Occupy Wall Street Protesters Settle In, Despite Weather And Police Clashes
NEW YORK -- The members of Occupy Wall Street are not allowed to use megaphones, so they've adopted a low-tech workaround.
At their twice-daily general meetings in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan's financial district, whoever has an announcement to make speaks slowly and clearly, with a pause every few seconds, so that everyone within earshot of the speaker can repeat back what he or she just said -- amplifying it for the crowd of hundreds to hear.
That crowd, which in some ways resembles an indie-rock concert audience -- mostly young people, with a smattering of Baby Boomers, and a higher than average quotient of hair dye -- has been gathered here, steps from Wall Street, since September 17. They've been addressing a mishmash of concerns and causes -- from war to income inequality to corporate influence in politics -- that has left many onlookers bewildered.
The occupiers' speak-and-repeat technique is time-consuming, but their willingness to use it suggests a group not easily discouraged. Many of the protesters have been camped in this park for what is now nearly two weeks, sleeping on foam pads, cardboard boxes, and a ragtag collection of mattresses and furniture.
Despite lousy weather, media skepticism and clashes with the police -- including an ugly incident this past Saturday in which an officer pepper-sprayed several young women during a march -- the faithful seem to be in it for the long haul.
"Indefinitely," said Shon Botado, one of the protesters staffing the first aid station, a couple of tables spilling over with donated cold medicine, vitamins, tampons and other paraphernalia, when asked how long he was planning to be there. "Until change is made to the financial structure."
What that change might look like, no one can say for sure.
Whatever one might say about Occupy Wall Street, it's hard to accuse it of being a single-issue movement. The crowds of people in and around Zuccotti Park have as many different reasons for being there as you can name.
Some said they have come to register their dismay over the environment. Some are there to protest military occupations in other countries. At least a few were moved to attend after the September 21 execution of Troy Davis.
But economic concerns seem paramount for many. Several hand-lettered placards express outrage that banks and bankers weren't punished more severely in the wake of the financial crisis. And the protesters speak often of the national wealth gap -- the vast differences in income that separate the richest 1 percent of Americans from everybody else.
But the group is also devoting considerable energy simply to keeping itself going.
There are about 200 people sleeping in this one-block park every night, eating donated food and running into nearby restaurants to use the bathroom. An internal structure has emerged, one that seems to be getting more sophisticated every day.
At a megaphone-free meeting Wednesday afternoon, delegates from various committees stood and offered updates, assessments, encouragement and advice.
The Comfort committee, which handles bedding and clothing, needed donations. A woman from the Food committee said that her group was just fine on donations, but asked if anyone was willing to make their kitchen available.
"We have a lot of food that could be cooked and brought back here," she said. It was not an outlandish request: A number of New Yorkers have opened their apartments to the protesters, letting them shower and charge their electronics indoors.
Someone from Community Relations reported that local Financial District residents had voted down a resolution against the protesters at a community board meeting -- a welcome signal of support. But, the speaker added, some locals were still concerned about noise at night, so members of Occupy Wall Street were going to sit down and meet with them.
One young woman weighed in with a grim weather report: The forecast called for rain, followed by plummeting temperatures on Friday. "We are going to have to pick some useful strategies to deal with this weather that we know is coming," she said.
Someone stood up to announce a group meditation session happening later that afternoon. Someone tried to lead the group in a song, which was tabled for after the meeting. Someone else declared that his ukulele had gone missing.
It wasn't exactly a Parliamentary session -- and with everything first being said, then repeated en masse, it took twice as long as it otherwise might have -- but most of those present seemed committed to the process.
With the group's priorities so diverse, it's unclear how long the Occupy Wall Street movement will actually stick around. The group has yet to formalize a list of demands or conditions under which it might disperse.
Yet the protesters seem to be thinking in terms of months, not days. Botado, who has been in Zuccotti Park since the movement launched on September 17, said that the group is open to the idea of spending the winter there.
And while the protesters' run-ins with law enforcement seem like they might deter curious outsiders -- in addition to the pepper-spraying incident, at least 80 members of Occupy Wall Street have been arrested in the past two weeks, and several people have been injured by police batons -- many of the people present on Wednesday said they didn't get involved until after these confrontations.
While this is going on, the cause is gaining momentum outside New York. Similar protests have been held or are being planned in dozens of other cities.
The lack of clear direction may eventually prove a stumbling block to the occupiers, but the mood in lower Manhattan this week was one of cheerful energy. A sign -- one of perhaps 100 strewn about the square, or being waved to and fro by demonstrators -- read, "DEMOCRACY MAY BE HARD BUT AT LEAST WE ARE DOING IT."
"What's change?" said Rob, a protester who said he has worked in minimum wage jobs all his life, and asked not to be identified by his full name. "What isn't change? We're here. That's change."