Posted on 11 December 2011.
A Man Named Hero
“Damn, man, I didn’t even get a chance to say my idea.”
“Shit, sorry dude,” I said. “What’s your idea?”
“A bat-signal, man. We need a bat-signal.”
“Yeah, like the Bat-Signal, but with 99% in the middle instead of the bat.”
His name was Hero, and we had just finished up a meeting, one of those long, disjointed, but somehow productive gatherings that you have far too many of when you’re trying to decide what the hell to do with 20,000 newly-minted revolutionaries on the two-month anniversary of the revolution.
It was complicated. We wanted to up the ante, in every respect, from the last big day of action that Occupy Wall Street (#ows) had pulled off on October 15. We wanted November 17 (or #N17 as it came to be known) to be more massive and more forceful. We wanted our actions to be in solidarity with organized labor, a very different animal than the decentralized, directly-democratic modus operandi of #ows. Some people were pushing hard for more radical tactics; others were stressing the need to reach out and bring more folks into the fold; yet others wanted to have a really cool birthday party. It was complicated. And we had very little time to figure it out.
In the end we decided to have three actions in one: “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner.” “Breakfast”: civil disobedience in front of the New York Stock Exchange. “Lunch”: get out into the boroughs, tell stories, and bring more people into the movement. “Dinner”: that’s where Hero and I came in. Organized labor had already received a permit for a large rally in Foley Square. We needed an action that would allow a large and diverse group of people to be safe, while still showing labor’s commitment to fighting for jobs and against austerity, and that at the same time would celebrate the two-month birthday party for Occupy Wall Street in spectacular fashion.
We eventually settled on the idea of leading people out of Foley Square, around City Hall, and over the Brooklyn Bridge on the pedestrian walkway. It wasn’t an entirely popular choice, as many in #ows really wanted to take the roadway, as a reprise of the 700 arrests that had taken place there on October 1. Labor, too, was up for doing something more radical than a march across the bridge. The walkway was seen as too timid, too permitted. Ultimately, though, we came to a consensus: 99 union leaders, along with clergy and community members, would commit civil disobedience and take an arrest at the base of the bridge to demand jobs, while the remaining thousands would march across the bridge. It was up to us to turn that march into the most beautiful and compelling birthday spectacle possible.
First we decided to hand out 10,000 LED lights to the crowd as they encircled City Hall and went over the walkway, creating a “river of light.” The metaphor of light was important. The Occupy movement is shining a bright and piercing light on a political and economic system that is fundamentally corrupt and malignant; a system whereby our democracy has been purchased outright by corporate money and is being held captive to private interests. We wanted the “birthday party” to be a celebration of our commitment to shining a light on these and other injustices. But we needed more than LEDs.
The meeting broke up. Hero still had his hand in the air. He turned to me.
“A bat-signal, man. We need a bat-signal.”
“You’re right Hero, it’s genius. I’ll do it.”
It really is genius. For one, it’s accessible. The Bat-Signal is a part of our visual commons, part of the “spectacular vernacular” of global pop culture. No translation necessary. And what does it symbolize? It’s both a call for aid and a call to arms. Help! and Assemble!—it means both of these things. And isn’t that precisely what the Occupy movement is? Are we not, in our choice to stand up and take action on behalf of the 99%, a call for aid and a call to arms? Now, of course, Batman is actually a quasi-sociopathic millionaire-vigilante. A one-percenter, you might say. But by filling that symbol—by occupying it, with our own content: the 99%—we appropriate it for all of us. And in this reconfiguration, we are no longer waiting for some superhero to come in and save the day, whether it be a masked vigilante or the first black president. In this telling, we are the response to our own call for aid. We aren’t waiting for Batman or Superman—we are going to get to work and begin the process of saving ourselves. Genius.
A Woman Named Denise
There was no question where we were going to project our bat-signal: that massive urban eyesore, the monolithic slab of windowless concrete commonly known as the “Verizon Building.” A windowless expanse of concrete approximately 75 feet wide, low ambient light, with a clean line of sight from the Brooklyn Bridge? Really? The thing nearly begs for it. And Verizon, which has been screwing its workers ever harder over the years, has been begging for it, too. We knew that thousands of those workers—members of the Communication Workers of America—would be marching with us that day over the bridge. The light show would be especially meaningful to them.
I’m no projection artist, however. How the hell were we going to get the projection up there? And what about projections on the bridge itself? We needed those too. And how about some Graffiti Research Lab-inspired Laser Tag, like the one Free Tibet protesters used in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics? Let’s get that going too. It was getting complicated, and I’d need a lot of help. One of the benefits of working on behalf of a popular uprising is that people want to help out. I had to make a lot of phone calls, but pretty much everyone I called was eager to say yes to helping out Occupy Wall Street. A mobile projection unit team was assembled, with all the necessary batteries, power inverters, mobile video players, etcetera. Taylor Kuffner stepped up to lead that team. The laser tag crew was headed up by Nick Gulotta, a Students for a Free Tibet activist who was familiar with that mysterious technology. I would head up the bat-signal squad. The first thing I’d need was a projector—the stronger, the better. I had a friend and I made the call. Sure, he said, we could borrow the 12,000 lumen projector if we had somewhere safe to project from. Ah yes. A safe space to project from. Now, where were we going to find that?
