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General News    H2'ed 4/22/12

What a Difference a Day Makes: Life on the Front Lines of Occupy Federal Hall

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Saturday morning the sun arose over Wall Street rousing the recent Occupants of Federal Hall.   Unstirred by what over the week had become hectic routine the individuals rose to make way for the repeated ritual of power-washing the stone steps on which they successfully sought refuge from eviction from the street by the NYPD.   This morning instead was quiet.   A smaller police presence and no one armed with a hose to spray their roost came to the site. 

What a difference a day makes.  

Photo by Julian Kliner by
Julian Kliner

Friday morning began in stark contrast: the Occupiers frantically rising to gather and transport their belongings amidst the chaotic herds of "suits" flocking to their Wall Street lairs.   Having successfully endured another sleepless night, strictly enforced by a large contingent of police officers, they gathered their signs and other possessions and made the trek east to 60 Wall Street where a few took the opportunity to close their eyes for a few moments relaxed in the surrounding atrium.   Throughout the previous nights periodic "raids" by the NYPD ensured no one remained on the steps who may have closed their eyes and potentially nodded off for a moment. The tactic of sleep-deprivation and its consequences did not go unnoticed; a few times the generally amicable Federal Park Police offered to obtain assistance and contact a shelter to provide a bed for those clearly showing the eroding signs of its effects.

While most took advantage of the brief respite from their vigil a few remained behind to symbolically maintain their continued physical presence while documenting this surreal ritual.   Up and down, back and forth, and then do it again.   Over and over a sole worker would slowly shift the condensed stream emanating from the hose repeatedly cleaning to a meticulous degree the steps fronting Federal Hall and facing out onto Wall Street.

The unprecedented concern for cleanliness was not only viewed by the throngs of financial district employees and the handful of early-rising tourists; it was also "streamed" globally via the internet to a viewership which tended to rise steadily throughout the day and approached two hundred logged in at any one time.   A small, but significant, contingent of viewers and chatters endured the previous sleepless night in solidarity with them, on the Occupiedair Ustream video stream with its accompanying chat.   Those often thousands of miles away often participating directly by purchasing coffee and pizza for those braving the hardships of this increasingly symbolic vigil in defense of the foundational rights covered by the First Amendment.

"This never happens," stated one local resident referring to the now-daily scrub-down, "except now that you're here."   Two more later confirmed the suspicions harbored by the team of streamers and chatters who debated the issue since the practice started Tuesday, their second day on the steps, after similar attempts to deter and then forcefully remove them from the neighboring sidewalks via early morning "hosings" failed.   It was only NYPD's Monday about-face on the first-amendment protected right of "sleep" as a means of protest, confirmed by the previous District Court ruling in Metropolitan Council v Safir, 99 F.Supp.2d 438 (2000), that caused the Occupiers to flee for sanctuary under George Washington's shadow on the site where the Bill of Rights was successfully jockeyed through the first US Congress.   At this historic location the stalwart Occupiers successfully obtained refuge under the protection of Federal Law, particularly the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, to defend the First Amendment.   New York's Mayor and NYPD's jurisdiction stopped at the sidewalk.   A showdown was imminent.

This group of Occupiers succeeded after eight months of the movement to literally in addition to figuratively "occupy" Wall Street, successfully maintaining their 24-hour vigil in the shadows of the Stock Exchange -- month's after Bloomberg used the NYPD to forcibly break up the aptly renamed Liberty Square a few blocks to the north.

By early morning the Occupiers returned to the steps now so meticulously scraped and scrubbed that one could safely perform surgery on them.   The habit became so engrained that by Friday the Occupiers did not rely on the "friendly" wake up message delivered by a uniformed Federal Officer and simply began their chores autonomously at the crack of dawn.   Sparkling in the early morning sunlight the steps were systematically repopulated while herds of "suits" emerged from the nearby subway heading to work.

The first objective of the day was to unfurl a bright yellow banner with black letters signaling simply "Occupy Wall Street" in the direction of the New York Stock Exchange building on the adjacent side of Wall Street.  

Eventually a myriad of other signs simply drawn with black marker on cardboard boxes populated the right side stairs to Federal Hall.   They had by then been told, however, that there was a limit to the numbers who could be present on the steps.   Out of this the "Occupy 25" emerged -- a conglomerate of diverse voices, ages, sex, race, and religion of a few hundred individuals who would alternate without any clearly defined shifts yet established to "fill" the stairs to their "legal" capacity.

