Dispatch from Occupy Wall Street Three-Month #D17 Anniversary and Not-One-But-Two #OWS Conferences in NYC

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At the noon start time there are hardly more than 100 folks milling around Duarte Square, an obscure triangular slice of real estate on the northwest corner of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. It's a certifiable Occupy event, complete with street theater, balloon metaphors, and an impromptu curbside teach-in on the evolution of the American police state. But for all the Web hype and build up to the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street's taking of Zuccotti Park – dramatically hash-tagged #D17 – it seems uneventful, so I grab Issue 5 of the Occupied Wall Street Journal and steal a bench down the block.

When I return 20 minutes later, the scene's changed dramatically. The painted and bandana-clad badasses are here – medics, direct action organizers, soldiers with helmets, gas masks, and a number of hard steel containers latched onto their knapsacks with carabiners. Small swarms of other activists also arrive, including rally staples like Santa Claus, a Bradley Manning tribute teepee, and a drum circle grooving to the tune of someone chanting “Impeach Obama.” By one o'clock you'd need a helicopter to count the number of heads on the ground, especially if you're including cops, who are trolling the surrounding blocks and park perimeter.

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The celebration and chatter goes on for nearly three hours before anything pops. But as three o'clock approaches, people begin whispering instructions to prep for action. Soon enough hundreds start marching, punching north on Sixth with a caravan of scooter-mounted cops keeping the crowd packed on the sidewalk. More than ever before I realize how bad relations are between authorities and Wall Street Occupiers, as a torrent of insults fly in both directions, with some protesters calling cops “fat bastards,” and police taunting right back. Among more than a dozen occupied cities that I've visited, New York activists are easily the most relentless in their verbal badgering of officers.

What first seems like a chaotic march with no clear purpose turns out to be a clever ruse. Occupiers had been eyeballing a vacant lot – beside Duarte – that was enclosed in ten-foot chain-link fencing, so a core team smuggles a towering step ladder in the middle of the pack. After a loud and distracting stroll around the block they get back to the lot, the ladder goes up, and brave protesters begin climbing over the fence – medics, direct action heroes, and retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, who winds up being one of about 50 people arrested when cops rush in minutes later. It's a dangerous scene, and a sure sign of what's to come in the next few weeks.

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That's all by four o'clock, and Wall Street Occupiers are just getting started. From there they clock some more headlines, splitting up and stomping uptown in packs. One crew makes its way toward the home of a Trinity Church rector; the institution owns the land beside Duarte that they wished to Occupy, and Trinity – a former Occupy ally – told them to keep out of the abandoned yard. Further north, a second posse climbs all the way to Times Square, where they scramble the early evening shopping rush and sing “Happy Birthday” to Bradley Manning. By the end of the day, they'd made a spectacle for millions to see, and had a pic go viral of a bishop in a purple robe being handcuffed.

I traveled to the D17 actions to see first-hand how much gas is left in the mothership's tank. Occupy Wall Street – while populated by far more condescending and righteously bohemian soap box salespeople than any other Occupy – is still the backbone of it all, and the energy level in New York affects the movement at large. While there's plenty of post-Dewey excitement at home, it's yet to be seen what kind of rally numbers Occupy Boston will be able to pull a month after losing its camp. But if places like Manhattan, Oakland, and Portland are any indication, they'll be just fine in terms of people power and raw gusto.

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Which of course leaves more boring elements like streamlining, strategy, and organization – within and between different cities. That's where the second day of this critical Occupy Wall Street weekend focused, as there were two conferences – not mere meetings, but legit conferences – for the movement held on Sunday. The first, an all-day “InterOccupation Unconference” with 350 registered participants at Pace University, is a mixed bag of proposed workshops on everything from self-defense and farming to “Meta Movement Building,” the latter of which showcases some theoretical concepts that address how the kind of momentum bubbling the day before can be channeled moving forward.

There have been countless academic essays, panels, and lectures on Occupy since this all started, as a number of self-important gasbags purport to know precisely how the movement should proceed, and have fed ideas ranging from absurd to generic into a confusing noise chamber in which more people talk than listen. But now, at such a crucial juncture, it's a relief to see somewhat practical points being made by speakers like group dynamics guru Clay Shirky and Walt Roberts from the Coffee Party, which is focused on what could be feasible Occupy goals – namely reforming Wall Street, the tax code, and campaign finance laws.

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There are some big words tossed around at the movement building workshop, and even a philosophy student who manages to say nothing whatsoever in her few minutes at bat. But Roberts makes a solid point about how the dynamic “meshwork” of Occupy interests and infrastructures might evolve. Specifically, Shirky emphasizes that it's time for individuals and even working groups to figure out what they do best, then do it, and kindly encourage others to do the same. From there the concept is that good ideas will flourish, while bad ones will evaporate. Among the onlookers, there's consensus that the movement already functions as such a filter.

Meanwhile, over at the New School, there's an “Occupy Onwards” conference. A much more formal event, this one is sponsored by Verso Books, the literary magazine N+1, and the impressive Occupy! Gazette broadsheet. There I catch a panel on “Lessons from the Past/Possible Futures,” which only turns out to be half the waste of time that I expected. L.A. Kauffman of the Global Justice Movement, whose relevant experience includes participating in and covering the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, was especially enlightening in her observation that OWS protesters should be cautious of getting too addicted to the daily rush of in-your-face activism.

Yotam Marom of the OWS direct action working group also makes a heap of sense, stressing that the movement can't look in two years the way that it looked over the first two months. People have to shower, to see their families. Fine points withstanding though, I can't help but notice that those hearing these messages by and large are not the ragtag activists who hopped the fence by Duarte a day earlier. In fact they don't represent the movement's racial diversity at all – I count just one black face and two Asian people in the whole room. I'm not sure what that means, but it's certainly worth noting for anyone who thinks communities of color should be increasingly involved.

It's premature to make much sense of what I learned in New York this weekend. Occupiers are fired up, and working hard on both actions and institutional advancements. There's also a general feeling that short term wins – and lots of them, in the street and in the political arena – are necessary to sustain the next phase of OWS. Still, despite advanced possibilities for disseminating info, it's yet to be seen whether more technologically disparate factions of the movement will remain connected in the wake of the camps. If the most educated and involved OWS entities can't even manage to schedule important conferences on different days, then it should be interesting to see how the entire movement inter-occupies onward.

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