Occupational Hazards


A recent Wednesday night in Zuccotti Park: A woman was hit in the face, an EMT broke his leg trying to break up a fight, and a drunk guy with facial tattoos tried to burn an American flag. People blasted tracks from Watch the Throne, the unofficial One Percent Album of the Year, while four or five brawls broke out over the course of two hours. Everyone was doing everything at once: fighting, eating, dancing, sleeping, smoking.

Everything except demonstrating against our country’s financial status quo, which is the occupation’s raison d’être.

If you had never heard of Occupy Wall Street, what would Zuccotti Park in November 2011 look like to you? A tent city or a camping trip at this point (the park is covered in tents now, a big difference from a month ago), but perhaps not a protest. As OWS gets ready to celebrate its two-month birthday, the gap between the physical occupation and the movement itself has become increasingly distinct. The park is attracting rougher elements that don’t share the same devotion to the cause as the true protesters. It’s also bursting at the seams, with barely any room to walk in some parts. And winter is rapidly approaching.

Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street “brand” has spread, represented by smaller occupations in cities worldwide. OWS as a movement has been in many ways a success; OWS as a physical occupation is facing serious challenges.

Brendan Burke, 41, a member of the security team, is on the front lines against crime and drugs at Zuccotti, and he believes that OWS has started to lose focus because of the occupation. “The point is, we’re holding Wall Street accountable because voting for politicians doesn’t work,” Burke says. “Once the focus is lost on that, we’re only taking care of behavioral problems in a park.”

Press team member Patrick Bruner, 23, agrees in principle with Burke. “If the focus becomes on just this one place, there’s a possibility we won’t be able to adequately defend that place,” he said. “Instead of becoming a symbol, it becomes a reality.”

The constant wrangling of troublemakers threatens to dilute the message as it takes up media attention that could be directed elsewhere, as well as the occupiers’ energy. And the park’s logistical issues have become such that the General Assembly recently passed a contentious measure: The Spokes Council, a new representational decision-making body, will take responsibility for the day-to-day workings of the occupation while the General Assembly concerns itself with movement-wide questions. The first two Spokes Councils, conducted in a sweaty high school cafeteria in the Financial District, showed that Occupy Wall Street can take it indoors, though the SC’s representational system, meant to be more efficient than the molasses-paced GA’s, is viewed with suspicion by some of the more ardent fans of Direct Democracy.

On the topic of going indoors, one idea getting kicked around is occupying foreclosed buildings, something that has already happened on a small, temporary scale in Atlanta and Harlem. This lacks the visual punch and presence of an outdoor occupation, but it also provides a realistic solution to a pressing issue: the cold. (According to Burke, there have already been 20 cases of hypothermia at OWS.) It also addresses the foreclosure crisis, an issue that’s supposed to be important to many protesters. Not everyone would be allowed to occupy the foreclosed buildings, which limits the presence of rabble-rousers.

The foreclosure plan probably won’t occur on an OWS-wide scale, says a source. Most of those who suggest squatting in foreclosed properties or finding businesses or real estate companies that will shelter occupiers during the cold maintain that the Zuccotti Park occupation can and will continue. “I don’t think that it would end because it provides a lot of juice to be here,” says occupier James Molenda, 32.

D.J. Husar, 35, of New Jersey, told the Voice that “the diehards will stay, but a lot of people are going to leave. The occupation is central, but the movement is dispersed. What happens here is like a fishbowl.”

The Zuccotti goldfish might look farther afield for an idea of what could come in the future. A shooting (not proven to be Occupy-related) in Oakland, a suicide in Burlington, Vermont, and a death by probable drug overdose in Salt Lake City illustrate possible worst-case scenarios of a long-term occupation that’s open to all. A number of American occupations, including Oakland and Portland, were recently cleared by police.

A less fraught example: Occupy Albany, where a tightly organized group of about three dozen people have targeted their energies toward state government and extending the Millionaire’s Tax. They’re small; they’ve submitted to inspections, so they can keep their generators; and they’ve (peacefully) stymied all of Governor Cuomo’s attempts to oust them. Zuccotti’s campers could potentially follow a smaller, more cooperative Albany model.

There are options outside of Zuccotti. “The occupation is the tip of the spear of a larger movement,” Brendan Burke says. “This doesn’t have to be about holding ground anymore.”