Welcome to Sachsville: My Life in Zuccotti Park
I had been warned that the historic district of Upper Sachsville, near the intersection of Jefferson Street and Trotsky Alley, was on the wrong side of the food line.
“No, no, we’ve gentrified,” Paul Sylvester told me with a laugh. “Cleaned up the neighborhood.”
The 24-year-old Iraq veteran’s “neighborhood” was a cluster of tents about the size of a college dorm room on the southern edge of Zuccotti Park in New York City. Not every occupier called the park Sachsville—as in “Goldman and Sachs”—but Paul and his neighbors in the historic district did.
They were all members of the Empathy Working Group, a committee of occupiers tasked with organizing trainings on nonviolent communication to bolster camp security. These were the types of people who you’d find holding a spontaneous meditation circle in a subway car. They were also the types of people who would offer you a place to sleep in their tent without a moment’s thought—and without seeming at all creepy.
“I spent 13 months in Iraq, and this is the first time I’ve actually defended this country,” Paul told me. The numerous skeptics who demanded to know Occupy’s “demands” didn’t concern him. “This revolution is such a baby. It’s changing and evolving every day.”
Sachsville was a full-fledged civilization that rose and fell in just under two months. Six months have now passed since it all began, and its citizens have since been forced into a diaspora of scattered office buildings, church basements, and private homes.
When media cover the now-global outcry against inequality today, the most popular question might be this one: “What’s next for Occupy Wall Street?”
But to answer this question, to look forward, it can be helpful to look back. And during the brief time I spent sleeping in Sachsville last fall as a Campus Progress reporter, I saw how it might prove to be the hometown of a long-lasting movement.
I was shocked when I first arrived at Zuccotti Park in late October.
I’d read about protests there with thousands of people and about the “wild” west side of the park—surely, the space had to be sprawling and impossible to take in with the naked eye.
It couldn’t possibly be this tiny.
The park was only about as wide as the length of two city buses. The whole encampment wasn’t even the size of a football field.
And it was paved. This grassroots movement had no turf—astro, or otherwise.
Sachsville was tiny, but I quickly learned that tiny just meant compact and dense. Charlie Gardner, who runs the blog “Old Urbanist,” once estimated that the area had a population density almost five times that of New York City itself. People who called the occupation a microcosm of society were more accurate than they knew: As I became more familiar with the place, walking a hundred feet began to feel more like crossing a county line.
The images from Occupy Wall Street familiar to most people—the protest signs and taped-shut mouths (or loudmouths) on the sidewalk, and of course the drums, the unceasing drums—really only came from the outer borders of the encampment. That’s what New Yorkers saw when they walked past on their way to work; that, and a vague mass of tarps and cardboard on the inside.
So the interior geography is what many passersby would miss. The expansion of Sachsville to fill Zuccotti Park was not unlike the expansion of America towards the Pacific: It moved from East to West, and from the seat of an unruly democratic experiment into even more unruly outer territories.
The eastern stairs served as the site of the first and all subsequent General Assemblies (called GAs by occupiers), the camp’s consensus-based decision-making meetings. Toward the east side of the park, you’d find the knowledge workers at their booths—Info, Media, Finance, Legal Support, Press Relations, Outreach—and the Library, with its several thousand carefully catalogued books, many of which were later destroyed in the police raid.
Near the center, sensibly enough, were the survival essentials: the Kitchen, Sanitation, Comfort (a source of warm clothes and sleeping bags), Security, and Medical tents. These were often the most thankless, but most necessary, jobs.
One occupier who frequently staffed the kitchen was a union guy, a steamfitter named Teddy. He told me once that he was there because it was his responsibility to make change, and this place re-energized his faith in the human spirit.
“I’ve been hard and cold all my life, and I don’t want to be,” he said.
He talked about his wife, who is Dominican, and how outraged he was when he caught somebody turning her down for a job, seemingly because of her race. (Teddy says she was told the job was filled—but it mysteriously re-opened when he, a white male, came back later to check it out.)
