Feeding OWS

© 2011 David Shankbone

Diligence. Work. Revolution.

My first night sleeping in Zuccotti Park, at about one in the morning, some be-suited white guy started stalking around the outskirts of the encampment shouting: “Get a job and get out of my fucking park, you fucking lazy assholes!” “You’re what’s wrong with this country, a bunch of lazy fuckers who think they deserve a handout!” “Fuck you, lazy fuckers! Get outta my park!” Despite his claim to the park, this probably wasn’t John E. Zuccotti. However, his repeated ranting about the laziness of the people at Liberty Plaza—how everyone just wanted a government handout, and if anyone was willing to work hard, they would be transmuted, magically, into the 1%—is part of a larger trope about Occupy Wall Street and America in general.

Millions, according to this town crier’s thinking, are just a little elbow grease or some bootstrap tugging away from lives of caviar, private jets, and multimillion-dollar bonuses. While this narrative is almost too silly to address, the question of work and the movement is an important one. For if OWS has done anything for the people who have spent their time and energy there, it has rescued the concept of work: a soul-crushing, alienating struggle for money has been replaced by an uplifting experience of community, shared sacrifice, and sore feet. This, then, is dedicated to our hollering friend and anyone else who doesn’t understand how OWS works.

My Education through Occupation

I, too, had been ignorant of just what went on behind the scenes (and tarps) of Zuccotti Park. Squinting at the movement from way out west, I had pictured chanting, marching, discussions about the nefarious influence of money in politics, and a lot of beards. I got all those things but didn’t expect to get them while wearing a plastic apron and latex gloves.

My first morning at Zuccotti, after that nice welcome from the putatively hardworking heckler the night before, I was meandering through the sleepy grounds without direction. Drawn to the one hub of activity in the near-dawn haze, I shuffled over to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a bagel with peanut butter. I asked the people cutting and spreading how things were going. Fine, of course, but they needed a hand. And that is how I found my occupation within the occupation. From that morning onward, you could find me cutting, mixing, can-opening, yelling, and serving from under the tent marked “FOOD.”

As of this writing, there are some five hundred people living in Liberty Plaza. Additionally, thousands come through each day, some just to browse the revolution, others to volunteer on a working group. More people show up to shout at the tourists and each other. All these people are crucial to maintaining the immanent conversation that is OWS. We need people who will sleep in the park, packing it with tents every night, no matter the weather. We need still others who will spend the day organizing and volunteering, helping to keep the park clean, secure, fed, and functioning. We need people who will collaborate to set a radical agenda for keeping the media involved and the larger population aware. We need people with signs to harangue passersby with myriad messages, to ensure that OWS stays out there, present in the mass mind. All these people and more are necessary. But they all need to be fed.

If you want to see the amount of work, of labor, of love that goes into an occupation, I invite you to come volunteer at the OWS kitchen. Or with the sanitation crew. Or the medical tent. Or the all-night security staff. Or the sustainability people working all day to give the plaza electricity completely off the grid. But let’s stick with the kitchen because that is what I know best.

All Day at the People’s Kitchen

At about 7:30 a.m. each day, the first volunteers arrive to start setting up the kitchen for the early risers. Some of these people sleep in the park, but most come down to help out in the off hours from their jobs. They set about cutting bread and bagels, cleaning plates and serving pans, and setting up a serving line completely from scratch, which has to be done every morning.

The breakfast people stick around until about 9:30 or 10, serving the hot food that trickles in throughout the morning, usually scrambled eggs and some hash browns or other vegan potato option, and maintaining the supply of coffee and water—all of which has to come from outside the park, a combination of donations and OWS-pantry items prepared off site. Between about 10, when the breakfast crowd dies down and the kitchen runs out of food (whichever comes first), and 11:30, the kitchen volunteers get to take it easy: all they have to do is make sure all the dishes are washed, all the tables are scrubbed down, and the whole area is swept as clean as possible. Then, the scramble for lunch provisions begins.

The lunch service usually starts with the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and cold bean salad that the kitchen volunteers make while waiting for hot food to be delivered. Sometimes, a big donation of pizza arrives. Other times, it’s Chinese food. On rare, magically delicious occasions, a shipment of falafel and chickpea salad comes along. Dishes from the pantry also appear: usually rice and beans, some pasta, and a big, beautiful salad. The kitchen volunteers serve this food until about 2:30. If we get low, someone has to run over to the supply room to pick up more bread and peanut butter. Rarely does anyone go hungry, even if that person is vegan, gluten-free, or eats only the leaves that fall off bodhi trees during their sixth year of existence. After spending an hour or so cleaning, the staff again has a nice, long break until about 6, when dinner prep starts.

Dinner is the busiest meal and usually the one with the best food. (I’m still salivating over a kale salad with citrus dressing and chopped walnuts served a few weeks ago.) After the food is served, the kitchen staff continues to work, washing plates, stacking serving dishes along the makeshift shelves, and swabbing the whole area with nose-scorching sanitizer. The whole process usually ends around 10 or 10:30, when the final dishes have been washed and the last hungry people have trickled through. Then, it is off to sleep: a bed and pillow for those volunteers who live in the city, a tent for those lucky enough to have one, and a sleeping bag, tarp, and the cold ground for the rest. Nine short hours and the process starts again.

Staffing the Occupation

The amount of devotion and love that goes into feeding the people in the park is consistently amazing. “Jen” lives in Brooklyn, works afternoons up near Columbia University, and yet shows up every morning about 7:30 to do whatever needs doing. “Jon” is from Jamaica, Queens, and has been living at the park since the first of October. He washes dishes all afternoon, when he isn’t scrambling to bring as much water as possible to the park. “Cathy” is retired and lives uptown but brings her years of experience as an office project manager to the unenviable task of organizing food deliveries. Every day, all day, people here get fed. It is all thanks to volunteers like these.

It is not all blind altruism—volunteers believe in the necessity of radical change and see OWS as a tool to change the national conversation. Participating in the occupation also gets you access to an exciting energy unlike anything else I have experienced. But you have to get dirty to feel it. You have to labor alongside some other people for a couple days. You have to work.

Some occupiers are undoubtedly lazy. I can think of one young man, who supposedly worked for sanitation, who mostly just hit on any women who came through for a look at the park. Some never even pretend to lift a finger. Still others shirk duties. But all one has to do to be convinced of the intense work ethic that drives the Occupy movement is spend a day with someone volunteering in the kitchen. Don’t like wearing latex gloves and a plastic apron? Then check out the people next door at the sanitation group; grab a broom or a mop and get to work making sure the plaza is as clean as it has ever been. Oh, you don’t like filth? Okay, then spend half your day on a security detail, responding to any incident that arises, both the trivial and severe. More literary, are you? Well then, the library staff could use your help collecting and cataloguing donated books and keeping them organized and dry.

The public face of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the marches, the protests, and the arrests that happen on a weekly basis. But behind the scenes is a communally organized, all-volunteer structure that keeps the occupation running. The camp might come and go, but the commitment of the people working there ensures that the movement itself will never go hungry.

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  1. Dan Rood says:

    I thought it was a thoughtful, well-grounded piece, thankfully free of cant, and perhaps one of the most convincing affirmations of OWS that I have so far encountered. A much-needed piece that makes me want to go help out.

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