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Christmas | Occupied Stories

Tag Archive | "christmas"

Christmas Eve in Liberty Plaza


LIBERTY PLAZA, NY – After attending a meeting of the Facilitation working group (Facilitation are those who volunteer to conduct the General Assemblies of Occupy) at 60 Wall St, I had about a half hour to myself, before General Assembly.  Although the free chickpea salad provided by the Occupied Kitchen was tasty, I decided against taking a second serving when others probably needed it more, and headed to a local Indian restaurant for a quick saag daal interlude.  I was shanghaied into taking minutes at WG meeting, so I took the opportunity to recharge my laptop in addition to my blood sugar.

Once the two of us were seated, I headed to Liberty Plaza.  Only a
dozen or so people were milling about, mostly the usual characters,
holding signs, making chatter, playing chess.  I made my way to the
stairs at the eastern edge, and took a seat to take in the scene.
Across from me, in front of one comically oversized chess set, there
was a new, very neatly typeset sign that proclaimed “LIBERTAD / MMXII”
in red lettering on white background.  Immediately after I sat
down, a woman with bright blue hair seated at the barricades began
caroling, replacing words as appropriate — “I’m dreaming of an
Occupied Christmas … They say protesting’s illegal / but we’ve got
Norman Siegel … etc, etc”.  Her voice was incredible, so much so that
random passersby would stop on the sidewalk and wait for her to finish
so that they could applaud.  I would have been satisfied if this were
the only heartwarming surprise of the evening.

As her Occu-carols echoed through the crisp air, the motley crew
continued growing in number.  Mostly, it’s familiar faces; not a lot
of first-timers on Christmas eve.  An older middle eastern man, on the
outside of the barricades, started shouting, with a mildly distressed
tone in his voice: “Stop bombing Afghanistan!  Stop bombing
Afghanistan!”  No one really knows how to address him: he’s clearly a
little bit unhinged, dressed in a grey-blue jacket that’s a bit
visibly dirty, unkempt beard and wild eyes.  He’s probably drunk, but
not angry — at least, not at anyone here.  After a few tense seconds,
one of the regulars notices him, walks up, and slaps his hand and
gives him a hug.  They’re friends from their neighborhood.  I overhear
that his name is Mohammed.  Several more times throughout the evening,
he will occasionally puncture the air with hoarse calls of “Mic check!
Stop bombing Afghanistan!”  Each time, he seems newly inspired that
it will catch on.  But under that fire I hear a tinge of despair.
Later, I learn something more about why.

A brief hot chocolate break and GA begins.  The first proposal is
relatively uncontroversial: funding a Native American event to
commemorate the 121st anniversary of Wounded Knee.  There’s some
vibrant back-and-forth discussion about the relationship between
Occupy and the indigenous rights movement; though there are some
serious concerns about how to remain sensitive while highlighting the
link, everyone agrees we should be supporting them as much as
possible.  There are some procedural hiccups, due to inexperienced
facilitators, and some not insignificant political chatter.  The main
problem expressed is that this proposal is being offered by Direct
Action, not the Native group that has been with us since the very
early days.  Has DA consulted them?  DA sheepishly admits they have
not, due to time constraints.  Some concern is expressed that DA is
stepping up and speaking for others; though, to be fair, the proposers
from DA are native themselves.  The concerned parties shout out for
Joseph, a respected and visible member of the Native group.  Joseph
shuffles up the stairs, makes his way to the proposers, and takes the
human mic.  He waves his hands wide in a show of acceptance, and asks
that we look beyond personal dramas, because “this event … and this
movement are too important.”  Fingers twinkle in vigorous respect.
The proposal passes with some minor amendments.  The venue is just a
couple of blocks from my apartment, so after the proposal passes, I
track down the proposers and offer them my apartment for staging.

