Are Occupy Wall Street Protesters Their Own Worst Enemies?

10.31.11 Matt Harvey

For the first few weeks this place was “occupied,” you could spend a couple of hours here and be satisfied that you were a small piece of a valuable equation. If enough freshly shaved middle-class Joes stood with the hard-core “protesters” who were camping on the plaza, Wall Street’s fattest cats would look down at the increasing number of well-kept bodies massing on their doorstep and think: Uh-oh, maybe today’s not the day to strip-mine those retirement funds.

A feeling of solidarity between these two factions peaked in the 6am mist of Friday, October 14th, a few moments after the human mic system echoed that the cops would not be evicting the protestors after all; the occupation would go on. For the hundreds of people hearing they wouldn’t—as expected—be packed off into paddy wagons, it felt like Christmas. One woman shouted: “This is the best day of my life!”

But judging from some of the slapstick antics seen around here in the last few days, an empathy-lacking suit looking down at the “occupation” might just laugh because it’s quickly disintegrating into the type of circus he and his cronies might have funded in the first place just to make his liberal opposition look ridiculous.

With the smell of weed in the air and scores of obscure political-causes on loud display Occupy Wall Street is rapidly turning into a type of street theater—equal parts Bonaroo and Hyde Park Corner—that cannot hope to affect meaningful change. Worse, by showing the legitimately pissed-off in the worse possible light, OWS might even be good for the establishment it purports to be struggling against. The inability of the protesters to coalesce around a set of clear demands that might lead to a weakening of the mutually reinforcing ties between Wall Street and Washington grows more noticeable every day.

It’s difficult to separate what represents a failure of the protesters to move ahead and what represents infiltration by the forces opposed to the movement — a very real threat. Referring to Zuccotti by its pre-2006 designation, a source with inside knowledge of the NYPD states unequivocally, “There are cops inside Liberty plaza.” If so, since no uniformed presence is visible, they must be undercover.

Historically speaking, the best way to end a peaceful demonstration is for a small group of “radicals” to provoke the police with calls of “pig” and violence.

Within minutes of their October 14th victory, OWS folks did both. A facilitator stirred up the crowd with an announcement that “union brothers” (in reality two tough-looking guys in hard hats) had pledged support if protesters wanted to “take down the barricades,” an action that would have certainly counted as a provocation against the cops. The barricades, which had gone up overnight, went unmolested, but within minutes, The NY Post was able to report that protestors had turned “violent.” A small group had made a mad dash to Wall Street and jumped the barricades there, while another crowd of self-described “anarchists” marched down Broadway shouting “fuck the pigs.” While the vast majority of demonstrators had remained peaceful and legal, the offshoot “marches” had operated under the “solidarity” of the General Assembly.

Now, two weeks later, Zuccotti is a full-fledged tent city bursting at the seams with bodies fighting for diminishing space. Piled up on each other, tents have pushed the General Assembly, and protest area, to the very edges of the 33,000 square ft. plaza. Taking it all in, one onlooker remarked, “Soon they’re going to have to start building up!” In some ways these ever-burgeoning numbers are an obvious testament to the victory of the “occupation.” But the small park has also devolved into a hornet’s nest, rife with divisions along social, political and even racial lines. Beneath the camps oft-touted accomplishments towards economic self-sufficiency—cleaning brigade, kitchen squad, first-aid tent, library and fire brigade—a shadow-economy has formed around selling loose cigarettes and begging for change. Deborah Goodman, a middle-aged woman and one of the first to join “community watch,” says the new group addressed an obvious need. “The truth is, we have a drug problem that cropped in the last few days and we’re addressing it,” she says, adding that police presence had slackened leaving the “community” to “protect ourselves.”

This “drug problem” is especially evident in a line of tarps along the western edge of the encampment that some refer to as “skid row.” Pointing in its direction from the street, a uniform cop tells a bystander, “most of the problems come from this area.” Weaving through the section on Tuesday night, zonked-looking faces were all around. But I was still surprised when a longhaired skel with facial tattoos sucker-punched a girl in the face while the rest of their “camp” (people living in a tarp) sat by coolly. When a black protester swooped in with shouts of “no violence, no violence”—as the woman threw accusations at her assailant to the tune that he had stolen “from the dog jar to shoot dope” and had “stuck his dick in [her]”—you might have expected him to make a run for it. Instead he held his ground, whining indignantly to a small gathering crowd, “where the fuck did this home-bum come from?” adding counter-accusations that the girl he had punched was the one “hitting people.”

