Even the Protesters at Occupy Wall Street Are Confused About What They’re Protesting

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 3 2011 3:24 PM

Vacancy

The Occupy Wall Street protests and the creation of the post-Obama left.

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A protester at Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 3

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

NEW YORK—“Mic Check!”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“MIC CHECK!”

In Zuccotti Park, temporary home to a few hundred activists shaming the financial system, megaphones are not permitted. Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement—and really, anyone who stops by the park is a member—have gotten around this with an old protester’s trick: If you speak, you shout “mic check,” as if you’re onstage tuning your guitar. People around you repeat everything you say, so that the people around them can hear. This happens twice a day. The protesters call it the New York City General Assembly.

It takes a lot of time. On Saturday, the crowd was especially impatient. More than a thousand of them had tried to march over the Brooklyn Bridge, and more than 700 were arrested. Rumors about the arrests were spreading. Some protesters had watched liberated or lucky protesters walk back onto Manhattan, past a watchful phalanx of cops, pumping their fists. Now, this organizer was going to testify.

“Direct action.”

“DIRECT ACTION!”

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“Planned for.”

“PLANNED FOR!”

“A peaceful march. Over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway. During the march. A small group of individuals. Took it upon themselves. To take the vehicle roadway. That was not blocked off. Immediately. People from direct action. Started communicating. To protesters. That there were two options. The planned route. On the pedestrian walkway. Or, if they wanted to. To autonomously take. The vehicle roadway. Which we warned them. Was illegal. And highly unsafe.”

The Varied Signs of the wall street occupation slideshow promo

The movement has been taught a few hand motions to keep this process going. Holding up their fingers and wiggling them means “I agree” or “I like that.” Turning their hands as if turning a wheel means “get to the point.” A few hands have turned into wheels.

“Many people. Were unfortunately. Corralled into. The vehicle roadway. I was a scout. For today’s march. I found it bizarre. That there was very little security. Or police presence. On the Manhattan side. Of the Brooklyn Bridge. It should be noted. That there was a lot of. Police activity. On the Brooklyn side. I arrived. In the middle of the march. When I got there. Most of my committee. Were directing people. To take the legal. Pedestrian walkway. As was planned. Despite this. When I got there. Hundreds of people. Were marching. On the vehicular roadway. I saw almost. Nobody following. Our committee’s recommendation. To follow the pedestrian walkway. In fact, the crowd. Marching on the highway. Was so big. That I myself. Followed them.”

But I had just spent an hour talking to protesters who’d escaped arrest. They were saying that the police, not the marchers, had created the confusion on the bridge. “If you didn’t get out in four or five seconds, you were arrested,” said an activist named Constance Quinn, lisping a little bit behind some mouth piercings. She was about to sign up for YouTube to post the video she took. “There were people climbing over the railing to get back on the pedestrian side.”

The reality was that the arrest was a muddle, a mistake exacerbated by some police (“some” because other protesters said they’d been let free, their plastic handcuffs snipped off, by cops who told them to beat it). It was also their media breakthrough.

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