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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Like for many families, Christmas presented an opportunity to stress unity rather than focus on division. Spending time in the presence of others and enjoying fellowship at a symbolic place on a symbolic day only seemed appropriate.
Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street activists attended a 24-hour celebration Sunday at Zuccotti Park, the symbolic center of the fledgling movement for social and economic justice that began 100 days before. Organizers said “Occupy Christmas” aimed to unify activists across the religious spectrum while also upholding the charitable ideals of a holiday often overshadowed and sometimes seemingly defined by consumerism.
“I’m not a strict Christian but I do believe that there was a guy named Jesus and he came with a message similar to what we are talking about with his flipping over the [tables] of the money-changers,” said Brendan Hunt of Queens, who attended the event before attending a family celebration.
The event featured music, religious services and an afternoon feast. Occupy activists originally intended to stage an event on a larger scale that would have required park owner Brookfield Properties to relax restrictions on permitted items.
“The vigil will not include camping, erecting structures, lying on the ground, placing tarps and sleeping bags on the property, or anything else that unreasonably interferes with others’ ability to enjoy the park,” the New York City Civil Liberties Union said in a Dec. 19 statement that urged Brookfield to accommodate the event organizers.
But the effort did not receive a response and some items such as chairs were ultimately not allowed by park security, according to Sebastian, an event organizer and U.K. native who declined to give his last name.
When members of Judson Memorial Church did not arrive to facilitate a midnight mass, activists opted to commence shortly after midnight by reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Christmas Sermon on Peace.” King said in the sermon, “Means and ends must cohere because end is preexistent in the means” — a message which resonated with members of the O.W.S. movement seeking to empower individuals rather than promote a specific policy agenda.
While plans originally were for an event more religious in nature, a new niche presented itself as the holiday drew close, Sebastian said.
“It became obvious to us that we were the only [Occupy] event planned for Christmas Day [so] we started to try to interact with other people and make it wider,” he noted.
Only days before, the Christian overtones of the holiday and the approximately $7000 in funding proposed for the event prompted resistance among some activists who attended a Dec. 21 spokescouncil meeting of O.W.S. organizers.
A specific budget for “Occupy Christmas” never materialized. Individual working groups contributed through their own budgets in addition to volunteering their time to ensure the event could be held at a cost of about $2000, Sebastian said.
“Even inside the movement we have differences of opinion and a certain amount of antagonisms which develop like it would in any other type of relationship,” said Richard Devoe, a professional activist who was one of many non-Christians present Sunday. “All that stuff is set aside Christmas Day.”
Some occupiers experience tensions not only within the movement but also from families who do not necessarily support their activism. An online video advised occupiers on how to tactfully discuss the movement with family members at holiday festivities. Hunt said he strengthened his resolve Sunday morning to remain committed to the movement despite setbacks.
“My family doesn’t really agree with what I’m doing here,” said Hunt. “They say, ