Zuccotti Park and “Occupy Wall Street”: Public Space Amidst A Growing Storm of Discontent

Zuccotti Park and “Occupy Wall Street”: Public Space Amidst A Growing Storm of Discontent

By: Alexander Alvarado, Jose Sabal, and Stacy Wang

Imagine you’re walking up New York City’s Broadway on a Saturday morning to get breakfast at the nearest café. As you make your way towards Cedar Street, you hear a few voices around the corner that are louder than usual. In fact, it sounds like many voices; you guess twenty or thirty people. You’re anxious to see what is going on up ahead, so you walk a little faster. The sounds get louder as you near the end of the block. Turning the corner, you can hardly believe what you see. A scene of hundreds of people crowded in a tiny space you know to be Zuccotti Park greet your eyes. They are holding signs, chanting in unison, and distributing pamphlets to pedestrians walking by. Your curiosity starts to tug at you, and you immediately forget about the coffee you were about to buy. As you get a little closer to the action, you get a first glimpse at one of the signs. It reads: “I CAN’T AFFORD A LOBBYIST . . . I AM THE 99%.” You quickly look to the left and see uniformed men from an organization called “Iraq Veterans Against the War.” You turn to the right and see a man with a megaphone repeating the phrase “Hey-hey, Ho-ho; Corporate Greed Has Got to Go!” with dozens following suit. You simply do not know what to make of it all.

Such scenes as these can touch on the experiences of hundreds of passersby and city dwellers on the morning of September 17th, 2011. Taking root in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space that became an extremely vital component of the movement, “Occupy Wall Street” sparked a nationwide protest against the many difficulties and concerns facing American society—particularly economic inequality, corporate malpractice, and political corruption. In fact, the protest eventually won influence in places such as Germany, Spain, Holland, France, Italy, England, and Greece. Closely following the worldwide economic crisis that began in 2008 (now termed the Great Recession), Occupy Wall Street and its derivatives were largely a manifestation of the people’s discontent; it was often an outcry denouncing the forces and structures behind the faltering economy and an expression of frustration towards the consequences of unfettered capitalism.

The unique public and private nature of Zuccotti Park, as well as a conflicting portrayal by different media outlets, gave rise to complications and conflicts throughout the life of the Occupy movement. For those who may not be familiar with its background, Zuccotti Park is a privately owned public space, meaning it was constructed by a private entity in exchange for zoning concessions under a city provision known as the Zoning Resolution of 1961. How did the nature of Zuccotti Park—namely, the fact that it is a privately owned public space—affect the movement’s success? What kind of a role did the media play in public perception? This article looks at the history of Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Movement, the park owner’s (as well as the government’s) actions during the protest, and how the decisions made by authorities may have set a precedent for future movements of this kind. We will also take a look at how different media outlets have presented the movement in contrasting ways, the possible reasons why this is so, and the implications of media bias on the success of these types of movements.

Growing Discontent in the Midst of a Financial Crisis

The Great Recession began in the U.S. with the bursting of an eight trillion-dollar housing bubble. Many people are now aware of the effect of subprime lending on the housing market. Put simply, subprime lending occurred when mortgage companies actively sought out and granted loans to people that would likely have great difficulty maintaining their payments. Eventually, millions of people couldn’t pay off their exorbitant debts and defaulted on their loans. As more and more homeowners faced foreclosure and investment bankers put the properties up for sale, the supply of houses on the market greatly exceeded the demand, which led to the stark plummeting of housing prices. This, as it is generally perceived, took a large toll on the economy of the nation as millions of Americans suffered huge losses in property values—which were generally their greatest investments.

However, there is still more to the story. It is quite well known that the crisis was largely brought about by various mechanisms of Wall Street bankers and investors. Soon, it became evident that Wall Street bankers were making lavish profits as home, car, and various other types of loans were repackaged and sold to investors as financial instruments known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), many of which included subprime loans. Banks have also been accused of selling counterfeit stock that doesn’t exist, known as “naked short selling.” Ultimately, these types of practices led to the immense financial bubble that contributed greatly to the recession. For this reason, protesters decided to hold their occupation in close proximity to the offices and headquarters of these bankers and investors. Of course, the targeted area was the Wall Street financial district of New York City.

