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Occupy Infiltrates Financial District With Creative, Decentralized Actions for First Anniversary

What started as a couple hundred people in a park with no plan has turned into a decentralized, distributed network of activists.

This story has been updated with reports from New York and San Francisco

There is no longer an Occupy Wall Street.

That’s what all the mainstream outlets are saying this week, and they’re right in one way. What started as a couple hundred people in a park with no plan has turned into a decentralized, distributed network of activists, affinity groups, organizations and organizers, working on everything from free education to fracking. And so as New York’s financial district was choked with glitter, balloons, dance parties and a whole lot of police, Occupy’s anniversary feels less like a celebration of what was and more a demonstration of what’s becoming.

The plan on paper sounded much like November 17th: Shut down the NYSE bell. But it quickly became very different. Maps handed out over the weekend (along with pre-coordinated text message lists) separated the Financial District into quadrants, each with its own theme: the Eco Zone, the Debt Zone, the Education Zone, and the 99% Zone (which includes the original occupation site at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza). At 7am, groups assembled in each zone to spread throughout the financial district, staging creative actions as well as old-fashioned sit-down protests, designed to confuse, distract, and infiltrate the heart of Wall Street.

From the red cube across from Zuccotti Park, one march headed out and down Broadway, to run straight into the police barricades at Wall Street. But unlike last fall, when the confrontations wound up as heated stare-downs between occupiers and police, this time groups of people splintered off and set off to do their own thing. The maps had marked strategically important locations—bank and corporate headquarters, the US Bankruptcy Court, Emblem Health, TD Ameritrade, and many more.

The NYPD, meanwhile, had set up its own occupation, more thoroughly shutting down and annoying the residents of the financial district than Occupy ever did. Barricades closed off all access to Wall Street and many other locations as well as encircling Zuccotti and lining both sides of Broadway. We spoke to one woman who was headed to her first day of work on Wall Street and was not allowed through the barricades because she did not yet have an ID—she struggled with tears as she told her story.

The police moved away from kettling and mass arrests a while ago and have settled on a much more terrifying tactic—seemingly random snatch and grabs, yanking people off the sidewalk out of a crowd. Artist Molly Crabapple was one such arrest, seized at around 8:00 AM from a march on a sidewalk near her Financial District apartment. So too was student organizer Isham Christie, grabbed off the sidewalk in front of me, seemingly for crossing the street at Broadway and Wall Street around 9:30 AM. While Christie is a longtime Occupy organizer, Crabapple is an internationally-known illustrator and artist (and, full disclosure, a sometime collaborator with this author) whose Occupy-related posters and prints have been wheat-pasted around the globe. According to National Lawyers Guild New York president Gideon Oliver, the 100-odd arrests by 11:00 AM also included a working legal observer, Damen Morgan, arrested while taking down names of arrestees. The arrests have tended to be quick, sometimes brutal, designed to intimidate and unnerve.

Some occupiers, meanwhile, managed to get away with much more than even they seemed to expect. After we followed directions from the debt bloc text message feed to regroup at 55 Water Street, we found a quick direct action spokescouncil happening, as affinity groups rested around the small park and a double line of riot cops stared impassively. After the council finished, groups departed one by one, leaving a few minutes between exits and each heading to a location known only to the members of that group. The affinity group model is an old one for the left, but in a movement like Occupy, suffering from a lack of a central location and trust problems from months of infiltration and debate, it makes a lot of sense. Friends look out for friends; information is shared on a need-to-know basis. Overarching plans are so public that the movement held its last pre-S17 spokescouncil at One Police Plaza Sunday, as if daring NYPD to shut them down, but individual plans are kept secret.

We watched the “balloon bloc,” “writer’s bloc,” and free university blocs head out, and then an organizer I’ve known for over a year grabbed my arm and told me “You don’t want to miss this.”

I fell in with her and a small group that wouldn’t tell me the plan but warned me that arrests were possible, and we moved down Water Street to the Chase building around the corner, where I fell back and watched the crew stroll unhindered through the revolving doors—and pull out bouncing balls, confetti, and a letter to Jamie Dimon, which they read out loud—until the cops finally came in. Most of them, including longtime members of Occupy’s Direct Action Working Group, made it out again just fine, though a few arrests were reported, among them possibly NYU professor Andrew Ross of Occupy Student Debt.

Reports reached us that a group of clerics and other Occupy Faith members were planning a symbolic sit-in in front of the Wall Street Bull, so we headed that way next but found ourselves instead in a scrum on the sidewalk on Broadway where more seemingly random arrests happened.

Other reporters scattered throughout the Financial District caught other actions; Nick Pinto of the Village Voice tweeted that the education and debt blocs were joining up briefly to “symbolically enact their interrelation” by shutting down an intersection and stopping a police truck. Molly Knefel of Radio Dispatch reported “Just saw a cop walking w a giant pink cross, I assume confiscated from Occupy Faith”. Citizen Radio’s Allison Kilkenny saw “Two men in suits standing on corner quietly talking. Assumed they’re wall street until I heard them discussing #ows tactics.”

Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine commented “When #OWS succeeds (tactically) make no mistake, it’s a product of a creative well-spring w/ distinctly anarchist roots.” He’s right; it’s been the strength and the weakness of the movement for a while. Today showed it, for a little while, at its best—joyous, thematic protests with (multiple) specific goals, coming together and breaking apart spontaneously, thinking on its feet and rolling with the punches, unable to be broken up by arrests, even targeted arrests. The protests were cheerful and celebratory; party hats and glitter abounded. It’s been said by many, including Naomi Klein, that building a mass movement requires for the left to demonstrate not that it’s right, but that it’s having more fun, and today it’s clear who’s having fun: the activists, not the cops. It’s also clear who’s causing the traffic jams and roadblocks in the financial district: NYPD.

Today isn’t about mass movement-building, though. That’s the work these groups are doing day in and day out, off the streets, in their communities, with friends they met in and out of the park. Instead, these days now serve as a moment for the diverse parts of left movements to come together, to remind the enemy—financial firms and other big corporations—that they haven’t forgotten.

5 PM ET — San Francisco by Alyssa Figueroa

Over on the West Coast, Occupy San Francisco has planned a day filled with rallies and protests to celebrate Occupy’s one year anniversary. Its first action took place at noon today as supporters gathered to hear the stories of elderly veterans whose homes are being foreclosed on. In the video here, Rita Hall speaks for her godfather Alfred Richardson who recently lost his home.

Don and Tina Baird were also in attendance. They have owned their home since 1966, but as Tina stated, “were granted loans they shouldn’t have been granted.” They have tried to get a bank loan modification, but to no avail. Don served in the U.S. Coast Guard, will turn 90 this month and is set to have heart surgery on Sept. 27. He faces eviction on Sept. 24. Don said of the banks, “It’s greed. It’s the nature of capitalism. It’s one of our big flaws, this competitive society. The rich control everything. I feel like the banks have abused our freedoms.” Protesters then marched across the street to rally in front of Chase bank, the bank responsible for the Baird’s foreclosure. They vowed to fight the banks from evicting these elderly veterans. So far, Occupy groups in San Francisco have saved 52 people’s homes from foreclosure eviction and have stopped 300 homes from being auctioned.

8 PM ET — San Francisco by Alyssa Figueroa

Occupy San Francisco continued their actions today by protesting against foreclosures, evictions and the criminalization of homelessness.

Occupiers sat down in front of Harvey Milk Plaza to protest San Francisco’s Sit/Lie ban, which bans sitting or lying on the city’s sidewalks for all, but ultimately is most detrimental to the homeless. Community Not Commodity, an LGBT Occupy coalition that organized the rally, said the ban severely affects LGBT youth, who make up 40 percent of the population.

Prior to the sit-in, protesters gathered in front of several banks in the Castro neighborhood to demand an end to foreclosures and evictions. The group shouted:

“We demand that all evictions within our community cease immediately. Instead of investing in toxic wars and criminalization, we demand that all of our communities are provided with access to health care, affordable housing, food. And we demand that the laws of justice respect the needs of the people over the needs of banks and corporations. Evict Wells Fargo!”

Activists also targeted Bank of America.

From Harvey Milk Plaza, Occupiers marched to Sterling Bank & Trust, entered their lobby and demanded that they stop fractional interest loans. Protesters handed the manager of the bank a request and urged them to halt all evictions.

11 PM ET — San Francisco by Alyssa Figueroa

In San Francisco, activists, some who held various rallies throughout the day, convened at 5 P.M. in the city’s Financial District. About 3,000 people gathered at 555 California St., a building, which used to be a Bank of America and is a symbol of the commercialization of the city. The action began with activists awarding the city’s Foreclosure Fighters, a group that has worked tirelessly this past year to help fight against foreclosures. These Fighters have helped save 52 people’s homes from foreclosure eviction and have stopped 300 homes from being auctioned.

The Foreclosure Fighters then led a march throughout the city’s streets, shutting down many of them along the way, including Market St. The thousands of protesters marched in a celebratory, but still serious fashion – dancing to the live music, but also making sure to shout and chant.

Occupiers ended their march in front of the Wells Fargo building on Montgomery St., where they had planned to symbolically burn their debt. Police warned that they would interfere if the protesters used flames, so the debt was ripped up instead.

Protesters ripped up student loan debt as well as mortgage debt. One man even ripped up his $500,000 debt – mostly all, he said, coming from medical bills.

Although protesters were told not to use flames, one went rogue, however, and started burning up money. The crowd cheered passionately, and the police, who at this point lined the streets in their riot gear, did not get involved.

Occupy SF Direct Action Working Group member and MC for the night, Amy O’Hair, said she was happy that more people showed up than she expected.

