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September 8, 2012 / Leo Hollis

Occupy – Zuccotti Park, a year on

 
 
 
The young man is reaching down to cup the bull’s testicles in his outstretched while also twisting his face back towards the camera to capture the sheer rad-ness of his iconoclasm. The charging bull of Bowling Green Alley is the symbol of Wall Street and today a crowd has gathered around it like a sacred shrine; it is not a work of art that courts subtle responses. The bull’s nose, horns, tail has been rubbed to a burnished shine; it is a neo-liberal reliquary with powers to turn the average Joe into a Master of the Universe.
 
Last September, in a poster that spread across the city, the bull stood in full flight at the head of phalanx of rampaging riot police barreling out of the surrounding mist; on top of the bull’s back perched a ballet dancer on points. The poster asked the question: What is Our One Demand? and then offered the hashtag +occupywallstreet; the date: 17 September; and the more enigmatic instruction: bring tent.
 
A few blocks north up Broadway stands Zuccotti Park where, on that September morning, the occupiers set their protest having crossed over Brooklyn Bridge and entered Manhattan, their route blocked to nearby One Chase Manhattan Plaza.
 
Part of me was hoping to find a last resistance still standing, a resolute rump who returned to the site of former victories to keep the flame alight. However when I reached the park itself the space was filled with people, but none of them were here to protest.
 
Many were enjoying the shade under the trees planted in regimented rows. From here one could get a clear view of the new World Trade Center reaching into the sky on the eastern corner. A large group gathered around a troop of street entertainers who were encouraging members of the audience to step into the circle while the rest of the group rhythmically clapped. The spirit of revolution was decidedly absent.
 
At the top of the steps a single guitarist strummed against the noise with a placard: ‘Protest is to be against something, Resistance is to do something about it’. South, past Trinity Church, I encountered a small group of four men who had covered a shopping cart with cardboard banners telling us that ‘Jesus would Occupy’ and ‘Support the Troops, Bring them Home’.
 
 
 
This was a long way from what I was expecting. Had the Occupy movement been so effectively wiped from the landscape? Discreetly on one wall I found a notice from the landowners – clearly recently affixed – that listed prohibitions for users of  this ‘privately owned space that is designed and intended for use and enjoyment by the general public for passive recreation’. These include the banning of tents, lying on the ground, the placement of sleeping bags, the storage of personal property, the use of bicycles, skateboards and roller blades.
 
The protests lasted from September 17 to November 15, and barriers remained around the park until January 10, 2012. Today, it is almost impossible to know that anything happened here at all. Throughout history protests have rarely been memorialized in the places they occurred. Only if the rebels win are their first actions immortalized. But this was different, wasn’t it
 
The relationship between the Occupy movement and the city is intense. The taking of Zuccotti Park, as well as St Paul’s Churchyard, revealed the secret dangers behind the extent of privately owned public space [POPS]. Our cities have increasingly become places of conditional liberty – where you can be stopped from taking photographs, where legitimate gatherings are bustled off the pavement, where you can be thrown out of the mall for wearing a baseball cap, where private companies are collecting data about you without you knowing.
 
By taking land back –even for a few weeks – the Occupy movement has changed the way we encounter every part of the city, not just where the tents once stood. The protest has become a defense of the whole public realm and is not just about preserving the memory of Zuccotti Park or St Paul’s Churchyard alone.
 
Rather than looking for auto-icons – like the banners and posters that were assiduously collected by the Museum of London after the Met raid on the churchyard in January – we should look at how far the protest has extended elsewhere, feeding into the ways that we treat the city.
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There is no need for memorials yet.
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