Wall Street Occupiers Need Kindness of Strangers to Stay Clean

Occupy Wall Street
A participant at the Occupy Wall Street protest. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

Josh Ehrenberg ventured to Brooklyn with two fellow anti-Wall Street protesters to claim the latest offer aimed at sustaining the occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park: a free shower.

The bathtub-benefactor list includes residents attending the protests and those who just want to contribute. It’s one of many ways the three-week-old movement’s members have sought to create a community whose inhabitants are clean, laundered and more likely to stick it out.

“People have to be comfortable,” said Ehrenberg, a 20-year-old from Rochester, New York. Creating a list of people willing to donate the benefits of their washing machines is the next task, he said.

With the help of hundreds of care packages and more than $40,000 donated from around the world, occupants have transformed the one-square-block space in the Financial District into a society that’s potentially viable until temperatures plummet -- or they’re kicked out.

“We’ll be here till something changes and people listen to us,” said Theresa Lee, a 52-year-old actress from Manhattan who began sleeping in the park Oct. 6.

Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia have derided the protesters as “growing mobs” pitting Americans against one another even as he acknowledged the growing income inequality that many protesters cite as one of their main motivations. Pizza-magnate-turned-presidential-candidate Herman Cain said the occupants should blame themselves, not Wall Street or big banks, for their joblessness.

Dirty Hippies?

Television commentators have jibed at the protesters for what they say is an incoherent message -- and their supposed filth.

Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox News Channel’s morning news program, “Fox & Friends,” compared the anti-Wall Streeters to anarchists who protested G-7 meetings.

They “have one thing in common -- they choose not to shower much,” he said Oct. 4.

The occupants of Zuccotti Park are ignoring rules and “sanitary conditions have reached unacceptable levels,” Melissa Coley, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Office Properties Inc., which owns the public space, said in a statement last week.

The park has become a sea of backpacks, blue tarps and sleeping bags, which the occupants roll up and stack in piles during daylight. The ground is mostly free of litter as some portions are covered entirely by signs decrying corporate welfare and economic inequality.

Free Skivvies

While Occupy Wall Street’s members have refrained from defining leadership roles, they’ve created groups to attend to almost every need. Members of a sanitation crew wander, brooms in hand and mopping the stone ground. Volunteers at the comfort station, like Ehrenberg, stand behind plastic bins and dole out underwear, sweaters, pants and blankets.

At meal times, a half-dozen or so people in a kitchen area serve sandwiches, rice, apples or pizza, as another half-dozen stand behind them composting leftovers and washing dishes. Taped red crosses on the arms of medical team members signal to those in need of bandages or cough syrup.

Block-lettered signs designate tables as sources for general information, media requests, legal guidance and reading material. There are yoga classes and meditation groups, massage therapists and a security detail. Meetings of the general assembly, resembling a town council, convene twice daily for occupants to discuss logistics and air concerns. Generators power cameras and laptop computers, from which flow blog posts and live streaming video.

Playing Telephone

The occupants’ ranks grow from hundreds to thousands, depending on time of day and events scheduled. They aren’t allowed to use bullhorns or microphones, so a call-and-response system developed. One person yells “mic check,” which the crowd repeats, along with whatever the speaker says, until the message is disseminated.

It’s little things -- like showering at a stranger’s house or using the bathroom at a nearby McDonald’s Corp. restaurant, as many protesters do -- that make the protest liveable, said Lee, the actress.

“If you’re going to be in occupation for weeks, you have to figure out things like this,” she said as the line for the two stalls at McDonald’s grew to seven women deep, some clutching toothbrushes. The stalls remained well-supplied with tissue and the floors were free of detritus.

Long Haul

Movements that “don’t have long-term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves” soon die off, said Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” who spoke to the crowd last week.

“Only when you stay put can you grow roots. This is crucial,” she wrote in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a broadsheet the protesters created. “It is a fact of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off. It’s because they don’t have roots.”

Still, there are a “ton of rumblings” about whether the occupants will be kicked out, said Alex Krales, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator who arrived Sept. 26.

“It’s a constant question,” she said.

Some business owners near the park, such as Stacey Tzortzatos, who runs Panini & Co. Breads, say they hope the end is nigh. She estimated sales have dropped about 30 percent since the demonstrations began.

“This is America, where people are free to speak their mind -- but I’m losing business every day because of it,” she said.

A lock on the bathroom’s door now ensures only paying customers use it, after a demonstrator broke the sink, she said.

If the protesters have hygeine logistics solved, next they must weather-proof themselves. Average lows may reach freezing by the end of next month, according to the Weather Channel.

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