Retaking the Park: What’s Next for Occupy Wall Street

11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

Following intermittent tension during an all-day standoff, occupiers were readmitted to Zuccotti on November 15 after police, under orders from the mayor, had cleared them from the park during early morning hours. By 3pm, barricades surrounded the park, which was occupied by police; some protesters stood or sat against the metal barriers, while others strolled the perimeter. It was a curious inversion of the situation at Zuccotti since protests began on September 17. “What are your demands?” a woman shouted at officers in the park.

Trees inside the newly cleaned Zuccotti had turned a flashy shade of yellow. Three helicopters made a racket overhead, competing with drummers on Liberty Street and a guitarist and accordion player leading a singalong on Cedar Street. At 3:15, a woman was escorted from the park in police custody. (Presumably she had climbed in.) As she passed the crowd, she appeared frightened and sad.

Tensions mounted half an hour later, as protesters amassed on Broadway. Cops demanded they clear the sidewalk. Protesters demanded they be let into Zuccotti; “Open the park!” they shouted. Cops cleared the sidewalks, seemingly so the crowd couldn’t rush the barricaded entrance, splitting the crowd into separate groups on the corners. Police then demanded they disperse from the corners. Protesters responded by chanting, “contempt of court!,” referring to a court order earlier in the day that had said protesters must be let back in, which police had ignored. Failing to move the crowd with words, the police became physical, dispersing the crowd by force: by grabbing, tossing, pulling, and pushing people off of the corners; at least one was knocked to the pavement. But authorities appeared to make no arrests. Cops pushed those still on Cedar west until Broadway had been cleared. “We have a court order,” one protester insisted. “I’m not an attorney,” an officer answered.
But then the tension quickly defused and anxious normalcy returned. Volunteers resumed distributing colored index cards that read “99%,” with a spot of duct tape so it could be affixed to your shirt. A man walked up and down Cedar shouting “Fuck Bloomberg!” (For many, the anti-Wall Street message had been put on hold. This was a day to hate the mayor.) The loveably crusty guy who sells copies of China Daily identified Andrea Peyser of “the New York Racist Post” among us. “Just the other day she was trying to call us anti-Semites,” he said. “Where? Where?” someone asked. Peyser rolled her eyes and slunk away. Nearby, a man was being interviewed. “They threw everything in the garbage,” he said, referring to the police who had cleared the park. “That’s a pretty big metaphor for how the city treats people.” Slices of pizza were distributed on Liberty. A cop on the steps at the entrance on Trinity twirled his baton, like a warming exercise. Darkness fell.

At 5:15, a member of the movement announced through the Human Mic that he’d just come from the courthouse; he told the crowd the judge had ruled protesters could not bring tents back into the park, but also that the park should be opened. The crowd was re-energized despite the setback, chanting “Let us in!” Most of the cops inside Zuccotti converged in the middle of the park. A young man sparred verbally with police that remained lining the barricades. “If you’ve waited this long, you can wait a little longer,” one officer told him. Fifteen minutes later, it was announced cops would allow the protesters to reenter—but only at entrance points on Liberty and Cedar. Broadway and Trinity would remain barricaded, held by a line of police.

Five minutes later, the first occupier re-entered the park: he loped in, hopped up on a ledge beside a tree, and raised his arms triumphantly. The crowd cheered hesitantly; in the confusion, many feared he would be arrested. But the park slowly continued to fill. A man walked around the inside perimeter wielding a sign that read “Grand Re-Opening!! Under New Management.” A crush of people moved down the sidewalks toward the entrances. Members of essential groups—kitchen staff, medics—were cleared a path like ambulances in traffic. Police forced the crowd to enter single file. “The gauntlet,” one protester told me. “They love the gauntlet.” Large packages were not permitted, so kitchen staff weren’t allowed to enter with their crates of supplies. Instead, their contents—packages of napkins and paper plates, a box of plastic knives—were passed back through the throng like tiny crowd surfers, so the group could bring them in item by item.

Inside, the group was exhilarated—but also relieved, and exhausted. Many immediately sat down, deflated. It had been a long day—a long time coming home.

(Photos by Brennan Cavanaugh)