Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary began with early morning protests at New York’s financial centre, but the demonstrations were marred by numerous arrests as activists marched around lower Manhattan.
On 17 September 2011 hundreds had answered a call from Adbusters, the Canadian activist magazine, sparking demonstrations against failing financial systems and the influence of money in politics that spread around the globe. Thousands of protesters took to streets and encampments before high-profile police crackdowns in New York and Oakland signalled a lull that lasted through the winter and beyond.
But Occupy protesters were determined to come out in force to mark the movement’s birthday, with protests over the weekend set to culminate in Monday’s encircling of Wall Street.
People were gathering near Zuccotti park at 7am, and by 7.30am there were 300-400 people stationed opposite the famous former encampment, far fewer than in the movement’s heyday, when more than 10,000 people regularly came out in support. It was a beautiful, warm September’s morning, just like the days last autumn when protesters kicked off demonstrations that were reported across the globe. The nature of the protests were similar, too, as protesters attempted to “shut down” Wall Street, while their failure to achieve that goal also had a sense of deja vu.
The group at Zuccotti Park was set to be one of four meeting points around lower Manhattan, with the separate demonstrations intending to surround the city’s iconic financial centre.
As it turned out, Wall Street remained open, although there was some disruption.
A large police presence nullified protesters’ attempts to access Wall Street, with officers arresting dozens of people in the early actions. A repeated theme of the detentions was police rushing forward to seize people identified as agitators. By about 5pm, 150 people had been arrested in New York, a significant number for demonstrations attended by comfortably fewer than a thousand people.
Only people with work ID cards were allowed on to the street, with financial workers, many disgruntled, having to negotiate the crowd.
“You know, I was just thinking it’s getting a little tiresome,” said one besuited man with a thick grey moustache. “I just had to walk half a mile to get into my building.”
There were signs, however, that Occupy Wall Street still has mainstream support. “I think they’re exercising what everyone is feeling – even though we have to go to work we’re still supporting what they’re protesting,” said 50-year-old Gabriel Adeniyi, who was watching the procession close to Wall Street, where he works as an underwriting specialist for a trust company.
“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”
While people may empathise with the cause, however, there was a sense of frustration among some onlookers. One man who gave his name as Bill summed it up: “They’ve been around, I have some sympathy, but their message is really unfocused.”
The game of cat and mouse with police was quite deja vu inducing, as protesters roamed the streets, changing course as officers appeared in front of them and being ordered to “keep on the sidewalk” repeatedly.
After the morning’s excitement, protesters retired to Bowling Green park in lower Manhattan, then Battery Park, in pre-planned moves, before eventually marching to Zuccotti Park, which was surrounded by barriers, but private security personnel were allowing people in.
Once there, the celebratory aspect of Monday’s events came to the fore as the “drummers’ circle”, which antagonised so many a local resident, was revived, while elsewhere a brass band and a lone bagpiper played. There were costumes too – a large, ghoulish Statue of Liberty that was a common sight in 2011, as well as a more topical “Bain Capital”, a reference to Mitt Romney’s former employers. The costume was based on the Batman comic book figure, outlandishly large with one particularly bulky hand labelled “Mitt’s fist”.
Later in the afternoon there were marches from Zuccotti towards Wall Street, and more sporadic arrests, including the independent journalist John Knefel, whose detention was described as “completely unprovoked” by his journalist sister Molly Knefel. The detention of journalists again brought back memories of last fall, when the NYPD on occasion arrested journalists wearing NYPD credentials.
This was a smaller protest than last year, however, and there was some frustration.
“Honestly? It’s a bit dead,” said Jefferson Moighan, who had travelled from an hour outside New York City to attend. Moighan was involved in Occupy in October and November 2011, he said, but his participation had dwindled since then, and he was unimpressed with both numbers and tactics.
“We planned too much in advance, so police know what we’re doing,” he said.
Kevin Limiti, a 22-year-old from Long Island, was more optimistic, describing the day as “extremely empowering”, but he too was frustrated by the actual nature of the protests. “It’s just hard to do anything with police up your ass. We don’t seem like we get the chance to protest freely.”
There was common agreement among protesters, however, that there was still a need to draw attention to the kind of issues that brought people to the streets a year ago.
“Our problems aren’t solved, our problems are plaguing our society,” said Kanene Holder, an educator living in Harlem who has been a part of Occupy since the early days.
“The reason Occupy started was because our systems were so broken,” she added, citing the influence of money in government following the Citizens United ruling, a common Occupy gripe. “It doesn’t matter how you protest your government, or demand what you think you deserve. Do it.”