The next proposal is highly contentious in form, though not intention.
The proposer, who is a familiar member of many working groups but is
offering this proposal on his own initiative, asks that we “prohibit”
working groups from meeting during the times of General Assemblies and
Spokes Councils.  The intention is to ensure that working group members
attend GAs and SCs, which many do not, leaving us with only 50 or so
attendees to a GA on a given night.  The issue, expressed by many, is
that we cannot violate WG autonomy, and a sort-of conversation
develops, as best it can within the GA process, about what the rights
of WGs are, and what the rights of the GA might be to abridge those
rights.  None of the speakers question whether or not we should be
encouraging people to attend GA, but the procedural constraints
(questions, then concerns, then amendments) steer people away from a
more natural discussion that might encourage finding common ground to
start from.  At this point, some regulars, incensed by what they see
as relatively minor legalistic quibbles to a generally positive
proposal, start breaking process and responding out of turn to
concerns posed, loudly, by essentially restating the intention of the
proposal.  This leads to others, who are strongly committed to
process, shouting at them.  I recognize a familiar pattern of
dissolution among largely agreeing parties, and start to withdraw a
bit.

I notice that Mohammed is sitting on a bench to my left.  He’s talking
to a familiar face, a tall person with a green-tinged mohawk whose
name is Razor, and watching them talk I get a better understanding of
my earlier assessment of his emotional state: First, he’s drinking
from a small plastic bottle of gin; it’s about one-quarter full.
Second, he says, to Razor perhaps but mainly to the space above his
line of sight: “they kill my family.  Thirty-two family I have, now I have
none.  Stop bombing Afghanistan.”  His voice is hoarse beyond tears,
though he does not appear to have been crying recently.  I have a
sense that those tears were all exhausted long ago.  I have no way of
knowing how true his claim is, but, when it is made, everyone around,
even those focused on the meeting, start to turn their heads.  Most
only make it part of the way, as though their attention was cued by
the emotional tone of the words, but once the full sentence reached
their consciousness they realized that looking  at his eyes could not
possibly improve the situation for anyone.  I suppose I didn’t have
quite the same foresight, and for that I am rewarded with an image
that I might never shake.

A man is sitting next to Mohammed.  He has the long, unkempt beard and
collared white shirt, dark vest, and wire-rimmed glasses that I
usually associate with a member of an orthodox religious sect, though
with the extra layers of clothes and hat and scarves I can’t quite put
my finger on whether he is a Russian or Greek Christian, or even
Jewish.  Regardless, what he’s doing is of note: He has his arm around
Mohammed, is speaking in low tones and with a nodding head, and
they’re alternating swigs from the bottle of gin.  At some point, they
both laugh while staring down at the ground.  On its own, this episode
of camaraderie is perhaps not quite worthy of a second glance; scenes
like this are not altogether out of place in New York City in 2011.
But something about the fact that we’re here, on Christmas Eve, on day
99 of Occupied Liberty Plaza, gives it a deeper significance, a sense
of connections being formed at a foundational level, a flavor of
renewed hope.

The proposal is blocked by several who have ethical concerns that it
will infringe on the autonomy of others.  The Process then dictates
that we move to a call for modified consensus (which would require 90%
approval).  The proposal does not meet this criterion.  Consensus is
declared not reached, and the proposer is instantly swarmed by
individuals who want to help him improve the language.  This
conversation will continue.

At this point, a call comes out from the crowd.  “Mic check!  Arts and
Culture would like to request a ten minute break to pass out some
candles!”  A&C had planned a 9pm candlelight vigil.  Consensus is
asked, and quickly achieved without needing to count.  We gather
around.  I look in the bag next to the woman who announced the break,
and find an exquisitely detailed wax candle in the shape of a
fist, with its middle finger raised.  Brilliant.  We’re asked to grab
some candles and stand in a circle around an area that used to be
filled with plants (they survived our Occupation, thanks to the work
of several volunteer gardeners, but they did not survive the police
raid).  At this point, seemingly out of nowhere, my friend Becky
appears, tapping me on the shoulder.  I had earlier emailed some
friends to let them know that I am here, and to tell the story of the
caroler, and of Mohammed, and this apparently inspired Becky to swoop
down from her sickbed to join.  Becky is one of my oldest friends… we
met in college, about ten years ago, and it seems she’s around for
many of the more important moments of my life, whether we intend to
arrive at them together or not.  We both came to Occupy a few months
ago, organically, though neither of us were surprised to find each
other again, here.  I’m grateful that I have her as a witness for what
happens the rest of the night.

