On September 17, 2011, a group of heroic visionaries began the occupation of Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan. For almost two months, it became Liberty Square, a place where people collected and camped in protest of Wall Street corruption and a capitalist ideology that puts profit before people. It was a place where people converged to discuss all of the ways in which that corruption and ideology affected their lives and tried to come up with a collective solution. This was the beginning of a shift in consciousness for many people.
Weeks after the inception of Occupy Wall Street, occupations sprung up in cities all over the world. Many were violently evicted in a coordinated government effort, but the conversations, organizing and protests of Occupy Wall Street lasted for years following the eviction. When the time comes, I have no doubt that we will rise together again with even more dedication and an elevated wisdom that continues to grow through the painful lessons and beautiful awakenings that came out of the Occupy movement, movements that have followed and the ones that have yet to come.
On October 15th, 2011, I first stepped into the park and began my journey of observing this beautiful uprising through my lens and sharing it with the world. It was exhilarating. I can still hear the nightly general assembly echoing the voices of the speakers with the people’s mic because we weren’t permitted to use amplification. I can feel the drum circle at the other side of the park reverberating the beating of our hearts and sounding the urgency of our cries. I hear conversations all around me teeming with passion and, at times, frustration. I see art everywhere, our grievances displayed through signs and performance. I remember the mutual aid—the library, the medical tent, the kitchen, the comfort station and the spiritual corner where all religious symbols shared the same space. There were so many tents that it was hard to navigate the park along with the floods of people that became submerged in it. We were packed into this tiny concrete jungle, but none of us seemed to mind.
We were experiencing a glimpse of what true community engagement and democracy could look like, and even with all its failings, it felt wonderful. We realized that through allowing ourselves to try something new and fail that we would eventually succeed. Everyone vibrated with hope and a collective energy that I had never encountered before. I met some of the most courageous, dedicated, visionary, caring, empathetic and knowledgeable people that I have ever encountered. It was also a space for solidarity. People came to visit the park from movements all over the world.
In December of 2011, I got the idea to start interviewing occupiers for what would become At the Heart of an Occupation. The blog closed out in January 2016 with 316 voices. There was a real misrepresentation of the Occupy Movement in the media. My hope for the project was to show, through the passionate faces and beautiful voices, what the movement was really fighting for, which is a world that I believe we all want to see. Below is a selection of voices from the blog.
“For me, all the religions say the same thing. They say to love, to take care of your fellow man. How society is right now is not in line with those priorities. I feel like if you want to call yourself a good person, a moral person, you would be out there fighting for your fellow man. We should be much more engaged with each other. We are social creatures. We thrive on connection. I think we need to move back to that more and not be afraid of it.”
“People have their agenda and what’s the most important issue to them, but we are also realizing how all of those issues are connected. It’s not that we don’t have a message, and it’s not that we’re confused about what we want. It’s that we have so many messages, and we are realizing how they are all interconnected.”
“I want to see a world where everyone has a chance to unwrap their gifts and bring them to the table, where everybody can fully express and experience what it is to be on this amazing planet as a human being. We all have that right.”
“Utopia is not something that doesn’t exist. It’s something that can exist in our hearts as a guiding post, so it’s kind of like in calculus with the limit. You can never reach the limit. You can only approach it. It’s like you shoot for the stars, and you hit the moon. In that sense, what kind of world do I want? There’s a sort of grounded, realist, cynic that’s like, “Okay, so maybe we’ll only get this,” but I feel like we always have to reinforce that utopian ideal. We want that, and even if we don’t get it, we’re damn well going to get way closer than we ever would have been if we just settled for some jobs.”
“I see deceit, pain, hunger and injustice in the world. I feel the misery of parents losing their child to a bomb…I hope this movement will be the spark for change and conscious revolution and that it will inspire people all over the world to create a world where we all care for each other. Greed never knows how to be satisfied, but love will fulfill us all. I believe love is the answer to all our problems.”