In addition to outcry about the role of banks and large corporations in society and the economy, a lot of people had come to protest what they perceived to be a gross misuse of tax revenue by the federal government. For example, as many are aware, taxpayer money was used in multi-billion-dollar bailouts of some of the largest banks on Wall Street—all the while the public was left abandoned, as many see it, and deprived of services that would have helped them recover from the crisis that the banks themselves played a large role in causing. This led to widespread disillusionment with a government that seemed to be serving the interests of powerful corporations instead of the people. And how do occupiers feel about the wars being fought overseas? Well, let’s take it from an Iraq War Veteran that addressed the occupation at Zuccotti Park during an iconic march on November 2nd, 2011: “For ten years we have been engaged in wars that have enriched the wealthiest 1% percent, decimated our economy, and left our nation with a generation of traumatized and wounded veterans . . . The time in which we find ourselves is defined by corruption and lack of government accountability.”

However, aside from some of the superficial causes and symptoms of our instable national economy and debt crisis, the Occupy Movement seemed to really aim at some of the very pervasive systematic flaws and perils of the societal structure under which we live. Indeed, at the very heart of the movement, occupiers seemed to want to spread awareness of some of the more fundamental realities that threaten public welfare. It appears that much of the people’s frustration was directed towards our world’s predominant economic system, one that is widely perceived to have failed the majority of mankind. As one occupier bluntly stated: “Capitalism is a pathology; it’s a cancer, it’s a sickness. When profit comes before planet and humanity, there’s gonna be problems.”

This is the type of information that protesters often want to bring to light. Awareness campaigns such as these would never function without appropriate access to public space. Now, let’s take a closer look at what actually took place in Zuccotti Park, beginning with a brief overview of the origins of the space.

A History of Zuccotti Park

The private-public nature of Zuccotti Park helped ensure the longevity of the Occupy Movement and the effectiveness with which their message has been conveyed worldwide. Zuccotti Park, originally known as Liberty Park, is a plaza situated in downtown Manhattan near the Liberty Plaza One building. It is close to the financial district and abutted by Broadway, Trinity Place, and Cedar and Liberty Streets.

Liberty Park received its status in 1968 as a privately owned public space through a special permit filed by U.S Steel and allowed by the city. The building owners received zoning concessions in return for creating and maintaining this open space. As a result, the Liberty Plaza One building is nine floors higher than what the zoning laws of that time allowed.

The park changed owners as One Liberty Plaza was bought out by Brookfield Office Properties. In Spring 2004 it underwent renovations due to damages incurred from 9/11 where it was a site for cleanup, and emergency and vehicle equipment. It was renamed after one of Brookfield Office Properties’ board members and co-chairman John Zuccotti in 2005, and on June 1st, 2006 it was reopened. The company renovated the park and received approval from the city to add more trees, seating, tables and the abstract steel sculpture known as Joie de Vivre. The Double Check, a bronze sculpture of a man made by John Seward Johnson, which was there before 9/11, was placed on a bench in the southern tip of the park.

The placement of this space and the laws governing it are very important for its future role in history. Being a privately owned public space, it must be open to the public 24 hours a day, every day, unless designated otherwise by the City Planning committee. Zuccotti Park also falls under the label of a privately owned park, which means, according to Placematters.net, that neither the mayor nor the police can force the protesters to decamp. These two variables were deciding factors that eventually led to the choice of Zuccotti Park as the place for the Occupy Wall Street Movement..

Creating a Movement

Due to social discontent over the degrading economy and the policies the government had created to combat it, which many were labeling austerity, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was able to quickly gain followers. The movement started via Adbusters, the Canadian not-for-profit and non-consumerist magazine founded by Kalle Lasn. The idea originated from Lasn’s many conversations with Micah White, Adbusters’ senior editor.

