After we were evicted from Liberty Park, I spent the early hours of the morning struggling in the streets of Lower Manhattan with a few hundred disoriented and angry people. Cops in riot gear were turning the streets into a maze of steel barricades. We tried to unify our scraggly numbers and rally, but it became gradually clear that the police had the upper hand. Toward morning, the tension in my body gradually eased into defeat.
Among my company that night was a Chinese man patiently trying to unify the hotheaded crowds. He had been a student protester in Tiananmen Square. He said to me, “Movements do not attract activists, they create them.” So even though we seemed to be losing, we were in fact learning. We were stumbling through the dark that night, searching for a path to walk together, and that’s why this is the beginning of my occupation story, not the end.
The story of my life began at the San Francisco Zen Center. My parents, zen teachers Norman and Kathie Fischer, transitioned from lay practice in Berkeley to a monastic life at Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm in the 1970s. We lived at Zen Center until my brother and I left for college. During these years, I absorbed the rhythms, smells and tastes of monastic California-style zen. Interconnectedness, sangha and non-duality formed the language and spirit of my childhood.
Coinciding with the miraculous changing of leaves, Occupy Wall Street began in New York on September 17th but was really sparked by demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and in Madison, Wisconsin, months before. The time for transformation was ripe. In the U.S., decades of exponential wealth disparity and war after war against brown people at home and abroad left our society fragmented and spiritually sick. It was not an optimistic time to be a young person.
In the 2000s, as I pursued an art career, I struggled, often painfully, with finding my place in a culture that appeared to revolve around cutthroat competition, celebrity and immense concentrations of wealth. I even felt that creative freedom—the impulse I was following in my art practice—had been confused with greed, privilege and fear of failure. The big picture seemed hopeless. But then, reading about the uprisings in Tahrir and Madison, I began to realize that resistance was possible. Maybe, just maybe, we could heal our world if we woke up and brought our silent struggles into the strong sunlight—if we tried.
In June, I launched an art project called “Summer of Change: a series of numismatic rituals for Wall Street” and with my collaborator, Jim Costanzo, I chanted oratory at bankers and tourists, while throwing hundreds of dollars-worth of U.S. coins on the ground. For the first performance I chanted:
Oh, Wall Street! Your Great Wall is impregnable to marauding Justice, Equality, and Change!
Later, in another of the seven performances, arriving at the Stock Exchange in a wheelchair and wearing a silver mask resembling a giant FDR dime, I pointed at passersby and shouted:
The ship of our great democracy sinks in a rising tide of greed! Working-class Americans are the first to be cast off into the sea. Some stand by and watch this crime from afar. But who will be the next victim?
By the end of the summer, when the Occupy Wall Street protests started, I was all warmed up and right in the center of it.
What was I in the center of exactly? Something new—that was clear from the start. On that September Saturday, hundreds of people came together in Zucotti Park and didn’t go home. This was no ordinary protest. Rather, we were living change in our bodies. We were mending our connection to each other, mending the tender fabric of a society torn apart by emphasis on private space and money markets. We were re-embracing the right to occupy public space and finding our power as citizens in a shared world—the basic power of the people. It was anger that had awakened many of us. But in the park, love reigned. The beginning was wonderful!
There was a daunting task ahead. Inside the park, non-capitalist time and space prevailed: lost souls were meeting like crazy, creative plans were hatching and music rang out. Going a block away you felt culture shock: everything was the same as before in the same old world. And we knew that to get this work done we had to push ourselves, like caterpillars struggling in the cocoon. We had to transform and develop wings. Every day, all day, we marched and shouted and organized, served and ate free food, held assemblies, and struggled with the police. And so we turned from “protestors” into “people acting freedom,” in search of unbroken physical and social space, free of boundaries.
Yet we can’t live in this world without playing roles, like performers on a stage. In our occupy-opera, the NYPD play the role of protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms, with guns, stern expressions and menacing riot gear, or rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades. I know that these men and women are exquisite buddhas, perfectly imperfect as I am, but as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, following commands that lead them to bash heads against the pavement and to put nonviolent people into little cells and slam the steel door shut behind them.
Meanwhile, we who gather together chanting and marching are “protesters.” We seem to be on the other side; we seem to be a menace, even to threaten social chaos. Passersby on the street are our audience. The stage is set and the curtains drawn. We sing our arias through the human microphone. Time and space contract and expand dramatically as these forces dance together.
These tense situations are the jewel of the movement, the master classes that turn us into activists, and we work hard to create them. We have a better chance of dissolving the boundaries that separate us if we first make them visible. But violence can begin here too, so it is important to not truly believe in the roles. I have tried to remember I am not separate from the cops and other actors, even while surfing the tension of these situations.
