All three arrived in the early morning at a small park in Lower Manhattan, a concrete square edged by skyscrapers and hot-dog carts that has become a destination for thousands of people who are enraged by unemployment, greed on Wall Street and the increasing wealth gap. What began three weeks ago as a small college protest and then grew into a circus of hippies, misfits and anarchists is now trying to grow into something else: a populist movement for economic change.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have spread from here to hundreds of cities and towns, including Washington, but the epicenter remains in this downtown park. It is the spectacle here that has earned the attention of activists, celebrities, labor organizers and President Obama. It is here where hundreds more disenfranchised people have been arriving each day, hopeful that they might find a voice in the nightly general assemblies that address the future of these protests.
Now, a movement that started with no concrete goals as a simple protest of power must decide what to do with some power of its own. Can a leaderless group that relies on consensus find a way for so many people to agree on what comes next? Can it offer not only objections but also solutions? Can a radical protest evolve into a mainstream movement for change?
Over the weekend, three more people came to New York City to find out.
‘What am I waiting for?’
Brenda Barnes arrived first, from Santa Monica, Calif., and she set down her backpack next to a concrete bench at the entrance to the park. She had just turned 67, and she had not participated in a protest since the end of the Vietnam War. Now her husband is disabled, and she worries about their fixed income of Social Security and retirement savings.
“The government is going broke, and who can trust the stock market?” she said. She and her husband had considered moving to England. “There’s not much left to rely on here,” she said.
She had hoped Obama might bring stability to the economy and better regulate Wall Street, but now she considered him “the greatest disappointment of my life — and I’ve been divorced twice.” She had seen news about the protests building in New York, listened to the protesters’ general assembly meetings on the Internet and then decided she was tired of relying on others to instigate change.
“I’m 67,” she said. “What am I waiting for?” So she bought her first tent, promised her husband that she would stay in close touch and made plans to spend a week on the East Coast.
Now, as she walked around Zuccotti Park to orient herself, she discovered a miniature society of a few thousand people created over the past three weeks. The park was named for a wealthy real estate developer, so the protesters referred to it as Liberty Park instead. On its perimeter stood the fringe groups: Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists, bohemian drummers, anarchists wearing gas masks — all parading to the delight of tourists on double-decker buses en route to nearby Ground Zero.
Just beyond that was the protester sleeping area, a sea of comforters and mattresses where quiet hours are enforced from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Barnes found a space to wedge her sleeping bag next to a bench and noticed a homeless man leaning on his grocery cart nearby. She text-messaged her husband: “the homeless have joined us,” she wrote, “or we have joined them.”
At the center of the park was what activists call the “enrichment center.” There was a 24-hour dietitian, a vitamin station, a hot buffet stocked with donated food, a makeshift library, a self-published newspaper called the Occupy Wall Street Journal, a notary and a lawyer. A professional life coach offered counseling to help protesters better ascertain their roles in the movement. A poetry group met twice daily under a withered tree on the south side of the park — “the tree of life,” they called it — to write and meditate.
Barnes walked to an information station and waited in line to sign up for the protest’s legal committee. Nearby, she noticed a handsome man in a blue blazer handing out bagels and bottles of water. She recognized him from TV. She messaged her husband again.
“Lots of workers in suits staying,” she wrote. “It’s a really diverse group.”
‘A little bit out there’
Diverse was one way to put it.
“It’s a little bit out there,” said Richard Trumka, the only man in the park wearing a blazer, as he finished a tour of Occupy Wall Street. He is the president of the AFL-CIO, more used to working in boardrooms and union halls, but he had rearranged his schedule to make a last-minute trip to Zuccotti Park. A banjo player with dreadlocks noticed Trumka and stopped strumming in the middle of a song. He walked over and pointed at Trumka’s blazer.
“Hey man, nice jacket,” the banjo player said. “Who are you with?”
“I’m the head of the AFL-CIO,” Trumka said. “We’re here because we’re going to support you guys.”
It was an awkward pairing, Trumka acknowledged, and he wasn’t sure if the protesters would want his help. The movement had resisted organization and decided against pursuing a concrete set of demands. Many protesters wanted to wait until the group reached a gradual, organic consensus at the nightly general assemblies on what to do next.
Trumka, meanwhile, had come to New York as the boss of a union conglomerate in Washington, and demands were what he knew best. Organize, lead — that was his credo. And despite their differences, he still believed Occupy Wall Street and the AFL-CIO could help each other. The protest had generated grass-roots momentum in a way unions rarely had done in the past decade, and the AFL-CIO had power to spread and legitimize the cause through its 11 million members.
“Things like this start as a long shot,” he said. But all across the square, he also saw evidence of an increasing mainstream presence: A group of 14 steelworkers from New Jersey. Electricians from Boston who had come wearing their hard hats. Two nurses wearing scrubs talking to a priest in his robe.
Trumka walked over to the south end of the park and sat down on a bench. A small crowd of protesters surrounded him.
“You know, you’re sitting under the tree of life,” one protester said.
“Oh?” Trumka said, nodding slowly. They sat in silence for a moment.
“Look, I know there’s some anxiety that we’re going to come in here and take this thing over,” Trumka said, finally. “We’re not going to do that. We just want to support you. We want to help Americans understand the greed on Wall Street.”
“But how can you help us without squashing it?” a protester asked.
“We can spread the word, give you access to spaces, find ways to work together, help you grow,” Trumka said. He stood up to leave. He had a meeting in California later that evening, but he planned to assign a full-time AFL-CIO organizer to work with the protesters.
“Where are jobs on your guys’ agenda right now?” another protester asked.
“First, second and third,” Trumka said. “That’s why we’re here.”
‘Something to believe in’
Buddy Bolton thought he might be able to network and find a job through Occupy Wall Street, so he brought along his laptop and some clips of his old television work just in case. Everything else that he owned went into storage except for a Coleman sleeping bag and two sets of clothes.
“I’ve got enough stuff to stay down here for a few weeks,” he said.
Bolton, 43, had been laid off two years earlier after his production company moved its operations to Canada, and he thinks he has sent out more than a thousand résumés in the years since. “Not one serious bite,” he said. In the meantime, he had spent his savings on elective shoulder surgery, lost his apartment in New York and moved in with his girlfriend. The night before, she had decided to kick him out.
“It was either come here or go live with my mom down in Florida,” he said. “Pretty great options, huh?”
He was not an anarchist, not a 9/11 denier, not a hippie, not a pacifist, not a poet of the revolution. He did not even consider himself to be an activist. But he was desperate and out of options.
“I need something to believe in,” he said. “It’s either that or just give up.”
He had told his mother that he wanted a few days to think over his options before he joined her in Florida.
Now, in Zuccotti Park, Bolton wandered over to a pile of signs and sifted through them.
“We Demand Sweeping, Unspecified Change!” one read. “Money Hungry Fascists Are Dead Inside!” read another. Bolton dug to the bottom of the stack and found the remains of a stained cardboard box that had been inscribed with black marker.
“We Are the 99 Percent,” it read.
He picked up the sign and carried it with his laptop to an empty patch of concrete on the north end of the park. To his right was a gathering table for union organizers. To his left was a retired lawyer from California.
Florida could wait, he decided.
“There might be something happening here that’s more than just wacky,” he said. He would stay a few days to see what it might become.