Manhattan—The class war began at the corner of Broadway and Cedar St., as Wall Street’s bankers waited for a bus and Wall Street’s occupiers, for a revolution. What had begun two weeks ago as an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents had become a still-unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents—but way bigger. The culprit: Radiohead. Rumors of a surprise solidarity concert had brought the huddled masses streaming in from Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. The crowd in Zuccotti Park, occupation-central, bulged outwards, spilling into the bus stop, tivas scuffing shined loafers and graphic tees dueling paisley ties.
“Hey, you’re communists!” taunted Barry, sporting the latter. “You should move to a communist country.” A quick rejoinder: “Well you’re an asshole!” Barry fired back—“You call me an asshole, asshole? Get out of this park, jerkoff!”—and the defender sank back into the square. “These guys have beef with our country, they’re Marxists,” Barry told me triumphantly, before another interruption. “No,” butted in a bearded occupier. “There are no Marxists here.” “Yeah, whatever, get out of here!” Barry scorned. The occupier laughed and blew him a kiss, “Love you sir!” “Yeah?” responded the beleaguered Barry. “Well I hate you.” “Love you!” “Hate you!”
But Barry had backup. A few yards down, a short, bald accountant began screaming at the sign-wavers: “The gulag is waiting for you! Siberia!” A guy in a fedora shouted back: “Fuck you, Nosferatu!” Nosferatu is actually named Michael; he grew up in the Soviet Union and arrived on Wall Street in 1989. “I know what these kids don’t know,” he told me. “Communism and socialism don’t work.” The cops around us were looking eager. “The more chaos the better,” I overhead one officer say. A day later, the police would have their way, arresting some 700 protesters for blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. But today, twelve days into the occupation and still burning from a Saturday pepper spraying, the makeshift malcontents were testing boundaries.
“Get in there or stay out the way!” an officer yelled, pushing us toward the park. The ranks pressed in and I took an elbow to the sternum. Suddenly, an aggressively tattooed woman in blonde dreadlocks, a Guns-and-Roses tank top, and a plaid bandana strolled confidently into the scrum. She was going where I was going, and I ducked in behind. It was time to occupy.
ON SEPTEMBER 16, 1920, Italian anarchists detonated a horse-and-carriage bomb 300 yards from Zuccotti Square. Passersby saw tens of bodies, piles of glass, and blood on the stone steps of J.P. Morgan. Wall Street survived. In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies, zero Thom Yorkes, and two breasts. Again, Wall Street survived.
Not that many people were even talking about the American financial sector. Everyone had a different story, grievance, tattoo, or pithy placard. There were some signs calling for “violent revolution” and others insisting “we figure this shit out together.” The simplest one, soothing and all-encompassing: “SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT.”
The occupation has no leaders or organizers. At least that’s what its leaders and organizers told me. The smartest was Matt, a waifish blue-eyed grad-student with expressive wrists who teaches at an elite private school. At the occupation, however, he helps run the daily General Assemblies, where different decentralized committees jostle and present proposals. Matt calls on folks “not in the order people raise their hands, but with sensitivity to racial and gender order.” “It’s not leading,” he insisted. “It’s horizontal facilitating.” His facilitation duties also include enforcing codes of conduct and, well, preventing sexual harassment and assault in the square.
AdBusters, the Canadian anti-consumerist organization that started the occupation, had promised that “one demand” would soon be revealed. Anonymous, the shadowy web collective, suggested “freedom.” Unions said workers rights. Ron Paul supporters said ending the Fed. A kid in spectacles and Keds demanded more episodes of “Arrested Development.” But Matt said not to expect clear demands soon or, perhaps, ever. “The injustice is so severe, we need a radical, open, transformative, prefigurative democratic space to explore the possible.” That said, he assured me that there were some specific political proposals in the mix: bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act, revoking corporate personhood, and passing the Buffet Tax right away. But if the occupation’s goals weren’t clear, its duration was. “It’s indefinite,” he smiled.