“Through resistance and connection, I hope that we will really show that another world is possible…I hope for a world of interconnected communities, where we remember and practice our social and ecological responsibility, where we are more accountable to ourselves, to each other. I want to see people living in ways that reflect creative, thoughtful, respectful interactions, ones that actually allow people to live in more honest and connected ways.”
“Occupy Wall Street and the many offshoots it has spun were and are important because the institutions of power will never change themselves. They’ll reform themselves and throw people crumbs here and there, but ultimately, people who are alienated from the system that currently exists, people who are oppressed by the system that currently exists, will only get change if they organize themselves on their own terms.”
“There is no reason that I can think of, whatsoever, why any person in the world should go without food, water, shelter or being loved. There is enough for everyone, and everyone doesn’t have enough. Five people have what 100 people should have.”
“We don’t have to destroy the world to enjoy it. I’m very interested in ecology and sustainability, and I feel the next forefront in education will be vital in cultivating citizens that are engaged in that. I look at the curriculums in other schools, and I look at high schools and see what they are taught, and I see how deficient it is in preparing the students for the realities of the real world. We have become so addicted to standardized tests and ways of figuring out how much your family can contribute to a school, and they are such inadequate markers of where we are as people. I envision a world that is not shackled to the systems, and I think that social movements like Occupy and occupations of student spaces help bring about the windows of opportunity for people to see past what we assume is the way we have to live.”
“I want to see us realize that it’s not important to have material possessions, that it’s not important to a have a bank account, that your status in society means nothing. There is no such thing as status. We make this up. Just like the pieces of paper in our wallet only have value when we say they have value, if we decided that people had value, they would. If we decided that money was not important, it wouldn’t be. If we made a commitment to each other to put our common bonds over the treasury bonds, if we decided to put the relationship between our hearts and our minds over the relationship between our jobs and our assets, we’d begin to see what life is really about…I believe it’s about the legacy you leave behind in others’ memories and others’ hearts. It’s not about how many things you are able to hoard or collect in a vault somewhere. You can’t take any of that with you…Life is too short for this, and I think that’s what people need to realize is that life is too short to live this way…There is an alternative. Another world is truly possible, but we have to use our imaginations, which are usually stifled by the media, and they’re stifled in the education system. We are told to abandon our imagination, and we really need to tap back into that and really start to see the world we’ve never seen.”
“The world I’d like to see is a world where everybody has their place around the circle. In the center is a fire, and the fire is all of our intentions and all of our dreams, and in the circle, we are all different. We are all equal, but there’s no hierarchy here. We manage to live in a way which is environmentally sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling, and the most import thing for all of this is happiness. For me, this is what it’s really about, to live in a world where we can be truly happy and understand that we are amazing and wonderful and lucky, that it’s awesome to be alive. We are living at a very special time…to awaken this consciousness has the potential to unlock joy and peace and harmony the likes of which none of us ever have experienced…It is the return to the human family living with the earth—Pachamama. This is the South American notion of mother earth. It’s all about involvement. There’s no more fear. No one is left out. No one is hungry. No one is cold. We don’t need to compete anymore.”
“I hope we come to have a respect for each other’s histories and a respect for people’s cultures and what each person can add to the situation in a way that doesn’t create systems of supremacy over anyone else. I’d also like us to leave behind systems of patriarchy…I hope for more of a respect for each other’s individuality and a system that’s not built on hierarchy. I think that most communities do naturally operate in a way that is very much what I’d like to see. I think in most neighborhoods, if someone is not eating, the people in that neighborhood will help that person out. On a small scale, we operate in those systems already, so it’s not anything that’s that far from what people are already doing. It’s just that we’ve got these systems in place that are contrary to that, and these systems are enforced by a military police force. People aren’t always able to do the things they would do because of that. They enforce things that are actually foreign to the way people naturally interact. We’d actually be building onto a system that already exists and creating a society that operates off of that natural interaction. .”