In the shadow of that hideous, 32-story corporate monolith are the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a group of 12 buildings 15 – 17 stories high. City housing projects, home to thousands of low-income tenants. The closest of the buildings is a mere 135 feet away (I measured). It’s like they’re living in the shadow of Mordor, or Saruman’s Black Tower or something. Surreal.
I put up signs (offering $250 to rent an apartment with views for a film project) in the lobby of the closest couple of buildings, as well as the hallways and stairwells and elevators, and I waited. Over the course of the next two days I received three phone calls, none of them remotely what I was looking for. They had misread the sign. They didn’t live in the building. They lived on the fifth floor. I was beginning to think I’d wind up lurking the top stories until I cornered someone, when I got a call that made sense. She lived on the 16th floor. She could do it on November 17. She had views that I needed. I went to meet her later that day. Her name was Denise, and she worked for FedEx. She had three daughters. She was born and raised in the building. When I told her what we were actually doing, and why—for Occupy Wall Street, for the 99%—I saw her eyes light up. “Yeah, really? That’s so great, what you guys are doing is so great.” Her parting words to me that day were “Let’s do this!”
A few days later I was scrambling around trying to get Denise the money to pay her up front. It was Tuesday, the day that #ows was evicted from Liberty Square. It was a long hard day, and things were pretty chaotic. On top of everything else, the finance committee was nowhere to be found, and so I couldn’t get Denise the money I’d promised her. I felt pretty low when I finally reached her by phone around 9:00 and tried to apologize, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. “Honey, don’t you worry about that. This ain’t about the money. I watch the news. I know what’s goin’ on. I can’t take any money for this. This is for the people. We’re gonna do this for the people.”
I thanked her, hung up the phone, and wept.
Things were looking good for Thursday, but as I continued to contemplate the whole project and scouted the scene more and more, the scale at which we’d be working began to dawn on me, and additional possibilities began to seem … possible. I wondered if we might even be able to get the crowd to interact with the messages that we’d be projecting. Could we utilize the “human microphone” idea through text and get the crowd to “mic check” what we projected? It was worth a shot, I thought, so I wrote a brief statement:
Mic Check! Mic Check! Mic Check!
You are a part
of a Global Uprising
We are a Cry
from the Heart
of the World
We are Unstoppable
The night before the action, I worked on the graphics with Max Nova, who had given yet another example of a full-throated yes. He came up with some additional text elements, like “Love” and “Do Not Be Afraid,” that would make the evening all the more beautiful. I tossed in some familiars like “We are winning,” and “It is the beginning of the beginning,” which is my personal favorite cardboard sign of the entire Occupation. Max stayed up all night developing the various elements, and his partner JR manned the VJ controls from our little “Oz Booth” in Denise’s bedroom.
I didn’t expect to be able to hear the crowd from the apartment. I sat in the window, where I could listen to them roar, chant, and read that statement over and over again. Each time they called out, “You are a part of a global uprising,” we had to pause to allow them to roar their hearts out. It was amazing; it was magic. We projected from up there for a full hour and a half, uninterrupted.
“We are a cry from the heart of the world”—those are my words. That’s what it feels like to me. We face such immense challenges, such urgent crises, sometimes it seems that there’s no way out, no path towards a brighter future. The crises are political, social, economic, and environmental, all at once. Together they threaten our very existence as a species, and the existence of many other species of life on the planet. What’s happening today feels to me like the immunological response of the species, or even of the planet, rising up to save itself. I am extremely grateful that the immune systems are still functional, that we carry within us this profound reverence for, and desire to serve, Life. To set things right, to fight off the pathogen that is “the order of the world that we have inherited, that has come down upon us and which at this moment is called Capitalism” (Peter Schumann), will require nothing less than a global uprising, a cry from the heart of the world, and I think that we are finally beginning to hear it.
Coming to an Edifice of Power near You
The laser tag crew got the worst of it. Arrested before they even really got started, for trespassing on a roof. Twenty-six hours in jail. The mobile projection units were able to project onto the State Supreme Court building in Foley Square, and got interviewed by Mother Jones, “Democracy Now!” and others. The 99% Bat-Signal? It blew up on Twitter, which led to Xeni Jardin interviewing me for Boing Boing, which led to an appearance on Rachel Maddow, an A.P. story, a shout-out from Jimmy Breslin in the Daily News, a viral video, etcetera. In both old and new media, we had our five minutes of fame.
Within a couple of days we’d been contacted by occupiers in Los Angeles, Boston, Boulder, and Cleveland, with more each day, all wanting to get their hands on the graphics, particularly the Bat-Signal itself. They wanted to project it using whatever means they had at their disposal, at targets of their own choosing, for their own reasons. It looks like #N17 was just the premiere of what may be a long run. Someday the 99% Bat-Signal may even become as universally recognized as the original. For now, look for it wherever you are, and when you see it blinking there in the dark, consider answering that call: for aid, to arms, and to join in the cry from the heart of the world that is the Occupy movement. Save us. Save yourself. Save the Earth. You are the 99%.
Originally posted in The Brooklyn Rail, posted here with permission from the author.