She hadn’t been a full-time Occupier, before the mayor’s eviction, but she’d been close. “Around five nights a week,” she told me. She has an apartment in Brooklyn; she has a job, working for a lawyer. She says that he’s been very supportive of her two months of Occupying. He advises her, however, not to put her name on record for this interview, so I’ll call her Anne.
Anne is in her early twenties, petite, nose-ringed, passionate about social change. We were in Bean and Bean, a coffeehouse on Broadway just off Wall St., with a little breathing space between us and the former physical center of the movement. It was Thursday, November 17, which was the two month anniversary of the Occupation, and two days after the protestors had been evicted from their makeshift tent city in Zuccotti Park. It was also what the Occupy movement had declared to be the International Day of Action, and she was somewhat encouraged because that morning the Occupiers had managed to organize themselves to the point of being able to delay the ringing of the opening bell.
She was in between direct actions: the next scheduled was the march from Foley Square, just a few blocks up Broadway from Zuccotti, right behind City Hall. She was sitting at one of the coffeehouse’s little tables; her friend was sleeping in one of the easy chairs. She looked at him fondly. “He lost his banjo and all his clothes that he owns,” she said: that’s what they thought at the time when I first spoke with her. Later, as was the case with many people, her friend was able to retrieve his tent and clothes from the department of sanitation. The banjo, however, was smashed to bits.
For the first few days, it seemed as though all the things taken by the police were gone for good. And many things were gone for good: the library, for instance, 5,000 books, neatly sorted into genres. The infrastructure that the occupiers had built could not survive the kind of cleanup the police had in mind. There was the gray water treatment system that the kitchen had set up, which involved charcoal chips and living plants; there was the bicycle powered generator; there was the kitchen itself, the art area, the media center. Much of this went into trash compacters, that night, she said: “They compacted it right there.” And what didn’t get destroyed was confiscated: everything that people weren’t able to take away immediately, and everything that belonged to people who were not on the spot.
Which included her. She hadn’t been in the park when the raid happened, but in a late-night strategy meeting “to plan for expansion.” The meeting was at Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church on Washington Square, near NYU, less than a mile north of Zuccotti. “They’ve opened their doors to us,” she says. “I slept there last night…” The night of the raid, “everyone’s phones exploded with text messages at the same time,” she said, and the group that had been meeting in the church rushed back downtown. They stood outside Zuccotti, on Broadway, and watched as the police threw tents and belongings into the trash compactors, and threw out the people who had been there.
The occupiers had dispersed, that night—some up to the courthouse where Justice Lucy Billings was in the process of issuing an injunction against the removal of the camp, others scattered elsewhere. “There were little groups of fifty or a hundred running around the city trying to find each other,” Anne says. But, even with Twitter and texting, with no central place it was hard to regroup.
“They’re just wasters,” she says. “We really had a community there, you know? And we were taking care of each other. We were doing really important work. So many people have nowhere to live, now; nowhere to stay, and that’s not what we should have to be thinking about right now; we have work to do.”
She grew up in Oakland, California. “It wasn’t a very strong community,” she says. “This,”—meaning the Occupation—”reminded me of college. I would run around crowing that all over Liberty Plaza, and people would say, yeah, well, I didn’t go to college…” But that’s the context that she had for the kind of physically close, intense community that she’d been experiencing for the past two months.
“I work for a lawyer,” she explains. “He works ten blocks north. I’d walk to work; we’d have the spokes councils at lunch; then I’d have to do stuff for my boss, go to the courts for him; then I’d go back to 52 Broadway or 60 Wall for meetings.” These two addresses house some of the office space that the Occupiers had been using, to supplement the various offices set up around Zuccotti. “Then at night we’d go get a tall can, debrief…This is really what I want to be doing, sleeping in a park with my friends, organizing almost all the time. I’m so sad … I miss my tent so much. It was a real community. I just want people to know that we were taking care of each other and we were doing really important stuff… ”
Later on, she wrote to me about some of what that “taking care of each other” had looked like. “It’s true that there were people with problems at Zuccotti, but that always made sense to me, that those most adversely affected by this system would come there, since it is this system, and what it does to vulnerable people, that we are criticizing. Of course we all need to take care of ourselves, but we also took care of them. This includes drug users, mentally ill people, etc. We had social workers and mental health professionals on site that were down with the cause and helping those people.”
It’s not that she doesn’t know about the other serious problems that had cropped up in Zuccotti, either: the thefts, the rapes, the divisions between occupiers who brought their own sets of advantages and troubles to the park, the interpersonal conflicts. She knows these problems far better than anyone who has been following the news coming out of the park. All of the problems are true. But they’re not the only truth. What she saw was her place destroyed. “People were traumatized,” she said. “People were sick, they were hurt—it was like a tsunami hit. It was like a village after a natural disaster.
“I don’t want people to think that it was just that the NYPD came and cleaned up a mess. The NYPD came and messed with some of the best and brightest. From now on, I hope that when OWS asks, the rest of the world answers. This is what you’ve been waiting for. Maybe it’s not perfect, maybe it’ll take a while to grow into itself, but this is it. This is not a left-wing tea party—It’s not just, ‘I want my piece of the pie back.’ People are waking up, and they’re waking up in solidarity with the rest of the world.”
It seems as though one thing that people are waking up to is the radical importance of genuine community, and the need to fight and build and defend communities that can be sustained in the long run—whether that long run takes place in Zuccotti, on the sites of other Occupations, or simply in our own streets and homes. The point is not that the cops are all bad guys while the occupiers are good, or even that Occupation is itself the answer. Rather, the question that Anne’s experience raises is this: how did it get to the point that many people’s only experience of close-knit community is a protest encampment? Why does this seem to be one of the few places where the more privileged (Anne, for example) and the less privileged (those who have no Brooklyn apartment to go to, following the raid) actually come into contact with each other, live close by each other, have to deal with each other? If Occupy Wall Street leads us to ask, and answer, these kinds of questions about our own communities, maybe that will be the best kind of victory for the movement. Maybe these questions are the ideas that can’t be evicted.