October 20, 2011
Last Sunday, the New York City Community Garden Coalition occupied Wall Street. It was a good day to do it. October 16 is World Food Day, commemorating the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on that date in 1945. The FAO's focus this year in meetings and rallies across the globe was on the problem of swings in food prices caused by commodities speculation, a dynamic that threatens the hungry from the Horn of Africa to the South Bronx.
Community gardens, often dismissed as whimsical patches of green where claustrophobic apartment-dwellers do fantasy farming, play a surprisingly large role in maintaining urban food security. A research project oxymoronically named Farming Concrete, which tracks the amount of food harvested by New York City gardeners, reports that last year the 110 participating gardens produced about 87,700 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Extrapolate that figure to the 400 or so gardens that didn't submit data, and you're really talking food security, immune from price-swings.
The Garden Coalition is a good fit for the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its decade-long history of battling the Big Guys — in this case, Big Development, which for years has sought to bulldoze these little havens for more buildings. It's 99% vs. 1% in earth tones, and the Coalition, along with other greening groups, has succeeded in beating them back — at least for now.
On this bright and breezy autumn afternoon, Coalition members tagged up with a World Food Day rally in Foley Square near City Hall, sponsored by a group called Millions against Monsanto. Then, bearing their banners, they proceeded to march the several blocks to Zuccotti Park, the pulsing heart of Occupy Wall Street. The Financial District, which in times past was all but deserted on weekends, was teeming with people, most going to and coming from both the newly-opened 9/11 Memorial and Zuccotti Park, now as world-renowned as Cairo's Tahrir Square.
As the contingent made its way through the crowd, they took up the chant: "More green! Less greed! More green! Less greed!" Halted by a red light, they were approached by a man in a smart pinstripe suit and straw hat. "I agree with the part about the green," he grinned and walked away.
When the group reached the park, they staked out a spot, jostling for space among dozens of disparate causes: free education, full employment, justice for Agent Orange survivors, ending corporate personhood, Medicare for all, anti-Big Pharma, anti-fluoridated water, and of course, anti-bank everything. They became a tile in that living mosaic of solidarity, framed in a city block.
In the month since its occupation by Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park has become a functioning commune, with organic soup kitchens, first-aid clinics, book exchanges, impromptu schools on all subjects, and electronics charging stations — everything necessary and desirable except plumbing, now being passively provided by nearby fast-food chains. (No anti-McDonald's groups were in evidence.) Also of critical importance is the sign-making area, offering materials, space, and probably no little kibitzing for the construction of that most anachronistic yet most effective communication device of Occupy Wall Street: the hand- lettered sign.
The signs spring up in the park like mushrooms, and seem to grow ever cleverer through competition. They range from the general ("Mean People Suck") to the specific ("519 years of occupation through genocide. Remember the Native Holocaust."); from the rhyme ("Health Care, not Wealth Care") to the pun ("NYC Community Gardeners demand Peas and Justice"); from the hopeful ("99% + 1% = 100%. We are all one.") to the almost hopeless ("Why am I here? Because voting, lobbying, writing letters, lyrics, columns, and speeches hasn't done SHIT.").
Taken as a whole, the signs may describe the essence of the movement, elusive even to its originators: the yearning to breathe free. Spontaneously generating in cities all over the world, Occupy may be fulfilling a need for community and honesty (now euphemized as "transparency") that the dystopic machine of the "world community" and its octopus economy cannot. This is what Marx was about until Lenin reworked him.
The fruit of the movement may be more personal than political, more local than global. Its participants may return to their homes feeling more like humans and less like cogs. Rather than forcing the 1% to change their ways, many of the 99% may change their own, shaking off at least a chain or two of the anonymous social monolith to which all of us are enslaved.
It's about getting back to the Garden.
Deep inside Zuccotti Park on Sunday, a solemn-faced woman sat at a card table bearing the hand-lettered sign: FREE EMPATHY. She had no clients, but perhaps that was because empathy was free all around.
Photo credits: #1: Roger Repohl; #2 and #3: Magali Regis