear relief in the hoots that follow. I catch Stan, from ThinkTank and Outreach, giddily milling about, saying, “We have to march with these! We have to march with these!” I say to him, “Call it out! Let’s do it!” He speeds off again. Stan’s story is inspiring, though not entirely unique: he visited from Huntsville, Alabama, in early October. I met him on his first or second day here when he was planning to learn what he could and go back and start Occupy Huntsville. I saw him again two days later and he said he was thinking of moving to NYC. A few weeks after that, he moved. He’s been living with Occupy ever since—at the park, first, and now in churches.
The idea to march comes from several places at once: “Let’s march!” Someone calls, “Around the park!” Stan, still buzzing from group to group, reappears: “No! We’re marching to Wall Street! We’re going to the stock exchange!”
This might seem an obvious idea, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate why it is anything but. Since the very first day of the Occupation, we have attempted to march on the NYSE. To my knowledge the only time we got close was during the large march of November 17th. The police were determined to never let us near the Exchange. Back during the Occupation, there were daily marches. When we headed toward City Hall, the police corralled us around the perimeter with blockades. But when we headed in the direction of the Exchange, we’d meet riot police and horses. Most people never expected to do it, but considered it important to continue trying, even if only for symbolic value.
Right now, on Christmas Eve, there are only three patrol officers, with three or four more community-affairs officers (and about ten Brookfield private security guards, whom I later learn are being paid triple overtime). The awareness that we can actually do this spreads through the crowd. After some confused attempts to relight the candles against the wind tunnel of Liberty Plaza, someone shouts, “Let’s just march, and we’ll light the candles…on Wall Street.”
We begin to march and the chant begins: “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street!” I can’t help but grin, because, yes, for the first time in a long time, we’re actually doing it. The man carrying the live-streaming laptop has a debate with himself about whether or not to join; at the last major march, live-streamers were among the first arrested, in a pattern that seemed intentional. He eventually acquiesces to the will of the crowd, both the one in the park and the increasing number watching along at home.
As we make our way to the exit, I see a police officer standing outside of the barricades at the southern gate to the park. Her arms are extended, as if to confine us to half the sidewalk. Shawn from DA is confused by this, laughs and starts dancing around her in circles. She pushes him, hard, and he tumbles several feet. “It’s the sidewalk!” he shouts, nervously laughing. She shouts back, “You don’t listen! You should just listen!” I’m laughing, nervously too, because I’ve seen what happens when police are overwhelmed by numbers. But I realize what she’s doing: there’s a propane tank fueling one of the food carts. I suspect that she doesn’t want us to step on it or bring candles too close to it. Perfectly reasonable! Why didn’t she say so? I say to her, “It’s the propane tank! You could have just told us.” But she’s not listening to me.
As we turn down Broadway, the police hurry into formation, marching in a single-file line in the bus lane. There are more of them now, though I’m not quite sure where they came from so quickly. Another of our regular ingredients, the drums, pop up out of nowhere. Who decides to bring drums (and a tambourine?) to Liberty Plaza on Christmas Eve in thirty-degree weather? Well, someone named Rooster did, and, flanked by an American flag, he starts playing a brisk, tight rhythm.
The crowd chants and speeds its way through the old standards: “Banks got bailed out/We got sold out.” Then: “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Corporate greed has got to go!” The middle-finger candles are waving. We turn left down Wall Street, chanting, spinning, dancing, laughing, some with their heads turned to the sky. The parade continues down the northern sidewalk, passing Federal Hall, site of the first Congress and the first Presidential inauguration. A contingent breaks off and runs up the stairs, around Washington’s statue and between the marble columns, hooting mischievously like children left in a mall after closing time. We take the long way around the barricades that circle the intersection of Wall Street and the Exchange Street, turn right toward the corner and stop. The patrol officers are behind us, paused along Wall Street, in front of Federal Hall. There are two community-affairs officers ahead, standing side by side, facing us, backs to the Exchange. Other than them, there is no physical reason for us to stop. But we do.