“I have four kids,” he told me, “and I don’t want anybody treating my wife and them differently.”
Move toward the west end and you’d find the anarchists at Camp Anonymous along with a lot of the artists and spiritual types. A small tree covered with trinkets and symbols of every conceivable faith and non-faith became the camp shrine. And here there were the drummers, who brought energy and visibility (or at least audibility) to the site, and who single-handedly almost brought down the whole occupation due to tensions with the surrounding community over the noise.
It’s also true, as media reports highlighted, that this west side housed the “ghetto,” the place where some local nightlife, addicts, and homeless who didn’t engage much with the movement often came to crash. Every occupier knew it, even though most didn’t like to talk about it. To do so was crude—it was classist and exclusionary, and it was contrary to what the movement was all about. But it was still a daily reality, and one that became increasingly problematic for the camp as time went on.
Sachsville’s transition into a tent city was an accident of evolution—in some ways, an undesirable one as the privacy provided by small tents also made it easier to conceal drug use or assaults. At first, you couldn’t put up so much as an umbrella without the cops making you take down your “structure.” But as more rain fell, occupiers would erect tarps at night and take them down in the morning. Gradually, they just stopped taking them down. And then they started putting up real tents. And, for a little while at least, the cops let them.
On my first night in the park, I ended up crossing the food line from the historic district over to the Info desk. After I spent all night immersed in interviews and conversation there, Info became my campsite and my host neighborhood.
One of the most prominent faces there was Scott Simpson, a 22-year-old college graduate who had quit his enjoyable job at an Atlanta brewery after a week-long trip to Zuccotti Park became something more.
This was a common tale among occupiers, both young and old: Whatever else they had been doing with their time—jobs, school, volunteering—this was so much more compelling. The dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction of building your own community from scratch, the feeling of not only helping to shape history but being urgently needed for it—it just sucked them all in.
Sachsville’s heady mixture of idealism and constant activity gave it an air of impermanence, even one of suspended reality.
“It can be a little like summer camp,” Scott admitted wryly. “Except you’re working all the time. I get about five hours of sleep a night.”
If the 1960s were about Free Love, then Occupy is about Free Work.
A full day’s work in Sachsville, depending on where you chose to spend your time, might have included any number of tasks. Perhaps you were helping sanitation tidy up, volunteering for a shift in the kitchen, going to meetings, talking to tourists, making supply runs, managing donations, organizing marches, going to more meetings, or setting up more meetings. Or, you might have been peacefully “de-escalating” in-camp fights, treating injuries (and even the occasional trench foot), rolling cigarettes, serving as liaison to cops or city workers or local business owners, creating General Assembly proposals to improve the camp, updating the movement’s website, making leaflets or signs or T-shirts, culling news reports for Twitter, filming events, and oh—at some point, finding time to use the bathroom at the McDonald’s across the street.
But no one was alone in his or her labors.
“The distance between strangers breaks down here,” Scott told me. “If I look tired, somebody brings me coffee without asking. That is the universal ‘I love you’ signal.”
Scott’s job at Info, he said, was mostly to listen. Visitors and newbies saw him as the closest thing to an employee, one whose job it might be to hear their grievances, unsolicited advice, and opinions. Lots and lots of opinions. A running joke at the Info tent was to come up to a coworker and say, without preamble or conclusion, “You know what you should do!”
In reality, there was a lot more to Info than just listening. Much of the nuts and bolts of the camp’s daily organizing and scheduling happened there. Info wasn’t quite designed to be a “central hub” but nonetheless evolved into one, partly because it managed the working groups, which quickly climbed from a dozen to 40 to 80.
These tasks got pretty unwieldy, so Info needed people like Cynthia Villarreal, a slight-statured spitfire who held a day job as a movie makeup artist and only slept in the park occasionally, as she was local. Cynthia and a grizzled street musician named Gypsy knew a lot of people and were good at helping the scattered working groups coordinate—so much so that people began calling Cynthia and Gypsy the “Get Shit Done Working Group.”
