Occupy Town Square – Occupy Tompkins Square (26th February 2012, New York)

I came last week to New York from Finland to attend an academic conference, as soon as I was done with that I joined the activities of the Occupy movement. This is a brief (not so brief in all honesty) piece on my first afternoon with the Occupy Wall Street movement. These are part of my field notes complemented by some research and few links to online resources. The highlights were the good atmosphere, the encouraging turnout (if perhaps lower than some hoped) and the wealth of activities, not to mention the charming setting, the bright sun and the blue sky.

I arrived at the Tompkins Park from St. Marks’ Place after walking from Canal Street (I haven’t been in New York for a while), at around one thirty in the afternoon. Past the children playground resonating with jolly sounds echoing between the swings and the slides, the central square of the park was buzzing with activity and people. As I entered the square I stopped to chat with Ant (not his real name but one that he chose perhaps to evoke the political, cultural and existential attitude of the activists in the Occupy movement, aiming at challenging the megalomania of unfettered capitalism refusing to play according to its own rules: some academics call this “becoming minor” but that’s another story). He is manning a table for the Arts and Culture working Group of the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA). His table is the first to my left and it is disposed along the perimeter of the central square of the park, next to that follow all the others in an embracing circle of activities and exhibitions at the centre of which people mingled, chatted, hugged and argued, what you do, I guess, in an occupied park on a Sunday winter afternoon blessed by a shining sun and a blue sky.

Ant tells me about Art & The Commons, a workshop about examining how art and culture can be a part of a commons. Art & The Commons is a collaborative effort of many members from various in Occupy Wall Street art groups: Arts & Culture, Arts & Labor (Alternative Economies Group), and Occupy Museum, the website for this workshop can be found here). The group is at the beginning of its activities and it recently organized a workshop in a three day-long event aimed at researching the subject and framing discussions and activities around it. The workshop took place on the 17th of February as part of Making Worlds: A Forum on the Commons. And as far as future plans are concerned the Art and the Commons coalition is organizing a workshop as part of Wall Street to Main Street).

We keep talking, he is both friendly and welcoming, I enjoy listening to his summary of some of the most interesting activities (past and present) of the working group. He tells me about the Occupy Broadway sometime in October but he can’t recall exactly when (it wasn’t so long back, it was in fact on the 2nd – 3rd of December). Activists performed for 24hrs on Broadway “it was amazing, you can imagine”. Yes I can. I can imagine the contrast between the Occupy artivists’ performances and the mainstream Broadway setting. I can imagine the show of creative resistance. I can imagine Times Square occupied and transformed, reclaimed, into a huge free stage in which the over-powerful corporations that dominate the entertainment industry had no saying on what was performed, when and by whom. Later at home I go online and find this. If possible it looks even more inspiring than I thought. It might have to do with Ant’s understated narrative. This is an extract of the statement that explains the motives of the occupiers: “Occupy Broadway is a symbolic attempt to regain the space of theatre as an accessible, popular art form, bringing it back to where it all started – in a public space, for the common citizen. We are using public space to create a more colorful image of what our streets could look like, with public performances, art, and music. Through this movement, New York re-imagines itself as a work of art, rather than a retail shopping mall.”

While talking to Ant I pick up one of the little baby blue flyers about the next Arts and Culture meeting, it will be the next day Monday at 60 Wall Street. The flyer briefly explain that “Arts and Culture is a network of artists within the NYC General Assembly and the movement to occupy Wall Street. Arts and Culture plays an important role in many aspects of the movement, from direct action and events to research and strategy building. At the core of Arts and Culture is the idea that we can expand the vision of the movement and inspire change through various artistic and cultural forms. Arts and Culture is open to internal and external collaborations dealing with the many aspects of the movement. Its members are dedicated to an open and transparent dialogue. Everyone is welcome to participate.”

As Ant explained to me, after intense activities in which the group engaged over roughly500 members(for a while it was the second largest group in the NYC General Assembly), the group is now in a more fragmented phase and aiming at regrouping soon for more activities in the next weeks. Many of its members have gone to work in collectives and affinity groups so it is difficult to follow the entire extension of the network or to know exactly what they are working on at the moment. But for what he knows a lot is being organised and a lot of art is being discussed and produced. The overall Arts and Culture network is articulated in a myriad of working groups. Among the many are Arts and Labor, Cinema/Film/Video, Comix, Graphic Arts, Dance/Performance, Direct Action Painters, Drawing and Painting, Music, Occupy Broadway, Occupy Museums, Occupy with Art, People’s Puppets, Photography, Poetry, Revolutionary Games, Screen Printers Guild and Short Stories.

