They promised to ‘take down Wall Street’, to start a new American revolution modelled on the Arab Spring, to rally a crowd of 20,000 who would set up peaceful barricades in the ‘belly of the beast’ – the financial district of New York City – and camp out there for several months. Instead, the Occupy Wall Street campaign, a ‘leaderless resistance movement’, has out-Monty Pythoned the Flying Circus.
On Saturday 17 September, D-day for the Wall Street occupation, a couple of hundred anti-capitalist protesters descended on Wall Street, only to find it cordoned off by the New York Police Department, whose officers nearly outnumbered the scraggly protesters.
Protesters march around Arturo
Di Modica’s Charging Bull sculpture
in the financial district of NYC
The protesters gathered at Bowling Green Park. When I arrived, they were marching round and round the famous Charging Bull, a bronze sculpture which its designer, Arturo Di Modica, installed without permission after the stock market crash of 1987. He called it a symbol of the ‘strength, power and hope of the American people for the future’. On Saturday, sealed off by metal barricades and guarded by a handful of policemen, Di Modica’s boisterous piece of guerrilla art was treated as a symbol for bullish, thieving bankers and their government cronies.
While marching around the Charging Bull, protesters waved placards with slogans like ‘Your Day$ of Plenty Are Numbered’, ‘Revoke Corporate Personhood’, and ‘Get Your Money Out of Our Government’. They banged on drums and chanted: ‘Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!’
A masked protester takes a
stand against ‘capitalist pigs’
So this is what democracy looks like according to the aspiring Wall Street occupiers: A woman in pink tights and a pig mask held a giant pair of scissors and pretended to cut up a net that had the words ‘social safety net’ written across it. Another lady had written ‘Free Bradley Manning’ (the Wikileaks whistle-blower) in marker pen across her bare chest, which she happily exposed to photographers. Organisers held bouquets of flowers, which they dispensed to fellow protesters in a hippyish gesture. An elderly man wearing a rainbow-patterned knitted hat called himself ‘an old yippie’ and explained that his top priority is to legalise marijuana. Students from the Harvard Divinity School came to Bowling Green Park, as one of them told me, to ‘quell anger’ and to ‘reinforce the idea that Christ came to Earth to spread love; not to make CEOs richer but to help the poor and oppressed’.
The march around the bull ended when the flower-baring organisers made an announcement: there would be a session of ‘political yoga’ in the park. While some protesters made sun salutations, others listened to a young Beatnik-nostalgic reading out Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, while others yet touted socialist rags or tried to get signatories for a petition to free a black prisoner from death row.
‘Political yoga’ in Bowling Green Park
The exaggerated police presence and their street- and subway-shutdowns only gave the non-violence-glorifying protesters the opportunity to pass themselves off as put-upon guardians of democracy facing a jackbooted coordinated machine of oppression. When the cops started sealing off the park with metal barricades, the protesters moved to the adjacent plaza outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. By now, numbers had increased to a couple of thousand.
The chants became more varied, ranging from the self-help manual-like ‘I believe that we will win’, and the non-sequitur ‘free the people - don’t free the bankers’, to the youthfully enraged ‘No justice, no peace – fuck corporate greed’. There was then a new announcement that a ‘people’s assembly’ would begin so protesters stopped chanting and sat down, forming a circle.
A young man who later introduced himself to me as Edward T Hall III (he insisted ‘the third’ should be written in Roman numerals) acted as facilitator. Wearing neon-coloured bell-bottoms, a back-to-front baseball cap and bead necklaces, Edward lit up a joint and declared: ‘We need to agree on at least one demand. I suggest the elimination of corporate personhood.’ Those who concurred waved their hands in the air. Edward then explained that he believed he is an appropriate facilitator because he ‘happens to be a researcher in behavioural sciences’, at which point, to their credit, other protesters objected that the facilitator was talking too much. When, on the other side of the square, a man got into an argument with some police officers, the protesters interrupted their assembly, stood up and pointed towards the brawl and shouted ‘Don’t arrest that guy!’.