On Wednesday night I attended the General Assembly meeting for the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was there, once again, with Dana Glazer, as passive observers, to continue documenting the Parents for Occupy Wall Street (PFOWS) group and it’s chief organizer, Kirby.
Dana and I hadn’t expected to attend the GA; we thought we were going back to Brooklyn to film the individual group at the same cozy location as before. But PFOWS needed to be at the bigger meeting for an important vote and so we found ourselves inside the cafeteria of the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers on Pearl Street, with about 300 occupiers and a half dozen NYPD.
Consensus is a Looonnggggg, Slow Process
Democracy itself is a sexy concept. But the democratic process, with a small ‘d’….not so much. To make matters worse the cafeteria was overly warm, filled with the stifling, sleep-inducing kind of heat that only ancient, NYC school-system radiators can produce.
By 9:30 the group decided to pack up, even though the GA meeting was far from over. One of the couples attending had come with their adorable four-month-old son; they were tired and wanted to get home. But there was still a separate PFOWS-specific meeting on the agenda and so Kirby suggested we head to a local restaurant to talk.
We found an outside table at a South Street Seaport bar nearby and settled in.
Kirby, The Momma, and The Poppa, baby in his lap, sat across from each other, quietly discussing the group’s proposed future actions and a need for more volunteers to accomplish these, while Dana continued to shoot. They sipped wine and waited for the corn fritters Kirby had ordered.
The bar we had chosen is located on a corner, with tall, floor-to-ceiling windows all around. Dana and I faced the glass, where we could see one group of patrons, men and women dressed in work clothes (shirts, ties, and the equivalent female corporate-drag), laughing and drinking together.
A Beer for Daddy, A Breast for Baby
Or rather, Icould see the patrons. And they could see us.
Dana’s gaze was focused on the group, panning the camera as each person spoke, adjusting for the low light and street noise. Kirby, Momma and Poppa focused on one another, and the task at hand. I sat slightly back and to the left of Dana, with a clear view of the PFOWS group and the people inside.
At some point, the wriggling baby made his needs known and Poppa passed him to Momma, in that matter-of-fact, no-words-needed way connected parents often communicate. Momma proceeded to adjust her long, flowing top to make room for baby and didn’t miss a beat of the conversation, finishing her point, all the while helping her son find his way to the breast. She did it in that matter-of-fact way nursing mommas come to do….everything. Dana, a father of three, continued to film, unfazed.
I smiled, deeply, remembering my own sweet vulnerability as a nursing mom.
In the past decade I’ve witnessed countless mommas and poppas as they attended to a hungry baby, in places both private and public, and had been part of a scene like this myself many, many times, in the two and half years I nursed Alice. That’s not to say nursing came naturally to me – I struggled with it on a daily basis for the first few months. But once you get the hang of it you realize that it’s no cause for a pause in your conversation. It becomesnatural in that you do it a few dozen times a day, without thinking about it. It’s not a big deal.
But, unfortunately, for a particular bunch of inebriated after-work revelers it was, apparently, a very, big deal.
Using My Words
As soon as Momma took the baby from Poppa, and even before she adjusted her shirt, a woman inside the bar came over to the window right above the nursing mother, and began pointing. She waved two of her male friends over, smirking derisively, and laughing.
I watched as she called more people to the window, men and women, the smile now completely erased from my face.
No one else in our party noticed, and so I said nothing. I thought, They’ll stop in a moment — and no harm done if Momma never knows. I told myself, If Momma looks up, surely they’ll get embarrassed and move away. But then she did look up, and they didn’t walk away in shame or anything else. They continued their belligerent gesturing, seemingly proud to have been discovered.
It took a moment for everyone to realize what was happening. Kirby said, incredulously, “Are they coming over to watch you nurse!?”
By that time I was furious. I had seen enough and in fact, those were the exact words I used as I rose from my chair and headed into the bar; “Excuse me, but I am furious!”
Pacifist Does Not Equal Passive
I wasn’t thinking about my own safety or, unfortunately, that I might be making an uncomfortable situation worse for this family— I wasn’t thinking, period. I was pure momma-fury as I strode inside.
Marching up to the red-head who started this little circus, and one of her gleeful, portly compatriots, I asked the world’s oldest, dumbest question, the one that has preceded every bar fight for millennia: “Do you have a problem, asshole?”
The surprise on everyone’s face was gratifying. I doubt they expected the hippie-parents or their friends to come in and confront them. But Red wasn’t backing down, either. Her slightly slurred response to my question was, “That’s disgusting.”
To which I responded, practically spitting the words in her face, “No, you’re disgusting.”
A chorus behind me echoed my words, and only then did I realize that everyone from our table had come into the bar too: Momma, baby in arms, Poppa, fiercely defending his family, Kirby and Dana, God Bless him, camera still rolling.
Now everyone was shouting and the bartenders came over to usher us outside. It was okay — we were done. We had stood up to the bully and now it was time to go home.
You Can Pick Your Friends, and You Can Pick Your Battles, But….
Honestly, I didn’t know I was going to do what I did that night. I didn’t grow up in a tough neighborhood— I was born in Brooklyn and raised like veal in the bucolic Staten Island of the 1970’s. I’ve never raised my hands in anger, to anyone. We don’t use corporeal punishment on Alice; we preach tolerance, diplomacy, volunteerism, charity, service, peace and love in our house.
But we do also teach Alice to stand up for herself, to speak out when it’s appropriate, and as soon as possible. We believe in holding people accountable for their actions and that it’s not necessary to diagnose the cause — in other words, we’re not interested in that person’s reason for being belligerent. At that moment, it’s irrelevant. The first, most important task is to stop the behavior.
Our standing orders to our daughter are: if a person is teasing, offending or intimidating you verbally, tell them clearly that you do not like the behavior and to stop it immediately. If your words don’t work, go find the nearest grown-up in charge and ask for help. If there are no grown-ups around (a situation neither my husband nor I can imagine her in right now, at eight years old, but is surely to come, as she gets older) you call 9-1-1.
Becoming What You Hate
In that regard, I was practicing what I preach to my daughter when I rushed into the bar. But in another, more important way, I had failed.
I acted in anger and in haste, without consensus from my group, without regard for the people I was with (for which I apologized profusely in the car ride home, and do again, here). My actions were in direct opposition to the non-violent methods of protest being used by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They were not deliberate and considered, or effective. What I did could have potentially escalated the problem, and more than someone’s feelings could have gotten hurt.
I was also eager to draw conclusions about the people in the bar who had mocked and made sport of a nursing momma. “That’s Wall Street for you,” I said, “that attitude right there!”
Anger can be instructive, even constructive; it has the power to move men and women to affect important changes in the world, to fight injustice. But anger, misdirected, or misused, is just plain ugly. Going off “half-cocked” as my father would say, is never a good thing — a misfire is inevitable.
When I looked into the bar window that night I should have recognized my own reflection there.