Tensions were already running high at Zuccotti Park on the afternoon before the New York Police Department cleared the park of the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Two months had passed since protestors had transformed what was a flat and empty expanse into the core of a movement that had begun spreading around the nation and the world.
But the sense of excitement and possibility of September and October had given way to a harsher existence. As occupiers zipped up their tent doors and turned inwards, the mood in the park was dark.
Despite Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially banning tents, the park was swollen with them. Finding an entrance was difficult. Inside the park, the kitchen was handing out free ice cream and a pair of protesters inside the main media tent pedaled two bicycles hooked up to a generator. The tents had by now taken up much of the space, forcing the protesters to keep to small, marked-off areas like the folding table where four or five people sat stripping cigarette butts for the leftover tobacco, or to the table next to it stacked with dog food and treats for Zuccotti’s canine population.
Many of the tents were closed. Of the ones that were open, the people inside were sleeping, chatting, eating – living.
At the bottom tip of the park, some occupiers had stationed themselves on the steps, facing out onto the sidewalk. They performed – juggling and drumming – for the crowd gathered across the barricade on the sidewalk. Police looked on too, reminding the passersby to keep the sidewalk clear.
Their audience was comprised mainly of tourists. Their experience at Zuccotti Park consisted of taking a lap of the park, occasionally pausing to snap a photo of a protester or perhaps buy a T-shirt with “OCCUPY WALL STREET” stenciled on with spray paint. Every now and then, one or two would venture inside the park, but most remained on the perimeter.
After about an hour or two, most of those tourists—now with a shirt or pro-Occupy Wall Street magnets and dozens of photos to post to Facebook and a first-hand view of the protest—left. And as they did, fresh faces arrived, each eager to see what exactly Zuccotti Park contained and how it compared it to what they expected.
Sometime between the moment the man in the Guy Fawkes mask pulled a kitten out of his sweatshirt and the moment when the protestor with the cardboard sign asked for money to travel back in time, Keith Walterscheid realized something about Occupy Wall Street. “It’s kind of funny,” said the north Texas resident, pausing to watch a pair of teenagers dance to an uneven drumbeat. “I don’t think they know what they’re protesting.”
“I wonder how much longer it will last,” said Peter van Heemst, a Dutch politician from Rotterdam, which has its own nascent Occupy movement. He found New York’s movement to be smaller than he thought but still boisterous and energetic. “It’s a good feeling to see people speaking out.”
But other tourists didn’t seem interested in hearing the message. Deann Steward, of Houston, decided to see Occupy Wall Street with a friend as a complement to a visit to Ground Zero. As she stood on Trinity Place, she took photos with her phone, laughing all the while at the demonstrators around her. “I disagree with it 100 percent,” she said. “These people need to be doing something productive.”
On the sidewalks outside the park, the tourists mingled with the vendors, as well as with demonstrators and rundown teens with beat-up cardboard signs asking for money. Vladimir Ermolin, visiting from Moscow, perused the T-shirts on Liberty Street. He wanted something with a funny slogan, because, as he said, “in Russia, the shirt itself means nothing.” Ermolin agreed with the views of many of the protesters, but still felt dissatisfied with what he saw. “This is good,” he said, “but it could be more.”
Along the sidewalk, visitors had no shortage of choice in the souvenirs they could buy to take home. Chad Hartler offered printed sweatshirts for a suggested donation of $10. He came to Zuccotti Park from Ohio but had taken ill on one of the first nights he arrived. When he came back from the hospital, all of his belongings had been stolen. He said half of the revenue from the sale of the sweatshirt went back into the protestors, and the other half funded the purchase of more materials.
A man named David S. stenciled “I Occupy NY” T-shirts. He said that in a week, he had donated over $500 to the soup kitchen from sale revenues. David had been coming to the park on and off for the past month, but he doesn’t sleep there.
The man selling T-shirts five feet away from David did sleep in the park. Tony had been doing this since the beginning of October. He was skeptical of the donations the “I Occupy NY” T-shirt selling operation made to the soup kitchen. In his opinion, only those who slept in the park, the “real occupiers,” had the right to sell T-shirts in the name of the movement.
Gale and Benjamin Armstead also didn’t sleep in Zuccotti Park. Instead, they would come down from their home in Harlem and sell buttons for a “$2 required donation a piece.” Benjamin said the money they made from the buttons went partly towards a performance he and his wife are putting on at the Apollo Theater, and partly to live. He described the OWS movement as “beautiful.”
As the afternoon turned to evening, the crowd on the outskirts of the park thinned out as they began to make their way home. They passed the grimacing man handing out stickers that said “Don’t Be Mean,” the pregnant homeless woman asking for money, and the bearded man waving a red People’s Republic of China flag. At the heart of the movement, inside the park, the tents—for the most part—remained closed.
The library, the entertainment, the kitchen, the dogs, the dwellings: Zuccotti Park was beginning to look like a miniature city. A city that had its own tourist economy and even a black market. For two months it was home—be that physically or metaphorically—for hundreds, if not thousands of occupiers. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, that home was under occupation, but of a different sort.