At dusk on Sunday, I was standing inside the barricades facing Broadway and reading from Olga Cabral’s Voice Over: Selected Poems (West End Press, 1993). Olga was a lovely woman of gentle demeanor, born in 1909, whom I met a few times in the 1980’s and ’90’s. I know she would have been with us down at Zuccotti Park if she were alive today. It has been one of the joys of my OWS readings that I’ve been able to bring the voices of poets like Olga–not famous, but steadfast, a Leader of the poetry tradition in the same horizontal sense that the Occupiers are Leaders of political renaissance–to swell the chorus of Occupation. I started with “Poem About Death”: “Listen! I have lived from Spain to Spain./I was young in Guernica. I grew old in Santiago./I tried to stop all the bleeding, to bandage wounds with petitions./I tried to stop the blind bombing capability with my fists and cries.//And all the while what deaths! What grandiose harvests of corpses!” (58). I read “General Custer Enters Hell.” As I was reading, I half listened to a conversation going on next to me. A middle-aged man stood beside me and a youthful man, intense in demeanor, stood outside the barricades, talking urgently. They were talking about the stupidity of the Christmas lights decorating the park trees. “What’s that for–it’s to sell people things!” They were talking about people who had been cutting the strings of lights. “You have a clippers? I could use it now.” Gradually, I edged into the conversation. The tall young man, brown-skinned, well-dressed and well-spoken, was spilling over with the intensity of what he had experienced during and following last Monday night’s raid. “This kid was down on the ground, the cops beating on him. I was trying to help him and I couldn’t get to him. He was looking up at me like he was about to lose his life. Everybody was shouting and nothing I could do. This is peaceful protesters, man. What are we supposed to do? The cops pulled down his pants and they’re beating him with their sticks. Cops had a guy down and they’re banging his head on the ground. Then they’re like, it’s okay, it’s okay, ‘We’re taking him to the hospital.’ Like, how can you say that? You are the ones that put him in that condition. Fuck them, man, fuck all of them!” He stopped himself, apologized for his language. “It doesn’t bother me,” I said.
“This isn’t a protest,” he insisted. “Don’t call it a protest. I was here from day one, I was here for two months, I did everything, I smiled, I was nice and polite. Then they come in here and chase us, beat people up. I ran from these cops for blocks, I jumped over a fence and I was hiding down there in that hole for like two and a half hours. This is no protest. This is a fucking war zone. I had to leave. I couldn’t stick around here. I know myself. All I could think about was taking a few of them out, doing something that would really get me in a serious situation. I know martial arts. Take a few of them with me. All of this is going on and people don’t even know. They just go about their business.” I mentioned the “End Stop & Frisk” movement as a way to link up issues, get a higher profile for the police brutality issue. He seemed uninterested. I asked, “Are people talking to each other–about how to get through this, how to deal with the anger and all the feelings?” He wouldn’t look at me, but there was still something gentle behind his bitterness. “I don’t want to talk about my feelings. I don’t want to talk about any of it! Just want to fuck them up, man. Cops follow me around because I’m supposed to be some kind of leader. Thirty-five thousand people came out to support us and I didn’t even see it because I had to leave….I don’t know, I’ve got to go look for some people.” He pulled out his phone, checked his text messages, touched me on the arm and shook his other interlocutor’s hand in a gesture of comradely farewell, and strode into the night. I felt quiet after that and finished my reading with Cabral’s “In the Empire of Ice”: “In circumpolar night/in bitter drifts/on the black knife-edge of existence…” (96).
Today, Monday, using Post-It notes, I added to my sign’s main message (BECA– USE THEY’RE TRYING TO DRIVE OUR PLANET OFF A CLIFF) a footnote that reads: “AND THEY ARE TRASHING OUR BOOKS.” I read work by the Lebanese-French poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata in translation by Marilyn Hacker (She Says, Graywolf Press, 2003). Beside me stood a small blonde woman displaying a sign scrawled on a piece of notebook paper to the effect that the NYPD had trashed her belongings. She was trying to get money to buy a coat and make it to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving.