NEW YORK - Occupy Wall Street protesters won a reprieve of sorts early Friday morning, when New York City officials and the company that owns Zuccotti Park backed down from a plan to cordon off sections of the park for cleaning. Brookfield, the park owner, had originally signaled it would only allow protesters back into the area – which has housed a growing tarp city for the last three weeks – if they did not bring sleeping bags and agreed not to lie down on the ground.
Protesters and their supporters were preparing to resist the cleaning move, which they called de-facto eviction. Instead, they proclaimed victory on Friday morning and celebrated in Lower Manhattan and on Twitter.
The averted confrontation comes as America is just starting to get to know the protesters and the Occupy movement. I spent two days in Zuccotti Park this week getting to know them for myself - strolling through the small city they’ve created, thumbing through the political philosophy books in the camp library, interviewing protesters young and old, and shouting questions over the constant pounding of drums.
Before I left for New York, I asked readers and Twitter followers what they wanted to know about the protesters and Occupy Wall Street in general. You asked, we answer:
Q: What do they hope to gain?
A: Easily the most frequently asked question about Occupy Wall Street. The short answer is: They hope to get their voices heard.
As I put it in a story for National Journal magazine this week: “Occupy Wall Street is a movement rooted in the idea that the act of crying out, together, is more important than the grievances of the criers. If you made a Venn diagram of everyone’s concerns in the park, the shared middle area would include income inequality, mounting debt levels for students and families, and, most of all, the lack of opportunity to find good jobs (a pretty slick sampling of those concerns is here)… But the crucial unifier isn’t a specific concern or demand. It’s a shared belief that the American political system has stopped hearing their concerns, because Big Money and corporate lobbying have drowned them out.”
Q: How will they know when they've been heard, responded to, (and be) ready to go home and produce?
A: The protesters themselves don’t seem to know. Before the park cleaning was announced this week, many in the Zuccotti crowd spoke openly of preparing to ride out the winter outdoors. The group enjoys and encourages the spread of the Occupy movement to other cities. Again, they don’t have a list of policy demands yet, and they may never have one. So what will constitute “victory,” or at least, “being heard”? Even if they never define policy goals, the group will eventually need to address those questions.
Q: What percentage of the protesters are unemployed?
A: Among the permanent fixtures – the folks who sleep in the park – the percentage appears to be fairly high. But they’re joined every day by a lot of people who have jobs, and who come down to the park after quitting time or on days off. Also, Kanye West stopped by this week.
Q: OWS says that they are the 99%. I am not rich, and I don't agree with attacking Wall Street, yet OWS counts me in. Why?
A: Group members contend that you don’t have to be upset with Wall Street to join their movement – or for them to count you into it. You just need to have a sense that the America’s political leaders no longer respond to the vast majority of voters who don’t donate heavily to campaigns, run large corporations, or lobby Congress. They believe that Washington lawmakers have grown so responsive to moneyed interests that they allowed the U.S. economy to become unmoored from the principle that anyone should be able to work hard and make a better life for themselves. As one sign in the park puts it, “If you earn less than $250,000, you should join us.” You might disagree.
Q: Is the protest a scam played by (President) Obama?
A: Most definitely not. There are plenty of Obama-bashing signs in the park. Many protesters I interviewed said they voted for Obama in 2008 but feel intensely disappointed in his inability to deliver on his campaign promise of changing how Washington works.
For what it’s worth, the protest also doesn’t appear to be funded by George Soros or orchestrated by labor unions. Although unions are the one established political group that the protesters work comfortably with, the official decisions of the Zuccotti Park group are made in a consensus-driven General Assembly where any action requires 90 percent approval from the masses and no “blocks” from anyone expressing serious ethical or safety concerns over the action. To control this group, you’d need to co-opt almost everyone in the crowd. And despite what you may have read, these folks aren’t actors, or paid to be in the park.
Q: Did you see Kanye?
A: No. I did meet an Italian accordion band, an unemployed architect from Brooklyn, and a young woman who works two waitressing jobs and still had the energy to jump up and down with a sign for eight hours. Pretty sure they’re closer to anyone’s definition of “the 99 percent” than Kanye. On the other hand, I heard his gold chains are amazing.