Thanksgivings have become rather indistinguishable since the memorable big family gatherings of my youth in the small Bronx apartment of my grandparents, where one of the highlights was the homemade ravioli of my Neapolitano grandmother. The traditional bird usually sat there barely molested, the brood already contented by the dazzling antispato, pastas and other cured and roasted meats, and laughed at how indulgent the turkey and trappings appeared before us as are bellies were already full.
Yesterday's traditional repast - not remotely anything like Grandma's, ranks however as one of the best ever on many levels - the food was good and plentiful, but it wasn't about that, or the football that I love to watch but forfeited.
Arriving at the Park, my girlfriend and I volunteered with the distribution of the meals and water and found ourselves right away in a long line of helpers heaving cases of bottled water into the park. The individually-wrapped meals (the restrictions by the City were relentless) were in brown paper bags and laid out on the benches. Almost just after we successfully brought in about a pallet-full of water word began getting around that we would have to bring all of it back outside the Park, because they didn't want cases of water inside. According to the authorities water and food had to be outside the perimeter of the park and could be handed in from there. It's been clear since the "invasion," as one OWS guy referred to the NYPD raid as, that they wanted to make life as difficult as possible for everyone there or associated with it. I was incensed and walked over to one of the now-ubiquitous security guards at the barricaded entrances to ask if he had given the order. A young black male who looked like he had unwittingly came from shopping mall duty said he hadn't, but that I "could talk to his boss over there in the grey pants." So I went straight for him and had what could only be described as the kind of conversation one might have with a not-so-bright, hair-slicked back, old-timer from Arthur Ave in the Bronx who began talking out of the side of his mouth, half-nervous that his hardly-concealed cover had been blown. He tried denying he was the head guy there and when I pressed him to explain he could only grasp clumsily at an excuse saying something about there already being too much food "anyway" because another truck had come before (various restaurants, noted chefs and organizations were scheduled to bring thousands of meals in support of the event). A guy who had worked with homeless shelters in Portland OR spoke up asking people to resist the order and my impulse was with him, but after I spoke with one of the OWS organizers I quickly became convinced to not lose sight of the bigger picture of the ethos of what we're trying to accomplish - this wasn't the battle to have. All hands on deck in that part for the Park passed the water back out in half the time it took to get it in.
Even though Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Sq, as it is referred to by we Occupiers when it’s occupied - another bit of serendipity is its street location literally is at the corner of Liberty St and Broadway) has become the most famous park in the country, the police presence this day was thankfully low and that seemed to go for the other omnipresent presence down there, the press. So when I spotted a reporter from NBC with camera on I thought I’d inform her of the identity of the head security guy and suggest she ask get him to clarify the park regulations that had just absurdly forced the removal of cases of water bottles already brought in (On another note I’ve found it’s good to engage reporters and found most to be reasonable and sincere, though their editors are apparently another thing).
We noticed an intelligent, charismatic man from California whom we had been impressed with during a housing discussion at Liberty Sq a few weeks ago and greeted him. He invited us to walk with him toward the front of the park where the steps were, the same place where the General Assemblies were held, noted luminaries spoke and also served as a “front-desk” kind of gateway to the rest of the encampment. On this day at this hour though, there were maybe a dozen or so people scattered around those steps there for a lot more than the temporal belly-full of a free holiday meal that awaited them and a park full of people. We made our way to a circle where a conversation was underway about the movement and the media. Standing together were a former Wall St broker, a Green Energy consultant, and a University Professor from Virginia, which I found out later when I spoke with each individually. Not that that bears mentioning in and of itself. What is worth contemplating, however, is the unique power such setting as the public square affords – one in which strangers quite naturally are inclined to strike up random conversation, which is much different than being in say, a bar, someone’s house or a forum discussion of panelists, where each environment is laden with heirarchial baggage and subject to its own controlling elements. Not one person owns the park, while each person has equal ownership of the public park; thus an egalitarian system emerges self-evidently. The GA rules ensure an orderly fair process in the formal discussions and meetings: If you don’t like what’s being said or wish not to participate or disagree, you can out your name on “stack” – a running list of sign-ups next in line to speak, move on in to another discussion in the park or just ignore the inevitable self-promoting kook with the bizarre sign. Speaking out of turn is frowned upon, with the only acceptable means of “commenting” while someone speaks are the by-now famous hand signals.
