“Today is day 5,” read a sign in the midst of thousands of people camping out at Liberty Plaza yesterday, steps away from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. It’s been a week since the Occupy Wall Street protests began, and the protesters show no sign of backing down, pledging to continue on for months if necessary. Young students, New Yorkers, the homeless, the poor and jobless college graduates have all banded together in a long overdue reaction to the financial crisis that continues to impact America.
Julien Garret, one of the organizers of the protest, gave me his assessment of the protesters. “We all have different personal and political demands, but the one thing that unites us all is the realization that the system in this country isn’t working and the young and the poor are being asked to pay the price,” he said.
Occupy Wall Street takes its cue from the Arab Spring revolutions, specifically the uprisings at Tahrir Square and the use of social media and cyberguerilla warfare to motivate the masses. Spearheaded by off- and online social activist groups Adbusters and Anonymous Hackers, Occupy Wall Street is born out of an internet culture that has also been transported to the streets. Small groups of protest organizers huddle around computers set up in the middle of Liberty Plaza, a tangle of wire and cables swimming at their feet.
A democratic process and peaceful attitude (including sobriety, one protester mentioned to me) are the focus of the movement. The protesters hold a daily General Assembly at Liberty Plaza during which anyone and everyone is given the stage to propose suggestions or create committees to assist in the movement. Yesterday, facilitators and organizers also reviewed guidelines to avoid being arrested during the protests — five protesters had already been taken into police custody by 12:30 pm on Wednesday. The vibe of the Assembly is just as much political as it is poetic and performative. When someone gets up to speak the entire crowd repeats their words, chanting in unison.
Hundreds of posters — flanked by one topless lady holding a sign that says “I didn’t say look, I said listen” — also line the sidewalk at the far end of the plaza. The posters, many made of cardboard, are being created by anyone who feels like picking up a pen or paint brush and sharing their story or political viewpoint. Laid out like a patchwork collage, they are chillingly similar to the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was first displayed in front of the National Mall in 1987 and became a startling marker of how many had died from the disease.
The Occupy Wall Street posters enact the same type of visual and artistic protest as the Quilt. It allows those who have been devastated by the financial crisis to invade the very site of economic injustice and create a platform for themselves amongst the banks and corporations that prefer the silence of middle and lower class voices. Despite the naked woman’s rebuke against looking, these posters are a reminder of the importance of visibility for the disenfranchised and the power of seeing their struggle laid out in images and text. Passerbys, many of them Wall Street employees, were clearly affected by the power in this movement and many stopped to contemplate the posters and their messages of economic hardship.
Although there are sure to be cynics and those who disregard Occupy Wall Street as a hippie or hipster camp-out, the movement and its poster collage have initiated a new visual discourse, or a type of oral history, for the crisis. For now, the streets of downtown Manhattan are lined with the images and voices of activism.