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A Dispatch from #OccupyWallStreet, the Wired — and Wireless — Protest

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, October 6 2011

It was windy and loud on Broadway last night and Carey Tan hadn't finished making her sign.

"I guess I've been a little bit politically active," said Tan, 26. "But never anything like this."

Tan crouched over two pieces of poster board, making a sign in the shadow of an abstract sculpture and the mammoth headquarters of Brown Brothers Harriman, a financial services firm.

"Got any #Concrete Ideas?" It asked. "Tweet —"

That's as much as she'd taped to the poster boards, but she was still working.

Carey Tan, one of the first-time activists to join protesters in Zuccotti Park. Photo: Tom Hudson / Tom Hudson Photography

In several ways, Tan was like many of the people attracted to Zuccotti Park in the weeks after thousands of angry Americans, many young and out of work, converged there on Sept. 17: She had never before been so invested in a political act, was disappointed in President Obama's handling of the country's financial and political crises, but was hopeful that the Occupy Wall Street protest could become "something big." While a little suspicious of the protest's structure — proclaiming to be open, transparent, horizontally integrated and driven by a come-one-come-all general assembly, but with working groups "empowered by the general assembly" who seem to be setting the agenda — she seemed optimistic about her ability to contribute to the protest, maybe to give it focus. And with a day job that had her pasting her sign together in the minutes before she hoisted it above her head to march around the square, she's turning to Internet tools to help her stay involved.

One of her pieces of poster board, carrying her own list of ideas, fluttered and left the ground in the rising wind; I grabbed it and held it with my knee as we spoke. It was well past sundown but not yet 7 p.m., and Tan had just arrived from her job at a nonprofit elsewhere in Manhattan. Across the street, a teeming throng of union protesters and disaffected Americans had marched from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park, across the street from Tan's ministrations. The same canyonlike topography that whipped the slightest breeze into a whirlwind also made each cheer from the protesters reverberate into the night as the police surrounding the square watched and waited, making small talk with onlookers.

Tan told me that before Occupy Wall Street, she didn't think highly of marching around with signs. When she was in high school, her family once took to the streets to protest the Iraq war.

"There was a handful of us there, and nobody paid any attention," she said. With just a few people, what's the point? But Zuccotti Park was packed end-to-end, and a live video feed of the protests — patched together from multiple cameras in the field, all sending their footage back to a laptop in the park where one volunteer taught another how to manage the feed — had a viewership that day that stayed at 15,000 people for much of the march that afternoon.

Suhas, 43, a software engineer who works near the protest site, stopped to watch Tan patch together her sign. She clearly could have used two or three times as many hands as she had available.

Ten years ago, Suhas told me, "this country was beginning to look more and more like an Asian country ... a democracy gone haywire."

Suhas, who declined to give me his last name, told me he is from India, but has lived in the U.S. for years.

"What these guys are doing is what the Tea Party should be doing," he said, adding later on, "This should have happened sooner."

I asked him again for his last name. He responded by mentioning his blog, where he would write if he wanted to put his name to something. Nobody needs a journalist's attention anymore to find a voice for their opinions, and Occupy Wall Street seems to be that long-held suspicion taken to its farthest extreme to date.

Thanks to the protesters' savvy use of the Internet for their own message, the Occupy Wall Street protesters had been able to gather the support, finances and momentum they needed to keep going until Wednesday. At that point, several major unions brought thousands of their members — and attendant cameras from major news networks — with them to declare their support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters' demands. Whatever those were.

Days before, the protesters had published a declaration of grievances — both online and in their printed newspaper, Occupy Wall Street, its production fund filled to overflowing with Internet donations. All the same, news outlets persisted in characterizing the protesters as without demands. That's why Tan was there — trying to drum up a conversation about "concrete ideas" for protesters to support, armed only with Twitter and poster board.

But maybe it's not a lack of ideas so much as what those ideas really are. Writing for yesterday, media theorist Doug Rushkoff wrote that what Occupy Wall Street was seemed clear enough to people who understand the 21st century.

