Saturday, October 15, 2011

Vermonters on the Ground at Occupy Wall Street

 Monday, October 10, Early Morning

Manhattan -- It's 1:00 in the morning in New York City, and 20-year-old Sophie Theriault is crouching barefoot in the dirt under a canopy of squash plants, whispering to her sister Hannah Morgan, 23.
Both women hail from Hartland, but tonight they're trying to find a place to sleep in Manhattan's financial district. Several blocks away, the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park is overflowing, and protesters are trying to carve out more space for the movement as their numbers swell.
For the past 12 nights, the sisters and their friend, 23-year-old Emma McCumber of Reading, have slept in the open at Zuccotti Park, wedging their sleeping bags sardine-style into a crowd of hundreds of people from all walks of life. The widely publicized stereotypes are there -- anarchists and hippies, students and drop-outs -- but there are others, too: groups of Orthodox Jews, Arab-Americans and Christians; grandparents and toddlers; homeowners and the homeless; nurses and teachers.
As people from across the country continue to pour into the park, they bring both problems and opportunities for those who have been encamped there since September. Increased popularity means more support and more media exposure, but the snowballing energy keeps the park buzzing late into the night, and a good night's sleep is becoming harder to find.
The crowd at Zuccotti Park floods and ebbs, peaking on weekends and evenings and dwindling on weekday mornings. People who haven't protested anything in their lives, or who haven't done so since the Vietnam War, are drawn into the mix. Many come down for a brief spell between workdays, either out of curiosity or the desire to be part of something they can identify with.
But the three women from Vermont are part of a core group of protesters who plan on staying indefinitely. Sophie Theriault came to New York alone on Sept. 28. She'd been riding her bike to her job on an organic vegetable farm in Georgia from Vermont when she caught wind of the protests. She made it as far as Pittsburgh. before stashing her bike at a friend's house and taking a bus to the city. Hannah Morgan and Emma McCumber, friends since childhood, joined her from Vermont not long after.
The women are taking each day as it comes, not necessarily committed to staying until the bitter end but in no rush to leave either. But they know that if they're going to stick it out, they need a better place to sleep. Earlier, they'd stumbled across a community garden in Battery Park, roughly five blocks south of Wall Street. It might as well be another world.
Morgan came to the spot around midnight: a hidden, leafy nook hemmed in by tall squash and tomato plants, where the song of crickets competes with the noise of the city. She spread out her sleeping bag in the dirt and crawled into it, exhausted, but lay awake for over an hour slapping at the mosquitoes drawn out by the unseasonably warm air. Then Theriault appeared, ducking sprite-like through the squash vines. Whispering in the dark, the two discuss the protest's evolution.
“I have mixed feelings,” Morgan says, leaning on one elbow. Outdoorsy, with straight brown hair and a nose ring, she's a 2010 Sterling College graduate who majored in polar studies and now leads outdoor trips and studies climate change with a company called Climate Interactive.
Theriault, three years younger, bright-eyed and idealistic, makes suggestions on how to avoid burn-out. Thrice-weekly emotional check-ins can allow frazzled protesters to vent their frustrations. Games of capture-the-flag could lighten the mood. “I think this has the potential to be something really amazing and powerful,” she says.
“I don't know,” Morgan whispers back. “Sometimes I'm just sick of talking to people.”
In the not-quite-dark of a New York night, Theriault kneels over her sister's sleeping bag and hugs her tightly. Then she stands up and skips away, back to the protest, which, like a music festival, never really stops.