“There was a time that people would laugh if you suggested that there be a purely private conception of land ownership, but now that’s a commonly understood thing, and when we fight for our collective and individual rights, the first thing we often think of is our right to protect what’s ours, guard our boundaries. Now, people would laugh if you would say that pieces of the ocean or water or air could be privatized and that certain people could buy pieces of water and sell them, but that’s where we’re headed. Rather than seeing the privatization of water and air the way we’ve seen the privatization of the soil itself, we would reach a different kind of consciousness in which we recognize that we all share these resources and that we have an obligation to ourselves, to future generations, to our neighbors to figure out effective ways to share those resources equitably — not just effectively, but equitably. That would require a real shift of consciousness from me, me, me toward a concern for the collective in understanding our inter-reliance.”
“I want a world where I know my neighbors, where I feel like I can walk down a street and smile at them and connect with them on the most basic of levels. I want a world where we are not divided by class, not divided by the color of our skin, not divided by what label we’re wearing on our clothes…a world where everybody is free to love whoever they fucking want regardless of what gender or race they are, without scrutiny or judgment or criticism. I just want a world full of love, love for humanity, love for the earth, love for animals…I want to see us all prosper because we help each other, not because we hurt each other, not because of competition. I’m here on top of this hill, and you can get here too. Let me help you. That’s the world that I want. That’s the legacy I want for my son. I want my son to inherit that. I don’t want him to inherit debt. I don’t want him to inherit hatred. I don’t want him to inherit bombs or drones. That’s what we have now, and we don’t need that.”
“This is where it gets a little bit spiritual for me. I don’t have anything to back this up, but I do think that it’s deeply, spiritually harmful and psychologically harmful for us to have the kind of distance from the point of production that we in this country are trained to have. I think people are smart, that they know that their products come from other places, and the places that they come from probably don’t look a lot like this country and probably don’t enjoy certain kinds of labor standards and environmental standards that we have. I think that Americans on some level understand that we are culpable for a huge variety of environmental and labor destruction all over the world. Even if we don’t acknowledge this, and even if we say we disagree with this, it pains us. On a very personal level, having the kind of outlets where I can feel like I’m taking an active role and addressing that problem, I think it’s the only way to begin to heal that spiritual void that all of us feel in a capitalist society, even if we don’t acknowledge it.”
“I think that we need to not be afraid to demand things that the establishment calls impossible. There’s definitely a tendency toward weakening legislation or laws that can really address the social roots of problems because they are deemed impossible, or one side of the isle doesn’t want to negotiate on certain terms, and I feel like a lot of people are just fed up with it. They realize that no matter what outcome comes out of this shit, we lose. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter whether the blue side wins or the red side wins. Either way, we end up losing…We’re taught as we’re growing up that the way you have a voice is to vote…but a lot of people are realizing that it doesn’t matter who you vote for. They’re both just two heads of the same beast. We need an alternative to that model, and that’s what started happening here at Zuccotti.”
“It’s hard to even say the words because I think, for a lot of us, our dreams are so big. You either feel stupid, or you’re definitely going to get your heart broken if you say it out loud. I would like to live in a world where we can actually find work that is meaningful. I don’t want to be embarrassed about the job I have. I don’t want to feel bad about what I do all day. I don’t want to be waiting to have something that’s more moral. I want the work that people do to contribute to the world they want to see. Ultimately, that’s what I care about. That’s what I want for myself. That’s what I want for other people. We should be able to build that world. All of those time wasting jobs, no one should feel like a meaningless cog in a machine. People should have meaning in the work that they do. I think a lot of us feel like that. That, ultimately, I think is what will transform the world. The more that the things that we do with our hands and our minds have meaning and actually contribute to our dreams, that is going to be the result and cause of this new world.”
