“Once I spent a day or two there I understood that something massive was happening”
The OccupyTogether movement has grown in intensity over a very short period of time, amazing even the most seasoned grassroots journalists. After our interview with Lee Camp, and the personal recollections of our contributor Evan Petersen, we have turned to comedian and podcast co-host John Knefel to gather his impression on what could be the news story to eclipse several campaign races all over the western world. From anger to activism, from niche to all-encompassing community, the movement, without any leader, without any spokesperson, is regrouping the most diverse category of the population: the vanishing middle class. John has spent several weeks at Camp Zuccotti and is not going anywhere anytime soon: strongly attached to the movement’s values, he is sharing with us his impressions, feelings, and hopes for the future months.
I assume you first went to Camp Zuccotti to cover it for your podcast. Have you always had in mind to more or less stay there and cover it on a regular basis, be one of the protesters?
I actually went to Zuccotti initially out of curiosity and a feeling that I needed to participate in whatever was happening. I didn’t know what that meant at first. Once I spent a day or two there I understood that something massive was happening, and then Molly and I just started talking about it on Radio Dispatch. It wasn’t until after we had discussed it a few times on the show that I really started reporting from there in any more serious way.
What was your first feeling when meeting the crowd for the first time and has it changed?
When I walked down Broadway the first time and saw Zuccotti, it looked smaller than I expected. The park, that is. That was a few days before the Radiohead rumor, and the encampment was still pretty sparse. There was an info desk, a kitchen, and a small media center. I didn’t know anyone there, but I bumped into a friend who was down there for the first time as well. That’s pretty much been the story. Every time I go down there I see a few familiar faces, and the more often I’m there the more people I recognize. The protesters I’ve met have all been warm and inviting, no small task considering the place is crawling with undercover cops. I’m starting to see myself less as an ally and observer and more as a participant, even as I try to keep the stuff I write on Twitter and say on Radio Dispatch accurate, not propogandistic.
John writing the number for legal aid on his arm before Bloomberg Dawn. Photo by Allison Kilkenny.
Were you ever scared? I remember the night preceding the Bloomberg Dawn, or Battle of Bloomberg as one of my friends called it – Allison posted a picture of you writing down the number for legal aid on your arm.
There are lots of very tense moments. They’re scary because they’re uncertain. When you’re looking at a line of mounted cops in front of you and a fleet of moped cops behind you, you’re imagination can start running a bit wild. Also, it doesn’t take much to escalate these situations. One of the horses on 46th street stumbled and I thought someone was going to get trampled.
Fear of getting arrested is kind of the same thing. You don’t know if the police are going to manhandle you during the arrest. You don’t know what you’ll be charged with, how long it will take. Luckily, nearly all of the arrestees don’t have anything on their record after they get out. Not even a misdemenor. My friends who have gotten arrested say it’s boring but not so bad. Good way to network. I haven’t been arrested yet, but it’s good to hear people talk about it as a hassle, nothing more nothing less. I think once large amounts of people are willing to get arrested — once they see it’s not such a big deal — we’ll be at a new tipping point in the movement.
Michael Moore said that OWS was the killer of apathy. Someone replied that most of all, it was a killer of despair. What do you think? Is there more exhilaration than anger?
There is a certain amount of anger, certainly, but that’s not the dominant emotion. I’d say, yeah, exhilaration. It’s cliche, but I think a lot of people feel empowered. That word gets overused, but I mean it in a very strict sense. Internally, the process is very good at making participants feel like their voice is being heard. And externally, the people in Liberty feel like the news and the elites are finally paying attention to them. It’s an intoxicating feeling. Also, holding the park on Friday morning was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. Activists in America don’t win. When we did, there was this feeling of, “OK, this isn’t going anywhere.” Also, there is an incredible amount of solidarity and good will.
You told me there’d still be a lot to do by the time I head back. I’m coming back in January. What do you think the post-OWS America will be like?
