I’m a pretty happy person — generally optimistic and resilient. So I’m actually surprised at how devastated I am today. When Zuccotti Park was raided and dismantled by the NYPD in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I was bummed, certainly. But I wasn’t exactly surprised — as other encampments were destroyed around the country, it became more and more clear that this was not the result of isolated moves by different mayors and police departments. This was the coordinated strategy of the other side, and we had to know they would come for New York too.
And I really didn’t think that getting rid of the encampment would be a movement-killer. Too much cultural change had taken place during the fall. There was no going back. Americans were, as a result of the protests, finally waking up to the realities of class exploitation in this country, and to the potential effectiveness of a protest movement to challenge them. And you can’t really unring that bell.
Besides, I sensed that the structural limits of an encampment would eventually put a damper on the movement anyway. For one thing, the winter — what a drag that would have been. And the more I heard about the difficulties of living side-by-side in tents, the more I feared that the energy of the protest would be sunk under the weight of the heavy shit that inevitably comes down when people who don’t really know one another share living space.
So the protesters can’t live there. That’s alright, I told myself. I thought of Union Square in the early decades of the 20th century — no one had to move in permanently for it to be a consistently radical political space. I felt sure Zuccotti could morph into something like that, and continue to be a place where people would go to express their critique of the domination of regular folks by corporations and especially by finance capital. And Thursday’s Day of Action, beginning with a pretty bold attempt to disrupt trading at the NYSE and ending with a celebratory march across the Brooklyn Bridge — complete with super cool “Occupy” Bat-Sign laser graffiti on the Verizon building along the way — convinced me that the attempt to repress and “clear out” the movement would, on so many levels, just make it stronger.
And then today, I went to Zuccotti Park. And man, it was bleak. The vibrant, democratic, energetic public space that sparked a massive social movement and a new national conversation was…gone. Just gone. In its place was concrete. Gray concrete. And, in an utter mockery of the idea that the park was cleared of protesters in the interest of ease of public access to enjoying the park, the concrete was surrounded by barricades, with only two openings to get in or out.
The barricades were lined on the outside with NYPD, and patrolled hysterically by yellow-vested private security workers on the inside (“you can’t stand there! you can hold a poster but you CANNOT, I REPEAT, CANNOT set it down next to you! and (my absurd favorite) NO, people can NO LONGER bring food into the park UNLESS IT IS FOR YOU PERSONALLY.” God forbid you should feed anyone).
There were a handful of protesters there. But everyone seemed kind of lost, and the people’s mic announcement of a protest march to Foley Square was pretty anemic. I walked by a sad, defiant little box of books labeled “The People’s Library,” in the spot the People’s Library — basically the coolest, most vibrant and happening book(non)store I’d ever been in — had occupied. I couldn’t believe how small the park looked without all the energy, all the hope, all the conversation, all the politics, all the food, all the speeches, all the tour buses going by with people up top putting their fists into the air and giving the peace sign in solidarity and celebration. I saw a tour bus pass the park again today. Those riding up top looked as glum as those of us inside the park.
I’m an optimist. I know the Empire always strikes back, but I believe that the light side of the force emerges victorious in the end. And I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow. But the blunt force of repression, politically risky as it is, comes down because, quite simply, it has its own, very serious efficacy. It works. It snuffs out. Not forever…the return of the repressed is inevitable. But in the meantime, a space that was alive with hope and energy and possibility is dead.
I’ve always been more concerned with time than with space. As in, I study the collective withdrawal of the labor time supplied to capital as both a means to an end — higher wages and more leverage through restriction of supply relative to demand — and as an end in itself — free time for people to really live. I’ve actually never really thought that space was the most politically important angle. But Zuccotti has taught me otherwise, and I know I’m not alone.
The thousands of people who showed up to kick it in Liberty Square every day came to make their voices heard, but they also came because there is a real hunger for an open, radically democratic, politically vibrant public space that the park fed. Most of the spaces of everyday life scream, “if you’re not working or buying something, move it along!” (Former exceptions like college campuses are being colonized by the forces of standardization and alienated work more and more every day — “stop that useless thinking! get to work!”) Zuccotti seems like a dream now, a magical moment, a powerful memory. I hope the memory continues to inspire people not just to stand up for themselves, for people before profit, in their communities and their workplaces, but also to continue to create spaces of freedom inside the everyday functioning of the profit machine. Lord knows we need it.
La lucha sigue, si. You cannot evict an idea whose time has come, yes. But when there is a loss, you grieve. Only then do Joe Hill’s words really resonate: “don’t mourn, organize.”