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How Occupy changed us

The Occupy movement has changed the way we encounter every part of the city of New York.

The young man is reaching down to cup the bull’s testicles in his outstretched hand while also twisting his face back towards the camera to capture the sheer rad-ness of his iconoclasm. The charging bull of Bowling Green Park is the symbol of Wall Street and today a crowd has gathered around it as if it were a sacred shrine. It is not a work of art that courts subtle responses. The bull’s nose, horns and tail have been rubbed to a burnished shine; it is a neoliberal relic with powers to turn the average Joe into a master of the universe.

A year ago, in a poster that spread across the city, the bull was shown at the head of a phalanx of rampaging riot police barrelling out of the surrounding mist; on top of the bull’s back perched a ballet dancer on points. The poster asked the question: “What is our one demand?” Then it offered the hashtag #occupywallstreet and a date, 17 September, and the enigmatic instruction: “Bring tent.”

A few blocks north up Broadway is Zuccotti Park where, that September morning, the Occupiers started their protest, having crossed over Brooklyn Bridge and entered Manhattan, their route to the nearby One Chase Manhattan Plaza blocked. Part of me was hoping to find a last resistance still standing, a resolute rump returned to the site of former victories to keep the flame alight. However, when I reached the park, the space was filled with people but none of them were here to protest.

Many were enjoying the shade under the trees planted in regimented rows. From here, one could get a clear view of the new World Trade Center reaching into the sky on the eastern corner.

A large group gathered around a troop of street entertainers, who were encouraging members

of the audience to step into the circle while the rest of the group rhythmically clapped. The spirit of revolution was decidedly absent.

Street music

At the top of the steps, a single guitarist strummed against the noise with a placard that read: “Protest is to be against something. Resistance is to do something about it.” South, past Trinity Church, I encountered a small group of four men who had covered a shopping trolley with cardboard banners telling us that “Jesus will Occupy” and: “Support the troops, bring them home.”

This was a long way from what I was expecting. Had the Occupy movement been so effectively wiped from the landscape? Discreetly on one wall I found a notice from the landowners clearly recently affixed –which listed prohibitions for users of this “privately owned space that is designed and intended for use and enjoyment by the general public for passive recreation”. These include the banning of tents, lying on the ground, the placement of sleeping bags, the storage of personal property, the use of bicycles, skateboards and Rollerblades.

The protests lasted from 17 September to 15 November and barriers remained around the park until 10 January this year. Today, it is almost impossible to see that anything happened here at all. Throughout history, protests have rarely been commemorated in the places they occurred. Only if the rebels win are their first actions immortalised. But this was different, wasn’t it?

The relationship between the Occupy movement and the city is intense. The taking of Zuccotti Park, as well as St Paul’s churchyard in London, revealed the secret dangers of allowing public spaces to be privately owned to this extent. Our cities have increasingly become places of conditional liberty –where you can be stopped from taking photographs, where legitimate gatherings are bustled off the pavement, where you can be thrown out of the shopping mall for wearing a baseball cap, where private companies are collecting data about you without you knowing.

By taking land back – even for a few weeks – the Occupy movement has changed the way we encounter every part of the city, not just where the tents once stood. The protest has become a defence of the whole public realm and is not just about preserving the memory of what happened at Zuccotti Park or St Paul’s churchyard alone.

Living memory

Rather than looking for auto-icons – such as the banners and posters that were assiduously collected by the Museum of London after the Met raid on St Paul’s churchyard in January –we should look at how far the protest has extended elsewhere, feeding into the ways that we treat the city. There is no need for memorials yet.

Leo Hollis's latest book is "The Stones of London: a History in Twelve Buildings" (Phoenix, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?