While we chat a Liberty Statue wobbles around the central square of Tompkins Park not too far from where we are. Her big hands wave and cheering people respond to her greetings. I ask Ant about the puppets and he point at “that guy with the red scarf over there, he is Joe you shoult talk to him, he facilitated the puppets group”. He adds that he thinks Joe even has a master in Puppetry. “Not that having a master really means that much, i’m just saying that it would be nice to chat with him if you like puppets.” We talk briefly about really what it is that makes an artist experienced and surely we agree that an official qualification is just an indication of commitment and some experience but does not mean much more than that as so many artists have never seen an Academy of Fine Arts all their life.

We agree to meet at one of the Arts and Culture meetings in Wall Street (either Monday or Thursday at 6pm) and I walk across the square to join Joe who is just shaking hands with someone and exchanging smiling farewells. As I approach I recognise him, I had seen him on video while follwing at a distance the work of the puppets group (here for instance where you can also catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty, whereas this is an overview of the Puppet Guild’s work). I introduced myself, my name is the Italian version of his and he smiled more. I told him about my interest in puppets and protests. I told him that I’m an academic and I’m thinking to write about puppets and he invites to the Tuesday and Friday workshops in Dumbo. I had been following the group on the NYCGA’s website and I look forward to taking part in the discussion on the current projects of the OWS Puppets Guild. He gave me his card while parting and as I moved on I discovered that Joe is a director a designer a performed and, most importantly I would say, a cosmonaut, a sailor of of the outer spaces (though to be honest I have the impression that his picture on the business card might be depicting him in some kind of deep sea diver suit).

After parting with Joe I saw nearby a table of goodies laid by the Food Not Bombs activists which reminded me that it was past lunchtime. The Food not Bombs folks are a great constant at such events across the world. The group is a loosely knit network of hundreds of collectives around the world. Originally set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, its objective is to reclaim food to fight hunger while at the same tie exposing the outrageous politics of global food markets. They reclaim food that otherwise would go to waste ad accept donations from local farmers, vegan and vegetarian food, and serve it for free. Just that. I had a snack for a donation and sat on a bench facing the sun to take in the warmth and the music of the jamming band, saxophone, trombone, drums, djembe, the works.

While I’m sitting and wondering the gorgeousness of the surroundings, I reminisced about the three months I had spent in the summer of 2008 in the Lower East Side, writing. Slightly to my left a photo shoot is about to take place, a make-up artist is adding his final touches to the eyes of a young woman wearing nothing but a flimsy silky top. Her bare arms seem to shiver, she is incredibly skinny or so at least it seems to me. She laugh with the photographer and his assistants, it is either me or everyone seems to smile in that park. In fact, later on, maybe an hour or so later, as I’m sitting somewhere else reading the Indypendent’s latest issue that a guy sitting next to me offered I hear someone screaming joyfully “the cops look the cops they are plain clothes cops”. He was following closely two young man in their early thirties who were crossing the square aiming towards one of the avenues of the park. As he followed and people laughed around him I saw one of the alleged cops smiling back at him and aiming for an NYPD car where he and his colleague ended their stroll against the bonnet of the car. They were still smiling and people in the square kept laughing while they returned to their conversations.

After lunch I have a brief chat with someone carrying almost broadsheets of the Occupy Wall Street agenda, he tells me that I can find out the document online if I wish and I prefer to leave my copy with him after giving it a brief glance. I tell him though that I don’t remember seeing this document on the General Assembly website and he says it is there “but take one anyway, it’s good to have a copy handy”. I insist that I’m OK with a soft copy and shake his hand. Somehow I think that a document referring to an Agenda of the Occupy Movement might be a little bit out of character. But there is no time to figure out who the leaf-letter might have been, or maybe I have my ideas about that already. Anyway, I could not find any such document on the NYCGA website. But I’m sure I will bump into it in the next few days in New York.

