When I think back to the 1st birthday celebration of Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2012, I remember a volatile, angry, surging mass of energy that seemed at times unfocused and yet strong enough to carry us all along in a tidal wave of confrontation. Wherever we looked we saw a sea of blue uniformed police all in a determined stance, unwilling to see us as anything other than an angry mob that would no doubt need to be herded and penned in order to be controlled. It was my first experience seeing a full day’s supply of zip tie hand restraints hanging from every officer’s uniform. It was also my first experience being in a crowd that was at once being pushed ahead from behind and at the same time, being pushed back, not only physically but also with barking vocal commands by the police. Some people fell, some were grabbed and snatched out of the crowd by the police, and others looked for safe haven.
I also remember that day as the day I nearly lost my voice as a result of the utter anger, frustration and indignation that I verbally unleashed on the police. At one point when we were being told to move back when there was clearly no place to go and the angry face of a cop was headed right at me, I heard the words, “Don’t you dare touch me!” well up and out of my mouth. And then there were the times when, only feet away from a line of police, I did my best to lock eyes with one at a time to demand an answer to my loud and ferocious questions, “Are you proud of what you do? Is your family proud of what you do? Are your children proud of what you do?” Perhaps those actions on my part weren’t particularly brave or confrontational in the grand scheme of things but they went so far beyond anything I’d done before that I barely recognized the person pouring out of my very core.
What we seemed most to have in common with each other that day was an utter hatred for just about everything our government stands for, beginning with how wealth rules us all with a soulless hand down to a constant state of war and total neglect of the social, health and educational needs of our citizens. I felt like I was in a giant cauldron of discontent, all the ingredients stirred together.
This year, we returned and I expected to experience all of the same things. I was jolted by some very obvious (at least to my mind) differences and they were differences that I was very glad to see. When we arrived, rather than the swelled crowd that greeted us last year, there was a growing yet comparatively modest crowd in Zucotti Park. There was a sense of order, an agenda and schedule for the day with various issues being addressed at different times in different places to which we marched together. First, we specifically addressed the Trans Pacific Partnership that will spell disaster for us if joined in the secret fashion in which is being drafted and pushed through. Later in the day we gathered at the United Nations building to rally in support of the Robin Hood tax that would provide the much needed money needed for genuine health care. At that second rally and march, it was heartening to see the number of activists in the street rival the numbers of the previous year but our energies were directed at our causes much more so than at the police. The police seemed satisfied to use their authority to keep us on the sidewalks when necessary to keep traffic flowing than to grab and snatch as they did a year ago.
There are three moments of this year’s gathering that will stay with me. The first came at the first meeting in Zucotti Park, when we were waiting for the TPP march and rally to begin. We met a young man named Michael. Michael is vibrant, dedicated and inspiring. He was telling us of plans for coming events in the city. He described how rather than simply planning another march to voice grievances and protest particular targets, people were being asked to come together to work on specific solutions to their grievances in the hope that time in the street would take a positive direction toward real and specific change. I brought the idea home with me and will suggest at the next events that I have the privilege of helping to organize, that people have 2 sided signs, one side stating what needs to be changed and the other, something they are doing or plan to do to combat the issue.
The next moment came when Rebecca, an Occupy sister with whom I made the trip and who has been approaching “burn out” lately due to her immersion in the movement, was marching beside me, holding a sign high above her head and suddenly proclaimed that she was remembering why this was so important to her. There are no words to describe the look of joy on her face other than to say she looked as if she had finally returned “home” to a family and place that are precious to her. My response was an equally joyous shout of, “She’s back!”
The last moment of special note was when I mentioned to a fellow marcher that this year felt somehow different to me. She pressed me for an explanation of what that feeling was and I heard myself explain that this year I wasn’t afraid – not afraid of the police, not afraid of losing myself, simply not afraid. Perhaps it was naïve to feel that way but that doesn’t change the fact that fear was absent for me. Did last year’s experience change the police in some way? Have we, as activists, learned and grown since last year about focus and organization? I don’t have any answers to those questions but I celebrate my experience, realizing that it may have been very different for other people. I felt stronger, more grounded in what I was doing and infinitely more connected to the thousands of people around me. We were community. We were focused. We were organized. We will be back next year. Solidarity!