Protest and Pragmatism


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What’s one way for Occupy Wall Street participants to avoid problems with the police as well as their Financial District neighbors? To police themselves. Lifelong New York resident Brendan Burke, 41, was asked early in the occupation to help, and he saw a need. “There was chaos in here, and this is the media center, so security here is about protecting the equipment and being a line of defense against disruption of the media center,” he said. “Then there’s policing people, deescalation style—not brutalization, not putting hands on people, not being like cops.” Burke, tall, bald and with a strapping physique, said attention in the crowded square gets quickly drawn to those who are drunk or starting any kind of trouble; the scrutiny usually causes disrupters to either calm down or leave.

A policeman outside the square, speaking anonymously, said that most of the occupants have been well-behaved during the three-week encampment, though one man had to be taken off by ambulance for a reported drug overdose. “People are taxing the system,” he said, making it difficult to get emergency vehicles to the scene. “He’s lucky there was an EMT here,” he said as he pointed at an Occupy Wall Street volunteer medic, “or he would’ve died.”

Bobby Cooper, who has been camping in Liberty since September 26, is another volunteer helping to maintain order. The 30-year-old sculptor, who has provided security at large warehouse parties in Brooklyn, said he’s been involved in sanitation, medical response, donation handling, and what he jokingly called “city planning” issues at Liberty. On a recent morning, Cooper was preparing to mark off a corridor through the jumble of air mattresses and tarps, using colored tape, to accommodate visitors and commuters who traverse the park to get to work. He was concerned some people wouldn’t move from their places, but said he wouldn’t force them if they refused. The best strategy: “to keep the place so organized and neat and tidy that those who aren’t into being organized and tidy don’t feel comfortable here.”

Perhaps it’s ironic: here are protestors, often characterized as anti-authority, who are surrounded by the NYPD, yet who have created their own version of the police. “We’re revolutionary, but at the same time we have common sense,” said Burke. “If we’re just revolutionary, if we’re just anarchists, the cops will sweep the park.”

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  • qwertyman

    On the scale of control you have anarchy (zero rules) on the one end and dictatorship (fascist or communist) on the other end, you want to be towards anarchy for freedom sake but with a structure of basic rules…OMG thats called a Constitutional Republic, Constitution sets up basic principles and a Republic means 99% can’t tell the 1% what to do (i.e. paint his house a certain color) Turns out the founding fathers with all their law degrees and years of debate did set up the best system. Now if people just didn’t sleep and let wolves in to run things, we’d be set.

  • parker

    “If we’re just revolutionary, if we’re just anarchists, the cops will sweep the park.” It’s been a long time since I heard a remark this misguided from a fellow protester. The cops intend to sweep the park anyway-just as they have done to the placid camps in Boston, Atlanta, Denver, etc

    I’ll concede that cleaning the park in the face of Bloomberg’s “sanitation operations” two weeks ago was good theatre, but there were a host of other things that led to the city’s second-thoughts, from Russel Simmins pre-announced solidarity visit, to the spectre of chaos offered by the more militant members of the protest.

    You’ll notice I didn’t include Oakland among that list of placid, ‘self-policing’ camps. Because it wasn’t. Let’s face the fact that the Oakland GA’s defiance is why they were swept out with a bang and not a whimper. That bang has been heard around the world, reinvigorating this movement – and provoking a general strike in Oakland itself – while NYC was crying wolf about taking Washington Square Park.