Activists have occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan and given it back its old name: Liberty Plaza. A visit with a movement critical of capitalism.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says the policeman in a white shirt into the megaphone, “Clear the road. Otherwise we will arrest you.” The announcement itself is difficult to understand on the video that the New York Police published later. The words are drowned out all the more by the chants that echo above the top level of the cast-iron Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday afternoon. “To whom does the street belong?” chant more than 700 demonstrators, who answer themselves, “Us!” A few hours later most of them will sit in the police stations of New York.
“We had already crossed the first part of the bridge,” says Kyle Kneitinger, “I was on the sidewalk with many others. Some of us jumped over the fence into the street. We thought the police would escort us, and suddenly they rolled out an orange plastic fence in front of us. People behind us shouted that the police rolled out a fence there as well.” For several hours the police encircled demonstrators and also reporters high above the East River; then they led them away.
The next morning, Kyle is still a little disheveled, but he is back in Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Manhattan, where he has been sleeping on stone slabs in the shadow of skyscrapers since Sept. 17. He carries two folded court summons in the pocket of his faded jeans: one of them because of his obstruction of traffic on Saturday and one because of “obstruction of justice” from the week before. They are the first contacts with the police in the life of the 22 year old, but he does not allow himself to be influenced by that. “I believe we are doing the right thing here,” he says.
“Occupy Wall Street” is the battle cry of those who initiated the action. The demonstrators have moved into one of the few open spaces in the south of heavily-developed Manhattan. It extends from Broadway almost to the large construction site at Ground Zero, where the towers of the World Trade center stood until 10 years ago. On the marble benches, where otherwise Wall Street employees would take breaks, the occupiers assemble twice a day for full meetings at which they discuss speculators and unemployment. Government debt, war and torture. And how they can bring the financially responsible and beneficiaries of this misery to justice.
The occupiers get by without technology. In Liberty Plaza there is no loud speaker system. Anyone who wants to speak holds both hands around his mouth like a funnel and first calls “microphone check” to those around him. Bystanders echo “microphone check” and while these introductory words travel acoustically from one group to the next, the speaker prepares his next sentence. A full meeting in Liberty Plaza is a spoken canon, in which every sentence is repeated by almost everyone.
The occupiers have spread out air mattresses, sleeping bags and sheets of plastic between flower beds and marble benches, and have organized islands where the threads of their cashless society run together: a kitchen where there is food for all; a table where cigarettes are constantly rolled and given out at no charge; a library; a first aid station where doctors and nurses from New York hospitals deliver more contributions daily; and a media center in which videos for Facebook and Twitter are created.
The square belongs to a real estate company and has been named for a living speculator and local politician considered the rescuer of New York finances: John Zuccotti. The occupiers have given the square back its old name: “Liberty Plaza.” One of their slogans is “We are the 99 percent.” They want to change that the other 1 percent has the power.
Normally, Kyle is an electronics student in Buffalo in northern New York, and he works as a sales clerk for $7.50 an hour. He only has health insurance because his father works for an insurance company, and when he finishes his studies next year, he must pay back $30,000 to a bank. Other students have much more debt, says Kyle. For him it just about works, but he cannot afford to have children under such circumstances.
$35,000 in Donations
Fear for one’s existence, unemployment and poverty are some of the many reasons that have driven young people to the square in the middle of the financial world. “I am carrying out a personal vendetta against a bank that drove me out of my house,” says Jay. The young agricultural worker from the northern U.S. is one of the few who can be considered angry. A few meters away, a smiling 25-year-old Eric from New Jersey distributes fliers at the edge of the square. He invites passersby to join the movement. Eric has been unemployed for a long time. “If it continues,” he says, “the only thing left will be a job with the Air Force, because I want to have a house some day and start a family.”
In the middle of the square, art student Victoria Sobel sorts papers in a rainproof plastic crate. Victoria has been in the square since a week ago and thinks a lot about her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru and Russia. “They worked hard and don’t know how they are supposed to live as retirees,” she says. The 21 year old sits in the “Finance Committee” of the movement. In the past two weeks, $35,000 in donations have come. Some donors apologize that they cannot come to Manhattan themselves. “The money comes from all over the world,” says Victoria proudly. “We find ourselves in a global dialogue.”
It is day 16 of the occupation. The activists become more popular daily — and have found imitators in more than 50 places in the U.S. and in various European cities. The idea of the action “originated on the Internet” say many on the square. Social scientists, who give speeches in Liberty Plaza in the evening that flow through the crowd in chanting, believe that it has been brewing in the U.S. for a long time. Some media, however, point out primarily the Canadian PR agency “Adbusters,” which arranged the whole thing.
For more than a week, hardly anyone had been interested in the occupiers except a few representatives of the leftist media. The New York Police provided their breakthrough. On the last Saturday in September, they arrested 80 demonstrators in one day and sprayed several young women with pepper spray at close range. The pictures of that have gone around the world. “The financial system has created a logic of competition and avarice in which everyone fights against everyone else and in which the media represents the interest of the large companies,” says 21-year-old politics student Bre.
Disappointment in Obama
At 32 years old, Rafal Gomez belongs among the older occupiers. The African American from Albany comes to Wall Street every weekend. This time he spent a large part of his time with the police after his arrest on the bridge. He is concerned about the future of both of his children. “If there is no public education any longer and if we pass on the debt from bank bailouts to the next generation.”
And he wears his disappointment in the president for whom he voted in 2008 across his chest in the form of a crossed out Barack Obama portrait. “He had the majority in Congress,” says Rafal bitterly. “He could have ended the wars, he could have closed Guantanamo, and he could have stopped torture and murder. Instead he hired people from Wall Street as economic advisers.”
Rafal doesn’t know how long Occupy Wall Street can keep up, but he believes the movement will grow and he is sure that he will not vote for Obama again next year.