Occupy History

Occupy History: Taking Liberty Square, First Days of the Movement (Part One) with Alex Carvalho

(Alex Carvalho is a doctor living in Chicago. He was 28 when Occupy Wall Street started in New York City in September 2011. He participated almost every day until protesters were violently evicted from the park by police two months later. He told his Occupy story to Hard Times Review last week for the “Occupy History” 10th anniversary series. In Part One, he reflects on getting involved and the early days of the movement.)

What was your life like before Occupy Wall Street?

I’m an immigrant from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I finished medical school there and had finished a Master’s in Public Health at NYU. At the end of that, I just didn’t know what to do.

I had a year to look for a job, so I was talking to a friend, and I got the pamphlet with the ballerina on the Wall Street bull from her, also an NYU Master’s student.

I thought, “Maybe this will be something,” and that friend never showed up, but I did, and things went crazy from there.  

What interested you in participating?

I was always inclined to do social justice, but never really had the opportunity. I was also kind of lost, in terms of, like, the state of my life.

I had a medical degree and a master’s degree, but I still felt broken, not centered. This is hindsight, because back then, it was just a storm of chaos.

And I just gave Occupy a shot. I just went.

Before September 17, I went to the second meeting, the one at the Irish Hunger Memorial, the second meeting to organize Occupy. Somebody brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That later became our Occupy kitchen. We set up the Arts and Culture Working Group, the Direct Action Working Group, some other groups as well. It was kind of the seed of everything, so it was interesting, but nothing close to what it became.

Before we occupied Liberty Square, the Arts and Culture Working group set up a test run to take Wall Street. I mean, we were all talking about occupying Wall Street and bringing a bunch of shit there, but nobody had given it a shot yet to see what’s up, so we had a small party of about 10 people on Wall Street:

We had a picnic, blankets for the picnic, brought my guitar, and I was wearing, like, a giraffe hat, really looking wild so that people wouldn’t – you know – go too crazy on us, and we went to the Federal Hall steps right in front of the New York Stock Exchange, because we thought that was going to be ground zero of Occupy.

Dude, in 20 minutes, like, three NYPD wagons arrived. They started telling us to get the hell out – “move along,” that kind of thing – and we had legal arguments with them over the First Amendment, so the cops were kind of confused.

After 10 or so minutes of back and forth, my friend, whose argument was escalating with a cop, got handcuffed, one of my other friends just bolted, got away, and the rest of us were all arrested. There’s a video of that, which is pretty funny. You can see me getting arrested in the giraffe hat. We showed that footage at the next pre-September 17 organizing meeting.

(laughs)

And that was the meeting that really lit the spark for Occupy Wall Street, for spreading the word, “September 17, come Occupy Wall Street.” That really lit the spark, man, because then we had a bunch of contacts to blast on social media, and from September 17, we just kept getting traction and traction and traction, almost like we hit a nerve.

The first day of Occupy, they’d already barricaded the entire area we were going to occupy. The first place we planned to take was a private patio for one of the banks. That was all blocked off. Liberty Square was actually the second spot, the contingency plan.

So, first we went to Bowling Green, had yoga and free university gatherings there, a General Assembly, a Q and A, and other things.

About 2,000 people were there. I had a bouquet of flowers, my friend had a bullhorn, so we just, like, declared the occupation had started, and we marched from the Bowl toward the park, because the first spot was taken, so we went to the contingency spot, and took Liberty Square.

The cops weren’t there in time, so we just flooded into the Square and started setting up camp, setting up the kitchen, the library. And because it’s a public space, they couldn’t kick us out. It was supposed to be open 24/7.

So, we started setting up camp. Each of the groups did their thing.

And my girlfriend got pissed off at me that day, some random reason (things were not going so well between us). If I remember correctly, she threw some water in my face and then I was like, “Okay, we’re done,” and, like, right after – I was so pissed – I met a girl from California, super beautiful movie maker who needed help setting up a direct action for a candle light vigil, and I helped her out. It was a really powerful moment:

We were surrounding the Wall Street area. They had blocked all the entrances and we were standing in front of the cops, in front of the barricades, holding candles in silence, and I remember looking at this cop who was actually shaking, like, scared, which was fine. The girl I’d just met was a pretty badass movie maker, so she got some pretty amazing footage of that.

We went back to camp. We slept there. We kind of hooked up, which was great, not gonna lie.  

It was a very interesting time. Everybody dated everybody in that movement.

(laughs)

We all hadn’t slept much, so we were exhausted, and eventually, we slept, and we all woke up together and from that day on, it was nonstop: direct action, marching on Wall Street, blocking the entry of people into the Stock Exchange, things just went crazy from there.

What was your level of participation like after that?

I was about 30 minutes from the park, so I wasn’t sleeping there after that, but I would come to the park every day. Often, I would couch surf to be closer, but I wasn’t staying in the park 24/7.

I started organizing with the Arts and Culture Working Group. We had a really decentralized model. We had a puppetry group, a music group, a poetry slam group, and each of these little things took on a life of their own, which was beautiful to see.

After the first days, the cops really started coming down hard on us, and the more they beat us, and the more they tried to yank people out, the more people showed up and occupations cropped up in other squares around the country, because the footage of them hitting and beating us was pretty crazy.

We made a board, a model, basically, with the new occupations of the U.S., and then the world.

The Media Working Group was awesome at connecting all the different Occupy encampments.

We had gone viral in the streets, all over the world, by the end of the first or second week.

I remember one night, there were, like, 800 occupations or something across the world, including in Brazil, which was funny, because I’m from Brazil. I saw there was an Occupy Rio, Occupy San Palo. I was like, “Oh, wow.”

What are your fondest memories of Occupy?

First, finding myself politically. I discovered myself to be an anarchist. It was all through friends and people I met. We often don’t study political theory beyond, like, Republican or Democrat, a really old model we still use. Talking to people, reading Bakunin and Kropotkin on the steps of Federal Hall while we’re occupying, it was all really life changing.

Remember that chaos I talked about in the beginning? That feeling of being lost?

I felt that I really found myself, finally, when we all found each other at Occupy, and I was able to be more centered and try new things.

That’s the first fondest memory about Occupy: Finding who I was.