The artist — a Mr. Matsumoto, I didn’t catch his first name — stands
up on a bench, and describes the candles to us.  “Mic check!  This is
my christmas present to you guys.  I want you guys to get around and
light this for me.  I nearly lost my middle finger — my real middle
finger — the other day.  I’m a woodworker, and I make my living with
my hands.  While I was injured, I thought about a lot of things.  I
thought about my life without my middle finger” (the crowd laughs) “If
I don’t have my middle finger, it really really sucks” (laughs again)
“It really sucks… because it’s like losing a voice” (cheers) “My
middle finger.  YOUR middle finger.”  Vigorous twinkles… of our middle
fingers.  The candles are lit, and several are raised towards the
Brookfield building.

I’m glad this movement began in New York, not
just because I’m here and so get to experience it, but because it has
acquired a certain New York flavor, in both its work ethic and, in
particular, in a brusque humor that can help to take the edge off of
continual struggle, while still retaining that integral hard-nosed
character: you’ll never mistake our laughter for weakness.  This is
one fine example.  A call goes out in the best Brooklyn accent one can
muster and still hope for the human mic to accurately reflect: “Mic
check!  Fuuuuuuuuck youuuuuuuuu”

We gathered in a circle, sort of, and some used the human mic to announce
why they are lighting the candles: for the loss of our civil
liberties, for the dogs who died in the raid (this is the first I’ve
heard of that), for the library.  I feel that while this might be
appropriate to the intention, it somehow derails the festive mood that
we’ve built in spite of the cold, and I call out that I am lighting
this candle to celebrate the rebirth of our democracy.  A small,
cheesy break, but I hear relief in the hoots that follow.

Around this time, I catch Stan, from ThinkTank and Outreach, giddily
milling about, saying “We have to march with these! We have to march
with these!” I say to him: “Call it out!  Let’s do it!”  He never
breaks his green as he speeds off again.  Stan’s story is inspiring,
though not entirely unique: He visited from Huntsville, Alabama in
early October.  I met him on his first or second day here, when he was
planning to learn what he could and go back to start Occupy
Huntsville. I saw him again two days later and he said he was thinking
of moving to NYC.  About a week later, he went back to Huntsville.  A
couple of weeks after that, I saw him again in NYC: he had moved.
He’s been living with Occupy ever since: at the park, first, and now
in churches.

The idea seems to spark from several directions at once: “Let’s
march!”  Someone calls: “around the park!”  Stan, still buzzing from
group to group, re-appears: “No!  We’re marching to Wall Street!
We’re going to the stock exchange!”

Now, this might seem the most obvious idea in the world, but it’s
worth taking a moment to appreciate why it is anything but.  Since the
very first day of the Occupation, we have attempted to march on the
NYSE.  This has rarely actually happened, though — in fact, to my
knowledge the only time we got close was during the large march of
November 17th — despite repeated, earnest and often creative
missions.  The police were determined to never let us near the
Exchange.  Back during the Occupation, there were daily marches.  When
they would head towards City Hall, there would be the usual police
guidance and blockades.  But when we headed in the direction of the
Exchange, we would almost always be confronted by a phalanx of riot
police and horses.  Most people never really expected to do it, but
considered it important to continue trying, even if only for symbolic
value.  But right now, on Christmas Eve, there are only about three
patrol officers officers, with three or four more community affairs
officers (and about ten Brookfield private security guards, who I
later learn are being paid triple overtime).  The awareness of
possibility spreads through the crowd.  We can actually do this.

