November 3, 2011
Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to the revolution, to the great renewal, to the natural social order. Welcome to the America that you were taught as a child to love, to revere, to treasure, and, if necessary, to die for. Welcome to Democracy…
These are some notes I scribbled down after visiting Zuccotti Park for the first time in the autumn of 2011. It was at that time the home of Occupy Wall Street.
Zuccotti Park: It is a sacred space; though not in the sense you’d expect. There is no institutional religion here, of course; only the ordinary sacredness of a daring creativity that often arises from the ashes of despair. Thus, the holiness of Zuccotti Park is an animal sacredness, the kind that scrapes through the shell of appearances and touches the very core of ourselves that most of us have been taught to deny.
I know most will not understand. I cannot describe events, sights, sounds, or objective data from this experience; I can only tell you the feeling story. There is little to report about Zuccotti; but no end of experience. To visit such a place is to discover the fountain from which all art and literature are born.
I walked, of course. It’s only 8 miles there from where I live. As I finished crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I felt a smile broadening on my face. It could not be controlled. As I passed the J&R computer store, some 4 blocks away from Zuccotti, I began quietly laughing. Again, this could not be controlled.
Then, as I approached Liberty Plaza (it was getting dark, a little after 7PM), I felt something that I have experienced only a few times in my life. Later, I remembered most of those moments: walking deep within a conifer forest at dusk; watching my child being born; hearing Arrau play the Hammerklavier Sonata; when as a teenager I first read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
I went completely around the block, as if incapable of going any nearer yet, any further into the waves of ordinary sacredness that surged from the center of the park (I didn’t take a camera this time, I suspect because something within me didn’t want an object, a lens, coming between me and this first experience).
I tried to look into the eyes of the police people standing in their numbers behind the barricades around the park: could they sense it? Could any of them realize what holiness they were surrounding? Some of them seemed bored, restless; others talked, joked, and laughed among themselves. But a few of them smiled as they watched, silent and respectful for the moment (that would change for the worse in short order).
Most of the people protesting there are, as you’ve probably heard and might expect, young. There’s a sprinkling of gray in their midst. As I walked the perimeter, I paused at one place on Liberty St., beside an older fellow like myself, with a bushy white beard. Our eyes met for a wordless instant and I knew he felt it, too: the sacred energy moving within and around this little space; the dense vibration of white-hot Anger that could neither seek nor accept retribution but longed for something greater that could both defy and embrace those police, those weapons, those skyscrapers; the daring, vibrant light of total unselfconsciousness that dazed our aging inner eyes.
We had that nanosecond of connection: yes, we are both alive, both grateful, both witnessing this. Then we turned our gazes back toward the winding nave of this cathedral of the daring youth.
The famous open mic was calling through the cool night air. I couldn’t make out much of what was being said, probably because of the emotions that were being awakened as I kept moving, looking into the little sea of tents, olive drab, shades of grimy blue and green, gray, with sparkled patches of aluminum silver here and there. There were smells of canvas, human bodies, Chinese food (dinner was just being served, free for anyone who needed to eat), cigarrette smoke, coffee (one amusing sight was of the silver-sided coffee wagons interrupting the forbidding white phalanx of NYPD patrol cars and trucks along every street around the park).
I was also looking for a specific part of the place: the OWS Library. I had brought some books to donate; books are all I have of value to offer anyone these days. On my second pass around the perimeter, as I was beginning to adjust to the emanations of this Church of Democracy, I saw it, near Broadway on the Liberty St. side. I wove my way around, through, and into the camp, toward the Library.
I am not a social person; but I was quickly and unceremoniously welcomed into the Library by a lovely young woman and two fellows who had been to Brooklyn that day. I took out the books that I was offering and explained that I had edited one of them and written the others. The woman insisted that I sign a dedication in them to OWS, and produced a pen. The men asked about the subject matter of my books, and I mentioned that one began with an essay on transcendentalism. One of the guys smiled and nodded toward a photograph pinned nearby: Henry David Thoreau. “Yes,” I said, “I can see that you have a hundred Waldens here in this tiny space.”
I told them about my 17 year old daughter and her frequent presence here; how she is learning so much more in mere weeks at Zuccotti than they could teach her if she went to school for the rest of her natural lifetime.
In all the decades I have written, I have never been treated so graciously as an author. The young woman, sensing my emotion, guessed that this was my first time there, and encouraged me to go around, experience more of it, and of course to return. I assured her that I would.
Some women were singing, in an almost comical 19th century coloratura, a song: “Solidarity Forever,” to the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic. Pamphleteers were everywhere, and I grabbed all I could, assuming I would be going home with a motley assortment of anarchist, Communist, Socialist, Marxist literature.
I later found that I had assumed wrong: these were all flyers and other documents from community and ethnic groups that sounded notes of dignity, equality, and economic justice.
Perhaps there were ideologues and far-left demagogues there, but their message was not. Unionists carried signs and gave speeches directly to the police surrounding them, appealing to their place within the 99% and their union order, that they might quietly resist the plutocrat Bloomberg and the monied tyranny of the corporations who attempt to buy the police force. Most of the signs bore a simple, if occasionally dark humor (“Obama, I want my Change Back”); I saw a number of charts and graphs and compressed wonkery.
But the most frequent word I saw on display at Zuccotti was “Welcome.” It’s at the Information counter on the Broadway side, at the Library and the Sanitation Center and the various committees and sub-group areas.
Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome to the revolution, to the great renewal, to the natural social order. Welcome to the America that you were taught as a child to love, to revere, to treasure, and, if necessary, to die for. Welcome to Democracy, to what has always been true and noble and genuine and blissfully, raucously, loudly, and inclusively strong and embracing in this democratic experiment, so deeply flawed and sometimes monstrously errant since its inception amid the dusk of the 18th century by a motley collection of the enlightened 1%; some marginal scribes, crooks, and opportunists; and a burgeoning middle class who somehow thought this gamble was worth all their life’s chips. Welcome to this funny, strange, illogical and inexplicable culture clash. Welcome to the sacred human yearning for mere equality.
One final note: no matter your political affiliation, socio-economic strata, employment status, or personality profile, I beg you not to judge until you’ve been there. If you’re near our city or another where Occupy is setting down roots, go and experience it. Bring as many children with you as you can.
For one thing I learned from this night was, ironically, a little empathy for our mass media. Trained as they are, they must find it nearly impossible to report on something like this. There’s no ordered or logical story-line to this thing: it’s a jumbled mass of human history and folly and inconsolable suffering and rage and hilarity and contradiction and struggle and that sacred longing for the universal, for what is common to us all, to what unites us.
So your television boxes and computer Internets and newspapers cannot tell it; you must experience it for yourself. Then you are free to judge for yourself.