For a while, the night is relatively quiet. Horns honk and trucks clank, metal against cement. A rat scurries beneath the squash plants. Morgan tosses in her sleeping bag; scratches at a mosquito bite.
At 2 a.m., she sits upright.
“I can't sleep,” she says. “The mosquitoes are awful.”
Reluctantly, she stuffs her sleeping bag into her backpack, rolls up her sleeping mat and begins the trek back to Zuccotti Square -- or Liberty Square, as the protesters have renamed it. The size of a city block, all stone pathways and beds of mums, it is utterly packed with bodies on this Columbus Day weekend.
“I think we need a new place to go,” Morgan mutters, stepping over huddled mounds wrapped in blankets, searching for an available spot. There is literally nowhere to lie down.
Though the park is privately owned -- thus the reason the protesters have been allowed to stay -- the New York Police Department has banned the erection of temporary structures, including tents and tarps. Hundreds of people sleep side-by-side, spilling out at both ends of the park like a giant slumber party.
Even at this hour, one group is constructing a giant paper-mache statue at the edge of the park. Smaller groups sit huddled, smoking cigarettes and talking in low voices. A young man strums a guitar. Police officers bide their time on the periphery.
“I just want to sleep,” Morgan moans, scanning the park.
She picks her way over the sleeping bodies until she runs straight into her friend, Zack Solomon-Miller of Berkeley, Ca.
“Zack!” Morgan cries, hugging him. He says he knows of a spot where she can crash. She follows him to it gratefully, then curls up next to a polished granite bench and falls soundly asleep, her head tucked into her blue sleeping bag. The air is redolent of spray paint. One more day down. How many more to go?

Emma McCumber, 23, sits with her knees tucked under her on a blue tarp splattered with paint, carefully lettering an announcement for an open forum where protesters can learn about the Zapatistas, a rebel group in Mexico with whom McCumber studied while a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Around her, roving photographers snap pictures, the “granny peace brigade” marches up and down a sidewalk and a young woman sleeps curled atop a pile of blankets with a Chihuahua in her arms.
Though McCumber, Theriault and Morgan have known each other since childhood, they move independently through the chaos of the protest, crossing paths mostly by chance. At this moment, McCumber hasn't the slightest clue where her friends are. But she's not worried. She’ll run into them again.
It's hard to estimate just how many people are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Protesters come and go, mingling with members of the media, tourists and passer-by. As the afternoon wears on, the park swells with thousands of people, and the energy reaches a crescendo. A drum circle pounds relentlessly, surrounded by a crowd so thick it's hard to see the men with painted faces wailing on djembes in the middle.
“The biggest thing the medics do here is treat the blisters on the drummers' hands,” McCumber commented wryly.
McCumber has put her life on hold for this protest. Asked if she still lives in Reading, she shrugs and looks around her.
“I live in this park right now,” she said. “Right now my life is in a backpack.”
Putting the final touches on her sign, she replaces the paintbrushes in a bucket of donated art supplies, stands and stretches the sign above her head. Weaving through the crowd, she speaks in Spanish with a short man wearing a purple beret and holding a trumpet. She pauses to participate in the protesters' answer to a ban on megaphones: one person calls out a message, and those in earshot echo it until it resonates through the park.
“If you are looking for the student working group,” a voice calls out.
“If you are looking for the student working group,” McCumber repeats loudly.
“It starts soon on the steps!”
“It starts soon on the steps!”
Slowly making her way up and down the square with her sign, McCumber describes the makeshift society that's formed in the park. “This is the medical station,” she says, pointing to a group surrounded by first aid supplies. “That's the library” -- she points to a collection of several hundred books. “Here’s the media station. People donate money for gas for the generator. … This is the kitchen. They make massive amounts of food.”
As McCumber speaks, a double-decker tour bus rolls by, and the protesters on the fringes of the square hold their signs higher and cheer louder. Lacking cohesive goals, the power of Occupy Wall Street depends on being seen. As New York resident and unemployed maintenance supervisor Andre Robinson put it, “A lot of people are just here for the cameras. That's what they came for. To be seen and to be heard.”
Mainstream media, though, wants to know what the occupiers hope to accomplish, and they're not getting an answer. At any given moment, one can find rallies against nuclear power, the cost of higher education, the power of the Federal Reserve and the Wall Street bailout. Unlike the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the Occupy Wall Street crowd didn't come together under a shared objective. And while that’s frustrating for anyone looking for a neat story with a beginning and an end -- a measure by which the “success” of the movement can be judged -- those in the fray hope to keep it that way.
“The longer we can avoid being pigeon-holed, the more power we have,” McCumber said. “There's been talk of writing down a list of demands, but it's such a diverse crowd here, I think it would difficult to come to a consensus. I’m not pushing for any concrete demands.”
What McCumber is pushing for, personally, is that “corporate greed be reined in.” Tall and slender, with short strawberry blonde hair and a wide-eyed face full of freckles, McCumber is instantly engaging, instantly spotted in a crowd. But she doesn't have any specific strategies for reining in corporate greed. “I'm not here for policy change,” she said. “I’m here because I’d like to create a new type of society.”