By this time, a volunteer security guard—followed by members of the newly formed “community watch”—had shown up, but they mostly went along with the argument that the girl was actually, according to one “community watch” member, the “behavior problem.” In an ugly turn reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, the girl was voted off the camp as the skel’s buddy, a dreadlocked wastoid sipping Malt Liquor out of a plastic cup, insulted her and anyone who took her side. Goodman, who was also on the scene, later explained that the girl had taken off, adding with doubt creeping into her voice: “We tried to find her a safe space, but she said she had a room at Bellevue hospital.”

Not surprisingly, with hundreds of people living in the park without running water, access to the handful of bathrooms available in local businesses have become a focal point of contention. The McDonald’s across the street has been particularly hard hit with a constant stream of “protesters” using their bathrooms with an air of entitlement that some of their fellow demonstrators wince at.

“This McDonald’s puts up with a lot of shit,” says Chris Grosek, who lives in the East Village—but has been down at Zuccotti since OWS’ “3rd day” and spends almost every day there with his own display called “Occupy Legoland.” His experiences, which include seeing two fights on the line to the men’s room, “scarce resource,” seem typical. The behavior of protestors—who even ignore the needs of the business by blocking the registers when lining up for the men’s room—here is especially ironic because the owner of the franchise is said to be sympathetic to OWS. “These people are my friends but its embarrassing,” Grosek says, nailing the point directly home, “the more it builds up, the more they shoot themselves in the foot.”

Another problem that arises with a come-one-come-all movement like OWS is that it’s difficult to even define a “protester.” Infighting leftists who have been on hiatus since the early aughts have suddenly emerged to claim the mantle of “revolution.” I lost count of how many splinter sects of the American Communist party buttonholed me, especially early on. With his bear-like size and self-professed “combative style,” Gary Phenof, a 50-something Staten Islander would be hard to miss in any crowd. Wearing a Russian hat, waving a full-size main-land China flag and giving out copies of the China Daily—even at the far edge of Zuccotti Park—Phenof stuck out like a sore thumb. Asked if it’s really fair to other OWS demonstrators (the movements’ buttons decorate his coat) to associate them with the symbol of Red China, Phenof fixes me with a quizzical gaze. “Won’t this scare some people?” he asks rhetorically. “Probably, yeah.”

By now, the Revolutionary Communist Party’s table has been pushed out to make way for more tents, but for a while the RCP’s Carl Dix, was a regular face on the scene, with his neatly trimmed grey beard and insistent mantra regardless of what he was saying: “Just a reminder, I’m a revolutionary communist.”

Asked why he feels it necessary to tack this admission on the end of each of his spiels, Dix just mews, “I’m not hiding what I am.” Dix, it should be added, pulled off something of an activist coup on October 23rd when he managed to siphon off hundreds of OWS folks for a downtown march against police brutality. According to rumors, the plan was to gather at Union Square and work back to Zuccotti, but the march kind of petered out at the Avenue D projects.  Here the cris du jour were “Fuck the police!” and in a 180-degree turnaround from signs seen at OWS, “The pigs are not the 99!”

As if a high profile of commies isn’t bad enough for the movement, on Tuesday night wild haired boxing-promoter Don King—carrying the legacy of rackets and corruption—made the scene on Tuesday night to pronounce OWS as “American as apple pie.”

Later that day at Zuccotti, Louis Hacha, a 38-year-old straight-shooter in a tie who takes pains to engage tourists respectfully—and works in “financial services” himself—says the “fuck the pigs” contingent in the OWS mix is, at best, misguided. I point at a bushy-white bearded ‘60s holdover—wearing a homemade 9-11 truther t-shirt and carrying a black Anarchist flag with a dead pig traced on it—walking by. I tell Hacha that he had been at the anti-police-brutality march from Union Square denouncing me as an “enemy of the people” because I was part of the media.  “Any movement contains fringe groups and some of those can be plants,” he replies, adding sensibly that any group opposing the protests would benefit from “putting in someone so extreme that people will ignore the movement’s real message.” Which is? “The global financial system isn’t working right.” (Photos: ANIMALNewYork)