We’re paused at the corner for a couple of minutes that linger with careful excitement. The parade catches up, our only possible excuse not to move forward. Some people are shouting ideas, hurling invective at the Exchange, asking for lighters and matches, but no one is saying the obvious. I look at the Exchange building: columns bathed in red light, American flags fluttering in a slight breeze, gigantic Christmas tree with a half-lit menorah at the base. Someone says, “We should light these candles and stand silently in front of the Exchange.” No one has moved down the sidewalk, past the officers, yet. I turn to the crowd, then back to the officers. With no purpose to my step, I start to walk at them, then around them. I don’t think to look at their faces, but just keep awareness of their forms in the corner of my eye. They don’t move. The crowd—we are, somehow, bigger than when we started—spills down the sidewalk. We’re here. A group of Occupiers, holding lit middle-finger candles, facing the New York Stock Exchange. The street is quiet, save for us. On the 99th day of the 99%, we did it, for the first time. We are Occupying “Wall Street.”
The patrol officers remain where they were. At the southern end of the block, a new contingent of mounted officers lines up, inside the barricades. I suppose, in retrospect, that they had the exits blocked, but that didn’t seem to be as threatening as it usually might. Shouts begin. “Mic check! I want to see one broker or banker go to jail!” “Mic check! Whose street?” “Mic check! This is our time.” “Mic check! Fuck you, Wall Street!” Someone shouts “Fuck the police!” and he is instantly met with a shower of jeers. There’s some back and forth about how we should present ourselves, about how the police are the 99%, about maintaining solidarity despite differences of opinion. Someone breaks the tension: “Mic check! To the police, our gift to you! Massive overtime pay!” Cheers. We’re standing now, some of us on the polygonal metal sculptures that line the sidewalk. There are no people between me and the Exchange—just the cobblestone street and roughly four layers of police barricades. Standing on the metal sculpture, I am above them. I realize it’s just a short jump into the street, and from there a short walk to the Exchange. I realize I’m probably more comfortable staying where I am.
The mounted officers retreat to a position farther down, past the intersection of Exchange Place and Broad Street. They don’t seem to be heading our way. Someone calls out, “Let’s hold a moment of silence for the officer who just died.” (I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I believe he was referring to Officer Figoski, shot while investigating a burglary in Queens.) And we did. I glanced at the officers, standing at the north edge of the street. They held their hands in front of them, crossed at the wrists. It seemed they heard the request. There was some quick back and forth, and the crowd settled. For a minute, the only sound was the subway rumbling, the traffic a few blocks away, the wind whipping the flag. Alone, together, in the canyon at the heart of the financial district, a group of Occupiers and officers held their heads and their tongues to commemorate a sacrifice in service of a better world.
“Thank you,” says the man who requested the moment of silence. The facilitators from the GA realize that there’s no going back to the park and ask for consensus to reconvene the GA here. Hundreds of fingers wave in concordance. Someone offers to run back to the park to get anyone who is still there. We wait, and people soapbox. One of the facilitators, Diego, eternally cheerful, shouts, “Remember this. Remember this. Thirty years from now, you will recall this moment with tears streaming down your face.” Cheers and shouts—there’s no crying now. There’s only laughing. I mill about, talk it over with Becky, soak in the awe of the moment. But we’re unsure if we want to stay. The scout returns, says there’s no one left in the park except those who wanted to be there. The GA begins again and picks up right where we left off.
The next proposal is to support a national march on Washington on March 17th, which will be the six-month anniversary of the Occupation. The GA is not the right forum for this kind of amorphous initiative, but people are appreciative of the idea. Several points of information are offered on similar actions that are currently in the early planning stages; it appears the second half of March is going to be very, very busy. The proposal is tabled; the proposer wades into a crowd of people who want to help combine their ideas. Becky, under the weather, sees an opportunity to disengage. I hesitate, not wanting to let go of this incredible moment, but don’t quite feel up to the Process right now. She leaves and we spend much of the evening arguing over the way to consensus, drowning in the seemingly interminable bickering that some fear will destroy this movement from within. These clashes of process and principle that join to block our way forward seem impassable obstacles rather than intermittent hurdles, but if this night proves anything, it’s that once the blocks are removed, once the barricades are seen past, we all know the destination. We just need to remind ourselves that we can get there.
Aaron B. is a participant in Occupy Wall Street. Right now all of his Occupy energy is focused on helping to make May Day 2012 a beautiful day to remember. He looks forward to seeing everyone out in public on May 1st, celebrating all day with tens of thousands of others in a festival of public art, performance and radical self-expression. See www.maydaynyc.org and www.call2create.org for more information.