Metro's night with the Occupy Wall Street protesters
Two Metro staffers decided to spend the night with the protesters in Zuccotti Park to find out exactly why they are there... and what life is like at the camp.
Days after the Occupy Wall Street protest started, around 100 protesters remain camped out in Zuccotti Park in the Financial District. Many of them are college students, who have been spending nights outside, sleeping on top of flattened cardboard boxes, on air mattresses and inside sleeping bags. Tuesday proved to be the most explosive day of the protest, as seven people participating were arrested for reasons ranging from using a bullhorn without a permit to disorderly conduct.
The protesters have voiced plenty of discontent, but have yet to identity their official demands. Metro web editor Nate Jones and reporter Cassandra Garrison spent the entirety of Tuesday night with the protesters, learning about what brought them there and what life at a lengthy protest is like.
We arrived to Zuccotti Park and some protesters were already asleep, while others were mingling and chatting. An area where lots of laptops and iPads were set up seemed to be the central "command center." People there were organizing food, water and some medical supplies. A significant police presence surrounded the perimeter of the park. I am starving, so I buy chicken and rice from a nearby street vendor. Glamorous! --Cassandra
A college student called a "student working group" and about five college students sat down to discuss what the protest means to them and how students can contribute. Their points included setting up a "study station" within Zuccotti Park, which would serve as a safe place to leave their books and notes; getting their professors involved; trying to figure out a way for protesters to be permitted to use dorm restrooms and showers at local colleges; networking and encouraging other students to join them at the protest.
One student called the Occupy Wall Street movement a "mix between democracy and anarchy." --Cassandra
I'm having college flashbacks in the student working group. There's a small group of facilitators working hard to keep discussions organized and on-topic, focused on concrete goals, but the talk is often sidetracked by choir-preaching rants against banks and bankers and right wingers. The need to talk, it sometimes appears, is inversely related to the amount you have to say. --Nate
A young man who works in the nearby September 11 memorial has joined the conversation out of curiosity. He decides to buy the group a very large amount of chicken nuggets. --Cassandra
We are starting to get sleepy, but the discussion continues in the form of several micro-chats. We overhear people talking about sex trafficking in Russia. --Cassandra
Sleeping on the sidewalk, surprisingly, is not very fun. I have a backpack full of t-shirts and a thin blanket that does not begin to cover me, which turn out not to be ideal equipment. Trying to nap on your side is right out, unless you want to wake up with bruises all over your shoulder and hipbone. Lying on your back is a little better, but be warned: A backpack probably will not provide you with the proper amount of neck support. My respect for the protesters who are doing this every night increases. --Nate
As the discussion group dwindles down to one conversation circle, I ask the group what exactly brought them here. What are their goals? We receive many different theories about what is wrong with the current system, including corporate greed, the drain on environmental resources and the large amount of wealth held by one percent of the population. When I press them on what exactly their message is, they admit they have no one, clear message. Instead, they say, Occupy Wall Street can mean something different to different people. --Cassandra
When I ask them about the common theme of this protest being "America's Tahrir moment," they admit the two are not comparable. The group agrees this is not a revolution, but instead a demonstration to make their voices heard. What those voices are saying, though, is still up for discussion. They call Occupy Wall Street a "first step."
When I wake up, Cassie is parsing the meaning of the word "violence" with a few remaining protesters. --Nate
Two men in suits arrive with police officers and begin snapping photos of the camp on a digital camera. A protester asks where the men are from but they do not respond to him. They leave after taking a few photos. Some protesters suspect they were from the FBI.
The protesters direct us to the restrooms at the nearby McDonald's and say the business has been very friendly to them and lets them come and go as needed. --Cassie
Lo and behold, they are correct! After seven hours on the frigid pavement, entering McDonalds is like walking into paradise. It's warm! There's ambient music! There are chairs -- with padding! In retrospect, we totally should have crashed here for the night. (From the looks of it, some protesters did.) I buy an Egg McMuffin and it tastes better than anything I have eaten all week. --Nate
We meet Artie, a fascinating young traveler whose main reason for coming to the demonstration was for a safe place to sleep. He tells us he works a full time job and could afford housing if he wanted, but instead chooses to hitchhike, live inside his van and scavenge for food -- all so he can pay off his student loans more quickly. He spent the last two nights sleeping in Central Park and tells us stories from the road: How to pick the best spot in a park to sleep, what to do if a ride is giving you bad vibes, etc. We really like him. --Cassandra
We've taken to calling Artie "The Most Interesting Protester in the World." --Nate
Two of the protesters have left their bikes chained to a tree in the plaza. People are going around, nervously asking anyone if they know whose bikes they are. Attaching things to the trees is against the law, and the protesters seem worried than any slight tiptoe over the line will be seen as a provocation by the NYPD. --Nate
The protesters begin to wake up. A woman who works for Capitol University approaches the camp and asks why they are there. She says she sees them and reads their signs, but doesn't totally understand what they are trying to accomplish. A couple protesters try to explain that they want to abolish "corporate personhood," the idea that, legally, a corporation has the same rights as a human. When the woman asks what they are asking people who sympathize with their aims to do, the protesters cannot offer a specific answer. (They do suggest that people should care more about their voices being heard.) The woman says she wishes she could buy coffee for the whole camp. She tries to offer Artie the hitchhiker some money. He politely refuses. --Cassandra
The protesters gather and several start playing drums. They form a line and prepare for their morning march to Wall Street. They circle the park and make their way to Wall Street with a line of police by their sides. They chant, "All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street." They arrive to Wall Street in time for the opening bell and the protest goes on without incident. UPDATE: We later receive word from protesters that four people were arrested between 10:10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.