Eight months ago, three people were put in charge of finding a spot to host a protest assembly. At the time, they did not expect that their decision would launch the kind of occupation of Wall Street that Vancouver-based Adbusters had called for on September 17. As the most consistent members of a group of agitators that had been meeting to discuss related possibilities once a week in Tompkins Square Park that summer, the three-person “tactical team” had to choose where to meet if their first pick, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, was cordoned off.
“We weren’t positioning ourselves to actually organize an occupation,” Mike Andrews, both a member of the original tactical team and an organizer for May Day, tells me over a beer in late April. “None of us were deluded enough to think that what happened would actually happen.”
The team quietly decided that close-by Zuccotti Park would be the next best bet. They kept the news to themselves for several hours until the meeting. Then, Andrews got up and made the announcement: A general assembly would be held at Location Two on a map that he and the team had passed out earlier. He didn’t say “Zuccotti,” so police within earshot wouldn’t know right away where the group was headed.
“And then people just stayed. And they stayed another night, and another night,” Andrews says. “It’s a well-known story.” He shakes his head and grins.
Andrews calls what resulted an accident of history—albeit an accident that has fundamentally altered the national discourse on inequality. Since, the occupation of Zuccotti Park has galvanized and frustrated national and international audiences. And even after an eviction, a winter of fragmentation and continuous speculation over the likelihood of its ongoing relevance, Occupy and its allies in the labor and immigrant rights movements revived May Day, a traditionally under-recognized workers’ holiday in the United States, with the force of tens of thousands marching in the streets of New York City alone, and many more across the country.
But the same questions and comments that have been leveled at every Occupy action from the beginning—“What’s the point?” “Is it over yet?” “Get a job!”—persist. What began as an “accident of history” has grown into a large, albeit decentralized, social movement. And after months of diligent preparation for one single day of action on May 1, critics are right to wonder whether Occupy’s sustainability is at stake.
Seasoned commentators have pointed out that occupiers will have to be smarter about strategy going forward. Andrews acknowledges the possibility that many of his peers have become “action junkies” addicted to one-hit days of wonder. But historical accidents don’t happen in a vacuum. Their momentum tips other accidents into being. When we ask ourselves, “What will become of Occupy Wall Street?” maybe what we ought to be asking is, “What other accidents have happened as a result?”
The Little Occupations That Could
On the morning of May 1, while union and Occupy picketers were demonstrating outside of corporate targets in Manhattan, a small group of people huddled in the rain at Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park. Police officers stood at every entrance—an NYPD blotter had been made public the night before with news of an unpermitted march to take place through North Brooklyn neighborhoods. The smell of burnt sage surrounded the protesters, who were noshing on donated bagels out of garbage bags.
Brian Douglas, an Occupy Bushwick organizer, was handing out complimentary umbrellas for the action ahead. Three months prior, he and four others had resurrected Occupy Bushwick from a largely abandoned online forum and started weekly meetings. They learned about each other, and they learned about community boards. Occupy Bushwick discussed breaking into gardening. Soon, a weekly meeting of four people blossomed into a meeting of 30. And Occupy Bushwick expects its numbers to grow.
Photos Sydney Brownstone
May 9, 2012