Occupy History

Occupy History: An Ending & A New Beginning, with Priscilla Grim

(In the final part of her Occupy History with HTR in July 2021, New York City activist and media strategist Priscilla Grim, who worked with Occupy Wall Street beginning in August 2011, recalls the last days of the occupation of Liberty Square and the outpouring of solidarity with Occupy protestors on November 17, 2011, two days after the park was violently raided by the NYPD.

Below is an abridged timeline of events on November 17, 2011, for a sense of what that day was like on the ground as it unfolded. I used the ows.org timeline of November 17 from Danny Schechter’s book, Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street, to write the one below, and I’ve put the events in that timeline in the order in which they happened, whereas Schechter presents them in reverse order to reflect the appearance of the live stream:[i]

5:00 pm: Chant: “BLOOMBERG, BEWARE, ZUCCOTTI PARK IS EVERYWHERE.”

5:07 pm: More police sirens heard headed toward Foley Square.

5:16 pm: 90, Fifth Avenue, occupied by students from Pratt, Columbia, NYU, Hunter College …

5:25 pm: NYPD cavalry begins to appear on Centre Street.

5:30 pm: #OWS shuts down Canal St.

6:15 pm: Protesters marching toward Brooklyn Bridge from Foley Square, chanting, “WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS.”

6:30 pm: City Hall is locked down, from @JoshHarkinson

6:42 pm: On the Brooklyn Bridge.

6:44 pm: Taking Canal St.

7:00 pm: One source gives around 2,000 protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge.

7:01 pm: Entrance of Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall Station, closed.

7:06 pm: Police scanners estimate crowd at 32,650 people, reported by @jstetser.

7:09 pm: A light show on The Brooklyn Bridge is projecting “Occupy Earth – we are winning” on the side of the Verizon building, followed by “Happy Birthday OccupyWallStNYC,” reported by @OccupyWallSt.

7:30 pm: The column marching on Brooklyn Bridge stretches about a mile long.

7:52: From @JoshHarksinson, thousands of people with music, songs, honks of support. Everything peaceful.

7:54 pm: General Assembly held at 8 at the Korean War Memorial Park, just past The Brooklyn Bridge.

8:00 pm: City Councilor Jumaane Williams may have been arrested at the foot of The Brooklyn Bridge.

8:23 pm: There is now a People’s Library, a marching band, and a projector on the Brooklyn Bridge, according to @occupywallst people on the ground.

10 years later, in the final part of her Occupy History with HTR in July, Grim reflects on Novemeber 17, 2011, what became of the Occupy Movement and the country in the 10 years since the eviction of protesters from Liberty Square, and she discusses organizing efforts to occupy Wall Street again on its 10th anniversary this September, her hopes that this will happen, the possibility of a general strike, and more.)

Were you there the night Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Liberty Square?

I was not. I woke up to a million phone messages telling me what had happened.

When was your last day in the occupation of Liberty Square?

It was the day before.

(pause)

And I was really upset by what was happening in the park.

So, when it started, we didn’t have tents. Everybody was sleeping out under the trees. To me, the more enclosed places there were in the park, the more opportunities there were for bad things to happen, if you will.

We knew that the NYPD was bringing homeless people there, like, right as they were coming out of jail.[ii] We were not in a world where we have enough resources to help a lot of those men seeking the assistance that they needed.

So, the park became an unsafe place. It was complicated. It was bittersweet. I did not want the cops to come in and bust everything up. That was not what should’ve happened. We should have had an army of social workers go in there and help take care of everyone’s different needs instead of the Mayor having the NYPD beating people up and throwing them in jail, which is what happened.

It’s complicated. It’s hard, because the more people came into the park, the less safe an environment it was, especially for women and children. We had to do more to address that by the end, and it should’ve been dealt with by the movement, not the NYPD.

What was it like waking up to the messages that it had been evicted, and what was the rest of your day like from there?

I was just pissed off, because I wanted to be there. But I didn’t go, because I was hanging out with this guy I was dating at the time, and I was so pissed, because I was like, “I should’ve been there. What the fuck was I doing?”

Did you know it was coming?

Well, we knew something was gonna happen in the next couple days, but we didn’t know what. Also, I had been working literally 24/7 for about three months, because we were ALWAYS there under the threat that the cops were gonna come in.