According to an article posted in The New Yorker on November 28, 2011, in June 2011, White and Lasn emailed their subscribers about starting a movement, saying that “America needs its own Tahrir.” This was in reference to Tahrir Square, a critical space for the Egyptian revolution that removed then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, out of office in February 2011. Adbusters also created the OccupyWallSt.org website and their magazine’s art department made the meme of a ballerina dancing atop the famous Wall Street Bull amid protestors rising from tear gas in the background, with the words “What is our one demand?” at the top, and “#Occupy Wallstreet September 17th. Bring tent” at the bottom. Their message made headway through Reddit and Twitter, garnering more attention and supporters. Essentially, the Occupy Movement took root on the Adbusters website.

The New York City General Assembly and other community groups, along with Adbusters, laid the groundwork for the Occupy movement. According to a Mother Jones article posted on Monday, October 17, 2011, The New York General Assembly consisted of a diverse group of politically active people that ranged from local organizers from New York City to people who had taken part in uprisings in Europe and the Middle East.

A lot of the inspiration for the group came from the general assemblies in Spain’s movement known by many terms, such as the Indignados, Real Democracy Now, M-15, or Occupy Movement. This movement began on May 15th, 2011, for many of the same reasons the Occupy movement did here in the U.S. The New York City General Assembly adopted the assembly method used in Spain and decided on the ideal location for the movement: One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the former site of JPMorgan Chase’s headquarters, right in the heart of the financial district of New York City.

On September 17th, 2011, the Tactical Committee of the General Assembly confronted a problem. There was a police presence in the financial district, barred gates encircled the bull, and parts of Wall Street were sealed around the Stock Exchange. Members of the committee looked at the maps they had that showed possible points of occupation. From there they chose Zuccotti Park because of the near emptiness of the space, its unique nature as a privately owned public space, and its proximity to the financial district. Crucial to the protesters in making this decision was the park’s requirement—as per city zoning laws—to remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unaffected by city curfews.

The Occupation of the Park

At the start of the movement many of the core-organizing occupiers were educated anarchists and technologically competent enough to utilize social media, run multiple blogs and devise ways to keep the encampment of Zuccotti going. They built the movement and participation in it based on a horizontal forum style. As everyone was supposed to be equal, this style ensured that the Occupy movement had no leader and the decisions were made by consensus. Going with the idea of working as a collective entity, the occupiers used the “mic check” technique to bypass the use of bullhorns (which were quickly confiscated by authorities) to convey information in large groups. This technique is basically a large-scale game of “telephone,” where those around a speaking individual would repeat what he or she said in order for everyone else to hear.

When the occupiers held their general assemblies with the employment of “mic check,” people would in turn give feedback through various hand gestures to convey approval, valued interpretation, disapproval, or serious objection. Anyone could take part in the two general assemblies that were held each day and contribute their own thoughts on the issues being addressed. These assemblies could last hours and there were many other meetings for different committees that took part in running the camp, from food distribution, to media relations.

During the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the special permit plaza was transformed into a central hub for protesters in New York City. According to a New York Times article with reference from the Occupy Wall Street group, an estimated 250 people each night and 500 each day rallied in Zuccotti as of October 1st, 2011. Also in the article is a map of Zuccotti Park during the movement, which shows how the privately owned public space was changed into a “protest camp.” The camp had information, supply, medical, sanitation, food, and media centers. There was also a meeting area for the general assembly, a place to store posters and signs, and a library of more than 5,000 donated books.

The number of people coming and going through Zuccotti Park increased as the movement grew older and more popular. There were many tents and tarps set up to house those who stayed in Zuccotti at night. As the place grew congested the sanitation crew became an increasingly important part of the movement. The cleaning group collected garbage, swept the park for the numerous cigarette butts and debris, and put bagged trash on the corners of the park where the city’s Department of Sanitation would come and collect it each day. Turnover in the sanitation crew at the park was high. According to an interview in an article published by The Village Voice on October 19, 2011, Max Hondes, a sanitation crewmember, said that “somebody will come in, take on responsibility for sanitation, and then disappear.”