Virginia, who sat nose-ringed and mohawked on a spongy mattress mid-square, had slightly different plans. “We came here for the bitches and the orgies,” she told me. Zelda, same story, agreed: “Fuck yeah man, this is what I’m all about. Fuck the government, fuck banks,” she said. “I don’t have money for any bank.” She and her group, all early-20s, told me they were educated, but homeless by choice. “We want to own our own lives, own our own time, ” Zelda added. The middle-aged, motherly Sonia, whose Wisconsin union funded her trip, had an Ikea chaise lounge and a different goal. “Utopia” was the endgame, she said. “When enough of us come out here, we’ll get utopia.” How did she know? “Well, Radiohead is coming at 4 pm.”
David, mid-80s*, bald, and arthritic, hadn’t heard of Radiohead. He sat in a red rolling walker wearing a veteran’s cap and cracking wise. “You know what the Battle of the Bulge was?” Yes, I said. “Good. Nobody here does. They think it’s a weight loss thing,” he laughed. “I fought there, killed two Nazis. I got a bronze star and came back to Brooklyn a hero. Back then, I thought a hero was a sandwich.” David is also a veteran of internecine struggles in Brooklyn’s Marxist-Leninist scene. “I don’t trust Trotskyites,” he said. What about the occupiers? “They need some leadership, some specific clarity as to what their mission is.” David spent 28 years as a schoolteacher. He thinks the young and the restless need to do their revolutionary homework. But, organizer Matt had assured me, “A lack of coherent messaging is not a problem … . I thought this occupation would just take two days, now it’s taken over my life.” Member Chris appeared less committed; he’s gainfully employed as an eco-engineer, turning mulch and mushroom roots into synthetic plastics. “There’ll be violence on the part of the oppressor,” he warned me. “But I might have to leave to take care of my cats.”
The other old-timers weren’t as cogent as David: 9/11 trutherism seemed to be a symptom of senility. A group of retirees milling around in “Inside Job” t-shirts laughed smugly. “All these banker clowns were selling puts on American Airlines before the attacks,” said one in a sweat suit. “Yeah, they didn’t even protect the Pentagon,” said another. Ground Zero was in sight; in fact, this summer, the World Trade Center Cross had been blessed at a ceremony in Zuccotti Park.
A man in a skull-faced grim reaper costume tapped me with his scythe and introduced himself as Phil. As it turns out, the grim reaper supports Ron Paul. “He’s the only politician not infested with lobbyists.” Phil also hates the Fed. “20 years ago, after getting out of the Air Force, I applied three times to work there and was rejected.” Now, Death works as a concierge at Ruppert Towers in Yorkville. He could never get a job in finance. “There was always a brokers son,” he told me. Although I couldn’t see his face, I heard him sigh. “My mother raised four boys on one salary. I could never do that today.”
As the topless woman danced, the yogi did yoga, and the discussion groups discussed, more and more people poured into the square. It smelled like cigarettes, sweat, and urine. But also hope. Change was in the air; the tide was turning; the mob was growing. Together, the occupiers had fought adversity, rain, and the NYPD. They were so close to revolutionary catharsis: Radiohead might actually perform.
MEANWHILE, NEW YORK BUZZED ON. While the occupation had yet to topple a major corporation, it had certainly destroyed at least some business. The immigrant venders around the square were slowly losing their livelihoods. Juan, who sells tourist trinkets on the corner, was inconsolable. “Business is down since they got here,” he sighed. “They should really find something else to do.” Mohammad, who owns a halal truck, told me he wasn’t selling any food. And Jon, a falafel vender, was openly angry. “This is terrible business. I hope they get the money they’re protesting for, then they can give me some.”
