Harlem In Zuccotti Park

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Gale ArmsteadGale Armstead sits almost regal like on the periphery of Zuccotti Park where since September 17 the denizens of Occupy Wall Street have held forth. Her queenly demeanor, crowned with a gorgeous orange turban, is in stark contrast to the array of blue and green tents in this makeshift village of protesters.? She?s a long way from her usual haunt in Harlem where she and her husband, Ben, are regulars there among the vendors and street people.? A few weeks ago her name adorned the marquee at the Apollo Theatre announcing her ?Revolution of the Mind? lecture that combines astrological musings, self-help, and sundry other things within her mystic cosmos.

?Yes, this is a long way from Harlem,? she admits, ?but, in a way, it?s show time down here.?

Show time is scattered helter skelter throughout the privately owned park, and bracketing it on the east and west are musical ensembles.? A guitarist greets visitors on Broadway but very few seem to recognize his rendition of a Woody Gutherie song.? The background noise across the park is a drum choir and a saxophonist raging with all the enthusiasm, if not talent, of John Coltrane.? At the other end of the park, a tuba player leads a trio comprised of a mandolin, ukulele and guitar as they summon a bluegrass favorite.

Armstead is unperturbed by the cacophony of sound, the gaggle of spectators who stop and photograph her display of buttons, and ask her questions about her impressions of the occupants and their complaints, which mostly center on fraud, corruption, greed, and Wall Street malfeasance. ?Things are going pretty well here,? she says.? ?I?m down here at least a couple of times a week and I appreciate the tourists who stop and chat and sometimes purchase a button or make a donation.?

Donation buckets abound, and most of them are slowly filling with bills of varying denominations.?? One of Amstead?s friends, Tekima glides by, hurrying to points unknown.?? She, too, is a Harlem lady who once owned a store in the now defunct Mart 125, across the street from the Apollo.

?Each day is very festive, and I like the general camaraderie of the folks,? Tekima says, before drifting into the crowd.? Neither she nor Armstead provides any indication of the rumored racial problems among the protesters. Nor are they aware of the growing dissention in the ranks with an increased number of so-called caucuses.

This is my third time to the park.? I marched with them two weeks ago when thousands occupied Foley Park.?? On this sunny morning, officially Indian Summer, since it?s an unseasonably warm day following the snowfall and frost weeks ago, I was nearby at a press conference at City Hall?and with the rumor that David Crosby and Graham Nash might be giving an afternoon concert?I thought I?d catch up on things beyond what filters through the media and most importantly in the pages of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, the protesters? paper.

One reliable source is Sekou (not his real name) another Harlemite who spends a good amount of time at the park.? He is a photographer and artist, and he?s working on his own concept piece about OWS.?? ?No, there are not a lot of blacks down here, so that minimizes the possibility of tension,? he explains, when asked about race relations in the park.? ?There are only problems, I believe, when we show up in numbers, and that can be very intimidating to white folks.?

He leads me through the center of the park, which reminds me of the tent cities I?ve visited in Haiti.? There, too, the people live cheek by jowl, but at least here there are not many children in the park.? The tent cities in Haiti are overrun with children, most of them not knowing where their next meal is coming from.? And even more serious is the outbreak of cholera that has killed thousands and left nearly a half million severely incapacitated.

Walking through the crowded park with tents tightly abutting tents, I wonder what the night is like.? In Haiti, after the sun goes down, the only light comes from flickering candles or from lanterns.? Occasionally there is a glow from flashlights as people make their way through the dark to nearby port-a-johns.

Like Haiti, the park has no running water and I?m told that people use the surrounding stores and their toilets to relieve themselves and to wash up.?

Last week the police confiscated the generators and the fuel in the park, charging such items created a fire hazard. We pass a station in the park labeled ?Pedal Power.?? A bicycle is hooked to a battery. One rides the bicycle to charge the battery and to generate power.??

?That?s just a bit of the ingenuity you?ll find throughout the park,? Sekou says.?? ?And the folks here have a brotherly and sisterly compassion for each other, and that helps to hold down the hatred and animosity. When they say they are the 99 percenters, they mean it.? He, too, plays down the rumors of hostility and rancor.

Sekou recalls an incident that happened two weeks ago when the police tried to take down the group?s medical tent.? ?It was around midnight and folks here linked their arms together to ward off the cops,? he relates.? ?While they were fighting off the cops, guess who shows up?? The Rev. Jesse Jackson. He joined the protesters and they were able to keep the tent up.?

He says that a number of celebrities have come to the park, mainly, he feels for photo ops and to bolster their reputations rather than to identify with the aims and purposes of the protesters.??????????????

When asked about the recent Occupy Harlem march, Sekou is somewhat reticent but feels that more can be done.? ?You see, what they don?t understand, and by they, I mean the young people here in the park, is that for Harlemites and other black Americans this is nothing new. What they are doing we?ve done ever since we were brought here from Africa. I?ve tried to convey that to as many of them as I can.?

?On the other hand, you?ve got people in Harlem who should be conducting their own demonstrations because many of the things the protesters here are talking about are issues for them too,? Sekou continues.? ?Yes, I believe Harlem ought to be down here, but Harlem and its residents got a number of issues they need to address and stage their own occupations.?

Will Harlem be in Zuccotti Park when winter arrives?? ?That?s a good question,? Sekou replies.? ?I?m sure there will be some who are not just fair weather friends and will stick out, just to show you they can.? But most of my people are sun people and they may shift their fight to a warmer environment, and I won?t blame them.???

Well, the weather may no longer be an impediment since the generators were returned to the protesters on Tuesday because the FDNY didn?t follow proper procedures.??

Hey, this sit-in could go co-op or condo.