A version of this news analysis appeared in print on October 16, 2011, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Protest, The Power Of Place.
The ever expanding Occupy Wall Street movement, with encampments now not only in Lower Manhattan but also in Washington, London and other cities, proves among other things that no matter how instrumental new media have become in spreading protest these days, nothing replaces people taking to the streets.
Another reminder came late last week when the landlord of Zuccotti Park, where the demonstrators in New York City have settled, at the last minute withdrew a request for police assistance in cleaning up the park. This, at least temporarily, averted a confrontation in front of the global media over what protesters regarded as just a pretext to evict them.
We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places. Then Tahrir Square comes along. Now it’s Zuccotti Park, until four weeks ago an utterly obscure city-block-size downtown plaza with a few trees and concrete benches, around the corner from ground zero and two blocks north of Wall Street on Broadway. A few hundred people with ponchos and sleeping bags have put it on the map.
Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations.
So we check in on Facebook and Twitter, but make pilgrimages to Antietam, Auschwitz and to the Acropolis, to gaze at rubble from the days of Pericles and Aristotle.
I thought of Aristotle, of all people, while I watched the Zuccotti Park demonstrators hold one of their “general assemblies” the other day. In his “Politics,” Aristotle argued that the size of an ideal polis extended to the limits of a herald’s cry. He believed that the human voice was directly linked to civic order. A healthy citizenry in a proper city required face-to-face conversation.
It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.
“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.
“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.
Much as it can look at a glance like a refugee camp in the early morning, when the protesters are just emerging from their sleeping bags, Zuccotti Park has in fact become a miniature polis, a little city in the making. That it happens also to be a private park is one of the most revealing subtexts of the story. Formerly Liberty Park, the site was renamed in 2006 after John E. Zuccotti, chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, the park’s owner. A zoning variance granted to Brookfield years ago requires that the park, unlike a public, city-owned one, remain open day and night.
This peculiarity of zoning law has turned an unexpected spotlight on the bankruptcy of so much of what in the last couple of generations has passed for public space in America. Most of it is token gestures by developers in return for erecting bigger, taller buildings. Think of the atrium of the I.B.M. tower on Madison Avenue and countless other places like it: “public” spaces that are not really public at all but quasi-public, controlled by their landlords. Zuccotti in principle is subject to Brookfield’s rules prohibiting tarps, sleeping bags and the storage of personal property on the site. The whole situation illustrates just how far we have allowed the ancient civic ideal of public space to drift from an arena of public expression and public assembly (Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, say) to a commercial sop (the foyer of the Time Warner Center).
Living in Europe for the past few years, I often came across parks and squares, in Barcelona and Madrid, Athens and Milan, Paris and Rome, occupied by tent communities of protesters. Public protest and assembly are part of the European social compact. Maybe the difference in America has something to do with our longstanding obsessions with automobiles and autonomy, with our predilection for isolationism, or our preference just for watching, more than participating.
In Europe, the protests were about jobs, government rollbacks and debt. That the message of the Zuccotti Park occupiers is fuzzy somewhat misses the point. The encampment itself has become the point.
“We come to get a sense of being part of a larger community,” said Brian Pickett, a 33-year-old adjunct professor of theater and speech at City University of New York. I found him sitting last week among the neat, tarpaulin-covered stacks of sleeping bags in one corner of the park. “It’s important to see this in the context of alienation today. We do Facebook alone. But people are not alone here.”
And as a result, demonstrators also reveal themselves to each other. Egyptians described this phenomenon at Tahrir Square. Tea Partiers have talked about it, too. Protesters don’t just show the world a mass of people. They discover their own numbers — people with similar, if not identical, concerns. Imagine Zuccotti Park, one protester told me, as a Venn diagram of characters representing disparate political and economic disenchantments. The park is where their grievances overlap. It’s literally common ground.
And it was obvious to me watching the crowd coalesce over several days that consensus emerges urbanistically, meaning that the demonstrators, who have devised their own form of leaderless governance to keep the peace, find unity in community. The governing process they choose is itself a bedrock message of the protest.
It produces the outlines of a city, as I said. The protesters have set up a kitchen, for serving food, a legal desk and a sanitation department, a library of donated books, an area where the general assembly meets, a medical station, a media center where people can recharge their laptops using portable generators, and even a general store, called the comfort center, stocked with donated clothing, bedding, toothpaste and deodorant — like the food, all free for the taking.
That’s where I found Sophie Theriault the other morning, sorting through loads of newly arrived pants and shirts. A soft-spoken 21-year-old organic farmer from Vermont, she had already spent many days and nights working as a volunteer. “We may not have all come here with the exact same issues in mind,” she told me, “but sharing this park day in and day out, night after night, becomes an opportunity for us to discover our mutual interests.”
At that moment, a teenager in skinny jeans and a tank top started nosing through piles of coats. “I’m looking to keep warm,” he mumbled.
“That looks cool,” Ms. Theriault offered, about a used polyester winter jacket with a fake-fur-lined hood he seemed to be considering.
“Not that warm,” he replied, and gestured instead toward a pair of socks, which Ms. Theriault handed over before returning to her point: “We meet every night to talk about how to keep this place clean and sober, to keep it an emotionally, physically safe space for everyone. Consensus builds community.”
Patrick Metzger, a 23-year-old sound engineer and composer, echoed the thought: “From Web posts, you never get information about race, class, age — who people really are. Fox News talks about flakes and mobs. But you can see how complicated the mix really is: students and older people, parents with families, construction workers on their lunch break, unemployed Wall Street executives.”
O.K., a few flakes, too, as at any political rally. But Mr. Metzger got it right. The protesters’ diversity, at least during the day, is intrinsic to the protest’s resilience. Not since 9/11 have so many people been asking “Have you been there?” “Have you seen it?” about anyplace in Manhattan. The occupation of the virtual world along with Zuccotti Park is of course jointly propelling the Occupy Wall Street movement now, and neither would be so effective minus the other.
That said, on the ground is where the protesters are building an architecture of consciousness.