Dec/Jan 2012

By the Mob's Early Light

The ritual significance of Occupy Wall Street

Jeff Sharlet


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Steal this book: The OWS Library in Zuccotti Park.

I have on my desk before me a spine-cracked paperback copy of Cynthia Ozick’s collection of stories The Pagan Rabbi. It seems to have shared close quarters at some point with a broken pen, since the edges of its pages are gilded with blue ink. The cover depicts the title story’s eponymous subject, a black hat with a purple shirt and a rose clutched in his hand, his head in profile beneath the tree that has become his lover. That’s what the title story is about: a rabbi who falls in love with a tree. On the back of the book there’s a red discount sticker, “$1.00.” And next to it, beneath a picture of Ozick, another sticker: “OWS.” I have another copy of this book—two, actually—but I picked this one up for that sticker. OWS. Written across the edges of the pages is the legend “OWS Library.”

OWS, you may know, stands for Occupy Wall Street. The abbreviation arose from the need for the shortest possible hashtag to categorize Tweets relating to the protest, but it has also become one of several abbreviations for the overall Occupy movement. The OWS Library, meanwhile, is to me one of the movement’s most remarkable creations. It began as a row of boxes containing donated books, mostly well-used paperbacks like my Pagan Rabbi; now it is a row of tables alongside the northeast corner of Zuccotti Park,* a collection of hundreds or maybe thousands—cataloguing is as never-ending as the stream of donations—maintained by a group of volunteer librarians, one of whom sleeps on an air mattress beside the reference desk. He’s not there to guard the books: At this library, they’re always free for the taking. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States gets taken almost as fast as it can be shelved. My Ozick, I’m guessing, had been lingering for a while, tucked between a romance novel and a mass-market paperback of A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1960 sci-fi classic about a post-apocalyptic monastic order dedicated to the preservation of books. In other words, it’s about scarcity. This library isn’t.

“Books are no longer like commodities here,” another librarian told me one day at 2 AM, standing near his sleeping colleague. “We’ve had to give them away.” One word for that is surplus, but a better word for that—the biblical word, the rabbinical word—is abundance.

Abundance not just in fact but as something that is felt is what most of the media seems not to notice about the Occupy movement. That’s reasonable, given that the movement was born in opposition to the “1 percent,” whose minimum annual household income is nearly $517,000 and averages more than $1.5 million, an impressive sum that is nonetheless too small to convey the proportion of the nation’s wealth—42 percent—in their control. But the old frame of the haves versus the have-nots does not convey the joyousness of the experience of Zuccotti Park, nor of the larger Occupy movement.

I’m not sure when I first felt that joy, but I know when I named it for what it was: one night lying on a sleeping pad beneath a thin blanket, hemmed in by my just-met friend Austin, a teacher of autistic children who leaves the park for work every day at 7:30 AM, and his girlfriend and her girlfriend, reading my newly acquired copy of The Pagan Rabbi by the yellow sodium light of the city’s permanent illumination. Purists call that light pollution, but filtering through the feathery leaves of Zuccotti Park’s honey locust trees, it was lovely. More than lovely; bathed in its amber glow I felt like one of five hundred little Christs, if by “Christ” you’ll allow me to refer not to divinity itself but to one of its more wholly human representations, Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ. Appreciating what’s happening in Zuccotti Park requires a mental shift akin to the one necessary to see Piss Christ—an image of a plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine—as not blasphemous but beautiful. And I don’t mean ideologically beautiful—a baroque idea one admires for the complexity of its inversions. I mean gorgeous, breathtaking and breath-giving at the same time.

“The Pagan Rabbi” begins with two men, friends from rabbinical school. The narrator, no genius, becomes an atheist furrier. The title character, Isaac Kornfeld, “a man of piety and brains,” hangs himself from a tree in a public park with his own prayer shawl. Instead of writing a suicide note, he composes a theological treatise in the form of a love letter, or maybe it’s the other way around. Isaac had, it turns out, fallen for the tree, and this being Ozick—the most conservative of the major Jewish writers is no prude—the love was consummated.

