A Law Student Discusses Occupy Wall Street (with VIDEO)
When the protests in lower Manhattan started in September most New Yorkers walked by and thought… well, most New Yorkers thought nothing about it at all, actually. Protests are a dime a dozen here. Then there were the first trickles of media coverage before the pepper spray incident, which was the NYPD’s greatest gift to the occupiers. It changed a local movement into a worldwide one as video of the incident was seen around the world.
And now, on Day 39 of the protest, hardly anyone is ignoring the protestors. Not even me – an overworked and sleep-deprived law student.
New York Law School is just a few blocks north of Zuccotti Park where the occupation is headquartered and I frequently pass it on my bike on my way to and from school. Protesters have overrun the space with sleeping bags, signs, tables, pets, in addition to reporters and cameramen from every major news outlet under the sun. Last week the New York Times published an article discussing the nature of the park itself and how protesters are able to legally occupy the privately owned public space. I wondered if the protesters were following the legal debate about their rights to protest inside the park and on Saturday October 15, I packed my camera, got on my bike and rode over to the encampment between Broadway and Trinity Place to find out.
See VIDEO of reporter Meghan Lalonde interviewing protesters about the private v. public legal debate.
Zuccotti Park is different from a regular city park. City (public) parks have curfews, usually from dusk to dawn, which then prohibit overnight occupation among many other things. Private parks on the other hand are only subject to limitations established by the owner of the park. There are more than 500 such private parks in Manhattan. Zuccotti is one of them and while it recently added certain prohibitions, protesters have no intention of doing anything differently.
And here’s why they may get away with it: Zuccotti Park was created in the 1970s when 1 Liberty Plaza, a 54-story corporate office building, was built. When the skyscraper’s developers wanted to add additional stories (which normally would have violated the area’s zoning laws) the city gave its blessing on the condition that the developers of the office building construct a park on the adjacent lot for public use. The park was built and named Liberty Plaza, a name that the building’s current owner, Brookfield Properties, changed in honor of its former CEO, John Zuccotti. Brookfield also made improvements to the park over the last decade adding lights, trees, and extra seating now being utilized by protesters.
Ironically, the protesters who are united against corporate greed have a pleasant, 33,000-square-foot park to sleep in thanks to the very large corporate office building next to the park.
Up until this month, the park had only a few regulations. On October 14, well into the protesters occupation, Brookfield Properties announced new rules that prohibit camping or lying down. As noted, these rules remain unenforced and most of protesters believe that they will remain unenforced because the occupation has drawn such substantial attention from the media.
On the Saturday morning I decided to forego some sleep and head over to the protest, I entered the park from Broadway and found nearly every corner, bench, or wall occupied by people or makeshift beds or some combination of the two. Some people were snoring while holding signs, passed out on foldable lawn chairs while tourists posed and took pictures with them. Small children, no more than 10 years old, were running around banging on drums or drawing flowers on the sidewalk with chalk. Double-decker tour buses slowed to a crawl when they passed by and tourists swarmed the side railings to snap pictures.
Yet, somehow, there remained a sense of establishment. When lunch was served, organizers yelled out that anyone in the park who was hungry – protesters, visitors, police officers – would be fed. Huge containers of donated food, mostly variations of sandwiches and rice and beans, were located at the center of the park and an orderly soup-kitchen-style line formed from it.
That day was exactly one week after the Brooklyn Bridge incident, when more than 700 protesters were corralled on the Brooklyn-bound roadway and arrested. As a result, people were tense and there was a definite fear of how police would react to the afternoon’s agenda featuring a large-scale march from Zuccotti Park north to Washington Square Park.
Less than an hour after arriving in lower Manhattan, I found myself in the middle of the march walking north.
Chants of “We are the 99%!” followed by responses of, “So are you!” echoed down Church Street as the group of an estimated 3,000 people was closely followed and herded to the narrow eastern sidewalk. Organizers at the front of the march shouted to others, warning them to keep off the street. Police were stern in their warnings to remain on the sidewalk however no arrests were made that day.
The group moved slowly through SoHo around 2 p.m., just as many New Yorkers were outside enjoying brunch, and patrons began realizing what was about to pass by. Some store owners eagerly joined in chants as the group marched past their stores and restaurants, while others were obviously less thrilled. “These people have no idea what they’re protesting against,” I heard one onlooker near Houston Street smirk.
The march reached Washington Square shortly after 3 p.m. There, marchers were met by a formidable gathering of other students, protesters, spectators, and even more police. Since city laws require a permit to use outdoor voice amplification, in order to conduct the massive meetings (referred to by protesters as a general assembly) the population is forced to resort to a modified game of telephone in order to be heard by such a large crowd.
“Mic check!” “Mic check!” we heard, as the crowed quieted and a speaker climbed atop the fountain at the center of the iconic park. The speaker spoke or yelled rather slowly and deliberately while the people closest to the fountain began repeating what was said, over and over, until the same line of dialogue could be heard well outside the park. It was the protesters version the children’s game of “Telephone” and yet it worked surprisingly well.
The protesters have various reasons for leaving their jobs and families to sleep on a park bench in New York City and have created and equally splintered reaction. The difference in opinion has created a division amongst some friends and even families.. Whether you agree with their reasons for occupying Zuccotti Park or whether you’re sick of walking by them, tomorrow protesters will still be there. And although they’ll eventually pack their bags and go home, be it in a week from now or in several months, at least when they do it will be, as they put it, “with the whole world watching.”