The following was written prior to Occupy Wall Street’s expulsion from Zuccotti Park on November 15.
Despite the presence of libertarians and anarchists amongst the ranks of Wall Street Occupiers, the protest’s primary target has been business rather than government. Demonstrators have picketed the homes of CEOs, rallied at banks and even disrupted restaurants. But if the Occupiers would stop for a moment to analyze their current situation, they would see that it’s actually government that has been their biggest opponent.
This becomes clear when considering Zuccotti Park, the plaza in Manhattan’s Financial District that has served as Occupy Wall Street’s home for the past month. Because the demonstration is part of a “leaderless” movement lacking any ostensible figurehead to bark marching orders, Zuccotti Park itself has become the protest’s most prominent representative. Thus, the place’s significance is two-fold: campground and organizer. Those looking to get involved with the protest don’t follow a specific media outlet, they don’t heed a particular spokesman; they head down to the park.
That being the case, it’s interesting to note that Zuccotti Park is privately owned. Constructed in the 1960s, the plaza was built by U.S. Steel Corp. in exchange for exemptions to zoning restrictions on its headquarters located across the street at One Liberty Plaza. Brookfield Properties, a commercial real estate company, eventually purchased One Liberty Plaza and with it came into possession of what was then known as Liberty Plaza Park. Brookfield later spent $8 million restoring the park after it was damaged during the terrorist attacks on September 11. When the renovated park reopened in 2006, it was renamed Zuccotti Park, after John E. Zuccotti, Brookfield’s U.S. Chairman.
Besides the irony of an anti-corporate movement’s home being the byproduct of collusion between government and business, Zuccotti Park’s backstory is important because it helps explain why Occupy Wall Street persists where other demonstrations have either been snuffed out or have petered out: That is because Zuccotti Park does not close.
Unlike most public parks in New York City, which close at night, Zuccotti Park is open 24 hours a day. Indeed, it is legally required to be open 24 hours a day due to one of the clauses of the zoning deal between U.S. Steel and the city. Because the park is always open, protesters can never be considered trespassing, a charge that’s been NYPD’s de facto justification for breaking up prolonged mass gatherings in the past (most notoriously during the Tompkins Square Park Riot in 1988). Without this legal pass to be in the park all night, Occupiers would have quickly been arrested or booted, forced to march around downtown Manhattan until they got tired and went home. Deprived of their base camp and their central organizing tool, it’s no doubt that the movement would have quickly dissipated.
The protesters themselves have realized this lucky loophole (lucky because, after all, Zuccotti Park was not the original space meant to be occupied, but became the site through dumb luck after NYPD prevented demonstrators from reaching Wall Street). With Zuccotti Park at capacity, protesters have been calling for occupations of other parks — but only other privately owned parks. The fact that the activists aren’t even considering occupying public parks — parks that belong to the people, insofar as they belong to the government — but are instead relying on spaces created for the public by private businesses shows just illiberal government can be.
This brings us to the question of the recent cleaning / eviction orders issued to the Occupiers. On October 13, Brookfield employees circulated notices to protesters, informing them that Zuccotti Park would need to be emptied in portions to facilitate its cleaning. The orders came after an announcement by Mayor Bloomberg, but were said to have stemmed from a request by Brookfield’s CEO. Many demonstrators saw the clean-up as a ruse meant to evict them, and Police Commissioner Kelly even admitted that protesters would be able to return but “they won’t be able to bring back the gear, the sleeping bags, that sort of thing…” (i.e. the supplies demonstrators need to get them through nights at the park).
The cleaning was eventually postponed, but rumors circulated that it had been the mayor’s office, rather than Brookfield properties, that had insisted on the necessity of the clean up. Unsubstantiated rumors are just that, but Occupiers have also claimed that the City’s sanitation concerns have served as a pretext to shutdown demonstrations in the past.
Ultimately, though, you don’t need to navigate the legal labyrinth of NYC zoning law or speculate about the true sources of communiques to understand that government — not business — is most actively attempting to suppress Occupy Wall Street. You can see that in the streets. After all, it isn’t businessmen who are pepperspraying women, making arrests by the hundreds, joyfully anticipating beating protesters and attacking demonstrators without provocation.
Occupy Wall Street’s failure to indict government for its role in the financial crises, for money in politics or for simply being repressive is a form of myopia. Those demonstrators who have their sights set on business while ignoring or even apologizing for government are bound to miss their target of removing corporate influence from politics. They fail to understand that the two hold hands while they stab us in the back.