Again in the square after a brief walk around the park looking for the “Democracy is Self-Government” workshop (I could not find it unfortunately). An East Asian looking woman approaches me and asks if she can give me a flyer to remind me of the monstrosity of the Fukushima calamity. Soon it will be one year from the catastrophe and the radiation are affecting people more than governments, especially the Japanese, are willing to admit. The flyer titles We Are Pregnant of Fear of Radiation is clear, this is the current state of affairs: an immense amount of radiation has been dumped into the Pacific Ocean, hundred of thousands of children are still living in the Fukushima prefecture, 1 in 25 children will die of cancer if they continue to live in those highly contaminated areas (and the consequences will stretch decades into the future as the Chernobyl case teaches). This is not all and this is not of interest to the Japanese people. The rublle from the tsunami in fact will soon reach California and, moreover, NYC has a 40 year old power plant not farther than 38 miles away whose consequences for the environment and the population of Westchester County have been proved. To protest this state of affairs a march will take place in NYC on the day of the anniversary of the disaster, the 11th of March (more details to be found here).

While reading this appalling facts I here a mic-check behind me (a person calling “mic-check” so that those around her can repeat what she says for further away people to hear, it is called the human microphone and it has become popular to bypass restrictive regulation on use of voice amplifying rquipment). Soon there will be a discussion facilitated by the Health working group. I have seen them under a big tree before showing their placards and distributing some literature. I now joined the circle of around forty people. The speakers list the consequences of the reduction on health spending on the most vulnerable sections of the American population. One of the speakers depicts the future outlook in bleak terms: 90% percent of the investments will be focused on huge University Hospitals whereas most of neighbourhood clinics and health centres will simply be shut down.

Later, I have two interesting conversations on two crucial issues that the movement is fighting against and the consequences of which are global. The personhood status of corporations and the US export (and large use at home too) of tear gas. A woman in striking light purple sunglasses which cover most of the upper part of her face hands me a flier that asks, are corporations people? I stop and we converse for few minutes. She tells me how outrageous is that such a question should even be raised. The Supreme Court has indeed stated that corporations are to be considered legal persons. In particular, I read on the flyer “On January 21st, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed a flood of corporate money into our political system by ruling that, contrary to long standing precedents, corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money to promote or defeat candidates. The decision in this historic case – Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission – overturned a century of campaign finance law and stands to deal a devastating blow to our democracy unless we act.” This is no mean feat, the influence of corporate interests and resources on democratic institutions is already enormous, she tells me, and now this. “We really can’t talk about democracy, can we?”. On this website all the details on the actions of this group and all the resources to fully gauge the implications of such legislation in favour of corporate personhood. After saying good buy to the woman by the stylish glasses I pick up a comic strip fro a table. It’s titles No More Tears and explains the global journey of tear gas canisters from the US to Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Israel. The strip names the companies producing the canisters used both in the USA and abroad. They are Defence technology Federal Laboratories owned by BAE Systems, NonLethal Technologies (it’s real name though one of its canisters, says the strip, has killed Ali Jawad al-Sheikh in Bahrain), Combined Systems Incorporated (CSI) and Combined Tactical Systems owned (both) by Point Lookout Capital and the Carlyle Group whose canisters “have killed dozens in Egypt and Palestine”. The research for this strip was done by the OWS global justice working group.

As I move about I stop in front of the people staged, someone, the face covered by a black foluard is singing accompanied by two guitars, I can’t hear the lyrics as people are crowding around. Few steps away I share smiles with a woman who seem to be talking to me though I can’t hear. I get closer and she smiles and offers me to play the role of the cope in an act of the people’s theatre. I am not sure if I want to introduce myself to the occupy stage dressed like a cop, but who know something might have also to do with my general wariness of stage performances. She smile good humouredly and asks someone else who denies as well, we wish her good luck in her hunt for cops, laugh in unison and part ways.

Not too distant I see a group of disabled activists with a placard reading “Disabled and proud to occupy!”. People are taking pictures and filming them. In fact there is an incredible number of cameras and video cameras around, each single aspect of the event if recorded and soon will be shared. I am starting to feel chilly and after a bit I start moving towards the exit. Before leaving though I stop to have a look at the table of the Occupy Wall Street Library and just before I leave I receive my farewell by a woman who dances to the sound of a little drum waving about two mannequin’s hands singing “Hands off from my freedom”. As I smile she says aloud towards me “See how I can put even this rubbish to great use?”

For more about the afternoon in Tompkins park and for videos and pictures have a look here and here.

P.S. This piece has been submitted to both the people i discussed with. In particular i wish to thank Ant for some important edits to this piece that helped me to better appreciate the complexities of some of the issues we discussed together.

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