The why of Isaac’s love is, of course, weird, or wonderful, or both, depending on your feelings about transcendentalism and tree hugging. But the story is more about the narrator’s attempt to comprehend his nature-loving friend’s dying declaration that “there is nothing that is Dead. There is no non-life.” And when the narrator grasps the rabbi’s feeling—glimpses it, really, for it’s impossible to hold—it returns him to childhood. Not wonder, but its opposite:

It was the crisis of insight one experiences when one has just read out, for the first time, that conglomeration of figurines which makes a word. In that moment I penetrated beyond Isaac’s alphabet into his language. I saw that he was on the side of possibility: he was both sane and inspired. His intention was not to accumulate mystery but to dispel it.

Such are the intentions of the Occupy movement. It should come as no surprise that those intentions do not transmit well through CNN or the column inches of the New York Times—that, working off of these sources, a skeptical student at the college where I teach should say to me, “I can feel the excitement, but I don’t know if I can articulate why.” A “sex-positive” queer activist, she liked an Internet video that compiled footage of beautiful women at Zuccotti Park. “It looked more like celebrating than protesting,” she observed. But most of what she’s seen on TV, she said, is police beating people, or people screaming because they’ve been beaten by police. She suspects there’s more to it. “I don’t think I’ve experienced democracy in a physical way,” she said. It sounds intriguing, and, yes, a little mysterious: physical democracy.

Her inability to reckon with what is happening in Zuccotti Park and, to greater and lesser degrees, across the country, is not the result of a media conspiracy, as many protesters charge. It’s not a problem of Murdoch’s minions executing orders from on high to make the dissidents look like fools. In fact, the protesters are fools—but in the holy tradition, the tradition that speaks not truth to power but imagination to things as they are. And the American press, with its geography of public and private spheres, its love of contests, was built for a different reality. Pragmatically so; it’s the reality of our everyday lives.

Movements are born from the problems of everyday lives, but they’re not limited by them. “We’re not in ordinary time,” a writer visiting Occupy Nashville told me. “This is movement time.”

She wasn’t speaking in slogans. What she meant was a sort of slow motion, sped up, outside of the flow of minutes and days, the temporal experience suggested by the Christian theological term kairos, ritual time, a moment that is unique and suffused with moments past. Holidays are a kind of kairos. This Christmas will be December 25, 2011, but for celebrants it will also be all the Christmases past, and all the Christmases of the future, anticipated, imagined.

So the Occupy movement is a holiday. There is nothing frivolous about that. Holidays are not escapes; at their best, they deepen our experience of things. Consider the rituals of this holiday: The marches, yes—everyone has seen those on TV, and many have marched for one thing or another. Then there’s the police brutality, for the white middle-class majority a more exotic experience. Pepper spray blinds, but it has a way of clarifying the issues. But that, too, is still ordinary stuff. The media, once it got over its 1968 clichés, knew how to report that. You have to push further.

To the OWS Library, for instance—the ritual of simply taking a book, with no money or identification changing hands. The ritual is something like this: “Here. I have a story. You can have it, too.” So you sit on the stone steps into the park and read for a while. Ozick describes the shiksa bride in “The Pagan Rabbi,” and the way she “danced without her shoe, and the black river of her hair followed her.” And Ozick records this exchange between the narrator and his bride:

“After today she’ll have to hide it all,” I explained.

Jane asked why.

“So as not to be a temptation to men,” I told her. . . .

“It’s a very anthropological experience,” Jane said.

“A wedding is a wedding,“ I answered her, “among us even more so.”

Dusk falls, cars honk, the jackhammer the city has set to racketing across the street competes with the thumping aural blur of the drums down at the southwest edge of the park. Bongos is too fun a word for that ceaseless noise. There’s a celebrity of some sort beneath the three giant red girders bound together into a city sculpture on the southeast corner called Joie de Vivre. Susan Sarandon? “I just watched Rocky Horror last night,” says a policeman, delighted. A line begins to wind around the kitchen at the heart of the park—two thousand served daily, when I was there last—and the halal carts and smoothie carts and veggie carts rev up for evening supper, and the smells of falafel and grilling meat settle in with the Hasidim who as evening comes seem to flock to the park, their politics moot (a wink is all one will give me by way of explanation), some of them singing in Yiddish and Hebrew, some of them circling the perimeter along with a certain kind of well-weathered middle-aged man, scoping but not leering, contemplating, doubting, wondering. “I don’t know what these kids are doing,” says an old guy named Walt. “But I want to—I don’t know what these kids are doing.” He keeps shuffling around.

