By popular demand I hied myself over to the Occupy Albany encampment this week to have a look around, not once but twice — on Sunday afternoon when the weather was balmy and again yesterday morning when it was chilly and drizzly, and I can report that the occupiers seem like a hardy bunch, if slightly time-warped.
I don’t mean that disparagingly. It’s just that they have the air of 1960s hippies about them, with their tie-dyed shirts, their dreadlocks and above all their peace-and-love enthusiasm.
There they were in the park across the street from the Capitol in the Sunday sunshine, adults lounging on the grass or hanging around the free-food table, children frolicking, dogs examining each other’s rear ends, a few people holding up protest signs for the benefit of passing motorists, and I felt like I might have been in Humboldt County, Calif., after Haight-Ashbury emptied out and its inhabitants headed north, going “back to the land,” as they phrased it.
If someone had handed me a joint, I would have taken a drag and passed it along, though alas, no one did.
Yesterday in the chill and the drizzle, the atmosphere was more subdued, of course, but not essentially different. Just more hunkered down.
One articulate young man I spoke to, Justin Secor-Rubenstein, when I asked him what he does, told me he “co-runs a granola business,” and I nearly fainted from sheer ’60s nostalgia.
But they’re onto something, I’m sure of that just from the support they’re getting. Not just the tooting of horns and the thumbs up from passing motorists, but material support. They have actually erected a Donations Tent to deal with it all, in addition to a Comfort Tent that contains raincoats, hats, gloves and incense. (You can’t have a hippie encampment without incense.)
Not to mention a library of donated books and a food table laden with donated casseroles, salads and bagels.
While I was there a gray-haired gentleman dropped by in the drizzle to drop off a canopy and some coats. He identified himself as Robert Millman of Scotia, an employee of the New York Bar Association, and told me he was doing it because, “There is a basic truth in this protest … it’s the inequity that exists, there are two sets of rules for people.”
The protesters themselves are famously vague about their grievances and their goals, as I have confirmed for myself now in both Albany and New York City. Ask 10 people why they’re there, and you get 10 different answers, none of them very precise, though economic inequality is a big part of it, the idea being that 1 percent of the country prospers while 99 percent suffers.
A poster leaning against a tree says, “Dear U.S. System: I Want a Divorce.”
I think the atmosphere of the encampments is itself a big part of the message, as some of the demonstrators say. Their own governance is by “general assembly,” which means everyone. Work, like the cleaning of the campsite, is done by volunteer committees. It’s socialism beyond what Marx imagined, and it’s a dramatic counterpoint to the culture of Wall Street, which we have all learned is the culture of hyenas and jackals, albeit intelligent and well-dressed hyenas and jackals.
This new spontaneous counterculture is already falling apart in other places, according to news reports — in Portland, Ore., because of the infiltration of bums and druggies, in New York because of the stubbornness of a circle of drummers who believe
the community needs a pulse, day and night, whether the community agrees or not.
Such are the complications of perfect equality and no government.
I asked one of my hosts yesterday what he made of the four homeless people I had interviewed in the park on Sunday, people who had settled in as part of the encampment, and he said, “Those are our people. They’re our neighbors.”
Which is wonderful, and almost Christ-like. Until someone starts banging a drum all day, and you have no way to shut him up.
I do note that the campers’ own rules, per their General Assembly, specify no drugs, no alcohol, and those rules seem to be honored.
So far the cops are leaving them alone, despite a park curfew of 11 p.m. They might as well, since the district attorney, David Soares, says he will not prosecute any cases of mere trespass. The protesters are peaceful and orderly, so leave them alone.
I don’t know how many there are. On Sunday I counted 40 tents, and there seemed to be still that many yesterday in the rain. Figure two or three people per tent, perhaps, and you have 100 or so people, plus those who come by and spend a few hours holding placards but without settling in.
I speculated that the movement will fizzle out when cold weather sets in, but I was told a “winter-logistics working group” has been formed — these working groups are how things get done — and is studying up on survival techniques.
Of course if you live in Albany or its immediate environs, as all the demonstrators seem to do, winter survival is made easier by the opportunity to go home for a hot shower and a nap in a warm bed once in a while. So I’m not taking any bets on how long Occupy Albany will last.
They told me they expect an influx of people from around the state on Saturday for an Occupy the Capital day, so if you want to see for yourself, that might be a lively time to do it.
If you want to make a donation, they have a sign up stating their needs, which include storage bins, tarps, tables, tents, first-aid supplies and many other things, plus of course food.
If you don’t want to make a donation, I will certainly understand. Maybe you are of the Tea Party persuasion and wish to give succor to misunderstood and under-appreciated job creators.
It’s a free country, and you can do as you wish.
For my part, I am simply an observer.