The night that we were evicted from Liberty Park, I spent the early hours of the morning struggling in the streets of Lower Manhattan with a few hundred disoriented & angry people. Hundred of cops in riot gear were chopping up the street into mazes of steel barricades. They were forcefully deploying researched & effective crowd control strategy; we tried to unify our scraggly numbers and rally, but our endeavor proved to be futile and disheartening and it became gradually clear that the police had the upper hand. We were losing: the tension in our bodies gradually easing into defeat toward the early hours of the morning. Among my company that night was a man patiently trying to unify the hot-headed crowds. He had been a student protester in Tiananmen Square. He said to me, “movements do not attract activists, they create them.” So all that night, even though we seemed to be losing, we were in fact learning. Our bodies were in position to feel the sensations of freedom and obstacle in the streets-rare and profound sensations. We were in the midst of grasping a new way together, and that’s why this is the beginning of my story, not the end.
Coinciding closely with the autumn and the miraculous changing of leaves, Occupy Wall Street began in New York on September 17th. but was really sparked by the human bodies filling public spaces in Tahrir and Spain and Israel months before. The political backdrop to this movement stretches farther back- to the expanding banking sector in the 1970’s which widened the gap between the wealthiest and the middle class, and becoming more pronounced as manufacturing jobs followed cheap labor abroad, corporations were deregulated, and a dehumanizing Neoliberalism took hold. American middle class life was becoming precarious after decades of stability. But an even more ominous shadow loomed over the political process. With the increasing influence of big money in politics, people no longer empowered democratically- a deep cynicism reigned. People felt trapped and angry: Something was going wrong in America.
But the Occupy Wall Street Movement stretches back even further- all the way to the rotten core: the land-grab and slaughter of the Native Americans and the economic boom of African slave labor. These wounds from the past, still present today, form the spiritual core of the protest. They mark a contradiction from the start between America’s soaring rhetoric and cynical practice-both embodied in our economy. This was brought to an intolerably absurd level in recent years with the increase in foreign wars against brown people, and the slipping back into poverty of America’s lower middle class and poor; Latinos and African Americans, as the wealthiest few prosper beyond belief. For me, 2008 was the year that I totally bought out of America; I thew the money back and woke up. That was the year the so-called economic crisis hit. Spectacular corruption on Wall Street was reported that year on the news- everything was known; everything all out in the open to read and see on TV, but nothing changed. This made me incredibly angry; it was a big problem, simmering beneath everything else. Around the same time, I began to sit again. Buddhism teaches that if you experience a problem in your world, study your own mind. In April 2011, I wrote an essay for Zen Monster called “Preparing for An American Revolution” comparing the rising up in Tahrir Square, Cairo, with a Zen Buddhist sesshin. In both cases, people “grooved in together” and focused on the physical as opposed to virtual experience. This somehow led to the unknown, to change.
This essay became my manifesto, and I realized that I needed to embody this change myself. I shifted my art practice to literally yelling rhyming oratory in the streets, at bankers and tourists, right on Wall Street, while throwing hundreds of dollars of coins on the ground. “Me and my collaborator called this the Summer of Change: a series of numismatic rituals.” By the end of the Summer, the Occupy Wall Street protests had started, and I was right in the center of it.
What was I in the center of exactly? Something new, for sure. Hundreds of people had come together in public in Zucotti Park. But they were not really protesting, or at least, this was no ordinary protest. Rather, we were living change in our bodies. We were living out our connection to each other- mending the tender fabric of a society all but lost in the decades of emphasis on private space and money markets. We were embracing the gift of public space and our public selves- finding our power as citizens in a shared world, and this felt joyful and free. It was anger that had awoken many of us. But in the park, love reigned. It was wonderful!
