It was D17. The infamous day when Trinity Church’s fence was ripped apart and bishops in elegant red robes were arrested by a bunch of blue shirts. It was also the third month of mic-checking business-as-usual. Later that evening, a journey commemorating OWS’s anniversary traveled quickly uptown from Duarte Square at Canal and 6th Avenue. The trip was long, much too fast, and seemingly aimless, allowing giant bubbles of empty space to discourage us from remaining a cohesive pavement-pounding force.
Predictably, one of many excitable young white guys on the march repeatedly leaped up onto whatever urban props we encountered; garbage cans and lampposts were momentarily transformed into performance spaces from which he would wave a large yellow cloth and dramatically yell out to everyone behind him, “C’mon! Hurry! Close the gap! Close the gap!” After the man had taken several opportunities to preach to those who were, at that moment, deemed followers in a leaderless movement, an exasperated woman who was helping to transport a large banner that could not possibly have been carried any faster finally yelled, “YOU close the gap!” At Christopher Street, she turned to her fellow female banner-carrier and said, utter frustration ensconcing every word, “You know, this is not why I do this.” The fellow banner-carrier called to the excitable garbage can-jumper, “Dude, relax. Nothing is fucked here. Except your leadership.”
The group was moving speedily forward; I could barely find who was supposed to be in front of us. There was evidently no regard for any participant who may have been physically challenged by the sheer haste of this demonstration; and who was leading it? A bunch of mostly white guys fueled by the adrenaline of bravado and privilege – albeit white guys who at least have the common sense to step back – way back – when marching with communities of color in East New York or Chinatown. Nonetheless, when faced with the question of whose movement this is, the answer has been made clear time and again to me and to several OWSers who identify as people of color.
After issuing yet another boisterous yellow cloth-waving command, the wiry lamppost jumper planted his feet back on the sidewalk several feet in front of me. “Close the gap!” he yelled again to us behind him. “Relax!” I yelled directly at his eyes, supremely aggravated at this snot-nosed kid’s lack of respect. “Not everyone can move that fast!” I tend to credit texting, Twitter, and Facebook with the newer generations’ aversion to direct communication – particularly when it’s done in heat-of-the-moment, flesh-and-blood style. Our previously unshakable street cheerleader locked eyes with me in mild shock, and quickly turned away to drape his arm over whatever girl was letting him do so. The yellow cloth hung limp, an unspecified extension of his arm. Onward we marched.
There couldn’t have been a better place for an inevitable melee to emerge than at the corner of 13th Street and 7th Avenue, at the doorstep of the now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital. Early last year, the residential and LGBT communities fought like hell to keep their doors open, but in the end, third-term thief Bloomberg could not care any less about anyone in that neighborhood having a medical emergency, and much less about any gay or trans folks who need a doctor. Our section of the march had reached the corner across the intersection from where arrests were occurring in the middle of the street. Traffic halted as erratic waves of people flooded the street, crashing onto a uniformed, blue-lined shore and stretching their video recording devices over and around other vigilant bodies in the crowd. The choppy-seas-of-multiple-blue-shirts-wrestling-with-one-arrestee scenario was getting exhaustively familiar; but at least on this night, unlike so many others, Bloomberg’s personal army kept it in their pants. Their batons in their holsters, that is.
It took a half-dozen cops to haul the last resistant arrestee to the paddywagon. Besides the institutional-white zip-ties that fastened his wrists, all that was prominent in the dark was the iridescent black ponytail brushing his shoulders. “What’s your name?!” We shrieked after him repeatedly, in vain, until he was firmly bolted into the windowless wagon.
It can be difficult getting fellow protestors in a movement that calls itself the 99% to take one seriously if one does not fit into the largely mainstream-created image of the typical OWS protestor: grungy, unwashed white male hippie/hipster. Whenever I participate in a march that is not mostly full of white people, there’s a sense that I look too clean-cut to be a protestor. Little do lots of these people know that I pounded pavement long before their student debt crisis emerged and their middle-class lives started unraveling in 2008. All this type of work takes is perseverance and passion; the carefully crafted grunge look is quite fucking optional. So mistaken are fellow protestors who automatically assume that I’m Sweet Asian Polyanna who’s out on her first scary march with all the dangerous rabblerousers.
“Here,” he said, thumbing through the contacts in his smartphone, “his name is Carlos Hernandez*.” After the donut-fueled blue wall began to dissipate, I’d begun bouncing around the increasingly disparate crowd like a metal orb flung into a pinball game blitz, asking people if they knew the names of the arrested so they could be tracked through the criminal system. An unshaven white man in his thirties, he clearly adhered to the OWS fashion guide. Though it appeared as if he’d had his white-folk dredlocks prior to OWS, the swagger with which he wore the bandana tied around his head, the weathered – but very high quality – leather jacket, black skinny jeans and black boots, let everybody know he was definitely one of “them.” A fence-rattler. An ass-kicker. An OWS protestor. Next to him, who was I? Oh, probably the local news reporter passively collecting interviews for the latest segment. As we became marginally acquainted while anticipating the group’s next move, a number of non-OWS passersby shot me looks of disdain. I wondered aloud why that was, and my new acquaintance swung the back of his leather toward me to reveal a hand-made black patch that he fashioned and fastened to his jacket. “OWS Bitch,” it read in hand-scrawled white ink. The passersby saw the patch and, while white dred man was occupied with flipping through his smartphone, readily directed their silent aggression at me by association. I considered their derision a badge of honor. “Yeah, it’s my patch they’re looking at,” white dred man said. “You don’t look like you belong with us.”
