Winterizing Wall Street: Hypothermia and the 99 Percent

By
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

"Winter is coming," announced an organizer at Saturday’s Occupy Wall Street General Assembly. "And I am cold." But it’s worse than that. Organizers admit that the protests may not be able to survive the winter in their current form. As temperatures drop, the bustling mini-community downtown will probably be reduced to a small group of shivering, hard-core occupiers. And when that happens, the 99 percent will start looking less like a movement, and more like a winter survival course.

The occupation has already seen more than a half-dozen cases of hypothermia as nighttime temperatures have dipped into the forties. As relayed by Occupy's very own meteorologist, rain is due on Wednesday and there could even be snow this weekend.

"It’s a combination of being wet and cold that starts the hypothermia," said Ed, a 56-year-old volunteer medic from Maine. "We patrol at night looking for people shivering." Even before the weather turned cold, Occupy medics were seeing cases of trench foot among those who failed to keep their lower extremities dry. With no power to adopt broader proposals, the occupation’s medical group is doing what it can in terms of preventative care, including "boosting peoples’ immune systems." Translation: orange juice galore. Ed's bottom line, "We just can’t stay here in the winter."

"If you don’t give us tents, you’re going to have hypothermia and chaos," said Michael Glaser, a 26-year-old Chicagoan helping lead winter preparation efforts. But cots and tents are explicitly forbidden by Brookfield rules. Without some kind of shelter, and an ongoing FDNY ban on fires, it's hard to see how occupiers will be able to weather the weather. The city has little incentive to relax its rules — Mayor Bloomberg has even predicted that the protest will wane once the cold sets in.

Some of the homeless New Yorkers who have moved into Zuccotti Park offered some of their hard-won knowledge about how to survive a winter outdoors.

"I actually originated using newspaper — newspaper and cellophane. You put the cellophane on first, and then you put the newspaper, and that keeps you warm," said Jeremy, a dreadlocked 25-year-old who has been homeless for three years. "And there’s meditations that you can do to heat yourself up. Hot thoughts. Like summer, or fire, anything that’s hot, you know what I'm saying? And it works."

"Hopefully, these kids have had Legos in their life, to where they can put stuff together to make sure that it’s, like, seamless," said David, a 26-year-old homeless man. "Layers are the greatest. Because you can miss a spot on one layer, and get it in the next layer, and still be comfortable."

Occupy Wall Street is trying to marshal its collective approach to problem solving, but attempts at winterizing the park have been stymied in part by a wave of thefts and a dearth of supplies: tarps, duct-tape, sleeping bags, ponchos, hats, etc. In the words of Scott Simpson, a 22-year-old outreach coordinator, "This is no bueno." He doesn’t think the occupation will be able to survive in its current form. "People can’t stay here indefinitely. It will fizzle out." He admits that he himself will probably leave. Another occupier, 18-year-old Seth Harper, who like Simpson is from Georgia, said: "There are a lot of rumors ... but no actual plan." He also plans to leave if he can’t stay warm.

Organizers have to prepare for winter in secret, fearful that the police will stop their shantytown plans. "I can’t tell you what people are planning exactly," said Lauren Gigion, a leader on the sanitation team. "Because the NYPD will shut it down." Even if the occupation finds a way to evade a city crackdown, they first have to agree among themselves. The organizers and organized have already clashed over housekeeping and the status of the drum circle, and winter prep is causing new conflicts.

Some facilitators want to use Occupy Wall Street's considerable financial resources to rent an indoor space, like a conference center or a church basement, as a place for occupiers to get warm and to hold General Assemblies and other meetings. Others say the space would have to be donated or they reject the idea altogether. So nothing has happened.

In fact, a lot of the veteran activists and hard-core organizers are looking forward to winter, which they say will clean out the square’s riffraff and those less committed to the cause. Lauren Digion told me that "the quantity of [occupiers] will go down, but the quality will go up." Facilitators say that winter will freeze out the hoarders and the fair-weather activists. "Bring on the snow," lead organizer Daniel Zetah recently told me. "The real revolutionaries will stay in minus-50 degrees."

Everyone admits that Occupy Wall Street won’t look the same under a blanket of snow, slush, and ice. There will be fewer masses — and they’ll be far more huddled. As hard as it may be for the occupiers to admit, many of the new residents of Zuccotti Park may soon be frozen out.

Additional reporting by Dan Amira