Haywood Carey was another Info guy (and a Security guy, and a Press guy—really, an everywhere guy) who was hooked by the sense of genuine purpose offered by the encampment. He felt that he’d lost that after a decade of working on campaigns for Democratic and union organizations.
“I started to wonder,” Haywood told me, “Am I part of the problem?”
Haywood was a big, red-bearded, stocking-capped fellow who could be intimidating when he wanted to be. But mostly, he was just a skilled organizer who always seemed to know what was going on.*
Haywood said the occupation ran on “campaign time,” which he knew well from his political organizing days: “A day is a week, everything takes forever, and there’s never enough time.”
He was right about that—it wasn’t just space that was tight in Sachsville; time was even more compact. If you’d been there two weeks, you were considered a veteran. If you’d been there two days, you could attempt to start orienting visitors, as I did.
And no matter what time scale you were operating on, the GAs took forever. Some people stopped going, feeling unrepresented or like their time was being wasted. There were serious concerns over whether the GA and its facilitators were just another power structure ready to entrench itself and gloss over the needs of those it was supposed to serve.
But the consensus model basically seemed to work, and the movement was always evolving, including its democratic processes. To address the problem of working-group-glut, for example, occupiers formed a “spokescouncil” that would address daily logistical camp needs, leaving broader “movement” concerns to the larger, more unwieldy GA meeting.
But horizontal, leaderless, and non-hierarchical democracy can be a strange beast.
Some people are natural leaders, and become all the more so when they gain experience in an area. De facto leaders almost always emerge, as they did in Sachsville—Haywood and Scott among them. And unacknowledged but tangible power relations can breed resentment. Sometimes, “sleeper” occupiers would grumble about working groups with desks, like Info, who’d get served food first because they had to man their posts.
On the other hand, if the only reason you’re in charge is because you’re good at your job, it becomes a lot easier to replace you if you start to do your job poorly. And having the ideal of non-hierarchy, at least, helps shame people back into egalitarianism if somebody gets too powerful.
The various media working groups, with their splinter factions and anti-hierarchical battles against fame seeking, were hardly horizontalism’s poster children—and yet, they also knew how to get shit done.
With their massive Twitter presence and innovative use of streaming live video, they gave those weary of the mainstream media a direct window into the camp.
Some of the Media members shared a tent with Info. There, you’d have found Thorin Caristo, who controversially started his own livestream network and caused a few of those splinter factions. You’d also have discovered Justin Wedes, of Stephen Colbert fame, tweeting to @OccupyWallStNYC’s 100,000 followers, and you’d find Guyanese whiz Quacy Cayasso, who’d be cooking up some new scheme to keep the electricity going. (Tim Pool was probably around there, too, but I didn’t meet him until well after the eviction that he so famously spent 17 straight hours streaming.)
Info also featured Haywood Carey’s brother Joe Carey, who called himself “Info Joe,” and Haywood’s girlfriend, Christine Crowther. Christine, a cheerful, intelligent young woman headed for graduate school, was likely not who you’d think of when you think of someone homeless—but she was, at least temporarily, due to complications with roommates and leases.
Many of Sachsville’s residents were homeless for one reason or another. To some people already in dire straits, taking drastic action against economic injustice seemed not only compelling but necessary.
Dire straits were Sachsville’s specialties.
The community always seemed to be battling some crisis or other: After all, these were a couple hundred people living in a park, making up their own society as they went along, and often struggling to meet basic needs like shelter, hygiene, and safety, much less powering both the WiFi and everybody’s cell phones. The weekend before Halloween tested everyone’s resolve—between burnout and hypothermia, fire and ice had pretty equal shots at ending the whole thing.
That was the same weekend when the Kitchen staff went on strike (though without actually calling it a strike) and when the media broke stories about security issues, including sexual assault and drug use. Some of those problems may have been caused by outsiders but still became potent, internal issues.
At one emergency meeting called to address camp security, occupiers discussed how to pursue their partnerships with outside social services. One participant objected: “This is a protest. We’re not here to cater to the needs of addicts we don’t have the resources to help.”