Occupy Wall Street represents, in part, the kind of society McCumber wants to live in. Decision making is by consensus, and social services like free food and warm clothing are all available to anyone who wants them, regardless of whether they contribute to the numerous “work groups” or not.
“This is the place to be,” McCumber says. “This is a community not relying on police force to keep order, using consensus, making spaces for the voices of traditionally marginalized groups. All those things are aspects of a world I want to live in. That's what's exciting about being here.”
The protesters are impressively organized, and most of the long-term occupiers are involved in the logistics of making it work. The finance group has opened a bank account to manage the $40,000 in donations they've received (as of October 10). Protestors can charge their cell phones and post photos on Facebook courtesy of the media group. At any corner, they can pick up a free copy of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal,” featuring words of encouragement by such luminaries as economics author Naomi Klein and rapper Lupe Fiasco.
The kitchen group composts food scraps and prepares meals from thousands of boxes of donated foods. The sanitation group sweeps the sidewalks. The only issue not worked out is what to do about restrooms, so protestors have been rushing to the local Burger King and McDonald's to use the facilities. On one hand, they're depending on a free service provided by just the kind of multinational corporation they love to hate. On the other, they point out, all they’re doing is defecating there.
Yet homeless people and drug users are moving in to take advantage of the free services. And while organizers stalwartly promote the space as a substance-free zone, they also stand by their vow to not deny services to anyone who needs them.
“You've got to watch your back now,” said Robinson, the unemployed maintenance worker who slept near the Vermont women in the park. He's been at the protest since Day 1, back on September 17. “It's becoming a circus. You’ve got women running around here naked and people banging on drums. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how it helps the movement.”
“Sometimes it just feels like we're one big stupid f***ing tourist attraction,” said one of the women's friends, who would only identify himself as Jesse from New Jersey.

