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 focus this year in meetings and rallies across the globe was to address the 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, usually dismissed as whimsical patches of green where claustrophobic apartment-dwellers do fantasy farming, play a surprisingly large role in maintaining urban food security. A two-year-old 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 fresh fruit and vegetables. Extrapolate that figure to the 400 or so gardens that didn’t participate in the data-gathering, and you’re talking real food security.
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 the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Financial District, all but deserted on weekends in years past, was clogged with people, going to and coming from both the newly-opened 9/11 Memorial and Zuccotti Park, now as world-famous as Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
As the little contingent made its way through the crowd, a garden advocate named Ray led their chant: “More green! Less greed! More green! Less greed!” Stopped at a red light, he was 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, it took up a position on the periphery, jostling for space among dozens of disparate causes: universal free education, full employment, justice for Agent Orange survivors, ending corporate personhood, Medicare for all, anti-Big Pharma, anti-fluoridated water, and of course, everything anti-bank. About the only cause not represented but sure to come was to restore the park’s original name, Liberty Plaza. (Covered by debris from the collapse of the Twin Towers, the block-long space was rehabilitated by its owner, Brookfield Office Properties, and renamed in 2006 after the company’s chairman, John Zuccotti.)
In the month since its occupation by Occupy Wall Street, the 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 through 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 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 octopus economy cannot. This is what Marx was about until Lenin got to 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, some 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.
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.