Conflicting Perspectives Across Different Outlets

The general consensus highlighted in interviews of protesters and footage of marches found on YouTube channels independent from mass media networks, is that there is a definite problem plaguing the United States, and most have agreed that it’s related to “corporate greed” and “money as political speech.” Interviews posted by “hotindiemedia” on YouTube have many occupiers stating their enthusiasm for having open discussions on how to change society for the better. Throughout these videos, the protesters appear to be nonviolent and peaceful.

As Lisa Perretto, a resident of Manhattan, pointed out in her interview (uploaded by hotindiemedia to YouTube on September 27, 2011) when referring to occupiers, “these people are very peaceful; they’re not looking for confrontation, they’re just looking to express themselves.” Afterwards, she stated that she believed the media put a spin, not a positive one, on the movement.

Medea Benjamin, another protester interviewed at the beginning of the occupation of Zuccotti park, (uploaded by hotindiemedia to YouTube on September 27, 2011) was excited by the openness of the protest. The movement in Zuccotti, according to her perspective, welcomed people from every walk of life and connected them to a group that were unified in their basic idea that something was very wrong with the state of things and that action must be taken. What was wrong and what to do about it, however, was at times different for different occupiers—though the majority of them felt that social and economic inequality, and a government not representative of the average American, was part of the problem.

Aside from what actually occurred on park grounds, the Occupy Wall Street Movement was being portrayed in distinct and various ways by the American media. While one media outlet may have denounced and condemned the movement, another may have outright celebrated it, or at least acknowledged that it had legitimate concerns. Let’s take a look at two programs that come from vastly different backgrounds: FOX News and Link TV.

The FOX News Channel, created by Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch, was launched in 1996 and has grown to become the country’s dominant cable news network. Receiving funding from an extensive list of corporations and advertisers, FOX News and other cable news networks such as CNN have been widely accused of biased and dishonest reporting in order to suit the interests of its sponsors. We have taken a few quotes from different commentators aired on the FOX News network in order to gauge the manner in which it has presented the Occupy Movement:

Occupy Wall Street… You can’t get a definition of what they stand for.”

It’s like Woodstock meets Burning Man meets people with absolutely no purpose or focus in life—no wonder, they have nothing but free time to be down there, they make up a slogan or a cause as they go along, and they’re just looking to go out there and dirty the streets, and they really don’t have any, like, idea about what they’re doing there.”

They hate corporations, they hate capitalism, and in the end, ultimately they want statism over free market, so they really don’t like freedom.”

On the other side, we have Link TV, an independently funded, commercial-free television network largely supported by its public audience. Let’s take a look at some quotes from commentators hosted on Link TV and its aired programs, such as DemocracyNow!

Look at the situation: the top 1% in New York City, earns, on income tax returns, something like $3.5-7 million a year . . . There are 34,000 households—nearly 100,000 people—who are trying to live in the city on $10,000 a year. Half of the population of New York City is trying to live on $30,000 a year. The levels of inequality in this city are absolutely stunning, and they’ve increased immensely since the 1970s.”

The idea is that all of the political parties have basically bankrupted themselves; they’re all essentially bought and sold by the financial elite that’s created this crisis. There’s no possibility of their actually coming up with a solution.”

As this vastly distinct reporting continues, public perception is gradually being formed, and this has an undeniable effect on support for the movement. However, since they do not receive money from satellite or cable companies, independent networks such as Link TV do not receive the same level of publicity as corporate-sponsored networks such as FOX News or MSNBC. When we take this into consideration, we might begin to see how public opinion might be skewed to fit certain views. One occupier commented about the reporting by FOX News that was being conducted at the protest: “I noticed that FOX reporter that day was going around here at Occupy Wall Street trying to trip people up and get them confused and he was basically making fun of them.” In an unaired response to a FOX News reporter, one protester seemed very frustrated at how many issues were being presented: “It’s fun to talk to the propaganda machine in the media, especially conservative media networks such as yourself, because we find that we can’t get conversations on the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation of news corporations (for which you are an employee), but we can certainly ask questions like, you know, ‘why are the poor engaging in class warfare?’ Now after thirty years of having our living standards decrease while the wealthiest 1% have had it better than ever, I think it’s time for maybe, I don’t know, some participation in our democracy, that isn’t funded by news cameras and gentlemen such as yourself.”

How the Authorities Responded

As the presence and publicity of the movement grew in scale, the population of the park started to change, which seemed to have compromised safety in some ways. There is some controversy as to how dangerous the park had become at night, but it seemed there was enough concern to install a large women’s-only tent on one end of the park. Interestingly, some occupiers even voiced their belief that authorities were deliberately sending known perpetrators and sexual predators onto park grounds.

After holding out for about two months, the Occupy Wall Street group in Zuccotti Park was kicked out by police on orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to The Guardian’s coverage of that day, the police arrived at 1 A.M. and started clearing the area. However, the action was not without its controversies of police brutality and the question of constitutional authority to clear the park. After the space was cleared and over 200 occupiers were arrested, the city sanitation crew cleaned up the space and police set up barricades around the park. At around 5 P.M. the same day they allowed people in after being checked for prohibited items, such as sleeping bags, tents, and tarps.

There have been numerous accounts of police brutality during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Multiple videos depicting a police officer pepper spraying peaceful female protestors brought attention to police brutality and the movement itself. The incident occurred on September 24, 2011 and the video went viral over the following weekend. It showed the women being separated from others with an orange net and a police officer, Anthony Bologna, nonchalantly spraying the women without any warning. As said before, this was not the only incident of police brutality during the Occupy Movement, nor was it the worst case documented, but it was the incident that was most widely circulated throughout the media.

As one reporter under the pen name of “MinistryOfTruth” for Dailykos said, “There were really large crowds today, more than I have seen in my five straight days here. I was interviewed by WPIX channel 11, and during the interview I was asked what I would say to those who feel it is a waste of taxpayer money to have the police surrounding the protesters.” This was posted on the Dailykos website on Sunday, September 25th, 2011.

The owners of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Office Properties, and the Mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, played a large role in stopping the movement at the park. Brookfield Properties, one of North America’s largest commercial real-estate companies, set up new rules in Zuccotti Park, since the Occupy Movement seemed like it was not going to leave on its own. The newly implemented rules and the company’s ability to enforce them are debatable, as the zoning law only permits them to impose “reasonable” rules, which naturally involves quite a bit of gray-area.

On October 13th, Brookfield Properties, after writing a letter to the police commissioner of the time, Raymond W. Kelly, and collaborating with the Mayor, Mr. Bloomberg, sent out a notice that they would clean the park the following day and after their cleaning they would allow protesters back in. According to a New York Times article posted on October 12, the Bloomberg administration stated that protesters would have to follow the  new rules set by the company on the privately owned public space after the cleanup.  As stated in the notice Brookfield Properties sent out, among these new rules were the prohibition of tents, sleeping bags, tarps, and lying down on benches and other designated areas. This did not go without a fight between other authorities and the occupiers.

The occupiers increased their cleaning crews and had more people participate in an active scrubbing in the park. Their rationale was explained in an interview with Chris Casper, an occupier who had been there since the first day: “I hope this aids as a deterrent to Brookfield property and at the very least it’ll make them look kinda silly if they kick everyone out to clean the park if the park is in tip-top shape first thing in the morning.”

State senators and city officials also became involved and influenced Brookfield’s decision to call off the cleanup. This is shown in Mr. Bloomberg’s comment, seen on a New York Times article posted on October 14, 2011, on why Brookfield Properties decided to quit on the cleanup: “My understanding is that Brookfield got lots of calls from many elected officials threatening them and saying, ‘If you don’t stop this, we’ll make your life more difficult.’”

