Zuccotti Park on Thursday night was as packed as I’ve seen it on a weekday since the movement began nearly three weeks ago. Twenty-four hours after their biggest march, in conjunction with several powerful unions, the Occupy Wall Street protesters resumed their process, part of deciding what’s next.
On Wednesday afternoon, several thousand members of more than a dozen powerful unions assembled in Foley Square, a large open expanse across street from the Manhattan courthouses. Police lined the oval park in the middle of the square with metal sawhorses, and as the rally began, people were packed shoulder to shoulder cheering on speeches by union leaders. Several hundred people also packed the steps of the Manhattan Supreme Courthouse, whose steps were made famous from many episodes of Law and Order.
When the march began, it took more than an hour for Foley Square to empty halfway. Police ushered the crowd into a route lined with barricades that wound its way past City Hall, down Broadway and to Zuccotti Park, which for the past three weeks has served as Occupy Wall Street’s base camp. Wednesday’s crowd wasn’t just union members: a 5-year-old walked next to his mother carrying a sign that read “Kindergartner Against Greed.” Murray Gittelman stood for hours in the square with his daughter and son-in-law, dressed in his sergeant’s uniform from the 8th Air Force in World War II. His sign: “WWII Vet and Still Occupying.”
The march, which began about 5:30 p.m, didn’t wrap up until just before 8 p.m. When they arrived at Zuccotti Park, many marchers said it took them well over an hour to cover the eight blocks from the rally at Foley Square. Robert Commiso, who has spent about eight days in the park, said that he loved seeing the numbers supporting the cause, but he liked being back in the park where the protesters have been staying without a permit. “I like a little agitation, not confrontation,” Commiso said. As for the next step in the movement after their largest march yet, Commiso was wary of having the movement become involved in politics and complained about the gridlock in Washington. “I don’t want to hear from politicians,” Commiso said. “We have a stalemate. Nothing will come of it.”
After the march was complete and the last few stragglers were entering the park, a group of protesters yelled, “Let’s go to Wall Street,” and began trying to make their way down Broadway. Police had blocked off the entrances to Wall Street itself, and when protesters continued to try and enter the street, a confrontation reportedly broke out where police again resorted to using pepper spray. A video of a police commander swinging his billy club in a crowd of marchers made the rounds online. According to the NYPD, 23 protesters were arrested Wednesday night.
During the first two weekends, nearly 800 arrests helped galvanize the support for the movement, keeping it in the media spotlight and bringing new members to lower Manhattan. YouTube videos of a police commander spraying mace in the face of a detained woman went viral on the web, and the next weekend, the arrest of more than 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge made headlines. While it’s not clear to what degree the latest arrests may affect the movement, the next day, far more people remained in the park later than usual.
The day after the march with the unions, the protesters returned to their daily schedule, which includes smaller marches during the stock market’s opening and closing bells and twice daily meetings called General Assemblies. High on the discussion list on Thursday night was student loans and the crushing debt confronting many young people without jobs. One speaker, in a suggestion that harkens to the 1960s anti-war movement when young men burned their draft cards, suggested that protesters burn their student loan paperwork in protest.
One of the biggest questions as the Occupy Wall Street movement wraps up its third week is whether the movement will distill their vocal complaints into policy prescriptions. While lists of demands are floating about the internet, the group has yet to vote to adopt any single manifesto.
In the meantime, the protesters have marches planned for the stock market’s opening and closing bells on Friday. Because many protesters come in for the weekend, the Friday afternoon march may be one of the biggest yet, with the exception of the union march. Growth appeared to begin on Thursday, when even the drum circle set up on Zuccotti park’s west side was the biggest I have seen. Many nights, lonely percussionists bang away on various drums with a few people dancing; on Thursday, there were several dozen people in the group. If Wednesday’s arrests bring additional numbers to lower Manhattan this weekend, the drum players may not be the only ones making noise.
PHOTOS: Occupy Wall Street