Early on in the protest I switched sides as an experiment, wanting to explore the limits of this new social space. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to the Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks), I dressed in a business suit and waited with a small group at the Exchange. When the protestors arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young and entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a Job!” loudly in the protesters’ faces, falling deeply into my new role. It felt a little transgressive too, like a man putting on a dress; I hadn’t realized how many unknowns were at play here.
The tension rose, emotions flared. All of a sudden, one of the drummers turned around at me and shouted, “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PTSD and can’t get a job! Fuck you!” He hit me, hard, with his drumstick, which I was not expecting. The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, anger, hurt and aloneness were coming forth. Yes, this was theater, but it was also very real—as real as violence, as real our emotions and bodies. In retrospect, it was like the Shosan ritual in which zen practitioners expose their inner life and pain in ceremony, for the sangha to share and support. In my conflict with the Marine, we shared the sting of disempowerment. Later that day I found him and we both apologized. Now we hug every time we see each other.
A few weeks later, I found a way to protest from my core social and economic struggles as an artist. I helped to organize an action group called Occupy Museums, to bring attention to the ways that major cultural institutions disempower artists and benefit the wealthy. One day we marched to MoMA and found a large police force waiting for us. They herded us into the police pen they had prepared for us. We stepped into the cage, yelling, chanting and waving signs; the tension mounted as our outrage filled the enclosed space. The police ushered away passersby who approached us in solidarity, creating a buffer zone around the magnetic human force of our voices and bodies.
In the midst of the tension, I found energy welling up within, but I let it happen, feeling it as energy not anger. I “mic checked,” invoking call-and-response from the group. “Policemen! (Policemen!)/We are watching you/harass citizens peacefully walking/on New York City sidewalks!/What’s going on here!?” Then my body, compressed in tension, started to move, to stride out from behind the barricades to the sidewalk and into the no-go zone defined by the standing line of cops. This was the corridor of greatest tension, full of the possibility of violence. But I found space, air, and life here! I began to widen my movements—now I was almost dancing—and my language opened: “I am free—I know I can be on this sidewalk!” Pointing to the policeman: “You are free! We all are free, let’s march on this sidewalk, we can be here!” Somehow, all of a sudden, we could be here! A surprise reversal of plot! So we marched out from behind the barricades onto the vast sidewalk.
Two weeks after we were evicted from Liberty (formerly Zucotti) Park, we gathered at Lincoln Center Plaza, a vast open space in New York where protest is forbidden. Lincoln Center was showing Philip Glass’s opera, “Satyagraha,” which speaks about the life of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King—all nonviolent protesters who have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Lincoln Center is partly funded by Michael Bloomberg, the very man who evicted us from Liberty Park.
Before the end of the performance, hundreds of protesters assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the plaza by police barricades and heavy NYPD presence. Thus the private and public spaces, which on a normal day would be seamless, were clearly separated. When a few who dared to cross the line were arrested, there were shouts of “Shame, shame, shame!” from some of the protestors. We took off our shoes—a Gandhian symbol of dignity—and stood barefoot on the cold pavement, conducting our assembly.
As “Satyagraha” ended and the elegantly dressed audience finally exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene: real life protest at the foot of the grand steps! We called out to them in unison to join us, but the sight of the NYPD barricades seemed to paralyze them.
Then all of a sudden Philip Glass, who had been at the performance that night, popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd—he had come to read a statement on the people’s mic. We sat down so that people could see him, and the lights from a video camera illuminated his face. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita:
When righteousness withers away
And evil rules the land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
A man among men
For the protection of good
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again.
Chanting along with Glass, whose music had been the soundtrack to my childhood, I melted into the crowd, my body vibrating to the shared voice, deeply encouraged by this ancient text. When I looked up, the opera audience had joined us. The buffer zone was gone. We were one big crowd—the 100%! The physical NYPD barricades still stood among us, but they were no longer barriers, absorbed now into our big warm body. Until late into the night we held our general assembly. The police stood offstage, now relaxed. Two separate spaces had flowed into one, protesters had become people again, and the police could then be people too.
After the first day of the occupation in Liberty Park, I went home thinking that the scraggly core protesters would be gone the next day, booted out by the NYPD. But miraculously, this was not so, and from that moment on, I learned to suspend disbelief—to not kill off this unfolding moment in my mind. I learned to trust my body, which was responding to a desire for freedom and connection. I learned to trust hundreds of strangers. When we lost the park, this was only a stage in an unfolding movement. A few weeks later, we were all standing euphorically on the steps of Lincoln Center Plaza, 100% human, pointing with our hearts toward each other, and finding freedom in this way. Who knows what happens next?!