It was an informal discussion that was taking place on the steps, and even then there was a decorum in keeping with the GA ethos. If someone was interrupted it was met with disapproval by the group, and the person speaking was encouraged to resume. The discussion jumped around from ways to circumvent the lack of media coverage in telling the story to the public, to dealing with attempts to co-opt the movement, to airing concerns about threats, to the next phase of more direct action in our own local communities, etc. Through it all was a clear and palpable desire to be part of a collective, whether as an American Citizen or Citizen of The World, a person awakened and publicly voicing in a group his objections and seeking solutions to the profit-driven forces who have run amok, dehumanizing the human experience and destroying the environment, having come together because it is no longer acceptable and perilous to ignore anymore. Strangers to one another, each nonetheless has an unspoken respect for the personal anonymity that seems to go a length in eliminating pre-disposed judgment. In fact, the divulging of one’s career or trade or interest seems only to surfaces when the individual believes it may be helpful in clarifying the specific nature of a comment or assertion by adding his or her professional field background or personal experience. In my estimation this budding public square of democracy – which was capturing the imagination of so many who had started to come in droves daily for the sort of interaction and community they were not getting in their everyday worlds, was a major reason the authorities moved to crush it so decisively. Alas, the desire to revive or continue that special place seems to have just gotten stronger and undoubtedly will reinvent itself in another form. It is a great desire of mine to see our parks become once and for all public squares of democracy; and for that, people willing to encamp is desirable, though not necessary.
When the group dispersed I approached the college professor about his pessimistic take on things. He said he had seen hopeful movements like this many times and believed it was only a matter of time before something so promising would join the ranks of other thwarted movements. In the end he agreed there was evidence, particularly the incredible capacity to get the message out and help shape the conversation by circumventing the established press channels with social media and instantly publishable video, to be more hopeful this time. Before he headed back to his wife for the holiday, I asked for his email and he thanked me, saying the conversation we just had was the reason he had come out today.
And so the day went. I moved over to where my girlfriend was having a conversation with two others. One was an Hispanic guy, who turned out to be an anthropologist who lamented how he never got to sleep in the park and determinedly stayed through the night on one of the rainiest nasty nights last week to make sure the park was at all times “occupied” after what he referred to as the “invasion,” and the other a young white guy wearing an Army fatigue shirt from North Carolina, who had been camping out since the beginning, studied geology and was temporarily staying at a church in Harlem open to the OWS community. Their non-bragging and understated stories were yet more examples of the kind of selflessness and commitment I’ve found strung throughout this entire movement that continue to deeply inspire and motivate me.
The spiritual nourishment of the festive and edifying scene would have been enough, but I love to eat and dug into one of the compartmentalized to–go containers that had a heaping portion of sliced turkey breast and all the attendant accessories, including a delicious real cornbread.
It was the first time I had ever had Thanksgiving outdoors and that fact, when you added the communal aspect and sheer numbers, probably made us a part of a very select group of few Americans who were spending the holiday closest to the way it had begun.
We met a an old friend I hadn’t seen in a decade who had also been coming down to OWS as much as he could like we had and enjoyed the very special significance of that reunion taking place right there and then. They took pictures with Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis and we all thanked him for being an exemplary member of society and a courageous man speaking truth to power (when I pointed out how impressed I was that a policeman invoked Thoreau, he looked bemused and asked when he did that, saying he had done so many interviews he couldn’t remember. It was on the Chris Hayes show I reminded him). When my friend reluctantly had to take his leave, he said this was the best Thanksgiving he had had.
As night fell a bluegrass duo of banjo and fiddle added a jubilance that permeated the park. A large circle was created where people square-danced, whooped and clapped along. Just outside of it I observed a couple of Asian women smiling and tapping their feet and an Egyptian woman doing an interview. I felt good to be in the right place.
At 5:55 Hero had put out the word that we all lay down in the park, a symbolic gesture of civil disobedience I took it to be. When that time arrived my girlfriend and I joined the whole park in that “illegal” act that just so also happened to offer a most lovely view. The park at that time was lit up with Christmas lights around the trees, the floor lighting underneath and a subdued holiday air, contrasting with usual cacophony of a usually heavily surveillanced and trafficked surrounding area and the ugly recent history of the “invasion.” A red balloon floated up over the park at that moment and New York City appeared hopeful, magnificent, beautiful - poetic symbolism for the beginning of the beginning of our movement. A couple of speeches were given, without the need for the people’s mic because it was so quiet and still. They were paeans to love and solidarity, and responded to by those remaining on their backs in much the same way one might hear in a gospel church, with the occasional affirmative exultation. The hatcher of the plan expressed how moved he was that not one person asked if they might be arrested or what the risk might be; neither my girlfriend nor I even spoke about it to each other and just reflexively laid down where we were when the moment came.
For fifteen minutes or so, we all lay on our backs existing on another plane, re-imagining the world as a better place, cognizant of how deep the moment was and the significance of a changing consciousness in the world. It’s fair to say that anyone who has experienced Occupy Wall St. and the Occupy movement has been changed by it. And so there was a clarion call from Liberty Sq on Thanksgiving to everybody else last night: You’ve been lying down for too long America, the time has arrived to get up, stand up and not to go back to bed this time.