There was elation, but also, or course, plenty of work to get done. Inside the park, non-capitalist time and space prevailed- lost souls were meeting like crazy, creative plans hatches and music ringing out. One block away everything was exactly the same as it ever was-clearly we were at square one. And we knew that to get this work done, we had to push ourselves to learn, rapidly- we had to transform. We also knew that this learning resided in our bodies-we had to act. Every day, all day, we marched and shouted and organized, ate free food, argued, and struggled with the police. Our practice was to constantly connect and act. In this way we constantly accessed otherwise rare situations where social power- that very same nasty ancient twisted karma of slavery and oppression- rose to the surface, to be seen and felt in the body. To enter these tense situations was to creep to the edge of our comfort zones, identities, power, self. These tense situations are the true gift of the movement: the master classes where we transform into activists. The occupation of Wall Street has offered to the recent history of protest the wisdom of staying with this space of tension until boundaries become more visible and we begin to understand them and ourselves within them, and the world itself unfolds and changes and we change with it. I have found creativity and promise and freedom in this tension, in the space of protest. Instead of “protest,” we really ought to say, “people acting freedom.”
Yet, it is undeniable that in our world, we are divided up into roles. In fact, we act out a practically scripted social narrative and “protest” is like grand opera. The NYPD play the role of uncritical strongmen protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms, guns, stern expressions, menacing riot gear, rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades. I know that these men and women are just the same as me, they are lovely, intelligent, exquisite buddhas yet as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, presenting a dualism between violence and order, following commands that result in heads bashed against the pavement, arms tied tight, non-violent people put in little cells with a steel trap door slammed behind them. Meanwhile, when I gather together with others en masse, hold up signs, chanting and marching, we transform into “protesters” our every action taking on political significance and to some: menace, even threats of social chaos. Passers-by on the street play a kind of audience, or critics, or Greek chorus- they have lots of power over the experience, but it’s inert. The stage is set, and the curtains drawn. When the protest begins, time and space contract and expand dramatically as these forces dance together- bodies in tension. It has been helpful for me to hold my role as protester in one hand, and lack of acceptance of any role or division in the other. This way I could be free of anger- focusing my body’s vital energy toward being present. Finding freedom here, learning to harness this liveliness, and letting it lead the way is the essence of protest. Following this tension where it wants to go magically stimulates change inside and outside.
Early on in the protest, I switched sides as an experiment. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to the Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks) I waited with a small group at the Exchange, dressed in a business suit. When the protests arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young & entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a Job!” loudly in the protesters faces, the tension rose, emotions flared. After a while, one of the drummers turned around at me and shouted “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PTSD and can’t get a job, fuck you!” He hit me, hard, with his drumming baton, which I was not expecting. The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, of anger and hurt and aloneness were at play here. Yes, this was theater, but it was also very real- as real as violence is, as our emotions and bodies are. Later that day I found the Marine, and we hugged it out and both apologized and we hug each time we see each other.
As Occupy Wall Street gathered steam week to week, we formed a working culture and began to find our natural roles within the movement. I was interested in the moments of high tension experienced during “direct actions.” I helped to organize an action group called Occupy Museums focused on bringing consciousness about economic justice to cultural institutions; to the very fabric of our beliefs, beauty, likes and dislikes- but through action. We initiated a series of protest experiments that took place mostly on the street in front of museums, which are mostly in the wealthy parts of New York, which is highly protected by the cops.
First, we occupied The Museum of Modern Art. We would stage a general assembly on the sidewalk in front of MoMA, empowering everyone present to loudly call out the ways that MoMA disempowers artists and benefits the wealthiest. The NYPD was waiting for us on 53rd street with barricades and orders to step into a police pen off to the side and protest in this confined space. Tension prevailed: here was our choice between (their idea of) order and very-real violence. We decided to focus on the communication itself- politely refusing to negotiate with the chief unless he used the “people’s-mic” (an Occupy Wall Street “social software” where everyone repeats each word of the speaker thus naturally amplifying sound and unifying the group). In this way, we brought the “demand” of one person to the resonance of many voices together, which is deeply based on consensus. Needless to say, we did not end up protesting in the pen that day. The use of the people’s mic successfully flipped the fear of violence (“I will be arrested, I will be beaten”) into a common sharing of our voices, resonating together powerfully, giving us courage.