That’s why we worked like that: We didn’t know when New York City was gonna have enough of it, so we didn’t wanna waste a single moment.

So, by the time it happened, a lot of us who had been there since day one were just tired, exhausted, and it was kind of like a weird end of a war or something.

What was the rest of your day like?

It was sad. It was a weird hangover from life, almost like the way you feel when somebody has died.

And I went to the park, across the street from it, and watched as the police were “cleaning it up,” and, yeah, it really felt like someone had died.

What did you see?

Well, this is the thing:

It was November 15 when they busted everything up. Then, on November 17, we actually had the largest mobilization in New York City since Occupy Wall Street began. There were marches coming in from Staten Island to the Bronx and converging in Manhattan.

It was amazing. It was like, “Well, fuck you. You’re gonna take away the park? We are everywhere.”  

So, on the 15th, I only had so much time to be sad, because we had to get out the messaging and start promoting the march for two days later. So, I woke up, went down there, was sad, then went to the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which was away from the park a little.

Our office was still okay. We had our stuff up there and people started hanging out there a little, because they had some place to go that wasn’t the park.

And then what was the 17th like for you?

It was wonderful, because there were so many people in the street. It was all kind of a blur, because I was going back and forth and back and forth from the park to my house, because by that time, I wasn’t taking my daughter to the marches anymore, so I had to always make sure that she was either with her dad or with a friend when I was going in to cover stuff, so I went back and forth a lot that day.

Yeah, it was a lot.

At one point that day, I apparently didn’t move quickly enough from one place to another when we were getting orders from police, and about five cops surrounded me and I just put my hands up in the air, and said, “I have to pick up my daughter from school. I have to pick up my daughter from school. I have to pick up my daughter from school,” because it was still early in the day, and I just kept saying it: “Please, don’t arrest me, because I have to pick up my daughter from school. Please, don’t,” and they eventually backed off, but they backed off because I am light skinned, not because they’re good people.

What happened after that? Where did you go, and where did the Occupy Movement go, after November 17, 2011?

After the 17th, I just kind of retreated into my head, because I was working crazy hours in the movement, 24/7, so the rest of November was kind of a blur.

We kept trying to go to meetings at 60 Wall Street, but it was, like, “What are we doing?” And there was a lot of infighting about ownership of websites and stuff like that. People were showing up, saying, like, “Well, we need to take control of this website or that website,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about? You haven’t worked on it at all.”

So, I had a lot of bad headspace around that, but I also had to find a job, because I hadn’t paid rent in a couple of months and I had to find work. By the next year, I was facing eviction.

So, there was only so much time in which I could kind of be sad about what was happening while still taking care of my daughter and myself, keeping us fed and whatnot.

In January 2012, my friend and I worked really hard to create some sort of organization to keep everything accountable, which was what we were told to do, and the infighting was just really bad. You know? The working group turned down a $100,000 check to take “revolution” off the website.

We got an offer of a $100,000 of support for the website, but only on the condition that we removed the sentence, “The only solution is world revolution,” and we turned that offer down, and when that happened, my friend was like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna go work at Google.”

She grew up really fucking poor, and she was like, “I can go work for Google. They’re trying to get me to work there and I can’t starve for somebody’s political dream. Like, I didn’t come here to lose,” then she got really sick and had to take care of that. Then it was just like, “Okay, they’re just social media pages at this point.”

Then, a little later, the General Assembly in New York City wanted us to shut down all the social media handles, and as a communications person, I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is, like, the greatest grassroots propaganda machine ever. That can’t be controlled. If we shut them down now, we have no chance. We will lose.” There were fights over that for years.

However, we are still here, still serving it up to 60 million people a year, so I am still proud of that.

Could you talk a little about Occupy Hurricane Sandy?

What happened was: Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. I had just started a new job. The first two activists who were like, “Hey, we should do this,” I was like, “Cool, we have all of the email lists and everything we need,” so we just pumped it all out through the website, and because we had all these channels already set up, we just lit them up for Occupy Sandy, which became a whole thing on its own, which was amazing. [iii]

Occupy Sandy really showed the power of the Occupy community not waiting for help from the power elite. Occupy Sandy was able to start serving out meals where FEMA was handing out crackers to people and calling it relief.

How did Occupy Sandy work? How did it function?

