All grown up: the Occupy Wall St. movement takes shape

The once-ramshackle, disorganized group of protesters is evolving as it gains traction

Guy Godfree/Maclean's

“The whole world is watching.” Roughly 1,000 protesters were chanting as much on the Brooklyn Bridge this Saturday, after they were kettled by the NYPD (some may recall the technique from the G20 protests in Toronto), and shortly before 700 of them were arrested. They were right. As Jeff Jarvis put it on Twitter, “The beauty of the #occupywallstreet Pied Piper arrest is that the demonstrators’ video cameras outnumbers the cops’ and media’s.”

Two weeks in, the once-amorphous Occupy Wall Street protest in downtown Manhattan has begun to take form. The NYC General Assembly—the activist group central to the protest—finally published a mission statement late Sunday, which reads like a declaration of human rights. Labour unions and college students across New York City are planning walkouts to join the group in a solidarity march this coming Wednesday.

The leaderless colony stationed in Liberty Park Plaza that began on Sept. 17 as a smattering of disenchanted youth without a clear message now has an information booth, a media tent, a makeshift cafeteria and library—and is surrounded by a tent city, where between 200 and 300 people sleep each night, enforcing the “occupation” theme. (The protest can’t occupy Wall Street, which has been barricaded and heavily guarded by police as a security measure since 9/11.) The crowd—while represented widely in the media as white, liberal college kids—is surprisingly diverse, including raging grannies, street kids, union workers, professors, ex-bankers, longtime activists, human rights lawyers, Native American band members and ex-military. Political views span the spectrum, from anarchist to right-wing libertarian—complicating efforts toward any kind of unifying objective or mantra. Across the continent, the motley movement, which began with a call to action by Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, is gaining traction with similar protests planned for Washington, D.C., Chicago and even Toronto.

What that movement actually is, as many news outlets have already noted, is unclear. Last weekend, Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times described it as “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater.” Protesters found it condescending, but not altogether inaccurate. NPR initially ignored the protests, citing a lack of newsworthiness. Executive editor for news Dick Meyer explained the decision, saying, “The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective.” NPR has since aired a story about the protests on the program All Things Considered.

Early Sunday morning, Maclean’s headed downtown to watch the Occupy Wall Street engine come to life. As the sun cast its first rays on the financial district, the cold, damp park looked like little more than a junkyard, filled with shopping carts, blankets, garbage bags, soggy pizza boxes and piles of cardboard signs. Most of the roughly 200 overnighters were still fully wrapped in sleeping bags and under tarps. A man and woman were snuggling on top of an air mattress. An elderly man in combat fatigues, his grey hair tied back by a bandanna, slept with his back against a concrete wall, a German shepherd nestling its head in his lap. Two street kids, no more than teenagers, were perched back-to-back, Bubba and Forrest Gump-style.

At the information booth, a short, mousey girl in her mid-twenties with a heavy New York accent offered a community newspaper—the ironically-named Occupied Wall Street Journal. “Extra, extra: read all about it,” she said, smiling. A headline read: “The revolution begins at home.” On the table lay various activist pamphlets, a Macdonald’s coffee cup, and a well-thumbed copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Behind her, a middle-aged man with greying dreadlocks was thumbing “House of the Rising Sun” on his acoustic guitar. Another flannel-shirted man stumbled through the lyrics, bobbing his head, and his protest sign, to the beat.

Over at the media centre, marked off with caution tape, a collection of young people were perched on the cement benches, glued to Macbooks, spreading the word on various social media networks. @OccupyWallStNYC—just one of a few active Twitter handles inside the encampment—had some 22,000 followers as of Sunday. It appears to be both an outreach tool and a moral compass for the evolving colony, tweeting messages such as “#GeneralAssembly distracted 4 a moment by man climbing tree. Shows the power 1 person has 2 derail a process. We must b alert+respectful!” and “Just got back from great #CommunityRelations mtg with local businesses. We r being good neighbors!” Indeed, the protesters evidently maintain good relations with the nearby Macdonald’s, where the staff have been surprisingly accommodating in letting protesters use the washrooms and electrical outlets.

The group holds two general assemblies daily, one at noon and another at 7 p.m. Everyone is encouraged to share thoughts, make motions or propose ideas. Lately, the GA’s have centred around the creation of working groups to facilitate the needs of the colony. They’ve included groups for food gathering, clean-up, community relations, and so on. Brian Phillips, 25, is an ex-marine turned journalist, and is acting as media relations officer and de facto head of security.

“What happens in society when you just leave people alone, is they all start working together for the basic instincts of survival,” he tells Maclean’s. Phillips, dressed in an army jacket and grey bandanna, hitchhiked to New York from Spokane, Washington to participate in the protest. “We’ve had some gangsters steal our food, and a drunk guy cause a disruption, but otherwise things have been peaceful.”

One of Phillips’s priorities is maintaining the peace between cops and protesters. A few days ago, a police officer noticed Phillips’ dog tags and identified himself as an ex-marine too. They shook hands. “At that moment I knew that the brotherhood in the Marine Corps that we created was more powerful than what’s going on right now,” Phillips said. “I knew that he was on our side because we’re all fighting for the same cause. That was really enlightening.”

The east end of the park usually hosts the drum circle, where roughly a dozen people were playing during breakfast. Small groups of people gathered here to engage in lively, civilized debates about topics ranging from the environment to the failing financial system. Volunteers passed out food from the “kitchen”—concrete benches acting as counter tops for donated foods such as cereal, bagels, coffee and orange juice. Behind them, traffic buzzed along Broadway Ave. as men and women in business suits hustled by. A light yellow tourist bus paused at a stoplight and a row of white-haired elderly ladies began snapping photos of the plaza and the street-facing protesters. As the bus pulled away in the direction of Wall Street, one lady grinned widely and extended her fingers into a peace sign.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.