September 27, 2011

Alan Chin at Occupy Wall Street: Nights at Camp Hashtag

An organizing meeting of activists to discuss the next day’s activities.

Late at night in Zucotti Park, also known as Liberty Plaza, across the street from the World Trade Center site, several hundred demonstrators remain camped out into their second week of the Occupy Wall Street protest. They are largely young, white, and many appear, at first glance, to fit a derogatory stereotype of “hipsters” or “hippies” or any hardhat epithet of choice. As such, they have been branded by The New York Times and other news outlets as being incoherent or worse.

A young woman fields phone calls in the “media cluster” of laptops constantly live-streaming video, Twitter, Facebook, and other feeds.

Certainly it’s easy to make fun of them this way: There are few totems of the old working and middle-class Left here, no visible labor unions, church groups, student organizations, or any of the other signs of a broad based movement that we saw as recently as last winter in Wisconsin. But what the mainstream media seems to have missed entirely is that neither coherence nor the traditional political calculus are the first priority here. Organs of record ignore the enormous elephant in the room — the Republican Party — driving this protest. It’s painfully obvious that the Obama administration fails to effectively address the Great Recession and the increasing divide of rich and poor, and that the consequent hijacking of the political system by the Tea Party is extreme and radical by historical standards.

Protesters rest and sleep on air mattresses, sleeping bags, and yoga mats.

Garbage cans are emptied out and the area swept with brooms by volunteer activists.

Many pundits have thus noted that the lack of greater protest is an interesting, if not surprising, aspect of our current moment. They would be well served by visiting the encampment in Lower Manhattan. The park is kept spotlessly clean, the disparate demonstrators field skeptical inquiries from hecklers and passerby with humor and patience, and their low numbers are steadily supplemented by people that join them for an hour or two at a time.

To the right is a video projection on a white sheet of a live Twitter feed covering the protest.

Neither explicit legislative targets nor negotiating points are the goal in Liberty Plaza. Rather, it is to give voice to the brooding discontent that so many Americans feel so inchoately, instead of allowing the far right to monopolize populism. Despite mass arrests reminiscent of the 2004 Republican National Convention, the sit-in has extended beyond the initial one-week plan to an indefinite protest. Each day and night that they remain is a testament to their resilience and creates a new fact on the literal ground of Wall Street. Their presence, however modest, proves that a few are willing to publicly dissent and stand up against conventional wisdom.

I photographed Tiananmen, and more recently Tahrir, and all the mass demonstrationss against the Iraq invasion, the Million Man March, the huge crowd for Obama’s inauguration, the disappointing John Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, and this doesn’t merit comparison in scale to anything like that, even remotely. But it is a beginning, more than anyone else has managed to express. And for that, credit and respect must be awarded, disdain and contempt discarded. Time will tell if this will snowball, or if forlorn prophets cry in the wilderness alone.

–Alan Chin


These images and notes were made at Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan, New York, September 27, 2011.

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Alan Chin
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