“I don’t fit in here because I’m not a naïve moron,” said a passerby in a Yankees t-shirt and camo shorts. “They’re like ‘down with corporations’ in their Nike shoes. If those burly bankers came down to fight them, they’d destroy all these weak retards … but if this shit goes down, I want to get one good punch in.” I left him sneering at a pale occupier in skinny jeans, skipping by with a violin case. Others were more bemused. “I can’t tell what their goals are,” shrugged Donald, a middle-aged schoolteacher. “I just hope it’s not silly.” TJ, who came from Brooklyn for Radiohead, had similar concerns. “It seems silly. People don’t take this seriously.” His friend Bill was a little more explicit: “It’s kind of a clusterfuck.”
Back on bankers’ corner in the late afternoon, the buses were fighting their way through the occupation overflow. The Wall Street-set stood chins down, eyes shifting, like unpopular kids at a middle-school dance, waiting for their parents to pick them up. Their clean-pressed suits stuck out like a sore thumb in the sea of scuzz.
Tony, stout and friendly, lives in Bay Ridge and works as a banker next to the square. He was mad as hell. “They’re costing us a lot of money and tax-dollars. These young people are here for a good time. They’re damaging the park and I resent that.” As for the pepper-spray: “If they were blocking traffic, they deserve what they got.” A few more captains of industry gathered around to agree. “This is annoying,” said an impressively mustachioed trader in a green suit. “It’s disorganized, there’s no message, and there’s women without clothes making a fool out of everyone.” A middle-aged woman in red sunglasses and a gleaming Ralph Lauren blazer chimed in. “These protestors should be more articulate. You’re lucky you’re talking to me,” she said. “Because I’m very articulate.” She was anxious to get on the bus and get spirited back uptown. This corner had seen too many scuffles, catcalls, and insults. “I don’t like to be surrounded by agitated people, unhappy to no avail,” she added. “They are infringing on our private space,” said moustache-man. The bankers backslapped and bemoaned hard at this one. “Yeah, isn’t this place privately owned?” he asked. “Why won’t whoever owns it kick these people out?”
The occupation’s non-leaders have solved this problem, although the details are hazy. Although the protestors spend a lot of time chanting, “Who’s square? Our square!”, Zuccotti Park is actually owned by a firm called Brookfield Properties. Organizer Matt told me that occupiers had “met informally with Brookfield,” as well as with the police. If the media fury that followed last Saturday’s pepper spraying was any indication, a police raid won’t play well politically for the city. And so, this disgruntled slumber party has no curfew. Meanwhile, hackers working in solidarity with the occupiers have published personal information about JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon’s family.
BUT THESE SMALL VICTORIES couldn’t compensate for the colossal disaster to come. The Radiohead rumor was a hoax. “Fuck!” yelled one disappointed occupier. “Well they used to be my favorite band.” An afternoon march was still on the white-board schedule, but people were deserting in droves. As the sun began to sink, the nearby McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks began to fill. Earlier, the manager at the McDonald’s had angrily turned people away from the bathrooms, but now was all smiles. The fries were flying. “These people come in here and ask for food, for free, and get angry if we don’t give it to them,” a McDonald’s cashier, Fatima, told me. “What are you going to do.”
Angry commentators on the left have criticized the media for questioning the occupation’s ideological coherence. But maybe it’s not the disorganization that’s rubbing folks the wrong way, but the silliness. As I turned to leave the golden arches, I spotted a familiar face at the table behind me. It was the blonde, bandana-wearing woman from earlier in the day. She had blazed my trail out of the corner’s class-warfare and into the occupation. She sat at a crammed table, elbow-to-elbow with a man wearing a suit. She still had her tattoos, her Guns-and-Roses tank, her jean shorts, and her dreadlocks. But now, in front of her, sat a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese, a soda, an apple pie, and a MacBook computer, open and charging. But she had an excuse. “I’m from Canada.”
Alex Klein is the opinion editor of the Yale Daily News. He has contributed stories to The New Republic and The Times of London.
*UPDATE: A previous version of this piece incorrectly identified David as in his mid-70s. He is in his mid-80s. We regret the error.