“It looks like we got 3,000 people out, which is fantastic for a Monday evening, and lots of people came forward to tear up their debt,” O’Hair said. “I think people were in a celebratory mood. It felt really good to be in the streets.”

After the debt burning action, protesters hung out, ate some free food and painted the streets while they were waiting for a guerilla movie night to begin. Occupiers ended the night by displaying Occupy-related documentaries on a portable screen.

Kriss Kranus, an activist who attended the rally, said that although the Occupy movement still has a lot more work to do, in one year it has worked to expose structures that were once silenced.

“So today Occupy is a year old. And even though it’s a year later, we’re still facing the same hooligans we were a year ago. And San Francisco is a playground for the 1 percent, it always has been,” he said. “But in San Francisco, people are concerned about what’s going on. And I think Occupy actually has created some real community discussions about decolonizing from this capitalistic state.”

11:30 PM ET — New York by Sarah Jaffe

Though rumors abounded that the unions and community groups had abandoned Occupy, in New York at least, that wasn’t the case. While the overwhelming presence of May Day or even October 14 wasn’t to be seen, a few hundred union and community group members braved the barricades at Zuccotti Park to come out in support. A crew from ACT UP, VOCAL-NY and Housing Works, many dressed in Robin Hood costumes, called for a tax on Wall Street to pay for health care, including AIDS care, and community group members from United NY, Strong Economy For All, and New York Communities for Change rallied with workers from companies that have been preyed upon by Bain Capital (and the now-famous and continually-terrifying Bain 15-foot puppet).

But even while the rally went on in Zuccotti Park, impromptu marches and actions went on in Lower Manhattan. One group spontaneously shut down the West Side Highway briefly on the way to Goldman Sachs and the World Financial Center. A group, including several CodePinkers wielding hot pink bras, held a brief mic check outside of the Bank of America location adjacent to the park—until a quick, violent arrest left the NYPD holding a fifteen- or twenty-foot perimeter around the bank’s entrance for no visible reason.

The financial district felt alive with protest in a way that even the early days of Occupy didn’t; it was impossible to keep a count of the people around because they simply never stayed still. When Zuccotti Park filled up midafternoon with people milling around like the early days—People’s Think Tank and all—a march promptly took off to try to reach the stock exchange before the afternoon bell. The march clogged the sidewalks and resulted in several arrests, including that of journalist and AlterNet contributor John Knefel, who according to witnesses was walking on the sidewalk when he was pulled to the ground by NYPD officers.

While the big march didn’t make it to the stock exchange, a few intrepid college students did. A group of students from Middlebury College in Vermont, a liberal arts school that sends many graduates to work in finance, visited New York for the Occupy anniversary and were disturbed by what they saw as racial disparities in the people who were being harassed by police as they attempted to cross the barricades. They witnessed people of color being stopped, asked for ID, held up, while well-dressed white people crossed easily.

Barrett Smith, dressed in a shirt, vest and tie, was the first to try crossing the line. “I held up my Middlebury ID, said ‘I’m from Middlebury,’ and they let me right in,” he told AlterNet.

“We wanted to make a point about getting through the checkpoints,” Anna Shireman-Grabowski explained. So the group of them went in with their student IDs—9 of them, men and women, all white. Then they held a mic check at the foot of the stock exchange, calling attention to how easily they were able to cross, and the white privilege that allowed them to do it. “The police did come at us and ask us to move along, but didn’t arrest us,” Katherine Murray noted.

“We were able to exercise our rights, which are protected by the Constitution, but there are people in New York City who can’t walk down the street without being arrested,” Smith said.

At 6 PM, the Occupy groups descended back on Zuccotti for a spokescouncil and speak-out session, but I headed to One Police Plaza to check on arrestees. In a small park across from the police building, Occupiers and friends and family waited to greet released friends with love, support, food, water, and beer and pizza at a neighborhood pizzeria doing a brisk business at its sidewalk tables. A marching band played and people danced as some of the 155 or more arrestees from the day trickled out—including faith leaders, journalists, and one lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild.

That part, and several other parts of the anniversary, felt like the old days at Occupy. The mood in the park was jubilant and slightly defiant, the crowd either celebrating the return and the sight of old friends, or enjoying the feel of the occupation for the first time. Yet today, Zuccotti didn’t feel like the center so much as a place to regroup and reach back out into the world, to take a breather before trying something new. “Occupy” might not be the right name for the movement anymore, as today’s actions were less about holding space than breaching it, breathing new life into it, and then leaving it empty but with traces of what might be scattered like the glitter and confetti on the floor.

The movement isn’t what it was, and who can blame it? As many have pointed out, a year into the Civil Rights movement, the bus boycotts were still fighting. Other tactics had barely been thought of.

The mainstream media, and indeed much of the progressive media, is eager to pronounce this movement over, to return to business as usual, to the latest Romney gaffe or poll. But for too many Americans, business as usual ended in 2008 with the financial crash, or was never tolerable to begin with. Occupy opened a space to discuss those problems and to dream of something better, and there’s no going back from that.

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