Magazine

Occupy Wall Street: The story of the first night

  • 20 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine
The first night of the Occupy Wall Street protest

The Occupy Wall Street camp in New York spawned others across the world before it was broken up this week, just short of its two-month anniversary. But, as those who bedded down in Zuccotti Park on the first night explain, it very nearly didn't happen.

There was much excited talk on Twitter and Facebook in the weeks leading up to Saturday 17 September.

Plans were being hatched for an "extraordinary uprising", a Day of Rage, a tented city to rank alongside that seen in Egypt's Tahrir Square.

But direct democracy campaigners responsible for organising the Occupy Wall Street protest, going under the name of the New York General Assembly, were secretly worried it could turn out to be a flop.

Their attempt in June to set up a similar protest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget cuts, the so-called "Bloombergville" camp, had failed due to lack of support.

And there were signs, as the first placard-wielding activists began to gather in the parks and plazas around the New York Stock Exchange, that their latest protest might be going the same way.

'On the fly'

Canadian anti-capitalist campaign Adbusters, another of the prime movers behind Occupy Wall Street, had called for 20,000 people to take to the streets. In the event, there were probably no more than 3,000.

Police had also blocked off much of the area around the New York Stock Exchange, forcing them to abandon their original plan to "occupy" Wall Street itself.

They began gathering in nearby Bowling Green Park instead, where they spent the early afternoon holding "teach-ins" and discussion groups in the autumn sunshine.

The decision to relocate to Zuccotti Park was made "on the fly" according to Justin Wedes, a member of the New York General Assembly, because of fears that they were about to be "kettled" by police.

Zuccotti Park was simply the nearest of the five back-up locations the Assembly's "tactics team" had picked out, although there was concern that it would not be big enough.

Image caption Not everyone had the luxury of a tent in the early days of the protest

Once the protesters had "flooded" into the park, says Mr Wedes, he grabbed a megaphone and asked everyone to sit down in what he describes now as the "first act of occupation" but there were still fears among the crowd that they would be evicted before they had a chance to pitch their tents.

"The first day was just exhilarating. We didn't know how many people would show up. We didn't even know if we would be able to hold the park and stay there," Mr Wedes tells BBC News.

But seasoned veterans of anti-globalisation rallies were not not particularly impressed by what they saw.

"I basically thought it was a shallow imitation of what had been happening in Europe and elsewhere," says Mark Bray, who is now a press spokesman for Occupy Wall Street.

"I thought the idea of sleeping outside was pretty pointless. I listened to some of the speeches and took part in the march, but then I went to get some Chinese food and went home."

He could not understand why many of the younger people at the demonstration - he is 29 - were so excited.

"My impression was that they didn't have a whole lot of political organising experience," he says.

"A lot of people ended up going home and a bunch of people stayed.

"I didn't really rate their chances - but I have never been more happy to be proven wrong about something."

'Cliched' protest

The New York Times reported that the demonstrators had been blocked by police.

Tim Eastman, a photographer who took part largely out of curiosity but left at about 23:00, says he was wary of becoming involved in yet another "cliched" protest.

"It didn't seem at first like it would become the sort of monster it became. It looked like it might peter out after a few days."

Like Mr Bray, he returned to the camp when it became clear it was taking off, and is still involved with the Occupy movement.

Jason Ahmadi, a 26-year-old anti-war campaigner from California, was among those who decided to remain in Zuccotti Park overnight, but he says he was convinced the police would raid the camp before dawn.

Unable to sleep, he decided to do a headcount at 04:00, concluding that just 290 people had opted to pitch their tents in the park, many of whom were new to the demonstration game.

"There were a lot of young people in that first week," he says.

"Then more seasoned, career activists started to come by. But that first night was a lot of young people who hadn't really been involved in actions before."

Justin Wedes says the youthful energy and enthusiasm of that first group, many of whom were secondary school and college students in their teens, was a key factor in the camp's longevity.

"It was a young group, a fierce group. People were daring. They were looking to go out on a limb and get arrested for things they believe are true and right."

They were initially unaware that Occupy protests had begun to spring up in other cities, and found it hard to believe that it had "sparked a global movement" in such a short space of time.

Self-indulgence?

But as the movement grew, so did the criticism.

There were complaints about public urination and criminality at some of the camps - and the constant noise from their "drumming circles" reportedly drove nearby workers and residents to distraction.

Image caption Demonstrators clashed with police on a Day of Action two months to the day after protests began

Some commentators began to accuse the Occupiers of self-indulgence and of lacking any real goals, beyond erecting tents in public spaces and making "banal complaints about corporate greed".

Public sympathy also began to wane. In an opinion poll of US voters taken between 10 and 13 November, 33% of respondents said they supported the protesters, while 45% said they were against them.

Last month, meanwhile, 35% of US voters said they supported the Occupiers, while 26% said they opposed the movement.

But the Occupy movement remains unrepentant about its rather broad and vague set of political objectives.

"We have been able to change the dialogue in our country, from 'Where are we going to cut our budget and spending?' to creating jobs and seriously looking at economic inequalities," claims Justin Wedes.

The fact that the Zuccotti Park camp, like many others across the US, has been broken up and many protesters arrested, does not mean it's over, he says.

Some of the "first nighters" are already plotting their next move.

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