My Eyes Make Me Wise

It’s raining tonight. It rained all day. At 10 this morning, Marion walked up the train station steps, hugged me and rummaged through her giant purse. She bought a ticket and we went out to the platform to wait for the train to Newark Penn Station, where we walked picked up the PATH train to the World Trade Center. Even with directions in my pocket, I turned the wrong way every time. Marion, a native New Yorker, steered us around the Trade Center construction and the tourists taking pictures of buildings now disappearing into rain clouds. Almost by accident, our destination appeared right in front of us: Zuccotti Park. We’d come to see Occupy Wall Street.

A friend who wanted to meet me there never did, but that turned out not to be important. The camp, just before noon, was slow to rouse. The park was much smaller than I had imagined and filled with tents large and small, manufactured and improvised, many with blue tarps draped over them to keep out as much rain as possible, but everything looked wet. Everyone we met looked damp and rough around the edges. Marion mentioned she’d come three weeks ago, so I took off and walked the camp, to see what I could see.

Over, under, in between, around, behind, outside: the park sits on a very small, rectangular block on a noticeable incline. Walking the perimeter takes a few minutes at most. Along Broadway, which forms the narrow, high end of the park, a line of police officers stood with backs to the street and faces to the camp. The protesters there had flags, printed brochures, tables and chairs; they were interested in communicating a handsome and dizzying variety of political perspectives. At one end, a man stumped for an independent Puerto Rico and at the other, two motionless people held a banner describing Chinese-made products as slave labor. At the opposite corner of the block, messaging was much more casual as very young campers appeared more interested sorting out scattered belongings than in the tourists photographing them like shivering statues. At this end of the park, the police were both more sparse and more active.

Along Trinity Street, the best view of the camp may have been from the other side of the street, since the tents, including the first aid stations were packed close together and to an impressive height. All the action, though, was along the length of Liberty Street, where the cops looked nervous and would not make eye contact. I kept coming around to this side of the camp. On one of these laps, our path was blocked by a group of well-rehearsed singers, sheet music in hand, performing a complex, original vocal piece for whoever happened by with a video camera. It was at that point I decided the whole thing was positively fucking awesome.

It is possible to walk through the camp half a dozen times and see new things every time and they’re things you should see. Incredibly healthy-looking people walk around with deeply damaged friends, young and old, well-nourished and gaunt. The determination it took to stay in the camp through raw rainy days and nights must have been tremendous. I was dressed warmly and in a cyclist’s rain gear and I was more or less comfortable. The protesters looked like they were engaged in a fateful struggle with time and the elements. At the comfort station, I left three pair of socks and two scarves. At the food tent, I left a bag of gingery oatmeal cookies. It was all I could carry and still the least I could do.

Nothing – not the election of Obama, not massive anti-war protests, not the passage of a health insurance bill – has stopped the Overton Window’s sailing rightward with increasing speed until now and this. This messy campsite and these people, for all their failures and mistakes, are it. I owe these people for doing what no one else has. If you’re honest with yourself, we all owe them.

You can get on a train and offer support in person or you can contribute money or materials.

The cold, raw weather forced me out of the park and into a coffee shop. Marion, the president of my union, made last minute arrangements to travel to the swearing-in of a judge in Newark. I struggled with the idea of traveling homeward, but staying in the coffee shop was just silly, so we went back to the park and did more laps in and around and through the camp. Everyone had a camera. Everyone seemed to be taking pictures and video all the time. I’d brought a camera but didn’t take a single picture. Once I was there, it seemed invasive. We were aware that the camp had a livestream and we would certainly turn up on it and that hundreds of other visitors must also be tromping around the camp. This idea gave me great pause.

So please go see it for yourself. Please bring things the protesters need. Please don’t do anything stupid.

My back is kind of killing me. Everything I learned today was totally worth it.

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