Occupy Happy Birthday

September 18, 2012

By Lucas Jackson

It has been one year since a group of protesters began sleeping on the ground in Zuccotti Park to protest growing income inequality, corporate influence on politics, climate change, and a number of other issues.


One year ago no-one had heard of Occupy Wall St. and it was fascinating to watch the excitement and size of the protest grow over time. What began as a rag tag group of people who came together to make a semi-permanent presence near Wall St. to spread their message in the heart of the New York financial district quickly grew. For those of us who live and work in New York it was a refreshing change to have a news story grow organically in a city where everything is always polished and shined to dullness in order to present to the media.

For the first time since living here there was a story that allowed you in to cover not only the unplanned demonstrations and actions but also the participants as they sat in Zuccotti dreaming and planning the direction of this movement. Most of the time demonstrators have to pre-approve everything they did with the NYPD and the city but Occupy was refreshingly obstinate in not pre-approving anything and took advantage of their constitutional right to assemble and demonstrate their displeasure with the direction of the country.

Ironically, throughout the movement it has been the police who are giving the movement it’s biggest boost on the national stage. First when a video captured an NYPD commander named Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying a number of protesters, followed by the NYPD arresting hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, and police in Oakland injuring an Iraqi veteran with a pepper spray canister.

Combined with their fight against income inequality and the link between money and politics the movement hit a chord as the story began to circulate through the media. The perception that banks and the people associated with them had swindled the public in the form of massive bailouts galvanized a large number of people, quickly spawning mirroring Occupy encampments in Washington D.C., Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, and dozens of other cities. For those of us covering the growing demonstrations it seemed like a movement that would only grow especially as it began to turn the national discussion at the time to talk of the 99% and the concentration of income and wealth held by 1% of the population.

This seemed like a message that people could and would get behind and it spawned some extremely large demonstrations most notably here in New York, Oakland, and Chicago. It was exhilarating for us as photographers to cover thousands of protesters marching through New York on October 15th (I did not cover this but several co-workers did) and November 2nd of 2011. It was great to see a cause that did not feel the need to overplan and completely refine their message before presenting it to the public and the media.

However, as someone covering the story in New York it was around this point in time when you could see the bliss of the earlier days of the protest start to be replaced by a sort of deadlock between participants with big plans and those who were pre-occupied with the logistics of creating a sort of utopia in Zuccotti Park. As a photographer who routinely spent hours in the park I saw people start to argue a lot more within the encampment about duties or ideas that they didn’t like. I started to see the impact that several hundred people camping in what was essentially a concrete lot with trees in it had on the immediate environment.

I covered the encampment during a freak snowstorm in October as Occupiers slowly began to desert their unheated tents in search of warmth and dryness. That storm showed the shortcomings of camping in a temperate environment in the winter and spelled the beginning of the end of the camp in Zuccotti which I covered as everyone was evicted on the evening of November 15, 2011. This was followed by the evictions of encampments all across the country and took something out of the movement as it seemed to me they spent as much energy and time planning for the logistics of the encampments as they did refining and planning their over-arching message.

The movement also had to contend with the aversion of a large number of its members to even acknowledge that the “system” was capable of being saved and shouldn’t be completely abolished and rebuilt. They might have been able to force through changes in Campaign Finance reform or expanded powers for the SEC or any number of specific demands when they had an obvious popularity early on but by the point the encampments were evicted it seemed the movement might never recover. In fact, for us here in New York there were large labor backed demonstrations on May 1st but other than that we haven’t seen much which is why this past weekend would show us where the movement stood.

For me these anniversary demonstrations were a lot of familiar faces, chants, tactics, and experiences but I did not see anything to make me believe that the movement would be experiencing a groundswell of support this time around. Logistically, covering these demonstrations always involves a lot of running through the streets of the financial district in New York as the protesters attempt to stay one step ahead of the NYPD, trying to cause enough of a spectacle or disruption to spread their message.

The NYPD works their hardest to either herd or chase the protesters around until things fizzle and everyone departs. The whole thing is very confusing with the Occupy folks breaking up into several groups who all go off in different directions to achieve different objectives and only myself and colleague Andrew Burton to keep up with the story. The two of us kept in contact via text message attempting to keep each other informed whenever it seemed a group was doing something particularly interesting. For us, covering the demonstrations, the arrests and the conflicts between Occupiers and the NYPD are a powerful source of images.

For me, it boils down to a couple of reasons. The first is because the presence of the NYPD as a physical manifestation of “the system” tends to bring the raw emotion out of the demonstrators leading to more powerful pictures of the demonstrators themselves. Secondly, I feel it is important to document the points when the protesters and police clash in order to record the behavior of both sides so that it can be dissected later who was at fault when something goes wrong.

As I stated earlier one of the most ironic facts about this movement is that it owes its popularity to the continual over-reaction of police forces to what is a mostly non-violent demonstrating of participants. The Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying, the Brooklyn Bridge arrest, the UC Davis pepper spraying, and the Oakland PD’s injuring of veteran Scott Olsen have all galvanized people whereas the actual demonstrations seem to stir little change at this point.

The Occupiers go into the streets to disrupt the financial system, which never happens. Some people might be late to work or a handful of businesses might not open on a particular day but mostly it is a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. The anniversary was a poignant reminder that the movement is still in its infancy and it remains to be seen if anyone involved has learned how to make it a more viable force in our nation’s political or economical scene or if it will just fade away and leave us with only the term 99% as the rest of us go on trying to make ends meet and living our lives.

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