As she continues to promote the Zapatista forum, McCumber grows weary.
“I'm so overwhelmed,” she says at 4 p.m., taking her feet out of her clogs and stretching her arches. She lowers the sign. “I just want to take a nap.”
It's a feeling that most of the long-term protesters can relate to. At times, it seems like they do little but meet new people, walk in circles and attend meetings more related to the logistics of the occupation than to finding solutions to their grievances. Simply being in the midst of so much impassioned energy can be exhilarating, but the crash, when it comes, comes hard.
McCumber, Theriault and Morgan occasionally rest at nearby friends' houses, showering or napping on the couch. But while the fatigue is sometimes visible on Morgan and McCumber's faces, Theriault seems to have an endless supply of energy and idealism.
When McCumber finds her in the crowd at 4:30 on Sunday evening, Theriault, petite with short curly hair, is sitting cross-legged with Jesse from Jersey, tearing rags into strips for a game of capture the flag she plans to organize. Though she came alone, she's had no trouble getting involved.
“I was super intimidated when I first got here,” Theriault says. “I came mostly out of curiosity. I'd read a lot about it and wanted to see for myself. But the reason I stayed was … it's fascinating. It feels like this lifelong fantasy I’ve had; living in a small society that cares a lot about this world and wants to talk about it.”
Since arriving, Theriault has joined the sanitation committee, the expansion committee and helped man the comfort station, which supplies warm clothes to protesters. “It's a pretty unique experience to feel like I can do work and not be in the position of employee,” she comments. “I just see what needs to be done and do it.”
At 5:00 p.m., Theriault and Jesse from Jersey walk several blocks from the concrete craziness of Zuccotti Park to a small, grassy park known as Bowling Green. Theriault thinks people are meeting there for capture the flag, but no one shows up. She and Jesse sit on the sidewalk and talk. They don't mention their personal lives or where they came from or their dreams for the future. They talk only of the protest.
“We've got to figure out how to deal with the transitory nature of the community,” Jesse says. He's got a curly black afro and square glasses. He says he's getting frustrated with all the meetings, with trying to accommodate so many interests. “This place is like a one-stop shop for activism. I saw someone with a button that said ‘serial activist.' It’s easy to know just a little bit about so many things then act right away.”
Theriault listens sympathetically, then gets up to see if anyone else has come down to the park. They haven't. Tourists stroll by, snapping photos of the imposing stone edifices, squatting down to tie their children's sneakers. New Yorkers stride past on their cell phones or out on an evening jog. The sun is warm and soothing.
Stepping away from the protest, even just several blocks away to Bowling Green, it's striking to realize that for all the people who have put their lives on hold for this movement, it takes up just one city block; one among tens of thousands in Manhattan alone. As easy as it is to get wrapped up in the protest scene, it's just as easy to escape it. Many people see the protest as a short-lived, misplaced burst of rebellion by degenerates who would otherwise be occupying their parents' basements.
Stretching their legs out on the sidewalk, talking unhurriedly as the hustle of the city passes them by, Theriault and Jesse eventually decide that the game isn't going to happen, at least not this evening. They walk back to Zuccotti Park. Approaching it, the calm gives way to a cacophony of drums, chants, air horns, whistles, bursts of cheering, faint sirens. This is home, for now.
As the sun sets, glinting off the tall mirrored buildings, the three women from Vermont come together for the first time all day -- McCumber from the Zapatista forum, Morgan from a street medic training, Theriault from Bowling Green. They're all meeting with the expansion group, a somewhat secretive working group plotting to expand the movement beyond Zuccotti Park. Their plan is to spend the night sleeping on the Wall Street sidewalk.
But Solomon-Miller, the first to try, is led away in handcuffs after he lays out his sleeping bag on the sidewalk in front of several mounted police officers. Someone has hung a banner from a lofty window of the J.P. Morgan Chase building, reading “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Protesters argue with police that sleeping on a sidewalk during a political protest is fully legal. The police, in response, barricade the entire area. In the midst of the ensuing turmoil, Sophie Theriault, Hannah Morgan and Emma McCumber each go their separate ways into the pale New York night.

Curled next to the granite bench, Morgan continues to sleep while Solomon-Miller, released after a four-hour detainment, sits on the bench above her smoking a cigarette. Unlike many of his peers, his trip here was fully funded: he received a private grant last year to write a dissertation on regional political dissent. And this, he says, “is the epicenter of political dissent.”
“I have been out of touch with everything but this,” he says. “It's so enthralling.”
He describes his encounter with the police, likening the clarity and presence it afforded him to a drug-like high. “That's what I strive for,” he says. “That intense energy. It's why I used to do drugs. … There are so many moments of ugliness and chaos and discord, participating in things like this. But then there are breakthrough moments that sustain you and give you hope. I believe in people.”
At 9:30 a.m., Morgan's head of disheveled brown hair emerges from the sleeping bag. She sits up, groggy.
Across the park, Theriault is searching for a lost journal. McCumber is nowhere to be seen. Robinson is rolling a cigarette, talking to woman next to him about racial inequalities. Jesse from Jersey is hastily jotting down information from a young Latina woman who says her friend was just arrested. A group does yoga on the sidewalk.
Morgan stretches, rubs her eyes and scrunches her sleeping bag down around her feet. Then she goes to get a bowl of cereal and a banana. She sits on the steps above the park, looking out at the day as it begins to unfold, not saying a word.

Some images from the protest -

Her sign says: "I want everyone to not be greedy"

Emma McCumber:

Zuccotti Park in the daytime:

 Three images of the 99 percent:

The 1 percent?

Sophie Theriault and Jesse from Jersey several blocks away from the protest, at Bowling Green:

Jesse's water bottle:

Zack Solomon-Miller getting ready to hunker down on the sidewalk of Wall Street, prior to being handcuffed and detained:

Books from the OWS free library and some much needed rest:

Tireless drumming:

9:00 am:

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