John’s War Story: An Ethnographic Encounter with Occupy Wall Street
By Steve Portigal at 9:00 am, Thursday August 08 2013
Part 56 of 69 in the series War Stories

This story (told live at our New York book launch party) comes from John Payne of Moment Design.

“Mic Check, Mic Check!” he said with some authority as he jumped up on the planter. “Mic Check, Mic Check!” The crowd quickly repeated. “Security team needed near the information tent,” he continued. The crowd again repeated. “This is an emergency!” he added a bit more emphatically. This time when the crowd repeated they paid a bit more attention to the words they were saying. At that moment, I realized that I had just brought 25 people to one of the unstable locations in Manhattan, and none of them had signed a waiver.

In the fall of 2011, I was asked by the IxDA to give a series of workshops on ethnography and its relationship to design. By the time we had settled on an agenda and a date, the Occupy Wall Street movement had emerged, and their occupation of Zucotti Park was in full swing. It was a risky choice of research site, but what’s an ethnographer to do? We were off to Zucotti Park, or as the occupiers had renamed it, Liberty Square

Prior to our arrival in the park that morning, I had led the group through some background-key principles for participant observation, selected methods we were to try out together-and divided them into small working groups. It had been a quick preparation, but I was certain once we arrived, we’d have a once-in-a-lifetime observational experience. What I hadn’t fully considered was the possibility of imminent danger. We had just split up into teams… and that’s when the Mic Check happened.

The incident that spawned the call for security was an altercation in front of a brightly decorated tent on the north side of the park. The teepee-like structure was wrapped in a blue tarp with panels of silver heat reflective material. It was one of the more flamboyantly decorated tents, flying several flags and calling lots of attention from passersby.The occupant, an older man, had recently moved his tent partially into in a flowerbed because of the overcrowding and lack of space. As one of the few remaining open patches of ground, flowerbeds had been off limits until now.

Another man, from the south side of the park, was violently removing the teepee from the flowerbed when security arrived. Luckily, the quick intervention of the volunteer security force cooled the situation down. The incident ended shortly after it had begun with no injuries to anyone, my students included. Once I had checked that everyone was safe, my ethnographer’s instincts overcame my fear and I approached the teepee’s occupant. His name was David. He had been in the park since September 17th, day one of the occupation. I had found my respondent. He was visibly shaken, but as we spoke he let me in on a perspective that most non-occupiers would never be exposed to.

What this experience taught me is twofold: 1) Anticipate the unexpected: We weren’t sure what we would find in Zucotti Park that day, but being open to the moment gave us a glimpse of something rare-a very human perspective that stood in contrast to the stereotype that OWS had become in the media. And 2) Take advantage of your opportunities: In our case it was the last such opportunity we would get. Our visit took place on November 12th. The occupiers were evicted two days later.

For more of what John learned from his visit, check out his blog post about their time with OWS.

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