“At the least, I would like an informed and engaged population. In the world I want to see, people are making decisions about everything around them based on real and accurate information. They are cognizant enough and connected enough with what’s happening very far away from them that they can make those connections to what they’re interacting with and the people who are suffering from those interactions around the world. At a minimum, I’d like people to choose to stop participating in those interactions in a way that’s harmful to others. That’s very abstract, but at the least, that’s all I want. In my most ideal version, I want people to actually have freedom and actually have a choice in how society is moving forward. I want the millions around the world who are living off of nothing to have an improved quality of life, but I want quality of life that makes sense for everybody. I want a quality of life that isn’t one group having exponentially more than the others. I want food systems that make sense. I want political systems that make sense, health systems that make sense, education. I want everything to work well, and I think it can, but I think it starts with the minimum. That’s people being aware and engaged and active with everything that they’re doing.”
“It’s about not having everything all mapped out. It’s about having key principles and goals for sure, as well as key demands that are about caring for people, sharing resources, providing things like food, medicine, health care, housing—things that under the system that we live in, capitalism, are withheld from people. Scarcity is something that’s engineered. Unemployment is an artificial creation. But to really transform all of those things doesn’t mean you have to have a fully fleshed out idea of what another world would look like. I’m willing to hold out for some mystery and some magic along the way. I think that that approach will make it a much more dynamic process and one that I hope to be in conversation with people about for the rest of my life.”
“There is something completely unnatural about a society based upon work and routine, with no investment in either direction between either party. It’s basically a society of clients. Everything is disposable. Everything and everyone are replaceable. That doesn’t only mean the “bottom 99%.” It means everyone. Even the people at “the top” are disposable. It’s a very, very strong sickness that just seeps everywhere. Trickle-down economics was right in the trickle-downness of social sickness. That part they got right, for sure. I can’t think of a better manifestation of being in a state of nothingness than finding yourself in a society where everyone and everything are completely disposable, than finding yourself in a society that’s so exemplified by a roll of toilet paper. I’m striving to help bring about a world that is very much like Zuccotti, -with all of the beauty and all the chaos of that space…I think that we would see human beings achieve things that have never been achieved before, that we’d see the real meaning of progress…I think our natural energies would achieve really, really great heights. It’s not something that could be verbalized because it’s something that would seem totally new, and yet totally familiar. If we wanted to look for it, we’d probably have to look for it in moments of literature and moments of art. It would probably feel like being in love all the time, or much of the time, with all the benefits and negatives, but that feeling is such a heightened state of being that its positives and negatives are better than nothing, better than just a flat line.”
“I feel very passionately about these things. Human rights and animals and caring for life is my passion. I can get really angry and fierce when I confront these injustices against life and against humanity. I feel rage. It’s real rage…My rage comes from a desire for respect and security and expression for all human beings and animals. I want to live in a world where children can grow up and develop in a way that’s physically healthy, in a way that’s emotionally healthy, where we are at peace with coming into the world and peace with going out of the world, where people are respected for what they have to offer, where people’s talents are nurtured for what they are, where people can express themselves artistically, spiritually, sexually, intellectually…We need to get real and start respecting human beings for what we are, not allowing ourselves to be commodified in service of some inescapable economic dogma.”
“The world that we are trying to build is one that is not built by me, and it’s not built by you, and it’s not built by the other theorists or the other idealists or the other hopeful, aspiring revolutionaries. The world that we want to build is one that has no ends. We’re not building an ends. We’re building a means, and a constant means, one that everyone can participate in. One of the most important elements of Occupy Wall Street and the adjoining movements around the rest of the world is about popular power, and that to me is one of the three or four axis of the whole thing, this idea of popular power. The power is something that we build together, not something that we build over each other. It’s something that we build with each other, not against each other. Then, what we’re trying to build is something that tomorrow or ten years from now or a thousand years from now, it’s humankind and the earth in collaboration building that world together. It won’t be some Utopian perfect world. It will be a world that’s constantly changing but that people can actually participate in and know that they’re participating in it.