Occupying Wall Street, Seizing Space - Op-ed - Domus

Occupying Wall Street, Seizing Space

One month into an occupation that has inspired protests around the world, an analysis of the improvised and organized spatial tactics of the movement.

 

Op-ed / Chris Cobb

Before September 11th, 2001, Zuccotti Park offered a dramatic view of the World Trade Center. The Twin Towers were just one block away, looming over the quiet place like two huge sentinels. People working on Broadway and over on Wall Street would eat lunch on the red granite benches or smoke cigarettes while chatting with friends on the steps. Then, for several months after the towers fell, the park was transformed into a staging area for rescue workers and their equipment. Since then it has remained a relatively quiet oasis in the dense landscape of lower Manhattan. Besides traffic, the only noise was the ever-present sound of new construction at the new World Trade Center site.

But these days you sometimes have to elbow your way through the crowd to get from one end to the other. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which at first was a modest protest of 200 or so people, has grown so large that its 33,000 square feet can no longer contain all the protesters. Indeed one of the objectives of the protest is to literally occupy the park and not leave. To this end, a growing number of people have come to camp out, bringing their personal belongings, backpacks, sleeping bags and even their pets, further reducing the available open space. The overriding noise one hears now is a perpetual drum circle. It starts in the morning, usually around 9:00am and often continues all day until 10:00pm.

In response to the encampment, the NYPD has set up a maze of barricades all around the Wall Street area. Not only have the protesters taken over the park but they also organize at least two marches a day through Wall Street. This police lockdown has created an absurd level of congestion in an already congested part of town. Walking around you can see the disbelief on many peoples' faces. Tourists coming to catch a glimpse of the New York Stock Exchange are instead greeted by zombie flash mobs eating fake dollar bills with fake blood dribbling down their cheeks. At first, many of the workers in the area just had no idea what is going on; little did they know that just a block away an international movement was brewing.

While OWS was a fully functioning and self-sufficient collective at the start of the protest on September 17th, it has since evolved into a somewhat unwieldy mini-society. To the untrained eye the group appears to have rather a confusing agenda and a confounding spatial policy. The truth is that the park is being used in a way that is partly planned out and partly improvised. Like Corbusier once said, "The problem of the house has not yet been stated"; in other words, the house is a problem with no solution. As such, homes tend to be a reflection of those that build them.

Zuccotti Park is an excellent example of this. All over the place people have set up tents and tarps, sleeping bags and even the occasional lean-to. Some sleep in the open air while others cluster together in groups of two to five. Cardboard boxes have become tables and used pizza boxes have become the sign making material of choice. People have made homes out of whatever they could find. In the early mornings one can see hands and feet poking out from all the makeshift dwellings. Once a quiet thoroughfare, most days the population now swells from between 2,000 to 3,000 people by noon. And it has been this way for weeks, ever since 700 protesters were arrested for marching on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1.

This occupation of the park has set up a number of conflicts in regards to public and private space. This is partly due to the fact that this is a private park and not owned by the City; as such, it is mandated to be open 24 hour a day. For their part, the property management company that owns it, Brookfield Properties, can only sit back and watch. The protesters want to squat there and the City wants them to leave; Brookfield is in the middle. Yet because the park is privately owned the City cannot force them out. This situation has led the police to essentially surround the park for the entire length of the protest. They fear, in part, a possible repeat of the looting, arson and violent riots that happened in London earlier this year. For them safety is a real concern, as many of the protesters are young and are very vocal. There are also thousands of them and the last thing Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants is to see roaming bands of masked young people lighting fires, throwing rocks and looting Lower Manhattan. The police are there to ensure what happened in London doesn't happen here.

But nobody else wants to see that either, least of all the protesters. In fact, they have worked hard to maintain a policy of nonviolence. Despite the fact that they have been conducting daily marches around New York and around Wall Street—sometimes with several thousand people in tow—not a rock has been thrown and not a window has been broken. Far from being a violent mob (as Fox News has falsely claimed), the protest on the ¾ of an acre park has fostered its own unique culture. Demonstrators have established an orderly free food station made out of a long row of milk crates and plastic sheeting where anyone may come to eat. They've also created a technology center near the middle of the park where people sit together all day doing research, writing and tweeting. They even have a portable generator to power all of the electronic devices. Because so much is going on the various groups of OWS meet on a daily basis and in those meetings they tend to reinforce the principles of nonviolence, democracy, and leaderless decision-making. It's a slow process but it has managed to resolve a lot of problems stemming from the many needs of such a big group.

