As Occupy Wall Street sticks around for a second month, the Voice is mapping out the way things work at Zuccotti Park. Meet the Occupiers is a series that profiles the who’s who of Zuccotti: the key characters and working groups that keep the occupation going.
At Zuccotti Park last Saturday, a heated dispute broke out between one of the new security detail recruits and a protester. Tension rose as the former, a wiry man with gold teeth, and the latter, a more “alt” grad-school-chic guy, lobbed insults at each other.
Then Brendan Burke, an initial organizer of the security/conflict de-escalation working group, stepped in. Burke came on the scene with arms folded, back straight, blue eyes locked on target — the classic authority pose. He asked what the issue was; it turned out the protester had accused the recruit of an unnamed crime. Burke stayed diplomatic, taking neither side, and mediated the argument. Nobody was exactly hugging five minutes later, but Burke had managed to thwart a potentially bigger conflict. He got himself a bowl of cookies from the food line.
Burke is a tall 41 year-old Brooklynite with a working class accent who doesn’t fit the college-kid stereotype of Occupy Wall Street. His terrain is the “wilderness,” in his words, of Zuccotti Park.
The de-escalation working group’s job is to keep occupiers safe by quelling arguments that have the potential to get ugly. It’s a tricky one — protesters are accustomed to a certain level of autonomy, and security workers are careful not to step on any toes. Burke explained the process of responding to conflict in the park: “There’s all kinds of unstable people out here, all kinds of behaviors, and they’re accusing each other of things all day long,” he said. “So what you have to do is de-escalate the situation by remaining calm and hearing both sides, calming them down when they start yelling at each other, getting both parties in front of you. Then you start talking about solutions, how to validate both persons.”
Burke and his team of four or five burly guys circle the park, defusing conflict before it threatens to turn Zuccotti into a powder keg. Burke doesn’t call it patrolling, but that’s the best word for it.
Burke gives credit to his martial arts training, though he was also a security guard. His story fits a common pattern at Occupy Wall Street, where people gravitate towards working groups that fit their specific skill sets.
In the process of tamping down conflict, Burke tries to stay respectful of all parties involved. “Everyone’s an adult here,” he said. “This is not a daycare.”
He paused and added, “Although it may look like it sometimes.”