It’s still far too early to know. This movement is only a month old, and it’s still growing. It’s experiencing some growing pains, and there will be missteps along the way, but no one really knows what’s going to happen. That’s part of the thril. People are not going home, literally. We’ve already forced income inequality back into the national conversation. It might take 10 years to be in a “post-OWS America”. It’s important to remember that the fight being waged here is against — and I say this without engaging in unnecessary hyperbole — the most powerful set of institutions in the history of the world. Structural reform will take years, decades even. The power the movement has is derived from the most basics fact imaginable: we all have bodies, and we’re now using them as tools to fight injustice. The occupation is about bodies calling attention to a system designed to render those bodies, and therefore voices, invisible. There’s an action tomorrow (Friday) up in Harlem calling for an end to the racist Stop & Frisk NYPD practice. There will be a lot of OWS-ers there, along with a lot of leaders from communities of color. Every day there is a new tomorrow, with new events, new actions, new possibilities. That’s not going to end any time soon.
What OWS really revealed to the general public was the extent of police brutality against protesters that have always claimed to be peaceful and non-resistent. Is there a way for NYPD to understand that they could just as well be part of the movement? Have you met NYPD officers that were keen to listen?
This is a very complicated issue that no one has really been able to resolve. On the one hand, NYPD relations around Liberty have been quite good. You see the same cops around, they see the same protesters, and no one wants to break the skull of someone they know. Lots of individual police are sympathetic to the movement, certainly. You see that at every march. There is also a concerted effort to appeal to the cops’ better side. You hear chants like, “give the cops a raise.” On the other hand, even the good cops are using moral means towards an unjust end. Their function is to preserve the status quo and order, even if the current system is unjust. In that way they must be seen as an obstacle towards reform. Not the most important obstacle, but one nonetheless. They take orders from the top brass, who takes orders from Bloomberg. Some OWS-ers talk about the police joining us. If that were to happen it would be a development on the scale of … I don’t know … a presidential assasination. It would be a once-in-a-generation event that would shake the very nature of American life. I don’t see that happening, but I do think that as the movement grows the police will be less willing to use force on protesters. That, at least, is a positive development.
I asked Lee the same question; what do you think of CNN’s Erick Erickson and his “response” to OWS, “we are the 53%”? On top of their math being questionable, is there really an audience for that site? Does the extreme popular support given to OWS somehow undermine the GOP primaries? Especially considering Herman Cain’s unashamedly pro-millionnaire, anti-poor program.
OWS is so much larger than Erick Erickson that he doesn’t need to be addressed. When you’re the big story, don’t allow the little story to attach itself to you. We get to decide who we respond to, and he doesn’t deserve our time or effort. The same general sentiment goes to Cain, though if he continues to show he has staying power I imagine it will only help the movement grow.
I have attended an OccupyBelfast protest and a similar one in Dublin as well. I was saddened to find Paris could care less about the movement. A journalist explained it was due to “fear of police retaliation” (it didn’t stop OWS) and a “stable unemployment rate” (at 9.8%!) How far does one country have to go to sparkle that type of uprising?
One thing that OWS stresses is that we’re all autonomous, and we can come and go and act as we so choose. The sympathy movements that have popped up are amazing, and I think they’ll continue to grow. I think Liberty Square is the engine that created a lot of the initial momentum, but it’s so far beyond that now, both geographically and digitally. The main issue now is getting another victory or two (whatever that looks like) under our belts. That will help OWS expand. People are drawn to strength.
Will you be with the protesters on Guy Fawkes’ Day and how long do you think the movement can sustain itself, with winter coming?
Winter is still the biggest variable and obstacle in our path. The encampment will make it through the winter, but it will be incredibly unpleasant and the people who continue to show up deserve the respect and admiration of the rest of the world. There’s talk of finding somewhere inside to occupy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happens on a small scale, but Liberty Square will have occupiers from here on out.
I’ll be out there for Guy Fawkes’ Day, as well as many of the others. See you when you’re back!
John Knefel lives in Brooklyn, NY and is the co-host of Radio Dispatch, a political podcast he created with his sister Molly. A seasoned comedian having graced the stage alongside Jamie Kilstein and Lee Camp, John has also been featured on This American Life with Ira Glass, as well as writing for The Huffington Post, True/Slant, and ThoughtCatalog. You can also find him regularly at Le Poisson Rouge for his comedy show, John & Molly Get Along.