The conflicts found here are not only with the police. Local residents have found such things as the drone of endless drum circles to be annoying. Every day shirtless guys with congas, bongos and full drum kits sit on the eastern side of the park playing as loud as they can. It's not even a style of music, it's simply like some musical trance all of them have fallen into. And then there are the curiosity seekers and tourists. They come hoping to catch a glimpse of celebrities like Michael Moore, Kanye West or Slavoj Zizek who drop in from time to time. The celebrities lure enormous crowds into an already crowded space. If anything, they are the ones that pose the biggest variable to this complex human equation. And not surprisingly, Brookfield Properties has expressed concerns about sanitation.

As the protest has grown, so too has the international media attention. Reporters from all manner of news outlets have swarmed the park, trying to get their own angles. TV, radio, even many art photographers come and set up. On any given day you are likely to see ABC News interviewing a homeless anarchist right next to a retired professor being photographed. It's a strange scene. While most of the actual coverage has tried to portray protesters as degenerate hippies (New York Times, Fox News), shiftless punk rockers (Bloomberg), communists (Fox News), or plain ignorant, the fact is that many are well-versed in the shortcomings of the financial industry and what it has done to erode the so-called American Dream.

Yet despite the potential for conflict, people have found ways to work things out. For example, the sleeping areas were initially ad hoc and scattered around the park. So too was the eating area and the sign-making area. But each gradually developed its own footprint and a map was drawn to ensure food wasn't being stored in the sleeping space and signs weren't being made in the food preparation space. When the problems became obvious people just got together and worked it out. One great innovation was that the areas were marked off on the ground with different colors of masking tape. Now the sleeping area is clustered in the south-eastern quadrant and the food area more or less forms the central corridor of the park. The food area is the core to the operation and so it has everything from a serving table to make shift dishwashing stations. They even collect organic refuse for composting.

However well-intentioned, the map created even more potential for conflict. Many people who had found their own personal spaces were suddenly thrust together into in one area. No matter how idealistic people are they don't always get along, nor do they like having their personal space threatened. It's become enough of a problem that many of the women sleeping in the park have spoken up at the General Assembly (the main decision-making body of the protest) asking that there be a women's area where men cannot come to sleep. When they brought it up everyone understood the issue and appeared supportive.

But after a month of high emotions, the lack of on-site bathroom facilities and the constant presence of the police, overcrowding has become a problem. Possible solutions were debated and eventually there was a consensus among the groups: the new people wanting to stay at OWS would be asked to move to Washington Square Park. Although it is 1.5 miles from Wall Street, it is centrally located and is a straight shot up Broadway—perfect for marches.

However, adding a second park will be a test for the movement. The logistics of feeding over a thousand people a day at Zuccotti Park has already been quite a challenge. And then there is the sanitation group, which is constantly cleaning. The library group that has to manage thousands of books. The medical group, which is supposed to be functioning 24 hours a day. The press group that deals with the avalanche of media inquiries. The outreach group that fields all of the requests from other political and activist groups. The art group that's busy trying to facilitate street theater and art exhibitions. And then there are all the other groups that make up the General Assembly—they are constantly adding new members. Will Washington Square Park need to develop the same kind of infrastructure or are protesters willing to walk 1.5 miles for their donated meals?

With all the cacophony and its many voices, OWS is starting to resemble a mini New York. Despite all of their quirks and mixed temperaments, the protesters have found a way to put aside their differences and live peacefully together. After all, everyone has to sleep, everyone has to eat, and everyone needs shelter. In the end they've realized they have more in common than they have differences. This unifying theme is what they believe gives them power and even the president of the United States has acknowledged as much.

But as winter approaches the circus will undoubtedly continue. The people will still come to gawk and the media are dying to find out what happens next. One thing is for sure, Occupy Wall Street has made its mark and it's not going away any time soon.

Chris Cobb is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer. He originally went to Occupy Wall Street in order to photograph the protesters, but soon joined them and now writes and makes videos about the movement.

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