Two Sides of Liberty: from the Islands to the Plaza – Part 2

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So the much delayed second part of our Liberty Island to Liberty Plaza blog post is here.  Why much delayed?  Well a combination of things really: life, work, dissatisfaction at how I had post processed the images (still not entirely happy with the colour ones), and working through my ambivalent feelings to the whole Occupy movement.  Also the day was such a contrast that I felt I needed to give it some space before writing this final piece.

So let’s start with my ambivalent feelings to the whole Occupy movement.  Yes there is an unequivocal  case to answer that certain groups within certain financial institutions, and they aren’t just limited to investment banks, created and sold financial instruments that eventually led to a structural collapse in the credit markets.  These instruments were originally designed to allow banks to be able to lend more money to the businesses they were supporting by taking stable assets (loans to businesses) and parcelling them up and selling them to the wider financial markets.  Things went wrong when they were used more widely and for much lower quality credit risks (businesses or people that could not pay back their loans) because there was such a huge appetite for people to take on debt by buying things on credit which they could not afford to pay for in cash.  I don’t just mean mortgages on houses or car loans but sofas, TVs, holidays, clothes etc.  If during the last 10 years we bought items on credit because we did not have the cash to afford them, which may well cover 95% or more of the UK adult population, then we contributed to the problem.  It is the lack of personal culpability and responsibility shown by the protestors that gives rise to my ambivalence about the Occupy movement.

Okay I’ve got that out of my system, now on with the day.  If you remember I thought that this might show if there had been a marked change in the US attitude towards the poor and huddled masses since the height of immigration in the first two decades of the 20th century.  It really was instructive.  Lucy and I had arrived back from Ellis Island and after a quick pit stop at the first Starbuck’s we saw to feed Lucy’s Cinnamon Dolce Latte habit, we walked up towards Wall Street and Liberty Plaza/Zucotti Park.  I’ll say right now that one of my major regrets in this series of photos is that I did not take any of the police on Wall Street or ringed all around Liberty Plaza.  Not because I saw any harassment or violent behaviour by them but just to record the sheer number of police officers that were there.  There is a saying in photography that once you have finished shooting your subject you should turn around and look behind you as it might just be a whole lot more interesting. The numbers of police present would certainly have put the phoptographs that follow in a wider perspective.

My first impression of Occupy Wall Street was that the plaza was jam packed with a mass of people, and shelters, and signs, and bags, all in amongst the trees and spilling over on to the pavements around the edge.  On the pavements the more ‘eccentric’ members of the community appeared to be staging their own  freak show.

I saw quite a few folks hanging around the edges of the protest taking photos and most of them looked, like us, as if they were tourists.  I’ll admit right now to feeling uncomfortable at first about taking photographs of OWS.  It seemed to be being treated almost as a sight seeing event in the same way as a parade and that  trivialisation did not sit well with me.  Whether you agree with them or not most of these folks are trying to make some serious points about the difficulties that people find themselves in right now and to treat them as being there for our entertainment just didn’t seem right.

So what was I to do?  I reasoned that what we were seeing here was social history happening in front of our eyes and it couldn’t just be witnessed form the edge of the crowd.  It seemed to me that if we wanted to see what was really going on we needed to get past the fringe elements and go right in, so Lucy and I stepped straight down the steps and pushed into the camp.  Immediately you could see that what appeared at first to be totally disorganised and chaotic actually did have a structure.  There were departments and groups running them from sanitation to cooking and even a Legal department staffed by lawyers giving free advice.

 At every other turn you would come across a discussion group engaged in earnest debate either about the  aims of the movement, or the organisation of the camp, or protests that were to take place.

Whilst some did look like the student sit-in type seminars from the Vietnam protests that you saw on 1960’s news reels, many had a wide range of age groups and opinions represented.  There really was a feeling that this wasn’t just middle class student’s rebelling against authority, though they were definitely well represented, but there appeared to be a genuine cross section of American society.

Here there really were some of the poor and huddled masses for whom the American dream had gone very sour.  People whose few possessions were in carrier bags, living under makeshift shelters of plastic tarpaulins and eating from food donations.

How does this differ from any other shanty town where the homeless might gather?  In three ways.  Firstly, they had support from a wider community than the usual charity workers.  They had drawn in a much larger cross section of society who were engaged in a shared project.  Secondly, they had a purpose.  Many homeless people are also hopeless but these folks all had an energy and a focus to what they were doing.  Finally they had an identity and a slogan with which to engage and include the wider world which many Ad men would be proud of, “We are the 99%”.

It is this central message and identity that is so beguiling to those outside the protests as it gives them a point of identification and inclusion, a way of being part of the protest without actually having to protest.  It really is smart marketing and I love to know who actually came up with it.

One of the defining aspects that I observed at OWS was that there were signs and slogans everywhere.  From the slick professionally produced 99% messages, to handwritten heartfelt cries, to witty comments on their situation, to placards of rage at the financial communities indifference, to incitements to make a killing on Wall Street by shooting a stockbroker, you could not escape the mass of posters.

And yet there was no animosity to either of us as we wandered around the camp taking photographs.  We were obviously tourists and I was using a Leica M8 camera, which though four years old is still a pretty expensive piece of kit though it does have the advantage of looking like an old film camera.  The protestors simply got on with what they were doing.  It wasn’t that we were ignored but it was more like we were just the wallpaper to their very public life.  There were obviously some folks who were playing up to the cameras but apart from the self-styled “Outlaw” and the guy wearing the flag as a cape people didn’t strike a pose or bat an eyelid as we walked amongst them and recorded their lives.  There were moments of real tenderness and care amongst the protestors as they supported each other through their shared experience.

So after 30 – 40 minutes I was left with mixed feelings about the whole experience and I still have them.  Do they have a valid point that bears making?  Yes, to a degree.  Is this the best way of making it?  Well it certainly has garnered attention and created a focal point but I’m not sure where it goes from here, if anywhere.  And what did it say about America’s attitude towards the poor and huddled masses today?

We all know that the US no longer has an open door policy towards immigration but what of the poor and dispossessed amongst their citizens now?  In my judgement, there was at the time I visited OWS an uneasy truce between the NY City authorities and the protestors.  A truce which has emphatically broken down since then and will almost certainly not be renewed.  In truth I would say that a significant proportion of US society supports the protestors or their aims but that the authorities do not welcome any mass gathering of the populace that threatens the stability of day to day life.  The US is not unique in this view but having held out the promise of the American dream and lectured people on representative democracy and civil rights it is instructive to see how the authorities react in troubled times.

I will finish this post with a colour version of one of the previous images.  My thoughts and experiences whilst visting OWS and writing this post leaves me with the thought that it would be instructive to try and do the same here in London either at the Occupy site outside St Paul’s cathedral or in Finsbury square in the heart of the City.  I wonder if I would receive the same reaction as I did in NY?