When I arrived at Zuccotti Park on the night of Tuesday, November 15th, I was struck by the way in which the mass of people was arranged and how the NYPD had turned the surrounding blocks into a paramilitary zone. I’d seen large numbers of people in Zuccotti Park before, having slept there one night last month, visited the park many other times, and participated in a large rally held there during the first week of October. This was a very different scene.
Late the previous night, the NYPD had evicted the park’s occupiers and hauled away their individual and communal belongings in an enormous dumpster, destroying much of it in the process. I watched those events on a livestream channel from my living room, exhausted from a stomach flu that had taken hold of me earlier that night and unable to go down to join those who were rallying in defense of the site that sparked the Occupy movement. Frustrated and angry, I texted a close friend and explained the situation, hoping he might convince me that it was a good idea to get arrested despite my illness. He let me know this was a bad idea, and then he did a wonderful thing, going down to the park alone and staying until seven in the morning.
The elaborate barricades and myriad vehicles the NYPD had arranged on the blocks surrounding the park had made me worried that I wouldn’t be able to get close. When I did arrive, I stood alongside hundreds of others who pressed up against the barricades and stared into the faces of police dressed in riot gear who were perched in clusters along the walls that skirt the park’s perimeter. Inside the park were more officers of higher rank and a few men in suits rushing around and discussing quietly amongst themselves (a scene that a man next to me announced as a “conference of the suits”).
The crowd’s mood was one that’s become familiar to me in the past two months: the patience of the righteous. Gathering for the purpose of gathering—gathering to be seen and to make a statement with our bodies, our voices, and our signs—is a soothing and powerful communal experience. We were waiting for the park to open, but really, we weren’t waiting at all because we were already doing what we’d come to do. This is what democracy looks like.
An hour passed quickly, filled with small-talk with strangers, chants, and lots of announcements on the people’s mic. One woman told us of a tweet she’d just read, announcing that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had found a judge who would side with him, and that while the court had ruled against tents (and perhaps sleeping bags), they had also ruled that the protesters ought to be let back in the park. A man used the people’s mic to explain to us that this was a conspiracy meant to thwart the exercise of our right to free speech. Another woman told us that a judge had ruled earlier in the day that Bloomberg’s eviction was illegal and the protestors should be allowed back in, tents and all. Another man asked some of us to provide our cell phone numbers so we could give updates to organizers located at the park’s other corners.
All at once, after many conferences of the suits, the mass of people located at my corner pressed toward the north side of the park. I followed and made my way to the big cluster of officers and protestors in the middle of the block. When the people’s mic announced the NYPD’s unamplified news—that we were going to be let back in the park, one-at-a-time, single-file—I let out a whoop and threw up the jazz hands that I’ve come to love despite their kitsch-factor.
The excitement was palpable as we passed through a gauntlet of officers in neon vests, five or six to a side, while they videotaped and snapped a portrait of every one of us. My eyes filled with tears as I stepped into the park, a space that’s become almost comically overdetermined in my life, a place to which I make little pilgrimages when I can find time, and which I watch on a livestream feed sometimes when I’m too exhausted to make the trip down from my Morningside Heights apartment but still want to feel close to one of the centers of a many-centered movement.
One of the first inside, I watched the park trickle full and wandered around among the dozens of cameras recording the moment. I was hungry and exhausted and running on adrenaline, but as I started striking up conversations with those around me, I realized how lucky I was to have slept in my bed the night before and to have a bed to sleep in later that night. One man I talked to was a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team and hadn’t slept at all the night before, coming from his apartment in Williamsburg when he heard that the NYPD was evicting the protestors. Another man had slept some, but he wasn’t sure how long, because he was arrested and could only steal a few fitful moments of sleep while lying on the floor of his cell. He showed me the deep pink marks that remained on his wrists from the zip-tie cuffs he’d worn for more than six hours. One young woman stared off into space between pulls on her cigarette. She and her friends were elated to be back in the park, but also sad and anxious, uncertain if they’d be able to retrieve their belongings, uncertain where they were going to sleep that night without their tents and sleeping bags.
The NYPD had won back a small bit of territory, taking it from those who wished to sleep there, but not from those who merely wished to gather. We were there to gather and to demonstrate that the people united will never be defeated. To repeat one of the many brilliant mantras that have appeared in recent days: you cannot evict an idea whose time has come.