“It Should Be Like This Everywhere”: The Free Economy of Liberty Plaza Park

“The process is the demand” is something of a mantra here at Occupy Wall Street. A direct democracy where a General Assembly, composed of whoever wishes to participate, hears proposals from autonomous, leaderless working groups and approves them, when it manages to, by consensus. “Process,” for Occupy Wall Street, usually means full equality for all people, with no one officially designated a chairperson, a spokesperson, a leader.

Just as important to the process, though, is the economy that has sprung up at Liberty Plaza Park, the one-block-long strip sandwiched between Wall Street proper and the World Trade Center, where no one pays for anything. Many reports have been published on the free kitchen in the heart of the park, which feeds thousands daily on a mix of donated provisions and the kitchen's own creations. The medical tent has also received considerable attention, not least when the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently put his body between it and the New York Police Department (NYPD) officers attempting to seize it. If the process is the demand, then esteem for a robust welfare state providing equal access to free social services is easy to extrapolate, park to nation.

Something about the kitchen and the medical tent exudes an air of “officialdom,” even though they are technically also independent working groups. The free economy of Liberty Plaza Park, though, extends well beyond those stations.

Nick, 22, from Manhattan, is the proprietor of Nick @ Nite, a table where he and a rotating cast of friends roll cigarettes for free. “I started Nick @ Nite to help everybody calm down. There were a lot of people getting arrested, so I asked myself, ‘What's the best way I can help everybody else? I'll roll cigarettes for free!'”

The tobacconist's humble origins – “I started with $60 of my own money and a big bag of donated tobacco, bought all the filters, all the rollers, and ever since, I've just been rolling cigarettes” – are virtually unrecognizable now, the output having grown to astonishing levels. Nick tells me that daily production can total up to 6,000 cigarettes, depending on the attendance at Liberty. “More towards the evening, we get a lot of people. Six, seven, eight o'clock? Lots of people.”

According to Nick, even the boys in blue think the calm-keeping project is successful. “I've actually had cops come up to me and tell me, 'Thank you for having this tobacco stand, Nick @ Nite, because you're helping keep the peace.' I even gave one to a cop. He was like, 'Please, don't tell no one.'”

A comrade-in-rolling adds, “Free cigarettes? Free warm clothes? Free legal services? It should be like this everywhere.”

On the other side of the park, Larry, a 47-year-old licensed barber from Staten Island, gives free haircuts and shaves at his makeshift barbershop complete with clippers, scissors and one of those cloaks that keep hair off the customers' clothes. “Well, I've been here, protesting and supporting, and I figured today was going to be a nice day, no rain. Why not, you know? Let me do what I can to help people.”

His current customer – the fourth of the day – is Raphael, also 47, also of Staten Island, who feeds homeless people for a living. “I'm so busy, between work and home, that I haven't had time to get a haircut. I was walking by, and I saw there were free haircuts, and I was like, ‘While I'm here, maybe I can do this.'”

One of the most striking things about volunteer labor is the duration of workers' stamina – workers who, at a wage-paying job, might well be checking the clock every few minutes. Nick the tobacconist has no plans to stop rolling cigarettes as long as the occupation of Wall Street rolls on. Says Larry the barber, “I'm going to be here until I need a break; I got a big line coming later on today.”

After Raphael's shave and a haircut (no bits), Larry takes one of those breaks to adjust the clipper's head, because, “When it gets out of line, it doesn't cut right.” If the process is the demand, the ownership class might do well to take note: the people camped out in Liberty Plaza Park won't rest until they get it in line and it cuts right.