Rachel White believes that both protests are fighting a similar evil; of the same generation. “A generation who want better. And who are out doing something to get it.”
It is Saturday night in New York City, just after midnight. While most of Manhattan seems to be walking to and from bars, at Liberty Square hundreds of protesters are in sleeping-bags covered with tarps to keep out the rain. It’s hard to navigate the park without stepping on a snoring body; a few are sprawled blanket-less on park ledges meant for sitting. Someone strums a guitar and people sing in a tent by flashlight, as if from inside a paper lantern.
Earlier today I went to SlutWalk, the world-wide anti rape-culture protest. It’s timely in New York, with two cops acquitted of rape charges and police warning women to dress conservatively. But after SlutWalk, I came here, to day fifteen of Occupy Wall Street–the “live in” protest about the disparity of wealth among the classes, the control big business has on the government and the corruption of Wall Street institutions. I should have guessed that tonight the protesters would be exhausted–just hours before 700 people were arrested in a march over the Brooklyn Bridge.
At SlutWalk, I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes, as I felt them filling with tears. It was the feminist rhetoric I grew up with that got to me. All around me were women with signs like “blame the system not the victim” — and “Slut” scrawled on their chest ala Kathleen Hanna. The lonely teenage riot grrrl inside of me couldn’t believe it.
But at Occupy, my eyes were wide. It wasn’t the fight I grew up with, but the one that was happening all around me, the frustrations of my generation unfurled. There were messages like “Wealth is meaningless on a dead planet“ or “United Snakes of America” scrawled on deflated Trader Joes bags or spotted pizza boxes. I watched in a daze, before realizing I had fallen in line for the march.
At the foot of the bridge, a sea of people unrolled as far as I could see. It was a sampling of the general population– the various ages, ethnicity and culture you might see on a Metra train. At Slutwalk one of the speakers had said “look around you, look at all of the different people and cultures and colors” and I swallowed back a tiny sob. Here, all the more true, I felt warm and stunned, too shocked to cry.
As we marched onto the Brooklyn Bridge, other protesters went on the street below which had now been cordoned off. “I want to be down there!” I heard and people began jumping from the bridge to the street. One man positioned himself over, gripping the railing, and a police officer grabbed his legs– he was dangled above a 500 foot drop into the east river. Some protesters pulled him back onto the bridge.
I missed the SlutWalk march. But as SlutWalk marchers rounded back chanting, “hey, hey, ho, ho, rape-culture has got to go” I felt my heart beat, bongo-like. At Occupy Wall Street, we were told “don’t yell at the police, they are part of the 99% too. Be peaceful!” But at SlutWalk, everyone knows, cops are not friends. The acquittal of two NYPD officers charged with rape rung in the ears of New York. The protesters yelled, directly at the police, there were anti NYPD chants and some carried signs like: “We will protect ourselves, get a .45” and “Rape is a Felony even for the NYPD”. When the cops told myself and a few girls to move out of the way, we rolled our eyes.
Soon, at the Occupy Wall Street protest, the cops were arresting everyone in the street. A preteen girl with an Invader Zim cap was among the arrests; and cuffed protesters kept chanting– “the banks got bailed out, we got sold out” — “Whose bridge? Our bridge!”. We were told to march on, and I checked the twitter hash-tag, and retweeted [email protected] Is the Brooklyn Bridge too far from your midtown offices to get a camera crew there? Cover the news. #occupywallstreet”.
I saw reporters at SlutWalk, snapping photos of some of the sparsely dressed girls. While the media image of SlutWalk has become the topless protester, a number of the girls I talked to told me, “I’m wearing what I was sexually assaulted in”–- A SlutWalker I met at Occupy in jeans and a hoodie told me this. We sadly agreed: “That’s the real SlutWalk uniform”.
As Occupy protesters got arrested, we marched into Brooklyn. Here, there was a rally, using the people’s mic. Without a PA, Occupy announcements are passed through a sort of game of telephone–the speaker speaks one sentence at a time, pausing, as the crowd repeats it to those behind them. It has been called one of the more striking features of the protest, and undoubtedly hearing messages reverberate through a crowd is powerful.
One man named Trevor stood to talk –- “I work 60 hours a week. I get two paychecks a month. One goes to rent and the other goes to food. We can do better than this. This is indentured servitude.”
Later, a veteran of the Iraq war spoke. He talked about holding an Afghan child in his arms, as he died, then holding a Marine as he died. “Some people say we were fighting for one thing. Other people say we were fighting for another thing” people repeated through the crowd. “All I know is I now understand we are dying for the bank accounts of the rich.”
Before I left SlutWalk, there was a rally too. Sarah E. Patterson gave a fiery talk about sex workers rights: “A society that does not treat its most vulnerable members with the respect doesn’t treat anyone with respect” she said to cheers. Ceyenne Doroshow talked about being trans and made story about almost getting raped by two men into something uplifting and light. I remember SlutWalk this way, colorful, joyous even. But when I think of Occupy it’s the gray sky bearing down on the Brooklyn Bridge’s stringed arches, ominous.