“Mic check!” somebody yells.

“Mic check!” come a dozen replies.

“Mic check!” goes the single call again.

“MIC CHECK!” a hundred voices holler.

This is the “human microphone,” an adaptation of the old church style of call-and-response for the NYPD’s rule against amplification. The Spaniards have been using it so long now they consider it passé, but it came to Zuccotti Park by way of a woman named Marina Sitrin, editor of a 2005 book called Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina, since translated into English. One person speaks, the crowd repeats, everybody hears the crowd and their own voices. Born of everyday hassle, it has become one of the movement’s most brilliant maneuvers. Its humor is inherent; it is funny to repeat another person’s “like, I think.” Its politics are implicit: We will have to collaborate for any of us to be heard. And its effectiveness is stunning. As the evening’s general assembly, the daily ritual of deliberative democracy, begins, you find yourself repeating things you don’t agree with. And you watch the inevitable cranks and complainers who are forced to repeat the crowd’s pleas for them to let the meeting proceed. You become intimately aware of language, parceled out in short phrases; you reconsider which of your own words are really necessary.

The meeting moves faster than most town-council meetings. A half hour is spent on, say, a proposal to spend part of the general fund on more sleeping bags, or bins to aid in cleanup efforts, or whether to allow a visiting celebrity to jump the “stack,” the speaking line. The answers come relatively fast: yes, maybe (more debate is required), no. And each answer brings applause, some whoops, a shout: “Consensus!”

Maybe you didn’t believe in consensus, but now here it is, before your eyes, on the tip of your tongue. It feels good. Not like a task checked off a list; like a creation. Every decision in the general assembly is a story, and every member of the general assembly is its author.

Of course, that’s not really true—there are always dissidents, angry ones, grumblers, people with better ideas, imagined and actual. And what kind of story is it, anyway, that can’t travel? Can this kind of decision making go beyond a crowd of a few hundred? How far? A few thousand? A million?

But there are always questions, and answers are like demands: They take time, and if they’re any good they’re probably not easy. Tomorrow they’ll try again. For now, there is cake: kitchen volunteers stepping over bodies, moving through the dissipating crowd with great platters of it, fluffy and frosted.

At 10 PM, the quiet hour agreed upon with the local community board, the noise ebbs—it doesn’t vanish, just stretches out like a thin tide moving off to sea—and people begin repairing to their sleeping bags. After a beer with a few 99 percenters at a fireman’s bar around the corner, I stop by the comfort station for some bedding (bedbug free!) and lie down beneath the honey locust with The Pagan Rabbi. The night, cooler but softer than the day, is the ritual at the marrow of the Occupy movement. Like the human mic, it’s an adaptation. The police said no tents. So we all sleep together. So deep in the funk of several weeks’ camping that the smell becomes normal, so close to strangers that the strange becomes comfortable, so tired beneath the trees, the lovely honey locusts ashimmer in the yellow sodium, that our books fall upon our noses sometime in the early morning. What time it was, I couldn’t tell you.

*Protesters have renamed the thirty-three-thousand-square-foot park Liberty Park, Liberty Plaza, and Liberty Square. It is a “privately owned public space,” a paradox that is proving as vexing to lawyers on all sides as it is to anyone concerned with language. Created in 1968 by U.S. Steel as something of a zoning bribe for the city, it was originally known as Liberty Plaza Park. It was demolished on 9/11; its current owners, Brookfield Properties, named it Zuccotti after one of their own executives, a former deputy mayor under the hapless Abe Beame. The protesters prefer Liberty, but on this score I can’t bring myself to follow them—names, like layers of paint, contain the history of a place, and Zuccotti seems just right for the shades of neoliberal gray beneath the occupiers.

Jeff Sharlet's most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011).

danielfeinstein

December 8, 2011
4:55 pm

What's happened with OWS is the revelation that our country is a police state, precipitously close to an extroverted military one. The use of pepper spray, an actually potentially lethal chemical weapon exemplifies this, and here is some proof: http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/pepper-spray-potentially-lethal-chemical-weapon

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