Some Great Cause
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Under the tree where the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in 1966, on the south side of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, sixty or so people are gathered in a circle around a yellow banner that reads, in blue spray paint, “GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF NYC.” It is Saturday, August 13, 2011, the third of the General Assembly’s evening meetings.
“No cops or reporters,” someone decrees at the start of the meeting. Others demand a ban on photographs.
From where I’m sitting in the back, my hand inches up, and I stand and explain that I am a writer who covers resistance movements. I promise not to take pictures.
Just then, a heavyset man in a tight T-shirt, with patchy dark hair and a beard, starts snapping photos. He is Bob Arihood, a fixture of the neighborhood known for documenting it with his camera and his blog. People shout at him to stop; he shouts back something about the nature of public space. Soon, a few from the group break off to talk things through with him, and the discussion turns back to me.
The interrogation and harrowing debate that follow are less about me, really, than about them. Are they holding a public meeting or a private one? Is a journalist to be regarded as an agent of the state or a potential ally? Can they expect to maintain their anonymity?
After half an hour, at last, I witness an act of consensus: hands rise above heads, fingers wiggle. I can stay. A little later, I see that Arihood and the people who’d gone to confront him are laughing together.
Those present were mainly, but not exclusively, young, and when they spoke, they introduced themselves as students, artists, organizers, teachers. There were a lot of beards and hand-rolled cigarettes, though neither seemed obligatory. On the side of the circle nearest the tree were the facilitators-David Graeber, a noted anthropologist, and Marisa Holmes, a brown-haired, brown-eyed filmmaker in her midtwenties who had spent the summer interviewing revolutionaries in Egypt. Elders, such as a Vietnam vet from Staten Island, were listened to with particular care. It was a common rhetorical tic to address the group as “You beautiful people,” which happened to be not just encouraging but also empirically true.
Several had accents from revolutionary places-Spain, Greece, Latin America-or had been working to create ties among pro-democracy movements in other countries. Vlad Teichberg, leaning against the Hare Krishna Tree and pecking at the keys of a pink laptop, was one of the architects of the Internet video channel Global Revolution. With his Spanish wife, Nikky Schiller, he had been in Madrid during the May 15 movement’s occupation at Puerta del Sol. Alexa O’Brien, a slender woman with blond hair and black-rimmed glasses, covered the Arab Spring for the website WikiLeaks Central and had been collaborating with organizers of the subsequent uprisings in Europe; now, she was trying to foment a movement called US Day of Rage, named after the big days of protest in the Middle East.
That meeting would last five hours, followed by working groups convening in huddles and in nearby bars. I’d never heard young people talking politics quite like this, with so much seriousness, and revelry, and determination. But their unease was also visible when a police car passed, and conversation slowed; a member of the Tactics Committee had pointed out that, since any group of twenty or more in a New York City park needs a permit, we were already breaking the law. […]