Occupy Opens New Dialogues After a Year


The last person at Occupy Wall Street

Bre Lembitz held up a sign at Zuccotti Park, trying to engage pedestrians in conversation about sustainable economics. Photo: Qi Chen

October 15 marked the one-year anniversary of Occupy Times Square, an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest that led to the arrest of 74 people.

While some see the OWS movement as history, other activists said the movement has transformed and evolved in new directions.

On the night of October 16, the New York City Parks Department and the Consulate General of Switzerland hosted an event called, “Public Space Dialogue: From Zurich to New York” at the Arsenal in Central Park. The lecture, which  featured four speakers from New York and Zurich, was moderated by City College professor Lance Jay Brown, co-editor of “Beyond Zuccotti Park,” a collection of 37 articles by various scholars on OWS’s significance.

Brown said he was aware of the lack of new protests and absence of engaging conversations about OWS.

“Right now, the older members of Occupy are slightly disappointed in the diminished energy of the movement,” Brown said.

“From Zurich to New York” was a part of the city Parks Department’s “Uncommon Ground” lecture series and was developed  to spark discussion on using public space for democratic dialogue, and relating it to the anniversary of OWS.

But, perhaps illustrating the current lack of interest in the movement, neither OWS nor the recently published book emerged in the discussion.

The speakers discussed the differences between the city planning of Zurich and New York, and especially about their respective histories and architecture. Afterward, Brown led a discussion about public spaces in the city. Only Christine Bräm Kleinert, the division head of design and development at Zurich’s Civil Engineering Office, briefly mentioned it in her description of Zurich’s urban space as a forum for protests.

“Our roads are accessible all the time to all citizens,” Kleinert said. “There are spaces with the option of protest for the public.”

Elena Baenninger, an organizer of “From Zurich to New York” at the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York, said that it was a shame that the lecture never explicitly discussed OWS and public protests in New York City. “The one thing that you take away from the lecture is that the way Switzerland uses public space is more democratic,” she said in a phone interview, adding that the lecture was one a series of lectures sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, and was not related directly to the anniversary of OWS.

After one year, some OWS protesters are moving on. At the entrance to Zuccotti Park where the protests were born, Breanna Lembitz stood alone. Lembitz, a recent graduate of Clark University in political sciences who managed OWS’s bank account, held up a sign that read, “Longevity as Success.” The word  “profit” was crossed off with a line across its center. She was inspired by the OWS movement to pursue a doctorate in economics, and planned to use the “longevity” business model as her thesis. According to Lembitz, people must get rid of the idea that profit guarantees success and look for sustaining models of business.

While she did not consider  her activity to be a form of OWS protest, she chose the park because of its history. She said that there has been an ideological change within OWS activists, who are now imagining themselves not as “the poor,” but as “the unable.” She wished to educate herself and others about the economic issues that sparked OWS.

“There’s no presence anymore,” Lembitz said regarding the state of OWS. “People can’t sleep in the park; they can only sit at night, and if they fall asleep or lie down, the police pokes them awake and questions them,” she said. She then joked that OWS should establish a storefront in Zuccotti Park.

For other protesters, the demonstrations continue. Janet Wilson, a former OWS activist at Zuccotti Park, founded Occupy the Roads, an activist group that travels to major cities in the U.S. calling for alternative government. Occupy the Roads is currently on a “Tour of Duty” where they join veteran and soldiers who wish to end wars.

But Wilson feels that in general, it is becoming much more difficult to protest.

“I watched 25 protesters, all of whom were veterans, be arrested by the NYC Police in Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in downtown when they said the park closed at 10 p.m.,” Wilson wrote in an email. “It was a disgrace and atrocity to witness.”

The 25 veterans arrested were from Veterans For Peace (VFP), an anti-war organization.

Brown said the absence of protestors at Zuccotti Park may be a result of the presidential election. “Currently, people are too focused on the immediate future,” Brown said.

“November 6 counts for a lot, but it is essential for people to have dialogue regarding the right to assemble,” he said, and optimistically added, “You’re going to see other activities in the future.”