“A safe, live-action game”
Occupy Albany eviction. Photograph by Sebastian Barre
“The police can see the defeat in our eyes. They know they’ve beaten us,” an Occupy Wall Street organizer told me a few days after the 2012 May Day demonstration that marked the movement’s fizzled attempt to stage a spring resurgence. “They used to look at us as adversaries. There was a certain respect. Now we’re objects of contempt, an excuse for them to get paid overtime. A safe, live-action game.”
This account of Occupy’s self-image was telling. In the space of seven months a galvanizing national protest movement had dwindled to the status of a policing problem before disappearing almost entirely from public view. Part of the blame can be attributed to Occupy itself; its inviolable purity of principle (“We don’t talk to people with power, because to do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of their power”) eventually became its own form of corruption.
More established left-leaning organizations that sought to support Occupy Wall Street were regarded by many in the movement with suspicion, if not outright paranoia. In April, Adbusters, the anticonsumerist magazine that put out the original call to occupy a space near Wall Street in the summer of 2011, sent out an e-mail blast identifying Moveon.org, The Nation magazine, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as the most dangerous threats to OWS’s survival. This “cabal of old world thinkers” of “the old left,” as Adbusters put it, with its “insidious campaign of donor money,” was on a mission to defang OWS and turn it into a handmaiden for President Obama’s reelection campaign.
In April about forty Occupiers began sleeping on Nassau Street near the Stock Exchange, successfully invoking, for a brief time, the 50 percent rule. When word spread and larger numbers of protesters joined them, occupying more than 50 percent of the sidewalk, the police cleared everyone away. Still, the overwhelming policing of OWS was out of proportion to any threat to civic order that the protest posed. Many New Yorkers took anxious note of this. It seemed emblematic of psychological and cultural changes that had been taking place within the police department since September 11, 2001. It confirmed what Michael Powell of The New York Times called “the decade-long trajectory in New York toward expanded police power [in which] officers routinely…toss demonstrators and reporters around with impunity.”
An interesting paradox arose after the attacks of September 11, 2001. New York, which had long seemed to represent America to the outside world and a foreign country to the rest of America, now was embraced by the hinterland as its emblem of patriotism, its front line. But along with many others I was struck by the ways that the city itself, with some of its civil service departments battered and its skittish disaster-expecting populace, turned uncharacteristically inward—a kind of closing of ranks that made longtime New Yorkers feel more separate from the rest of the country than ever. New York’s firemen and police died in the rescue, not agents from the FBI. The city’s citizens were the targets; the economic and psychological aftershocks were borne locally, for the most part. When it came to defending itself against future attacks, New York appeared to regard itself as a sovereign state, reluctant to share responsibility for its security with any outside partner or force.