(In Part Three of her Occupy History, New York City Activist and media strategist Priscilla Grim, who participated in Occupy Wall Street as early as August 2011, a month before it took off in Liberty Square on September 17, reflects on the inner workings of the movement as it continued to grow.)
Elaborate on some of the work and infrastructure of Occupy in Liberty Square.
The media tent was a collection of blue tarps that were somehow strung up on top of trees – I believe (laughs) – just suspended by rope. There was media equipment stored in plastic boxes and there would be laptops everywhere, and lots of men.
I had been working in the nonprofit sector for about 10 years, which in New York feels like it’s about 90 percent women, so Occupy Wall Street was literally my first real exposure to sexism in the workplace, if you will.
I had come out of a women’s college, and all the sudden, I’m in the real world and dudes would say shit to me where it was just, like, “What? You still exist?” It was such a weird thing.
So, yeah: media tent, live streamers, lots of men.
At the Occupied Wall Street Journal, because it was print and we had to lay things out and all that, we were at the Brecht Forum on the edge of Tribeca, uptown a little.
In Zuccotti Park, the C-squat people came in and they set up this amazing generator, which was bicycle powered.[i]
The park was so amorphous. It just kept changing week to week. Every Friday night, a ton of people would come in and, I would always joke, “because Fridays are move in days, so that Monday you can get to work.”
Early October, Mayor Bloomberg first threatens to evict the protesters and a bunch of people show up to defend the park …
They cleaned it. That was when the protesters cleaned it. And they actually brought brooms. I think on the cover of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, we had broom.
Describe that day, both the build-up to it and what that day was like for you.
The interesting thing about Bloomberg was that he didn’t want to evict anybody. That’s why we were allowed to be there for so long, because he didn’t want to piss off anybody. He’s a constant businessman. He doesn’t wanna make an actual decision. So, that’s one of the reasons we were there for so long.
He didn’t wanna do anything, and that was when the property company, Brookfield, started getting involved.
When we first got in there, one of the reasons the media tent and other things could be set up is that there were power outlets all over the park, which were used to power lights on the trees, and people were using them to power up their phones and computers, so we could actually get work done there.
Nobody really thought that Bloomberg was going to get rid of it, but there was a real fear about the NYPD and what that would look like. So, when a report from the city was going over the news, saying, “We’re gonna go in, because it’s not clean,” everyone was like, “No, then we need to show up for cleaning duty,” and the protesters cleaned the park with brooms, mops, water, everything.
That morning, when they sent the police, was there still uncertainty about what would happen next?
The police were there every day. The only day the police weren’t there is when we had a blizzard in early November, and they did not come that day. That was the only day I didn’t see them there. Otherwise, they were literally there the whole time, and they had lots more the longer it went on.
I think the fact that they couldn’t evict us that day was one of the reasons they brutalized everyone on November 15, when they actually broke up the camp, in coordination with the White House, by the way. Naomi Wolf wrote about this, that there was a meeting of the mayors that the Oakland Mayor let out to the press by accident – we weren’t supposed to know this – that they were gonna tear Occupy down, down city by city. [ii]
It was a total surprise when it happened, and there were text alerts being sent out to people to defend the park, but it wasn’t enough. It was just too fast and too late at night.
But, that first time they planned to clear us out, in October, was awesome. People were going around all day with their brooms, waving them like flags. It was awesome.
What was your fondest memory, maybe a specific time or day, of Occupy?
There are so many of them. I mean, it was just so exciting to see so many people in the streets, saying, “Yes, this is a problem that I’m having as well,” and all the sudden, it wasn’t like we were all suffering in our own unique silos. We were on the street together.
Addressing everything through the lens of class issues was awesome to me, because that’s how we are going to win, I think.
Although, Occupy did have problems with lack of diversity, and I hope in the 10 year anniversaries that people are planning, they are going to try to remedy that, because there were different solutions to that, none of them elegant, but Occupy was at the beginning of what needed to happen to address that, in breaking down activism in the United States, and I do think Occupy started doing that and remedying some of the challenges of the past, before it was crushed.
And we had so many people from different walks of life, bringing needed perspective to everyone.
We had ACT UP activists there helping. There was an activist group from Spain, activists from Egypt. We had homeless rights activists from New York City join up with Occupy, to help out with the homeless folks who were showing up and becoming part of the camp. There was a lot.
What were your experiences or observations on the ground of police and their interactions with protesters during Occupy?
I was definitely radicalized in Occupy around policing, and the idea that it needs to be abolished.
The NYPD tried to kettle my daughter and I in one of the marches in midtown, and to this day my daughter won’t go to a political protest because of that. It happened when she was eight years old.
What was that like?
We were marching, and all the sudden, I saw the orange nets come out. There were two cops on either side of us, trying to push us in, and I just grabbed my daughter. I had a bucket I’d been hitting, and I just dropped the bucket and grabbed my daughter and we ran into McDonald’s, and it was … just … (pause) super frightening. I mean, they almost had us.
But that’s nothing. They are literally killing people in the streets who are not light skin protected.
I definitely went into Occupy thinking, “Oh, well – you know – maybe there are some cops that are good people,” and I came out going, “No, there really aren’t.”
But I keep thinking about what my best memory of Occupy Wall Street is, going back to your question earlier.
One of them is falling asleep under the trees in Zuccotti park and just realizing how quiet the financial district was.
Also, sleeping on cardboard, realizing that this is what homeless people do every single night, was important. For people without homes, that is their reality in New York City: They’re sleeping on cardboard, and THEY SHOULD HAVE HOMES. It’s unconscionable that they are left so vulnerable, how they are preyed upon by our system.
Sitting there in the quiet with other people, sleeping in the park, waking up together in the morning at, like, 7:30, and realizing that it was going to be okay, together, and that nothing had happened to us over night, that we were all still there, was also a favorite memory.
Also, a friend of mine who built occupywallst.org also built the 24-hour phone line for the park, which I worked on too. It would deliver to about five different people 24/7 to answer the phones. You had the 800 number. You could call Occupy Wall Street from anywhere.
She, myself, and another friend of ours were in the middle of one of the streets going into Wall Street one day – I forget which one – and there were literally tens of thousands of people around us, and the three of us are just nerds, in our houses on our computers all the time. You know what I’m saying? We were not the most social people.
The three of us were so outside of our comfort zone with the world, and at the same time, this was everything that we wanted to happen. It was this moment of being like, “This is us. We made this.”
Another great memory was being in the rooms with the direct action planning, because I really pushed the media people to be going to the direct action stuff so that we would have a better idea of where we needed to be to capture the best photos and whatnot, and seeing the exuberance on everybody’s faces as everything was being planned.
It was just awesome.
And being in the Occupied Wall Street Journal offices late at night, tracking down stories for the paper, deciding which photos were going to be best, working with some of the smartest, most dedicated people I’ve ever met — it was really an incredible experience.
But it was weird — you know — because everything was changing.
We were trying to find money to print the paper, and I approached a big lefty magazine, because they had a foundation, and I was like, “We need this much money to print this many copies to go around all of New York City,” which we did, and they were like, “We’re gonna have to wait a week before giving you an answer,” and I was like, “Yeah, but we’re on the news every single day right now and we don’t know when the cops are gonna come break it down, so we really don’t have a week. We really need to know by tomorrow. I’m going to all these other places to ask for money and I’m hoping you guys will be on that list.”
They sent me an email, like, “Thank you, but no thank you, we’re gonna have to pass.”
The thing is: I did all this wealth research in the city for The New York Library and the Bronx Zoo, so I knew how much money this foundation had, potentially, that they could help us with. Occupy was the kind of thing they were supposed to represent. And nope. They didn’t find a political alignment with it.
In general, in your view, why wasn’t there more support for Occupy from the journalism and academic communities?
Because: It wasn’t their people doing it. Occupy was all these new activists and young people, who kind of thumbed their nose at anybody who seemed to have any kind of substantive background, because we got here under them and also because, with the internet stuff, you actually have to have some skill to make sure all of it goes.
It has been my experience, anecdotally, in the past, that people with lots of money are usually able to assert control on political projects in the United States. That was broken by Occupy, and that is good.
In the vacuum of that particular kind of outside support, who were some of the important alliances of Occupy, important outside supporters of the Movement?
The Working Families Party was a tremendous supporter of Occupy Wall Street.[iii]
The unions in the city all threw their support behind us in different ways.[iv]
The Alliance for Global Justice, which does a lot of work in Nicaragua, have been an amazing resource to this day.[v]
There was the Brecht Forum, which used to be, like, the socialist study center of New York City.
[i] Camilla Webster and Kristi Hedges, “Occupy Wall Street Bikes Power NYC’s Lower East Side,” Forbes, 11/1/2011
[ii] Naomi Wolf, “Revealed: How the FBI Coordinated the Crackdown on Occupy,” The Guardian, 12/29/2012
[iii] Elizabeth Flock, “Occupy Wall Street Protests Grow in Size and Credibility,” Washington Post, 10/5/2011
[iv] Steven Greenhouse and Cara Buckley, “Seeking Energy, Unions Join Protests Against Wall Street,” The New York Times, 10/5/2011
[v] Chuck Kaufman, “Occupy Wall Street, Fiscal Sponsorship, & The Alliance for Global Justice,” afgj.org, 10/19/2011
[vi] Norman Siegel, “Occupy Wall Street: Challenging the Status Quo,” New York Amsterdam News, 11/28/2011