Last Friday I visited Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district where the Occupy Wall Street movement is camped out –I was glad they were still there. The night before, Mayor Bloomberg had announced that they were going to clear out the ‘park’ to clean it and I had sat there looking at the headline and kicking myself for not visiting a huge cultural moment that had taken place in PSFK‘s backyard. Luckily the campaigners had a stay of execution and were allowed to remain in the place once called Liberty Plaza.
The size of the park isn’t as large as you may expect. The media frenzy surrounding it makes you think that people are lined up and down Wall Street blocking the traffic. The square is in fact a block away from Wall Street. When I visited on Friday morning in the damp but warm weather, it contained maybe six to seven hundred people.
Its atmosphere was one of a giant festival–part Glastonbury, part Burning Man. A drum circle beat a rhythm while people with signs danced and others waved flags. While the atmosphere was far more relaxed than you expected –people were sitting around or sleeping on blue plastic sheets–there was still energy in the air. You felt you were somewhere.
There were police scattered around the outside of the park, but they seemed to be more involved with moving tourists along and stopping them from taking photos, than contemplating how they would take the square back by force.
The square had a broad mix of people. Yes, there were those traveler types (often described by the media as anarchists), but there were also students, construction workers, a scout, a Jesus-freak, a flag-waving paramedic, a signature collecting anti-fracking campaigner, social workers, do-gooders, out of work professionals. Everyone seemed to have a different message but everyone seemed to be getting along.
There was an element of self-organization, a little bit like what you’d expect at a festival: there was a schedule of duties volunteers could get involved in, and also a food kitchen that worked with contributions. At noon a long line stretched out as they served their first meal of the day. There was also a lot of cleaning materials that had been distributed when Bloomberg started making noises about moving everyone on. The response was for everyone to pick up a broom or rag and clean the park.
I wasn’t the only person there with a camera, there were lots of news crews, journalists, tourists, passers-by and even a few Wall Street workers snapping shots. The campaigners didn’t mind–they wanted their message to be shared.
The downside of such an uncoordinated approach to communication is that people taking pictures–whether professional media or anyone with a phone–is that the alt-culture folks were the ones getting snapped. The kids who didn’t look like the rest of us, who seemed like they did this all the time and didn’t seem to care. It will send out a biased picture of who was there. For example, a sleeping traveler with the iconic Guy Fawkes mask was a popular target of photographers–many people will take that snap home and share it as a not-so-truthful testament to what the place was really like.
It was fascinating to see the construction workers there. Were they there because they were on break? Were they part of the demonstration? Were they just watching the show? One gent did show his frustration with a cardboard sign that shouted: “I’m Union. I voted. I’m pissed….”
What is Occupy Wall Street? Maybe no-one really knows. I didn’t know after spending time there. But after seeing their signs and speaking to the people what I sensed was anger, frustration, lack of opportunity, no light at the end of the tunnel, confusion, disappointment–but also a moment to get heard.
Why do we cover Occupy Wall Street on PSFK.com? We’re not supporting nor are we criticizing. We just think it’s important. If your work involves understanding culture–and if you read PSFK it’s likely it does–it’s critical that you visit this movement in NYC or in the cities around the world, speak to the people and try to understand what is happening and why.
For more photos, click through the thumbnails below.