"To be fair," he wrote, "the reason why some mainstream news journalists and many of the audiences they serve see the Occupy Wall Street protests as incoherent is because the press and the public are themselves. It is difficult to comprehend a 21st century movement from the perspective of the 20th century politics, media, and economics in which we are still steeped."

One of the biggest 20th-century pillars of the left, the labor unions, sent thousands to support Occupy Wall Street on Wednesday. After they had spent perhaps an hour in Zuccotti Park, some of them had left, some stuck around to give speeches at an assembly in the park, and others still continued to perambulate in the smaller side streets on either side of the impromptu campsite. As this was happening, some of the syllables Tan was hoping to tape up on her sign fluttered out of the yellow folding file she used to store them, and tumbled towards Broadway. As passersby grabbed them and handed them back to her, more people stopped to give her sign a curious look. Another man, who had caught a ride to New York to be in Manhattan on Wednesday, stuck around a while to take photos.

Then he put the camera down and decided to help Tan with her sign. She was using the Twitter handle @OccupyIdeas to try to start a conversation about "concrete ideas" for the protest, but the "-deas" in the handle had blown away in the wind. He took Tan's Sharpie marker and filled in the rest freehand — more serendipity in a protest built on the belief that political change can come from a densely packed group of like-minded people.

"Got any #Concrete Ideas?" the sign read, when completed. "Tweet & tag @OccupyIdeas."

"My hero!" Tan said, as things started to get tense between police and protesters on Broadway.

Every night at 7:30, the protesters host what they call a "general assembly" — the come-one-come-all get-together that's supposed to serve as the legislative body for Zuccotti Park. It's at the edges of this meeting two days before, on Monday, that I first saw Tan holding her sign. Wednesday night, the cheering and the excitement seemed to be making it difficult to host one. I was curious about how Wednesday's assembly would go, how many union workers would stick around, so I checked Vibe, the anonymous but location-aware messaging service some protesters are using. One message said that the general assembly for the night would be held on Wall Street. That turned out not to be the case — or the group consensus. Just the same, soon after I saw a knot of sign-waving, drum-carrying protesters marching across Broadway, hoping to find a way through the police barricades to their protest's namesake. Most protesters, though, stayed in the park. Along Trinity Place, where there were fewer people and the ones that were there spoke quietly with the cops, someone had set up a projector to beam slogans against the wall of a nearby skyscraper.

On Wall Street, at around the same time, the situation was turning violent. Someone with the group that decided to march there posted images to Vibe of police getting out the orange mesh nets they use to "kettle" protesters. Also on Vibe, someone reported chants of "this is what a police state looks like" in response.

Later on that same evening, footage emerged on YouTube of a senior New York Police Department officer swinging a baton at protesters there. Only afterwards did the same user who posted that footage upload an extended version, showing protesters counting down to zero before charging the barricaded entrance to Wall Street that police were guarding.

That high-level view online was lost on the protesters on the ground. Periodically, people on Wall Street and Broadway would chant "Shame!" or "Pig!" as police made an arrest. Thursday morning, though, the Guardian reported that some protesters had the same reaction that I heard from police on Thursday night: The folks who went to Wall Street and chose to confront police were bad apples, taking themselves out of the barrel.

Others, of course, felt that the police did not handle themselves well in those confrontations. But many protesters — including Tan, who stayed out of the park until tensions seemed to ease — voted with their feet by staying away from hostilities. As things quieted down, police urged her to clear the side of Broadway they seemed to be using as a staging area. By that time, more onlookers had turned into her supporters — she had two other people with her, helping her hold her signs.

The next morning she'd have to be at work. But that night, she was one of many protesters holding aloft her thoughts on what Occupy Wall Street should do next, rather than hand out more flyers to swirl in the wind above Zuccotti Park or watch from the sidelines. After all, people who agreed with her could always seek her out later — on the Internet.