While most toss and turn in their sleeping bags at Liberty Square, I find some people hanging out in the back of the Wikileaks truck. There are bean bags and mattresses. There is no alcohol or drugs allowed on the premises, and the protesters take this as seriously as they take staying peaceful. They are not here to be violent, they are not here to party. But in the truck, the mood is light. The kids take turns telling bad jokes. “Knock knock” someone asks. “whose there?”… “9/11”. “9/11 who?” someone asks back. “You said you’d never forget!”
Earlier that day, scrolling through the hastag, #occupywallstreet, I saw acclaimed Internet feminist, Sady Doyle on the thread–ranting at the WikiLeaks truck. Bringing up the Julian Assuange rape case, she tweeted: “Asked the guy at the #wikileaks truck point-blank whether penetrating an unconscious person was rape. He said, not rape “if they’re married” or “if they’ve slept together.”#occupywallstreet.”
At the SlutWalk rally, someone adressed Occupy Wall Street– “We need to talk about whether we should be occupying this land at all. We need to talk about colonialism and imperialism. We are not the indigenous people of this land!” No doubt, there is a place for this discussion, but it seemed to confuse the audience, who were dispersing. Why did it feel like SlutWalk was pinning itself against Occupy? As though one cannot be a feminist and any other sort of activist?
“What the hell happened with Sady Doyle?” I ask the Wikileaks truck guy. He tells me that Doyle came up to the truck and started yelling at him about the Assuange rape case. His answer– that sometimes in relationships it isn’t rape– obviously isn’t great or even cool. But I can’t shake feeling alienated by this clash of the movements, especially considering how egalitarian Occupy is. One of the rules of the people’s mic is that it’s customary to ask: “are there any non male, non white folks that would like to speak first?”
Despite mainstream media outlets like The New York Times making the Occupy protesters out to be faux-intellectual drop-outs, the kids are witty and smart. The conversation flows smoothly between atheism, feminism, ethics and philosophy. They are college grads, who are living what they learned in school–despite the fact that they can’t get jobs.
Perhaps the misunderstanding of the movement is generational. The protests of the 1960’s or 70’s seem black and white in contrast, but today’s digital age brings with it a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and political shades. And while there are a number of democrats here, there are lots of anarchists, some are syndicalists who believe in unions, a few are capitalists who believe in free markets and most don’t specify.
It leads me to wonder if this is the birth of a new movement–perhaps, a first ever unification of many different political ideologies. If so, it makes sense that it would take them time to find a message that unites them. Or perhaps the mainstream just can’t hear their message.
In truth, the camp is impressively organized, and works as it’s own tiny town. Entering, I’m offered a sleeping bag, heavy coat, and a tarp to pull over myself in the rain. The food table is filled with granola bars, fruit and hot pizza. There is also a lending library and creative project area to keep people entertained.
There is a joke of needing a sectioned off sex area as well. Occupy Wall Street offers impressive sex kits which include condoms, dental dams, lube and finger cots. “I almost stepped on this couple having sex in their sleeping bag, they just looked at me, laughed and kept going” says one of the protesters.
Late into the night, the fire department arrive at the square — they are flashing lights and blowing sirens. “What’s going on?” I ask. A protester named Max explains that this has happened every night. “They are here to fuck with us, make sure we don’t get sleep. It’s not the firefighters fault, they are ordered to it do it,” he says.
The conversation drops off, and he worries aloud about what might happen, the violence. The protesters are tired and the cops are hardening. This is supposed to be a peaceful protest, but what happens if a cop goes further, what happens if a cop kills a protester? “We will snap. I am afraid of what I would do” says Max. “Everything will change.” The rest of the group agrees, wearily and fearfully, that sometimes it does feel like this is what it’s building toward.
Today, going over the Brooklyn Bridge, I passed a girl who had also just come from SlutWalk, saying about the cops– “they hate feminists!” Another girl, passing her, turned and said, “it’s not just feminists they hate.”
As the firemen wake more and more people up with their flashing lights, I check the time. It’s 3:00 a.m. and the people who’ve been arrested should be arriving soon, but it’s hard to imagine where they will all fit. “That’s why we marched to the park in Brooklyn” says Max. “The rumor is, that’s going to be our outpost.” Unlike the cooked Radiohead is playing Occupy rumor, this one makes sense. The protest keeps growing and the kids are here for the longhaul.
On Wednesday night, I watch the videos from that days march, which I don’t attend– I see a cop beating a woman with a baton, swinging to hit as many people as he could. I hope for this extra space.
SlutWalk NYC was an explosion that was over in a few hours. No one yet knows when Occupy Wall Street will end. You can’t compare the two movements, they for different causes, reacting to different things. But both are born of a similar seed -– of fighting a similar evil, of the same generation. A generation who want better, who were promised better. And who are out doing something to get it.
Originally appeared at RachelRabbitWhite.com