Among the many hand-lettered signs at the Occupy Wall Street protest going on its second week in Manhattan, Mary, an organizer who spoke with The Atlantic Wire on the condition we wouldn't use her last name ("I don't want the feds to raid our apartment") would add one more: "CALL YOUR MOTHERS." Over the weekend, there were mass arrests of the mostly young people protesting, and Mary had been flooded with worried emails from parents. After getting arrested, a kid could be held for as long as three days. "I understand where their mothers are coming from," she says. Still. "It would free up more of our time if people checked in with their mothers more often from the get-go," she adds. "Plus, their mothers will be happier." Getting the press to take you seriously, getting police to arrest you gently -- these are all big concerns for radical political organizers. But another problem is simple logistics.
Email triage "The fewer emails we get from a mother who's worried [even though] her son or daughter is healthy and fine, the more we can focus on legal aid to people who have been arrested," Mary says. "I don't think people understand this is a huge operation." There's a safety committee, a health and sanitation committee, a media committee. And the operation is decentralized. "Someone who's working like 24/7 on the media committee will be like 'Who the fuck is Mary?'"
Mary was contacted by the "street team" of rapper Lupe Fiasco. What did she need? Tents, she told him. The team arranged to store 200 in her apartment. But then it turned out "tents and 'structures' are illegal
and the street team never stored them at our place." Nevertheless, the rapper and street team still showed up
at the protest.
General grossness The protest has a committee on health and sanitation to make sure living conditions don't get too gross. "We don't want bird shit" where they're eating and sleeping, Mary says. The committee does laundry for more than 200 sleeping bags and blankets.
The topless women Video
of half-naked protesters has been posted online. "Certainly we want to be conscious of the way that we are coming across to the outside world," Mary says, "and then to see someone topless and... exercising their freedom in that sense, whatever our overall intention for being there might get overshadowed." But the problem, Mary says, is how to reason with the topless. "How do you talk to somebody like that who wants to exercise their freedom that way? It's their right but they can't necessarily get away with that outside of, like, music festivals and Burning Man. Clearly they like their individual freedom, and asking them to sacrifice that for the broader 99 percent is probably not going to be effective." Mary, prioritizing her time, has decided to ignore them.
The park has become "a freaking gossip mill," Mary says. "People will hear something and then it's a big giant game of telephone throughout the encampment." So much so, she says, that she didn't believe it when she heard Michael Moore had showed. But he had
. "Like, every night at shift-change, people start saying we're going to get cleared out because all of a sudden there are twice as many police as there were before," Mary says. "Realistically, this is a threat we face at any time, we're still here..."
Message The New York Times
"slammed us," Mary says, for not having a coherent message. Ginia Bellafante
wrote, "The group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face -- finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out." The protesters responding by making their own newspaper, Mary says. But what will it say? One of the problems is a divide within the group over whether to issue a demand at all. One side says it's better to demand nothing and not "engage the system," while the other side wants all-encompassing demands. "The demands thing is ridiculous," Mary explains, and the protesters plan to address drafting a list of demands again on Tuesday night. "We've made a lot of progress talking to people who didn't want demands, addressing their concerns," she says. "One sarcastic point was well made, 'Nothing makes the blood boil of the American people like reinstating Glass-Steagall
!' Dude's got a point." Glenn Rehn, a political activist who considers himself a less dedicated ally (no overnights) explains: "Based on what I've seen there, the people who are most committed to this -- staying in the park every night, taking some of the leadership roles -- they are definitely radicals," Rehn says. "So if you try to do something simply progressive within the system, you might alienate them. Right now, we're all on the same team." But a single demand like "pass the DISCLOSE Act
" -- or "overthrow the capitalist system," for that matter -- could divide the ranks.
Mary says they keep the morale up with debriefings from those who've been arrested to build a sense of camaraderie. Rehn says among the protesters, especially the young ones who are committed enough to sleep overnight in the park, feel "frustration with how hard they've been working to follow all the rules and be nice," but the police are still arresting them. And they feel "marginalized" because "they aren't getting the coverage they want. Some media are making fun of them." On Monday, activists emailed around a tweet
from Alec Baldwin, linking to a video
of police pushing and arresting protesters, that said, "I think the NYPD has a PR problem." For such a muted endorsement, the email writer seemed joyous to have some support. Email subject line: "Good God I love Alec Baldwin."