Latin America · New York City · Occupy Wall Street · Personal Essays

Occupy Heals Its Wounds

I wasn’t in Liberty Square (a.k.a. Zuccotti Park) the other night when around 73 Occupiers were arrested and many were thrown to the ground or otherwise physically abused by the NYPD–some of whom were “just doing their job” while others, it seems, were really aggressive–but I’ve heard the stories, of a woman having violent seizures while in handcuffs as cops looked on, of people being pushed to the ground, of hair pulling and boots in people’s chests (there’s footage, too).

When I heard what had happened on Saturday night, my first thought was to make sure my friends in Occupy were okay–most of them were, though a few people I know did get arrested–and my second reaction was frustration. Once again, it appeared that the police had become a proxy for the “one percent,” leading Occupiers to aim their protests not toward Wall Street law breakers or their collaborators in Congress, but toward working-class people in uniforms who are under orders.

But perhaps now is not the time for tactical discussion. Now, more than ever, is a time for much-needed healing.

Today, about sixty Occupiers gathered in a community center in the Financial District to begin that process. As people filtered in, they chatted about how they had finally caught up on sleep after being in jail over the weekend. One person said to a friend, “I heard that Michael Moore,” who was at the annual Left Forum meeting this weekend, “finally understood what Occupy Wall Street’s demand is.” His friend looked at him, smiling; he continued, “We want to Occupy Wall Street. That’s it.”

**

“Last time this happened, we never really had a space to talk,” said one of the organizers who convened the heal-in today, “and I think it really hurt us these past few months.” She was referring, of course, to the violent and sudden, military-style eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park in November.

“Saturday night,” she continued, referring to the night of the altercation with the NYPD, “brought up stuff that people hadn’t had a chance to deal with. Dealing with trauma,” she added, “takes a long time.”

We went around the room, introducing ourselves by saying our first names, and two emotions we felt at the moment: sad, love, realization, uncertain, worried, “I’m just despondent,” “Love and rage,” furious, scared, energized, more rage, and more love.

Then, we all got to our feet, went to the windows, opened them wide, and let out a prolonged scream. Below us, people stopped and stared; in the adjacent office white-collared workers froze and, after a minute, smiled; a group of police officers streamed out of a building and gazed up, not sure what to do (in return, a few of us began screaming, “F**k you, pigs!”–regrettably, but perhaps justifiably).

Following that, the organizers led the room in a short, guided meditation, getting us to tune into our bodies, and reflect on what they were telling us. “Our bodies are where we store emotions,” explained one organizer.

For many people there, it was not just pent-up emotion that they were holding, but also injury; people had spent the night on cold, hard jail cell floors after being tumbled around by armed police officers. Next, there was sharing in small groups; one-by-one, people told of their experience on Saturday night. There were tears, restrained as well as completely let-loose; people hugged and held their weeping comrades. Many who weren’t arrested expressed a sense of embarrassment, as if they had missed out on an important activist rite of passage. But those who had been in jail for 25-30 hours assured their friends that being arrested was not an honor. They reminded us that many minority communities regularly experience something similar to what Occupy had experienced on Saturday night; they felt lucky to be able to come out of jail and return to the Occupy community, where they were supported, emotionally and materially.

**

For a few days now, Occupy has been parked in Union Square, filling it with a warm and energetic, pre-eviction vibe. The old characters are there: the People’s Library, Think Tank, the screenprinter’s guild, musicians, people sleeping on the ground, Direct Action. There, they are preparing for spring, when Occupy plans to make a public comeback, especially on May 1st, with a nation-wide general strike in the works.

I rode my bicycle up to Union Square after the heal-in and smiled at seeing so many familiar faces. I imagined those faces contorted in pain, watching their friends beaten or having it actually happen to them. I sat down on the steps of Union Square, facing the Whole Foods on the other side of the street. Somehow, perhaps at the hand of the Occupy Kitchen, a plentiful meal of fish-and-veggie curry and rice was being served up.

Next to me was a piece of blank cardboard. I picked it up and made a sign. It read: “FREE MASSAGES FOR OVER-STRESSED OCCUPIERS.”

I was fortunate enough, recently, to spend a few weeks in Costa Rica–there’s nothing like some sun, ocean, rainforest, yoga, and music to heal you after a winter of hard work. There, I did a short massage workshop, after which the instructor urged us to go out and use our new skills on people whenever possible. “It will change your life,” he told us.

Today in Union Square, the simple act of human touch seemed like the only thing I could offer to these people. This wasn’t a time for criticism or strategizing, or reporting. People needed healing, relaxation.

One by one, people sat in front of me; they pointed out to me injuries procured in the debacle on Saturday, bruises left by batons and boots. Their necks were tense and stiff, their back muscles tight and bubbly. They started talking, at first, of being in jail, of how they were being prevented from using their right to free speech, of plans for Occupy in the spring. After a minute, though, they stopped talking, and simply let me work on them. Their eyes closed and their bodies loosened up.

When they got up, they all thanked me, and told me it was exactly what they had needed.

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