NEW YORK - There is something despondent about the Occupy Wall Street headquarters on a dark Tuesday evening. A large group of people meditate quietly near Church Street, small groups of people converse quietly near ledges and stairs. Lazing bodies litter the tarps on the ground, conjuring images of an oddly adult slumber party or makeshift outdoor hospital.
Not all of the occupiers subscribe to the grunge or hipster scene, though. Michael Benko doesn’t quite seem to fit with the majority of snaggle-haired, comrades standing in line for food. Small, well dressed, with glasses and a haircut hearkening to Clark Kent, he looks a little too well pressed to have been sleeping there for over a week.
“No, no, I’m not sleeping here, I just got here about an hour ago. Today, I mean. A lot of us come and go as we can,” he explains. Michael is one of the New Yorkers working their nine-to-five, and then joining the party for an hour or two after they’ve finished. “I just got off work, figured I should check out what’s changed since the weekend. Grab some food, too. It’s really good.”
He’s welcoming and warm on a chilly dark night, sharing his “table” with insistence. The food is better than expected – freshly delivered pizzas arrive in boxes just as Benko’s finished passing through the line. With the pile of food on his plate, he’s nonplussed. For good reason – kale salad with tomatoes, a spicy Middle-Eastern spiced lentil, bean, and rice mixture, spaghetti, baked ziti, glazed carrots, piles upon piles of bread, with an assortment at the end of fruit, hummus, and “vegan foie gras”. One gaunt man with matted hair and military fatigues even strolls around the courtyard with a large sack of loaves, offering free bread to whomever he spots nearby.
At the ripe age of 24, Michael lives in Astoria and works at a well-known publishing company in Manhattan.
“I got it through a temp agency, it was great,” he explains, in response to surprise of such a great placement at such a young age in this company. A former film student at Boston’s Emerson College, Benko graduated just as the stock market crashed to the floor.
“I have money in the stock market. People don’t know how to use the stock market, a lot of people our age think they should buy when stocks are high, but actually now would be a great time.” He continues to explain stocks for another few minutes, proving some of the protestors have indeed done their homework. Trailing off, he adds quietly “I just wish I felt like Wall Street worked for us. I wish some of them would come down here and actually see what’s going on.”
“There’s an intrinsic value in some ways more so than making a statement. It’s very therapeutic – some of the people here are students, some of them aren’t, some are just walking around taking pictures, some of them have just lost their jobs and have nothing better to do.”
The atmosphere is definitely different than the extreme anger, jubilation, drama, and parting that much of the media seem to present. “It’s a little weirder tonight,” Benko ponders, “A little angrier, maybe.” There is definitely a sinister mien that whispers about, lurking the occasional Guy Fawkes masks on faces and the backs of heads. But there are neither signs of rage, nor of violence – Benko hadn’t seen any, even with the close quarters and the menace of police batons.
Some protestors look somewhat wounded, some just exhausted. Many are cheery enough, but beneath a subdued air, as if hanging upon the park is something heavier than a big block party, but harder to qualify than the impassioned fever of a movement with a mission.
Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is a protest lacking clarity: no substantial demands, too many broad objectives, and a rhetoric that borders on absurd in its attempt at being provocative.
The sense of community created by the gathering is palpable, and everyone has something to talk about. Benko emphasizes the importance of having a place to go, calling it a “good social utility”. Movement, then, is a far better description than protest.
“I’m sure a few out there think it’s cool,” he says of the men on Wall Street, positing how they might perceive the movement. “I don’t think they get it. I think they’re too removed.”
The movement has progressed in a number of contradictory ways, swelling bandwagoners eager to be a part of something exciting, creating a demographic that changes daily. Without central clarity within the group, it has made it fairly amorphous.
The social network aspect of the “occupy movement” has added to its shifting, uncertain (albeit rapidly growing) structure. According to a recent Economist article, Twitter activity over the Wall Street protests has been manic, and new online programs such as “We Are The 99 Percent” have appeared and flourished rapidly. “We Are The 99 Percent” is a tumblr blog inviting anyone to write and post pictures about economic hardships, creating a community as well as visible, real examples of how the economic crisis is plaguing the country.
Predictably, if Benko had to use one word to describe the emotion of the movement, it would be hopeful. Countered with “forlorn”, or “despairing”, he adamantly shakes his head, with the strongest conviction he’s displayed thus far.“No, hopeful. Definitely hopeful.”
A sense of hope, or at the very least expectation, pervades. For every action a reaction should loom, and that seems to be what the movement wants. The financial crisis is something tangible and easily felt, but with a source that feels distant to those who suffer. The movement may move in many directions, but it aims to make this connection, and its clear there’s a sizable group of people who feel the need to move something.
When asked how long he expects the occupation to last, he takes a pause. Smiling thinly, he admits in a reluctant voice, “I think when the funding goes…ironically, when the money goes, so will it.”
By Liana Mitlyng Day