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This is What Horizontal Democracy Looks Like

On the ground in Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Square

by Josh Potter on October 6, 2011

I was carrying a large backpack, so they assumed I’d be staying the night. Kids in face paint, weathered intellectuals, crust punks and their dogs, old women with T-shirts that read “Vietnam Nurse,” Code Pink activists, hard-hat-wearing city workers, hippies with hand drums, zine-dispensing anarchists and the quiet ring of unemployed middle Americans who’d bused in from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine and melted in with the camera-toting tourists who stumbled by on their way to Ground Zero. Fourteen days into the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, it’s estimated that around 500 people hold the space in Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square) at any given time. Because a nucleus of demonstrators have set up camp under long blue tarps, feeding on an abundant spread supplied by Food Not Bombs, brushing their teeth in the bushes, and voting on the day’s actions through an ad hoc democratic body dubbed the General Assembly, entering Liberty Square for the first time through the phalanx of NYPD vehicles feels a bit like entering a refugee camp as a starry-eyed foreigner, sympathetic yet out-of-place.

Photo by Josh Potter.

All this changes when the first TV camera gets shoved in your face. When Adbusters called for 20,000 demonstrators to occupy New York’s financial district on Sept. 17, the date passed with nary a peep from the mainstream media. Now, it seems that every third person in the park is giving some type of interview to a TV outlet, radio station or print publication. A CNN correspondent strode dramatically over dirty sleeping bags to illustrate the scene. A call went up in the crowd for someone who knew fluent Spanish to speak with Univision. Message control is next to impossible for a movement this young, broad and horizontally organized, so the flamboyant, dreadlocked guitar strummers in the crowd have become easy prey for those who look to discredit the Occupy movement as an unfocused lark or naïve carnival of radicalism. Rather than make one firm demand in the face of corporate intransigence and government ineptitude, the General Assembly, speaking through its Kickstarter-funded press The Occupied Wall Street Journal, has made occupation itself the demand: an open, visible and ongoing forum in which every voice is recognized. Spend enough time in the square—15 minutes might be all it takes—and someone is bound to ask you why you’re there.

The truth was I’d missed my bus home. I had a day to burn and with news of 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge splashed across every newspaper in the city, it seemed the movement was reaching a fever pitch. Having taken part in IMF/World Bank protests in the early aughts, I was curious to see what it looked like, hopeful about the reports I’d heard but skeptical of the fact it had taken four years for the left to mobilize anything that might be regarded as a show of force. In the information age, though, there is no line between spectator and participant, cameras turned on one another to create a vast feedback loop of curious attention. “YouTube is powerful. Use it,” one sign read. Jon Stewart proved the potency of this fact with his own dada rally last fall, and the Arab Spring harnessed it to revolutionary ends. As newcomers started asking me where they could find fresh water and when the march to the Stock Exchange started, the presence-is-power narrative became startlingly clear.

Soon I found myself in a parade of capitalist zombies, chomping on Monopoly money and crying out for deregulated markets as we marched through crowds of brokers on their lunch break. Despite the expected theatrics, the march was striking in how composed, quiet and insistent it seemed. No hey-hey, ho-hos or angry confrontations with the officers who’d just the previous day deceptively “kettled” hundreds on the Brooklyn Bridge and now vigilantly escorted the parade. After two weeks of this, the police force seemed to understand it wouldn’t be ending anytime soon (100 officers stood in solidarity with demonstrators later that day) and, in the day’s most striking vignette, a few suit-clad traders even joined the march to talk economics with demonstrators.

When the march returned to Liberty Square, a press conference was underway during which Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman announced her legal victory over the Minneapolis Police Department in the aftermath of a 2008 arrest at the Republican National Convention. She used the occasion to praise the Occupy Wall Street movement’s bottom-up organizing. “Democracy is a messy thing,” she confessed but stressed that its volatility is its strength. Sound bites and talking points have reduced democracy to electoral politics and disenfranchised the very people most affected by the economic downturn. This assembly is the first step toward the kind of conversation that will represent the interests of the “other 99 percent” who have lost their jobs, had their homes forclosed on, been saddled with debt or face increasingly limited economic prospects.

Barring the very few at the top of the ladder, this group is all-inclusive. Which makes the existential question of an Occupy Wall Street protester (even one who haphazardly stumbles through) quite easy. As the General Assembly’s “Declaration of Occupation” states: “we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members . . .” Even for an hour or two.