The cleanup that eventually slowed the momentum of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the one that led to over 200 arrests, and the one that pushed occupiers out of the park, occurred on November 15th, 2011. Mayor Bloomberg stated in a press conference that same day that he approved of this cleanup at the request of Brookfield Properties, and that the final decision to act was his. Police surprised the protestors at around 1 A.M. and went around the park warning occupants to leave the premises or they would be arrested. In the press conference, Mr. Bloomberg said that the city’s intention was to “guarantee public health and safety… unfortunately the park was becoming a place where people came not to protest, but rather to break laws.” After this press conference, the city was backed by state Supreme Court Judge Michael Stallman in Waller v. City of New York, essentially agreeing with Bloomberg and Brookfield’s stance on the issue. The court’s closing statement was:

“The movants have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely. Neither have the applicants shown a right to a temporary restraining order that would restrict the City’s enforcement of law so as to promote public health and safety.”

Afterwards, Brookfield kept barricades for two months around the perimeter of the park with only two entrances so that they could restrict movement in and out of the space. Their security guards would search people who wanted to come into the park. They searched for anything that might be prohibited by the new regulations Brookfield Properties put up. To restrict access to Zuccotti park, a privately owned public space, is in itself a questionable action, as zoning laws required the park to have unobstructed access. January 10, 2012, a day after a letter was sent to the Department of Buildings from lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild objecting to the security measures made by Brookfield, the barricades were taken down. The letter stated that “[t]he inconsistent and selective enforcement of constantly changing rules, and preemptive searches of individuals attempting to enter the park violates the terms of the special zoning permit which obligates Brookfield to maintain Liberty Park as a permanent open park for the public benefit.”

The employment of barricades in Zuccotti Park during expected outpourings of protesters has also been questioned. On the six-month anniversary of the movement, more barricades were placed around the park, and Mayor Bloomberg, questioned by The Village Voice on the legality of these measures, said “it is if we need it for crowd control, and clearly we needed it for crowd control. You have a right to protest. You have a right to go in the park. You don’t have a right to set up tents. End of story.” This is, by the way, still in contrast with the zoning law—which requires unrestricted access—and goes way beyond simply prohibiting the use of tents.

Ultimately, we can see that a few important things have been established and observed throughout the course of this movement: the occupation of a public space with tents and other equipment does not count as constitutionally-protected free speech, more stringent rules by the park’s private owners have been accepted (implicitly raising the bar for these types of spaces all around), and the use of barricades, violent policing, forced evictions, and mass arrest has been tacitly permitted by the regulating powers. Undoubtedly, these measures will have some bearing on any future movements of this kind.

One Last Look

Taking a stroll through Zuccotti Park in 2014, you will instantly perceive the relatively tranquil ambience that has taken the place of the loud and active protest. As you explore the space’s contours and take in its prominent features such as the elegant flower design and Joie de Vivre, you can’t help but ruminate over the vast differences in the park’s current appearance and its atmosphere during the height of the Occupy Movement a few years back. Picking up on the calm, everyday chatter and the unremarkable use of benches and tables, there is hardly any way of telling that this space served as a focal point in one of the most controversial and daring public protests of the last few decades—save for a short message scribbled in chalk and a new plaque outlining the park’s updated regulations.

In fact, as we spoke and interviewed the patrons on a warm Friday afternoon, we discovered that the memory of Zuccotti Park as a platform for political expression had already begun to fade into the distance. Two or three of the people we spoke with had no idea that a famous protest had taken place where they were standing and sitting, and one or two said they were glad they could go back to using the park as before. However, there were a few users that sympathized with the movement and displayed a willingness to sacrifice personal convenience for the sake of the message the occupiers were trying to bring. Despite the varying perspectives park users had of the occupation, there was one thing virtually everyone we spoke to could agree on: the current state of the park was practically indistinguishable from what it had been before the Occupy protest began. In other words, everything was back to “normal.”

In this article, we examined some of the origins and substance of public discontent, we saw the ways in which authorities responded to the movement and the implications these actions hold for future movements of this kind, and we looked at the essential role that the media has played in defining the movement and creating or inhibiting support for it. In the end, we hope, the reader will be able to appreciate the inherent value of independent reporting. The message in chalk reads, “Never Forget . . . September 17th Occupy Was Born.” Yes, may we never brush aside the pressing realities our fellow citizens fought to bring to the table of public consciousness.

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