But a few weeks later, Liberty Park had been evicted and the movement was preparing for a march that would show our continued power the next day. For this reason, the police force was much larger and very tense and once again waiting for us with their pen. This time, there would be no negotiation. We stepped into the cage, yelling, chanting, waving signs. The tension mounted as our outrage filled the enclosed space, while the police strictly controlled the streets around us, ushering away passers-by who approached us in solidarity. The NYPD created a buffer zone around the magnetic human force of our voices and bodies. Spatial isolation is a primary tactic of the NYPD and it has two effects. First, it dispirits the isolated protesters, making it hard to share the human energy, which is at the core of protest. Secondly, it tends to trap and upset those who hold anger, who often then lash out and get arrested, and thus it weeds out the crowd. Within this tension, I found energy welling up within, but let it happen, trying to watch it and be ok with it- energy and not anger. I began to “mic check” the group, yelling about the obvious right to be on the street- calling out the absurdity of the situation. Then my body started to move, to stride out from behind the barricades to the sidewalk and into the no-go zone defined by the standing line of cops- the space of tension. But there was space, air here! I began to widen my movements-almost a dance- and open up my language to universal and positive words: “I am free- I know I can be on this sidewalk, I know that I can walk on the street on New York City!” Pointing to the policeman- “you are free!” “We all are free, let’s march on this sidewalk, we can be here!” Somehow, all of a sudden, we could be here! A surprise reversal of plot! So we marched out from behind the barricades onto the vast sidewalk, our spirits rising- space expanding.
Lincoln Center plaza is a vast open space in New York where protest is forbidden. We decided to point out the contradiction of the Lincoln Center showing Philip Glass’s opera, ‘Satyagraha’ which speaks about the life of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King- all non-violent protesters who have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Lincoln Center is supported by David H Koch and Bloomber LP, who just 2 weeks earlier has evicted Liberty Park, crushing freedom of speech as well as blocking out the press- something that ought to raise a red flag in any free society. As the action started near the end of the opera, hundreds of protesters were assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the whole plaza by police barricades and heavy NYPD presence. This clearly delineated the private and public space, which on a normal day would be indistinguishable. A few that dared to cross the line were arrested, provoking our shouting and booing “shame, shame, shame.” We took off our shoes- a Gandhian symbol of dignity, and stood barefoot on the cold pavement conducting our assembly. As the opera ended and the wealthy audience finally exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene- real life protest at the foot of the grand steps! Some protesters were chanting 1% and 99% slogans which probably contributed to an emotional separation between these two parallel crowds. But mostly, The NYPD buffer and sight of barricades paralyzed the opera audience- making them hesitant to flow toward us, even as we called out for them in unison.
Then all of a sudden Philip Glass popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd- he had come from his opera to read a statement on the people’s mic. We sat down so that people could see him, lights from a video camera illuminating his face. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita which were the last lines of Satyagraha:
When Rightenousness Withers Away
And Evil Rules the Land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
A man among men
For the protection of good
Thrusting Back Evil
And setting Virtue
On her Seat Again.
Chanting along with Glass, absorbed in the rhythms of hundreds of voices, I melted into the crowd, delighting in this ancient, hopeful text delivered in strong cadence by the composer whose music had been the soundtrack to my childhood. When I looked up, the opera audience had joined us. The tense buffer zone was gone. We were now one big crowd- the 100%- with NYPD barricades cutting right through the middle, but no longer a big deal at all- no longer real- absorbed into our big warm body. Until late into the night we held our general assembly, giving voice to our protest on both sides of the barricades. The police stood off to the side- the tension gone now. Space had flowed into one, protesters had become people again, and the police could then be people too.
The first day of the occupation in Liberty Park on September 17, I went home thinking that the scraggly core protesters would be gone the next day- booted out by the NYPD. But miraculously, this did not happen, and from that moment on, I learned to suspend disbelief- not to kill things in my mind. I learned that we were no longer political-informational consumers- commenting and debating what we read in the papers. This time, we were acting in public and that meant that anything could happen. I learned to trust my body, which was subtly responding to a desire for freedom and connection, rather than reacting on this or that thought or outcome. When we lost the park, this was only a stage in an unfolding movement- a few weeks later, we were all standing euphorically on the steps of Lincoln Plaza, 100% human, pointing with our hearts toward each other, and finding each other in this way.