The evenings were different.   While some nights went remarkably without a hitch, including several nights during which the Occupiers amused themselves with what they coined "OccuTheater," where a computer was used to project videos initially onto a wall of a neighboring structure, but when the barricades came they utilized the to their advantage by propping thereupon a large white board to serve as a screen.   Thursday night was the last such event, during which they screened the movie "V for Vendetta," which features its main character, disguised in the Guy Fawkes mask often associated with Occupy events, confronting corrupt government and corrupted officials.   Other nights, by contrast, were replete with tension as NYPD officers would continually confront individuals within the group threatening, and several times effecting, arrests for things such as violations of the City's alleged noise ordinance after 10 p.m.   These repeated threats occurred in what can only be described as arbitrary and unpredictable waves.   One evening an officer even threatening to have the ASPCA to forcefully take Ava, a dog that has affectionately come to be known as "OccuPuppy," from her owner, Jack Amico, stating it was unlawful for dogs to sleep on New York's sidewalks, and that to avoid the loss he would have to continually hold her in his arms while present on Wall Street.

At other times, in what defies rational explanation, the members of the police took a more lax and stand-offish approach and let the Occupiers gather with little interaction both on the steps and out into the street through much of the evening.   They would often share stories, engage in tactical discussions, or simply chill out to the tunes provided by the many talented musicians in the group.   A notable stand-out in this category, visible at a distance by her short-cropped metallic blue hair, is the Occupier named Lauren who has been present since the first day of the sleepless protest two weeks ago.   She is exemplified by a voice that would cause Janis Joplin to tear up accompanied by her accomplished guitar accompaniment with powerful renditions of songs like Lynerd Skynerd's "Simple Man."   The group often joined in with the singing without once being threatened, in contrast to those other nights, with noise ordinance violations. 

Something odd, however, occurred on Friday morning.   Although a Sergeant in the Park Police agreed that the metal barricades erected by the NYPD on the steps of the Hall were neither necessary nor appropriate for the site, during a productive conversation displaying the mutual respect of the two groups with Brando, an occupier originally from the Tampa area in Florida, who operated the video camera while standing vigil during the previous day's washing.   Even going so far as to agree that as long as the productive dialogue and the continued cooperation of the Occupiers he couldn't see why they couldn't remove those offensive barriers -- with the exclusion of those separating the Hall from the street, where NYPD's jurisdiction resumed -- within the next few days.   Despite the evolution of this productive relationship Friday morning witnessed a number of Park officials measuring the steps on the right side of the building.   They actually mapped out a "Free Speech Zone" within this small area and published it officially on their website, whereupon a few days prior they had alerted visitors that due to their efforts to not interfere with "those participating in 1st amendment activities," that they would instead be utilizing the back entrance for visitors for as long as those activities continued.     

It is not certain why this was done and there are many legitimate questions and concerns about the implications of such a formal area (is there then, by definition, a dominant portion of space that is "unfree"?).   But as a significantly larger deployment of police forces, including SWAT and Counterterrorism Unit officers, mobilized on the Street that morning, it appeared possible that the zone, although a formal recognition of restrictions on liberty, was established for the protection of the rights of the Occupiers.   It served to formally declare a border that existed between two, literally, armed camps of the two police forces now facing each other.   It established a zone, thereby, where the NYPD had no authority to evict or threaten arrest.

It was apparent before noon that something was clearly brewing.

Shortly after lunch, at Zuccoti Park (nee Liberty Square), another large gathering of Occupiers formed and engaged in educational and training seminars before breaking into four groups that headed out on a mission to "capture the flag," several of which had been strategically located in the many Privately Owned Public Spaces -- or "Pops" -- scattered throughout the downtown business district.

Back at Wall Street, however, there were other actions and activities of the City's police that were new to the scene, including the erection of barricades that appeared designed to keep the Occupiers away from the public.   The Occupiers named their penned-in area the "Freedom Cage" which, ironically, only seemed to draw more attention from those on the street.   In prior days, by noon and continuing through dusk, a circus like atmosphere evolved -- with tourists and "suits" both seeking to have their pictures taken with Occupiers.   Crowds gathered at the foot of the gated steps listening to the chants and songs of the group and at times engaging in one-on-one or group discussions on issues ranging from corporate corruption to the essential role of education in a democratic society.   Many would stand there for an hour or more deep in conversation with those behind the gates.   Often the visitors to the "Cage" brought food which was to be shared among the Occupiers, several of who had by this point gone several days without sleep and with very little to eat.   They good naturedly joked to the public with chants of "Please don't feed the Occupiers."

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One person cannot change it all - but it takes at least one person to change the world. I've tried at least.

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