So we do.  After some confused attempts to re-light the candles
against the wind tunnel of Liberty Plaza, someone shouts: “Let’s just
march, and we’ll light the candles… _on Wall Street_”, the extra
emphasis revealing his unbridled joy at the suddenly attainable goal.
We begin to march.  The chant goes out: “All day, all week, Occupy
Wall Street!”  I can’t help but grin, because, yes, for the first time
in a long time, we’re actually doing it.  The man carrying the live
streaming laptop has a debate with himself about whether or not to
join — at the last major march, livestreamers were among the first
arrested, in a pattern that seemed intentional.  He eventually
acquiesces to the will of the crowd, both the one in the park and the
increasing number watching along at home.

As we make our way to the exit, I see a police officer standing
outside of the barricades at the southern gate to the park.  Her arms
are extended, as if to confine us to one half of the sidewalk.  Shawn
from Direct Action is confused by this, laughs, and starts dancing
around her in circles.  She pushes him, hard, and he tumbles several
feet.  “It’s the sidewalk!”, he shouts, nervously laughing.  She
shouts back: “You don’t listen!  You should just listen!”  I’m
laughing, nervously too, because I’ve seen what happens when police
are overwhelmed by numbers.  But I realize what she’s doing: there’s a
propane tank fueling one of the food carts.  I suspect that she
doesn’t want us to step on it or bring candles too close to it.
Perfectly reasonable!  Why didn’t she say so?  I say to her: “It’s the
propane tank!  You could have just told us.”  But she’s not listening
to me.

As we turn down Broadway, the police hurry into formation, marching in
a single-file line in the bus lane to keep us on the sidewalk.  There
are more of them, now, though I’m not quite sure where they came from
so quickly.  Another of our regular ingredients, the drums, pop up,
also out of nowhere.  Who decides to bring drums (and a tambourine?)
to Liberty Plaza on Christmas Eve in thirty degree weather?  Well,
someone named Rooster did, and, flanked by an American flag, he starts
playing a brisk, tight rhythm.

Everyone is excited and cheerful.  This is going so well!  We are
chanting, speeding our way through the old standards: “Banks got
bailed out / We got sold out” then “Hey hey! Ho ho!  Corporate greed
has got to go!”  The middle finger candles are waving.  We turn left
down Wall Street, chanting, spinning, dancing, laughing, some with
their heads turned to the air, perhaps to catch the echoes from above.
The parade buzzes down the northern sidewalk, passing Federal Hall,
site of the first Congress and the first Presidential inauguration.  A
contingent breaks off and runs up the stairs, around Washington’s
statue and between the marble columns, hooting mischievously like
children left in a mall after closing time.  We take the long way
around the barricades that circle the intersection of Wall and the
Exchange, turn right towards the corner, and stop.  The patrol
officers are behind us, paused along Wall Street, in front of Federal
Hall.  There are two community affairs officers ahead, standing side
by side, facing us, backs to the Exchange.  Other than them, there is
no physical reason for us to stop.  But we do.

We’re paused at the corner for a couple of minutes that linger with
careful excitement.  The parade catches up, our only possible excuse
not to move forward.  Some people are shouting ideas, hurling
invective at the Exchange, asking for lighters and matches, but no one
is saying the obvious.  I look at the Exchange building: columns
bathed in red light, American flags fluttering in a slight breeze,
gigantic Christmas Tree with a half-lit menorah at the base.  Someone
says: “We should light these candles, and stand silently in front of
the Exchange.”  No one has moved down the sidewalk, past the officers,
yet.  I turn to the crowd, then back to the officers.  With no purpose
to my step, I start to walk at them, then around them.  I don’t think
to look at their faces, but just keep awareness of their forms in the
corner of my eye.  They don’t move.  The crowd — we are, somehow,
bigger than when we started (perhaps people at 60 Wall St heard what
was happening and left their meetings to join us) — spills down the
sidewalk.  We’re here.  A group of Occupiers, holding lit middle
finger candles, facing the New York Stock Exchange.  The street is
quiet, save for us.  On the 99th day of the 99%, we did it, for the
first time.  We are Occupying Wall Street.