A lot of spreadsheets, at first, and with a lot of people who were interested in systems management. Really, what happened was: They just had, like, tens of thousands of volunteers. It was a lot of phone trees, emailing, a lot of figuring out how to get the food they were making into all these neighborhoods. My neighborhood was a big hub for that, Sunset Park.

It split up into people who cooked, the people who drove out.

Again, it was always a delicate balance, because you knew this couldn’t go on forever. People can’t give up their lives forever in the world we live in, and when they finally started thinking about how to pay people, they teamed up with some very strange nonprofit types, who then just wanted to implement, like, some really hierarchical systems run by someone who doesn’t really need to work, so the low Executive Director’s salary won’t necessarily hurt them.

This isn’t how we win.

But, for a while, it did a lot better than most of the federal and city relief programs, and there are a lot of other projects that arose from Occupy Sandy that are amazing.

Occupy Sandy had, in my last check on the email coordinating list, around 7,000 people, and there were other offshoot email lists people had made themselves, because we didn’t have a central database, because everybody was afraid of a central database being used to spy on people.

Where has the country gone, broadly speaking, in the 10 years since Occupy?

We have more socialists in elected office than in the 1930s, which is great. We have more people pointing toward capitalism as the actual problem, which is amazing. We have more activism than I’ve seen in my years on earth, which is amazing.

But – you know – fascism is definitely screaming right now. The power elite is pulling out all the fucking tricks that it can. We are not going back to what life was like before Covid, and we are not going forward very well.

The concept of a general strike, I think, is about to become very real in this country. It is already beginning to happen every day.[iv]

It is time to get what we need and stop saying thank you for crumbs.

I think things are way worse right now than they were 10 years ago, but I also think people are way more clued in about how to help each other now, how to stand in solidarity with each other, strengthened in an intersectional effort. This is called: freeing ourselves.

That’s why myself and many other people are working on messaging for Occupy The 10th Anniversary.

One of the media organizers from Occupy Wall Street runs the activist collective, Decolonize This Place, which is an amazing group of activists. We are also involved in the call to strike from The People’s Strike.[v]

So, messaging-wise, we are really interested in seeing what happens this fall. A hundred people could show up, or a hundred million could show up.

We are possibly in the scariest, most heartbreaking place we could be in right now. I mean, the United States and the world have to be literally on fire, and have people dying in the millions from Covid, for the power elite to agree: “Okay, this is too much. This just has to be too much.”

Well, they still won’t agree on that …

… And they still may not agree, unless we take further action.

It’s a mixed bag for me, personally, my experience with Occupy and the 10th anniversary coming up.

So, organizers are working toward a 10th anniversary of some sort.

I am horrified by everything that is happening with Covid and the recession, all of it. My partner recently died of an overdose, which was brought on by all of this. He was a graffiti artist and couldn’t go out for almost a year, started using PCP, and lost his mind. You know?

(pause)

On the 10th anniversary, I would like nothing more than for tens of thousands of people or more to show up and sit down in front of the New York Stock Exchange, and not leave.

I don’t know if that could actually happen, but that’s what needs to be happening.

There is still so much to do.


[i] Danny Schechter, Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street, (p. 102-103) Cosimo Books (2012).

[ii] Andrian Chen, “Is NYPD Sending Drunk Homeless People to Occupy Wall Street?” Gawker, 10/31/11. (Other protesters who lived in the park have told me this as well. Todd Gitlin’s Occupy Nation also notes that the NYPD may have sent homeless people into the park to disrupt the occupation.)

[iii] Alan Feuer, “Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief,” The New York Times, 11/9/2012

[iv] Some examples of strikes in 2021 before Occupy Wall Street’s 10th anniversary: Saru Jayaraman, “Restaurant Workers Say They Won’t Return to Work Without a Living Wage,” Truthout, 5/24/2021. Mark McCarter, “I’m a Frito-Lay Factory Worker. I Work 12 Hour Days, Seven Days a Week,” Vice News, 7/16/2021. James Martin, “Indiana PepsiCo Workers Strike Continues as Union Shuts Down Frito-Lay Strike in Kansas,” World Socialist Website, 7/25/2021. Lauren Aratani, “Union Advocates Rally in New York to Support Striking Alabama Coalminers,” The Guardian, 7/28/2021. See also: The Debt Collective’s Student Debt Strike here: https://strike.debtcollective.org/

[v] https://peoplesstrike.org/our-principles/