Love Letter to Liberty Square

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Times Square: October 15 international day of action brings hundreds of cities around the world into motion. — Photo: Stephen O’Bryne

5:00 AM Friday — In the daybreaking hours of a long night spent scrubbing and brushing and gardening and packing, a stalwart girl named Julia meticulously swept the tiniest specks from the ground into a dust pan, retracing her steps through Liberty Square again and again.

Occupiers carried boxes to a storage space around the block, and personal stuff was rolled carefully into those ever-present blue tarps, names and phone numbers attached. Preparation of a different sort happened, too: some stayed put and refused to pack up anything.

Two young women, in a subtle and endearing form of protest, sat curled up in blue plastic bins waiting to be carried away. Three hundred people occupied the square.

The day before, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had announced that at 7 a.m., the NYPD would enforce a request by Brookfield Office Properties to clear the park for cleaning. The occupiers, Bloomberg said, would be allowed to return, but many worried that this was a tactic devised to evict the occupation.

A rush of activity commenced. A Facebook page, “Emergency Action: Defend Occupy Wall Street,” was forwarded to tens of thousands. Twitter lit up. Emails, text messages and phone calls spread the word. The direct action working group got to it. Organizations everywhere issued statements of support and a unified call for action.

And Occupy Wall Street organizers put out the most urgent call for donations yet: cleaning supplies.

5:30 am — A line stretched halfway through the park after a mic-checked announcement: coffee had arrived. Following an earlier downpour, clothes were hung to dry on police barricades and twine strung between honey locust trees. An olive-dressed couple wafted sage along the perimeter and a premonitory buoy bell rung now and then from somewhere too near to be on water. Five hundred people occupied the square.

Mic check: “I need (“I need”) volunteers (“volunteers”) to move this laundry (“to move this laundry”) over there! (“over there!”) Thank you!” Two people splashed leaf-pile-style onto the heap before helping to take it away. Teams of coordinated volunteers again push-broomed water across granite that was as clean as it had ever been. The People’s Library was packed into plastic bins and stacked together under a huge blue turtle-shell assembly of tarps. The usual vibrant sprawl of stuff was being consolidated, fortified.

Armaments over shoulder, two occupiers patrolled the north sidewalk. “Preseeeent – mops! March!” Three sentries were on the lookout: a Superman, a Captain America and a Santa Claus. The Sauron-eye of the NYPD mobile observation tower on the northwest corner was, as ever, mostly ignored.

A bottle hurled at a congregation of uniformed and plain-clothed cops across Liberty Street fell ten feet short; they shuffled indoors. An early edition of the Daily News was passed from person to person. The headline: “SHOWDOWN”

6:15 AM — The crowd tripled in ten minutes to well over a thousand. Accredited photographers convened at the trash can bouquet of donated plastic brooms and snapped action shots of occupiers cleaning, now, as performance. On the south side of the square, half a dozen television vans lined up, doors open, video monitors abuzz. Liberty Square neared, then exceeded, capacity.

Mic check: “This special assembly… is now… in session!” Crazy cheers and wiggly fingers from all. “This session is being called for in preparation for the notice that we received, which we know is a pretext, to stop this movement, to silence your voices.” The people’s mic relayed the message in four concentric waves. “We have two agenda items. The first is briefing from direct action.”

From the direct action working group: “We will hold no less than two-thirds of our park at all times. Direct action will be coordinating two lines of non-violent resistance that divide the park in thirds.” When it was asked who in the crowd was willing to risk arrest, half put their arms in the air without hesitation. More applause. “Everyone can and should have a role in defending our community.”

The assembly went on until a woman carrying a white sheet of paper scrambled toward the facilitators. The people’s mic stopped. Faces wore confusion. Near the center: one hug, then five more.

“We have just received notice that Brookfield Properties has withdrawn its—” The rest was indiscernible over cheers, yells, whoops, howls, banging drums, clapping hands, and the sight of thousands of people hugging strangers.

7:00 AM — The sun rose over Liberty Square, and it was still very, very loud.

•  •  •

It matters that the occupiers cleaned like gangbusters. It matters that it was always pretty clean to begin with. It matters that so many organizations of all stripes stepped up and showed up. It matters that elected officials called in their support. It matters that thousands woke up early and rallied to defend the occupation.

The mayor’s office and Brookfield Properties and the NYPD engaged in machinations behind closed doors. That matters too. The three aligned themselves with an ultimatum against the occupation. That matters more.

But this very simple thing matters most: They backed down. The ostensible owners of a very precious space and the captain of the captains of New York finance and this country’s most robustly armed police force joined forces in a showdown against the young at heart, and they blinked first. For one crazy-important moment we held the place that has become, for many different people and in many different ways, our home. And the very big, very loud sunrise party that followed was a love note to a democratic moment at Liberty Square.

This article was published in our third print issue on October 11, 2011.

CLEAN SWEEP: On Oct 13, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to “clean” Liberty Square, pushing occupiers out of the park. Thousands flocked to clean it themselves. Brooms, mops and others supplies were donated. And in the morning, Bloomberg backed down. PHOTO: Mike Fleshman


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