Occupy Wall Street N17

New York, NY, USA

Police officer

Female police officer wearing visored helmet

New York, NY, USA

The intersection of Pine and Nassau was jammed solid. From my vantage point on the side of a building on Pine, I could just make out a line of pale blue helmets and dark blue uniforms, threaded through the more colorful and heterogeneous mass of the protesters. From time to time, chants of "Shame! Shame!" and "The world is watching! The world is watching!" signaled that the police were trying to put zip-ties on someone.

If the world was indeed watching, there was a good chance that its view was pretty similar to mine. I had ended up on the corner of Pine in a small nest of photographers and videographers, some amateur, some professional. I suspected that the professionals might have picked that spot because it was close enough to the center of any likely action, but just enough on the fringes that their expensive gear wouldn't be in danger if the NYPD decided to go in swinging. Or maybe it was simply that there were so many cameras and video-cameras at that demonstration that wherever you stood you were likely to find yourself within arms-reach of not less than fifteen cameras of various makes and models.

I'd been thinking for some time that I should go and check out Occupy Wall Street, not simply because it's the kind of thing that I like to photograph and write about, but also because - for reasons that I've explained at length elsewhere - I think it may be significant. The November 17th demonstration, marking two months since the first occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York's Financial District, looked like a good opportunity to see for myself what was going on.

Most press coverage of Occupy Wall Street is subtly – sometimes not so subtly – dismissive. The movement is portrayed as leaderless and incoherent, its most active members punky squatter types, urban youth with nothing better to do than go camp in a bleak little park in the Financial District for weeks at a time. The occasional surprise interview with a 'normal' person – a union member, a junior executive, a working mom, a retiree – only serves to reinforce the message that most of those involved are still just disaffected neo-hippies, with their quaint ad hoc hand gestures and their aggravating drum circles.

The truth, as far as I could see, is not so simple. The crowd that I saw was mostly young, largely male, mostly white. At times, not only the police but even the frustrated office workers trying to get to their jobs on Wall Street seemed to be more socially diverse than the OWS protesters. But when you looked closer, the more varied the movement started to look. An ironworker from L.A, a mother with her young son, a nurse, young men in suits and ties, a middle-aged man holding a flag, a Vietnam veteran, people of all ages and races and backgrounds: wherever you looked, you'd find someone who didn't fit the pattern given in the press. Look elsewhere, and what seemed at first glance to be a more or less homogeneous crowd of mostly young people would suddenly turn out to be anything but.

Among the most visible outliers, of course, was a tall and distinguished-looking man with a white mustache, wearing a full police uniform. His name, I later learned, was Ray Lewis, and he was a retired police captain from Philadelphia who had joined the Occupy movement. I happened to be standing just a few feet from him when the police started trying to clear Pine Street. As the police marched away a young man who had sat down in the street, Captain Lewis looked around, seemed to come to a decision, and sat down quietly in his place. The helmeted riot cops hesitated for a moment at the sight of a full captain sitting in the road, then picked him up and put the zip-ties on his wrists. He let himself be led away, head high, while the crowd cheered and clapped. It was a simple, graceful piece of civil disobedience, and it was impossible to watch it and not be moved. The word 'Integrity' written on his shoulder badges seemed entirely appropriate. (see video)

In fairness, the NYPD cops that I saw seemed to be generally well-behaved. I was somewhat unnerved by the number of white-shirted senior officers – whose presence at a demonstration frightens me far more than any number of helmeted riot cops – but even they seemed generally calm, while the rank-and-file police were mostly relaxed and even friendly. The NYPD hasn't always behaved well around OWS, and there were violent clashes later in the day, but while I was there both sides held their peace.

Not everyone saw it that way, of course. The sheer numbers of cops caused one group of marchers to break out into a chant of "This is what a police state looks like!" Thinking of police states I have seen, I was unable to stop myself from saying "It really isn't," at which the policeman standing next to me smiled and shook his head.

OWS's inclination to the dramatic, not to say theatrical, expressed itself in some quirky ways. In front of Brown Brothers Harriman, a group of people dressed as houses ran back and forth beside a banner reading 'Banks steal homes', miming panic and shouting "The banks are coming! The banks are coming!" One man sported a white robe, a long white beard, and a sign reading "Diogenes says Bloomberg fuck off." The nature of Diogenes' beef with the mayor was never entirely clear to me, but political movements often attract some curious fellow travelers.

Not all of OWS is quirky. The legal observers were brisk and businesslike and suitably ubiquitous. The organizers did a good job of communicating plans and waypoints and marshaling the crowd into some semblance of collective order. Even the famous "People's Mic" proved to be an efficient means of communication, vastly clearer and more audible than the NYPD's bull-horned directives, which went mostly unheard and unobeyed. I think the cops might have done better to ask if they could use the People's Mic.

I don't know what will happen with OWS in the long term. The winter, if not the NYPD, will discourage people from camping in parks, so the movement's tactics will probably have to evolve. It's too early to say if OWS represents the start of something radically different in American politics or just another ephemeral movement that will fizzle and die. What is clear to me, however, is that the simplified story of drum circles and rebellious youth being told by the media doesn't capture the reality. There's a reason why the Occupy movement has emerged now, and that reason has to do with factors and forces that affect a great many more people than just a handful of urban campers in Lower Manhattan.