Perhaps because I sensed in this guy a penchant for failing to comprehend any experience outside of that of the white male, I agreed to walk with white dred man to Union Square, where it was said that all the D17 marchers – some of whom had gone ahead to 34th Street and Times Square – were reconvening. While I was truly curious about how stupid he was going to get, I was also convinced that he had great capacity to get dumber, and that I probably would not be disappointed.
Our stilted utterances, which could not qualify as conversation, soon turned to what OWS calls “working groups” – committees that are formed to work on specific tasks or address particular concerns. He was in the Direct Action Working Group, which appealed to him because “people are willing to risk arrest.” Are you in any working groups? he asked.
“I used to be in People of Color Working Group,” I answered.
He focused his blue eyes on me as we walked north on 6th Avenue. “Are you colored?” he asked.
Cue the Tribe: “Fallin’ out between the dome of the white man’s mouth.” Because indeed, a white man protesting inequality as a part of OWS in the twenty-first century should learn to use his language better than this.
Incredulous, I peered into his face, with all intended venom and ire. “Well, I’m not white.”
Heading East on 14th Street, we momentarily ducked into McDonald’s after his increasingly urgent declarations of needing to pee and get a sandwich. While standing with him in line for the toilet – curiosity about the bounds of his ignorance still sufficiently piqued – he eyeballed the economical black puffy nylon coat that cozily skirted my knees. “That looks really warm,” he said, his tone implying that it might be expensive.
“It is,” I said.
“This isn’t so warm,” he indicated his sturdy leather, “but I like it ’cause it looks cool.”
Although white dred man was becoming more entertaining by the moment, I contemplated making a run for the train and extricating myself from this nicely-spun little cobweb of OWS contradictions. But when he emerged from the toilet after completing what I’m sure must have been one of the longest urinations of his life, my feet were still planted outside of the bathroom door, like a loyal dog.
“God I really had to pee!” he exclaimed in relief as we pushed through the glass doors.
“Well good for you,” I deadpanned.
Within a long few minutes, we reached Union Square, which was in its usual bustling state. A trio of approaching Asian folks politely veered to the side to allow us room as they passed.
“I love that,” said white dred man. “They’re like, ‘I’m not gonna mess with that guy!'”
Don’t flatter yourself, I seethed. You wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in my ‘hood, in the Mission back before your hipster brethren took over and flipped it with their riches and privilege.
Like the singing of angels, chanting protestors coming from the North end of Union Square saved me from this mess of a person of whom I was increasingly growing very tired. I jumped into the fray and began yelling, ditching white dred man in an instant. Shortly after, it became clear that the group was unclear about how to proceed, and in that moment it was decided that we would wait in the park until the rest of the marchers returned. We settled at the edge of the park area, some of us nestling around a concrete ledge and indulging in a hot beverage. Just as I was beginning to recover from white dred man’s idiocy, he reappeared in the corner of my eye, heading straight toward me with his OWS swagger.
“You know, I thought I saw you, like, three times,” he managed to sputter, half a sandwich in his hand, the other half apparently in his mouth. “Asian girls really like this type of jacket.”
“I think all girls in the winter in New York City like this type of jacket,” I said, though I much rather would have just punched his teeth in.
“Oh right, the black jacket and all,” he sputtered some more.
“Oh right yeah I know what you mean ’cause all short Asian girls in black jackets look alike, isn’t that right?” I said, making an incision, bobbing my face in his. Suddenly, white dred man lost the ability to make eye contact. “Oh, yeah, uh huh yeah well um,” he chuckled stupidly. I’d finally succeeded in making him go away permanently.
At the end of my D17 night, after having my thumb twisted while trying to break up a fight between two male OWS protestors who were too stuffed full of their own egos to step back and give credence to why September 17th happened in the first place, I realized why I was here; the reason why I didn’t leave Stupid by himself in the toilet at McDonald’s. It was to discover through another protestor that my friend DJ was in the hospital.
DJ is a long-haired white man who slept out at Liberty Square and kept the community vibrant with his art. His unassuming charisma encouraged people turned to him for advice and direction as though he were the mayor of the west side of the Square; as far as I’m concerned, he indeed was the mayor. He never used my clean-cut appearance, my race, or my gender as tools to denigrate my presence; he actually made efforts to protect it – more so than anyone else I encountered during those 59 days in Liberty Square. Despite tendencies to fly into passionate, seemingly specious diatribes over attacks on his art, DJ is quite a reasonable guy; he just had an uncompromising aversion to disrespect. We both hated meetings, and agreed that the GAs (General Assemblies) were becoming unwieldy. During his tenure in the park, he’d endured so much that he is now the hospital; with what, no one is sure, but whatever it is, it requires physical rehabilitation.
The OWS conversation is dominated by discussions of next steps as cold weather descends. These discussions occur via GAs, or what has come to be known as Spokes Council meetings. Even now I only have a vague idea of what the latter is, but that’s because I have concluded my interest in OWS meetings. OWS is not an inherently democratic or safe space for everyone, and they are geared, by nature, to accommodate people who have the time to attend. And they include people like white dred man who don’t understand the poison of the notions to which they cling. Until these types of people mic check their own privilege and misinformation, or at least take a proactive role in attempting to do so, I will not attend their meetings. But I will continue to wholeheartedly support their actions, and participate in as many as I can, while using this gorgeous momentum of the collective to engender an individual contribution – by digging deep and doing my part to refashion the status quo in such a way that might enable us all to effectively occupy this life.
* Name has been changed.