The patrol officers remain where they were.  At the southern end of
the block, a new contingent of mounted officers line up, inside the
barricades.  I suppose, in retrospect, that they had the exits
blocked, but that didn’t seem to be as threatening as it usually
might.  Shouts begin.  “Mic check!  I want to see one broker or banker
go to jail!”  “Mic check!  Whose street?”  “Mic check!  This is our
time.”  “Mic check!  Fuck you Wall Street!”  Someone shouts “Fuck the
police!”, and he is instantly met with a shower of jeers.  There’s
some back and forth about how we should present ourselves, about how
the police are the 99%, about maintaining solidarity despite
differences of opinion.  Someone breaks the tension:  “Mic check!  To
the police, our gift to you!  Massive overtime pay!!”  Cheers.  We’re
standing, now, some of us, on the polygonal metal sculptures that line
the sidewalk.  There are no people between me and the Exchange: just
the cobblestoned street and roughly four layers of police barricades.
Standing on the metal sculpture, I am above them.  I realize it’s just
a short jump into the street, and from there a short walk to the
Exchange.  I realize I’m probably more comfortable staying where I am.

The mounted officers retreat to a position further down, past the
intersection of Exchange Place and Broad Street.  They didn’t seem to
be heading our way.  Someone called out: “Let’s hold a moment of
silence, for the officer who just died.” [I wasn’t aware of it, but I
believe he was referring to Officer Figoski, shot while investigating
a burglary in Queens]  And we did.  I glanced at the officers,
standing at the north edge of the street.  They held their hands in
front of them, crossed at the wrists.  It seemed they heard the
request.  There was some quick back-and-forth, and the crowd settled.
For a minute, the only sound was the subway rumbling, the traffic a few
blocks away, the wind whipping through the flag.  Alone, together, in
the canyon at the heart of the financial district, a group of
Occupiers and officers held their heads and their tongues to
commemorate a sacrifice in service of a better world.

“Thank you,” says the man who requested the moment of silence.  The
facilitators from the GA realize that there’s no going back to the
park, and ask for consensus to reconvene the GA here.  Hundreds of
fingers wave in concordance.  Someone offers to run back to the park
to get anyone who is still there.  We wait, and people soapbox.  One
of the facilitators, Diego, eternally cheerful, shouts: “Remember
this.  Remember this.  Thirty years from now, you will recall this
moment with tears streaming down your face.”  Cheers and shouts…
there’s no crying now.  There’s only laughing.  I mill about, talk it
over with Becky, soak in the awe of the moment.  But we’re unsure if
we want to stay.  The scout returns, says there’s no one left in the
park except those who wanted to be there.  The GA begins again, and
pick up right where we left off.  Business as usual, in a most unusual
setting.  We are having a General Assembly in front of the New York
Stock Exchange.

The next proposal was to support a national march on Washington, on
March 17th, which will be only the six month anniversary of the
Occupation.  The GA is not quite the forum for this sort of amorphous
initiative, but people are appreciative of the idea.  Several points
of information are offered on similar actions that are currently in
the early planning stages; it appears the second half of March is
going to be very, very busy.  The proposal is tabled, the proposer
wades into a crowd of people who want to help combine their ideas.
Becky, under the weather, sees an opportunity to disengage.  I
hesitate, not wanting to let go of this incredible moment, but don’t
quite feel up to the Process at the moment.  Though the mood is
unquestionably buoyant, the uncomfortable tension of dissension in
lieu of discussion still lingers in my mind, and I fear that the
return of all that well-intentioned but discordant fumbling might sour
my memory.  We spent much of the evening arguing over the way to
consensus, drowning in the seemingly interminable bickering that some
fear will destroy this movement from within.  These clashes of process
and principle that join to block our way forward seem to be impassable
mountains, rather than intermittent hurdles, but if this night proves
anything, it’s that once the blocks are removed, once the barricades
are seen past, we all know the destination.  We just need to remind
ourselves that we can get there.

-Aaron Bornstein-

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