NEW YORK -- Protesters in Zuccotti Park have erected the first four military frame tents on the park's densely packed cement square in the hopes of addressing growing concerns about plunging temperatures and general security.
The park is expected to see three additional tents installed in the next day or so, and last Saturday night's Occupy Wall Street General Assembly approved nearly $20,000 to purchase 20 more -- "to be used for keeping us alive," the presenter from the town planning working group told the GA. The first two tents, each 16 feet by 16 feet, stand side by side: one a dedicated "safe space" for women, the other an area for the medical working group and its patients.
For nearly two months, protesters have been living primarily in smaller, privately purchased tents, under tarps or out in the open air. There have been multiple cases of hypothermia, along with incidents of sexual assault, thefts and drug use.
The new communal tents are double-layered, waterproof and set atop plastic platforms. They provide far more warmth than the smaller tents that began popping up on every free inch of concrete weeks ago, most of which are designed for summer camping.
But supporters of the big tent system hope that they'll keep the protesters from having to take more drastic measures to maintain their safety.
"We can't handle security in this park as it is. If we become a traditional security force, it would destroy our movement," said Bobby Cooper, 30, who purchased the tents and works with the town planning and sanitation working groups -- two of more than 80 committees that have sprung up since the protest began.
Cooper, who spoke dressed like a hunter in a fur flap-eared hat and a fluorescent orange sweatshirt, currently sleeps in a tent behind the piles of cleaning supplies at the sanitation station. Almost more important than weathering the coming storms, he said, is a chance to reduce the crime that can occur in smaller, more private spaces. If occupiers live in the communal tents, they will have to follow the communal rules: no thefts, no drugs, no fights.
"A bar can remove anyone they want, but we can't do that -- and on the rare occasion when we do remove someone, it's difficult, it's ambiguous," said Cooper, an artist who has worked as a security guard at Brooklyn event spaces. "These tents are going to provide us with a platform to get a lot of what we're struggling with done. It's also a cultural thing. Sleeping in the tents, people will get to know each other again."
Already, the feeling in the park has shifted subtly as the large green structures tower over their smaller tent neighbors and lend the encampment a more permanent feel.
There are hurdles, however, to shifting from the small-tent model entirely to a big-tent arrangement. Many of the living and working arrangements in the park have sprung up independently of the town planning working group, driven more by need, opportunity and individual choice than collective decision-making.
And some of the occupiers don't want to move.
As one crowd who had been displaced by the women's safe space moved their tents out of the way, a young man turned and grumbled to a fellow mover, "Town planning is a myth!"
"Town planning is elusive," acknowledged Christine, a protester working with the information and media working groups who never tells the press her last name. "They're in an awkward position. They can make lovely town plans, but can they make people move?"
The moment for a large-scale transition to communal tents is at hand, though, Christine said, if the movement is to sustain momentum. "We're not using the space efficiently right now, and we need to start," she said. "Bloomberg is hoping winter will solve this whole problem for him, and we're not going to let that happen."
Although tents are not permitted within the regulations of Zuccotti Park's private owners, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday that he had no plans to crack down on the new, larger tents.
"We're looking to make sure that people behave themselves and that they comply with the law, and so far they're not complying with Brookfield's regulations," the mayor said at a press conference. "But Brookfield has not asked us yet to enforce those regul-- help them enforce those regulations, so that's that."
At times, protesters' energies at Occupy Wall Street can appear more focused on sustaining life inside the park than on changing the world beyond. This dichotomy comes into focus most clearly when substantial living concerns appear to threaten the sustainability of the protest.
"Zuccotti Park is a microcosm of this world," Cooper said, gesturing beyond the square block full of protesters. "And it's rough, definitely. It's also a crash course in redefining community and what society can be. And that is just as important as the change we're doing outside this occupation."
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