A year has come and gone since I visited New York City's Zuccotti Park to experience the Occupy Wall Street movement.
At that first visit, I got down on the ground to take a low angle photo of two protesters. "Maybe now you'll know what its like to sleep on the ground," one of them told me. "Actually," I replied, "that was a feeling I knew well at one point in my life."
The desire to share experiences of less fortunate times and commiserate about the misery of those less fortunate permeated everything about OWS in those early days. It was a heady experience, full of fresh faces, old and young, chattering on and on about injustice and inequality.
OWS: A Retrospective
Everything was shared: food, water bottles, shelter, tents. The photos I shot during my first visit (see Inside Occupy Wall Street: People Are Angry
) were reminiscent of the Great Depression era Hoovervilles
, where desperate Americans gathered with families to raise their voices against the forces they believed had impoverished them.
I shot people washing dishes in tent sinks, and preparing food to share, free of charge, with kids and pets along for the experience. Of course, there seemed to be endless protest signs on trees, on the ground, even mounted on people's shoulders. The bad guys were well known: Wall Street, Big Banks, Oil Companies, the CIA, FBI... government in general.
This dizzying array of things to protest was both the strength and weakness of OWS. Because the movement hated everything, it could never settle on a message.
It reminded me of Marlon Brando as the leader of an outlaw motorcycle club in the 1950s film The Wild One. At one point, a woman asks Brando's character, "What are you rebelling against?" Brando answers, "What've ya got?"
By my second visit to Zuccotti Park (See Occupy Wall Street Spills Over to Main Street), things had changed in subtle, understated ways. There were more disturbed people taking advantage of the atmosphere. A man complaining about radio waves controlling his thoughts tried to talk my ear off. Members of the OWS group seemed more concerned about socializing by squeezing together in sleeping bags. Many of the people at the protest had that vacant look common among those recently released from jail. There was still no real focus and no real message.
On my third visit to OWS (See Occupy Wall Street's Family Version), I brought along my friend, famed photojournalist Ben Fernandez. He has an impressive protest history. He covered the 1960's March on Washington, and had close associations with Martin Luther King as well as the Kennedys. Because he was a veteran of hundreds of protest marches, I wanted to get his opinion on how OWS compared.
He didn't have to think long to respond.
"Back then," Fernandez told me, "we had the draft, the war, and were fighting for our lives. These people here," he said, in reference to the OWS crowd, "most of them just want to get laid."
In just a matter of months, a movement that started with optimism and dreams lost its innocence -- as well as any hopes to provoke real change. I've been thinking about it recently, ever since the first anniversary of the movement drew near.
Last week, a former OWS protester who returned to NYC to take part in the anniversary activities was raped and thrown over a second-story railing, breaking her pelvis. The woman knew her attacker: she had met him during an earlier OWS protest at Zuccotti Park.
It wasn't the first OWS-related crime, in NYC or nationwide, but to me it symbolized just how far the movement had declined.
Yesterday, more than 150 people were arrested as protesters tried to block access to the New York Stock Exchange on the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
I wasn't surprised by the news. Nor am I surprised how the whole movement has evolved.
It's hard for people to support a cause when the organization never made its message clear.