Christine argued back: “Yes, it’s a protest, but it’s also a community. A lot of these problems come from New York City itself, and we can’t help that. But we have an obligation to step up and do better than the outside world.”
New York City had other crises in store even before the shocking eviction that came just weeks later—from harsh treatment and harassment at the hands of the New York City Police Department to the general impatience of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As the saying goes, ain’t no power like the power of the people, but as far as electric power went, Bloomberg seemed to want it stopped.
Back on my first night sleeping at Info, the Channel 11 News team woke us up at 4 a.m. with bright camera lights and insistent questions. Having been tipped off to impending fire inspections, they wouldn’t leave the Info folks alone until somebody (Haywood) told them whether the generators would be in compliance later that day (sure they would, he placated).
An occupier who happened to be a firefighter (and one of the first responders on Sept. 11, 2001) did his best the next day to help fireproof the area around the generators, but they were still seized. The National Lawyers Guild argued the confiscation was unjust, and the city eventually returned them. Before that, though, Media’s Thorin and Quacy developed a scheme to hide an extra generator with a friendly vendor that ended in a sketchy undercover seizure. (Paul Sylvester, from the historic district, is the one getting his camera-arm grabbed by a cop in that video.)
Looking back, that whole Thursday—the one with the generator incident—was stressful. The day began with the first arraignments of previously arrested protesters. Then Christine and several others were arrested at an anti-Goldman and Sachs rally. Then occupiers were outraged when two Guy-Fawkes-masked occupiers were arrested off the sidewalk for some obscure, decades old anti-gang law that prohibits wearing masks in groups.
The cops seemed more active, and eviction was expected to come any day. Members of the Direct Action working group—who planned many of the actual protests and marches—hid a bag full of U-Locks in the Media tent that Thursday night while I was there editing video. In the event of an eviction, some brave folks were reportedly going to lock their necks together and defend the park’s interior. Public preparations were made at the GA, where everyone learned first aid for tear gas or pepper spray, and various nonviolent, non-U-Locked techniques of using their bodies to discourage police from taking Sachsville.
Constant crisis was inherent in the occupiers’ chosen form of protest and a lot of their time and resources seemed to be drained away while maintaining that. Some felt they weren’t staying focused enough on the real problems of social inequality—or on specific solutions for solving it.
But crisis is what gave Sachsville its opportunity to shine, and not just because the world paid more attention and showed more sympathy when it saw people being kettled or beaten by police.
Economic inequality is abstract. Poverty, homelessness, or simply struggling to pay bills are not abstract concepts—but they’re not always visible. Many who struggle to survive struggle alone.
But there, in Sachsville, those who struggled or wanted to show solidarity could come out of the shadows and show the world how bad things had gotten. By demonstrating their willingness to live in public in difficult conditions, the Zuccotti occupiers put our national crisis on display while modeling the kind of open dialogue and unity they wish America had by creating their own neighborhoods.
Sure, you’d find plenty of chaos and absurdity there. You’d find crazies and paranoids and brother-can-ya-spare-a’s. But you’d also find hard-ass dedication and passion, people convinced that what they were doing matters, and those who were determined to make enough mistakes to learn from them and evolve.
"What does democracy look like today?" I once asked Info Joe, riffing on a common chant.
"Continually," he said, "it looks like this."
Sachsville’s people lost their hometown. Many moved on from the movement after the eviction. (Scott, as far as I know, was one of them.) Things won’t be the same going forward. But if the movement keeps its roots, it stands a good chance of flowering again this spring.
When I left to return home to Washington, DC—less than two weeks before it all came crashing down—the camp was still evolving: new, bigger communal structures were on the way.
“When you come back, this will all be rows and rows of militarized tents with banners waving,” Scott joked, before a nasty wind threatened to blow Info apart. The massive, overhanging blue tarp flew into the air with all the force of a sail.
Grabbing ropes, books, crates, giant umbrella stands, and anything else nearby, we all pulled together and tied the tarp back down into its proper place.
*A previous version of this story included an inaccurate nickname for Haywood Carey.
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.
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