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A Master Class In Occupation

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Mr. Fish

NEW YORK CITY--Jon Friesen, 27, tall and lanky with a long, dirty-blond ponytail, a purple scarf and an old green fleece, is sitting on concrete at the edge of Zuccotti Park leading a coordination meeting, a gathering that takes place every morning with representatives of each of Occupy Wall Street's roughly 40 working groups.

"Our conversation is about what it means to be a movement and what it means to be an organization," he says to the circle. A heated discussion follows, including a debate over whether the movement should make specific demands.

I find him afterward on a low stone wall surrounding a flowerbed in the park. He decided to come to New York City, he said, from the West Coast for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He found a ride on Craig's List while staying at his brother's home in Champaign, Ill.

"It was a television event when I was 17," he says of the 2001 attacks. "I came here for the 10-year anniversary. I wanted to make it real to myself. I'd never been to New York. I'd never been to the East Coast."

Once he reached New York City he connected with local street people to find "assets." He slept in the parks and on the street. He arrived on the first day of the occupation in Zuccotti Park. He found other "traveler types" whose survival skills and political consciousness were as developed as his own.

In those first few days, he says, "it was the radicals and the self-identifying anarchists" who set up the encampment. Those who would come later, usually people with little experience in dumpster diving, sleeping on concrete or depending on a McDonald's restroom, would turn to revolutionists like Friesen for survival. Zuccotti Park, like most Occupied sites, schooled the uninitiated.

"The structure and process carried out by those initial radicals," he says with delight of the first days in the park, now have "a wide appeal."

The Occupy movements that have swept across the country fuse the elements vital for revolt. They draw groups of veteran revolutionists whose isolated struggles, whether in the form of squatter communities or acts of defiance such as the tree-sit in Berkeley to save an oak grove on the University of California campus that ran from Dec. 2, 2006, to Sept. 9, 2008, are often unheeded by the wider culture. The Occupy movements were nurtured in small, dissident enclaves in New York, Oakland, Chicago, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Bands of revolutionists in these cities severed themselves from the mainstream, joined with other marginalized communities and mastered the physical techniques of surviving on the streets and in jails.

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"It's about paying attention to exactly what you need, and figuring out where I can get food and water, what time do the parks close, where I can get a shower," Friesen says.

Friesen grew up in an apolitical middle-class home in Fullerton in Southern California's Orange County, where systems of power were obeyed and rarely questioned. His window into political consciousness began inauspiciously enough as a teenager, with the Beatles, The Doors, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He found in the older music "a creative energy" and "authenticity" that he did not hear often in contemporary culture. He finished high school and got a job in a LensCrafter lab and "experienced what it's like to slave away trying to make glasses in an hour." He worked at a few other 9-to-5 jobs but found them "restrictive and unfulfilling."

And then he started to drift, working his way up to Berkeley, where he lived in a squatter encampment behind the UC Berkeley football stadium. He used the campus gym to take showers. By the time he reached Berkeley he had left mainstream society. He has lived outside the formal economy since 2005, the last year he filed income taxes. He was involved in the tree-sit protest and took part in the occupations of university buildings and demonstration outside the Berkeley chancellor's campus residence to protest fee hikes and budget cuts, activities that saw him arrested and jailed. He spent time with the Navajos on Black Mesa in Arizona and two months with the Zapatistas in Mexico. 

"What I saw in the Zapatistas was a people pushed to the brink of extinction and forgetting," he says. "Their phrases ring true: Liberty! Dignity! Democracy! Everything for Everyone! Nothing for Ourselves! The masks the Zapatistas wear check egos. People should be united in their facelessness. This prevents cults of personality."

"I have no interest in participating in the traditional political process," he says. "It's bureaucratic. It's vertical. It's exclusive. It's ruled by money. It's cumbersome. This is cumbersome too, what we're doing here, but the principles that I'm pushing and that many people are pushing to uphold here are in direct opposition to the existing structure. This is a counterpoint. This is an acknowledgement of all those things that we hate, or that I hate, which are closed and exclusive. It is about defying status and power, certification and legitimacy, institutional validation to participate. This process has infected our consciousness as far as people being allowed [to participate] or even being given credibility. The wider society creates a situation where people are excluded, people feel like they're not worth anything. They're not accepted. The principles here are horizontal in terms of decision-making, transparency, openness, inclusiveness, accessibility. There are people doing sign language at the general assembly now. There are clusters of deaf people that come together and do sign language together. This is an example of the inclusive nature that we want to create here. And as far as redefining participation and the democratic process, my understanding of American history is that it was a bunch of white males in power, mostly. This is radically different. If you're a homeless person, if you're a street person, you can be here. There's a radical inclusion that's going on. And if it's not that, then I'm not going to participate."

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The park, especially at night, is a magnet for the city's street population. The movement provides food along with basic security, overseen by designated "peacekeepers" and a "de-escalation team" that defuses conflicts. Those like Friesen who span the two cultures serve as the interlocutors.

"It draws everyone, except maybe the super-rich," he says of the park. "You're dealing with everyone's conditioning, everyone's fucked-up conditioning, the kind of I'm-out-for-me-and-myself, that kind of instinct. People are unruly. People are violent. People make threats."

"We are trying to sort this out, how to work together in a more holistic approach versus just security-checking someone -- you know like tackling them," he says. "Where else do these people have to go, these street people? They're going to come to a place where they feel cared for, especially in immediate needs like food and shelter. We have a comfort committee. I've never been to a place where there's a comfort committee. This is where you can get a blanket and a sleeping bag, if we have them. We don't always have the resources. But everyone is being taken care of here. As long as you're nonviolent, you're taken care of. And when you do that you draw all sorts of people, including those people who have problematic behavior. If we scale up big enough we might be able to take care of the whole street population of Manhattan."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)
 

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