Not even the failed appearance of British rockers Radiohead, whom had been rumored to be thinking of holding a surprise concert at the Occupy Wall Street protests on Friday afternoon, could dampen the spirits of the estimated 5,000 people who gathered in the base camp in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in Manhattan on Friday.
A visit by at least 100 members of New York Transit Workers Union (TWU 100), who had on Wednesday voted unanimously to support the demonstrations, coupled with the addition of hundreds of people of all ages getting out of work and traveling into New York for the weekend from around the country, boosted the the total number of participants of the mass demonstrations to their highest levels since the movement began on September 17.
“Just seeing all the young people made me want to come out here,” TWU member Robert Taylor told TPM Idea Lab, “Seeing the new generation coming out here, turning off their reality TV and taking a stand, it’s inspiring.”
As for what Taylor and his fellows are standing for, flyers handed out by TWU members provide a good description:
“Young people face a bleak future with high unemployment and minimum wage jobs. Public sector workers face mayors and governors who demand massive wage benefits or face thousands of layoffs….One out of six Americans lives in poverty today, and the richest one percent control more wealth than at any time since th Gilded Age of the 1920’s…We support the Wall Street protesters and their goal to reduce inequality and support every American’s right to a decent job, health care, and retirement security.”
And with reporters from large mainstream media outlets including New York 1, The Associated Press, CNN, The Guardian and Fox News descending upon the park armed to cover the day’s events, with all manner of cameras, microphones and recording equipment, protesters were encouraged that they had finally “broken through” what some had initially deemed was a media blockade or blackout on their efforts.
“There was effectively a corporate media blackout on us for the first two weeks, but we’ve finally been able to bypass it for the first time thanks to these new tools: Livestreaming video, YouTube and social media,” said Vlad Teichberg, a filmmaker and activist who has been videotaping the protests since their start as part of the Occupy Wall Street Media group, one of the movement’s ever-expanding number of ad-hoc working groups (others include Security, Sanitation, Food and Bedding), which seek to add structure to the demonstrations by grouping people of like, valuable skills.
But Tecihberg and others of the movement’s most ardent and loyal supporters admitted that the motley assemblage of “equal individuals” - varying widely in age, political persuasion and motivation - still face serious challenges in accomplishing their goals: First and foremost, deciding what those goals are exactly, and how to go about achieving them.
“Now that we’ve broken through its up to the people to decide where to take it and what demands to make,” Teichberg told TPM’s Idea Lab. “Not just demands but what goals and what methods to use.”
Other members of the Media Group expressed more candid thoughts about the movement’s slow crawl toward something resembling more cohesive organization.
A demonstrator and Occupy Wall Street film editor who had been at Zuccotti from the onset, identifying himself as Andrew, no last name given, told TPM Idea Lab about how some of the Working Group “facilitators,” those who have the most skills or the loudest voices and can mobilize the groups, had made a bad impression towards the beginning of the protests.
“They are supposed to remain neutral and allow groups to come to their own decisions by consensus,” Andrew said of the facilitators. “At the beginning that was actually a problem because they weren’t remaining neutral.”
Andrew explained that at one point, during a General Assembly meeting - the twice daily meetings when all of the working groups gather to “vote” on decision-making based on the old “ayes” and “nays” system - facilitators who were speaking in-turn were continually interrupted by other protesters scuffles with police nearby. While some members of the groups wanted to rush to the protesters’ aid, several facilitators actively discouraged this, attempting to retrain the focus on themselves under the rationale that paying attention would only feed the police the reaction they wanted.
“It was a bad example of self-gratification,” he said, pointing out that things have improved considerably since those early days: General Assembly meetings were initially hosted only twice a week, according to Andrew, but they twice daily system had, in his opinion, improved communication and understanding considerably.
But it was the appearance of the hundred-or-so odd members of the TWU 100, carrying placards and bullhorns, and clad in their blue and red shirts inscribed with the words “Workers Rights Are Human Rights,” that finally lent the protesters an air of solid organization.
TWU 100 members, who, unlike many of the young core group of 200 to 300 protesters, have actually participated in demonstrations before, arrived at around 4:30 p.m during a General Assembly meeting and took to the center of the park to express their support verbally. This was around the same time that Radiohead had been rumored to play a concert, but those reports turned out to be a hoax.
“The people of TWU are here and we have your back,” a TWU spokesman shouted to crowd, “We have a right to occupy our streets!”
The bullhorns carried by several TWU members went unused, however, as a local noise ordinance prevents the protesters from using any amplified sound - which could get them expelled from the grounds or arrested. Instead, Occupy Wall Street functions by employing a decidedly low-tech workaround: Having speakers take turns and having each speaker yell one short statement to the group, then allowing for those closest to him to repeat it in unison at the top of their lungs, then another group further out to repeat it again.
Though meant to be practical, the mass game of “telephone” often broke down, even despite attempts to get it back on track by people yelling “Mic check,” repeatedly.
Occupy Wall Street may lack a leader and a clear focus, but the movement reached a watershed moment on Friday night with a peaceful, mostly silent march from the base camp in Zuccotti Park to New York City’s Police Plaza, the headquarters of the police department. The demonstration remained calm despite a heavy police presence, and the protesters’ still managed to express solidarity with those in their group who have been beaten, pepper sprayed and arrested by police. Four police helicopters circled the proceedings overhead.
“It was very intimidating,” said TWU member Christine Williams, of the police presence during the march. “They’ve been known to put agitators in the crowd. I’m just glad they didn’t do that today and it stayed peaceful.”
Whether that can be said of the protest going forward is an open question. The real test will come when TWU and another eight unions mobilize as many of their active workers as they can for an Occupy Wall Street march on Wednesday Oct. 5 at 4:30 pm ET. TWU is hoping for at least 3,000 of its own 38,000 active workforce to attend.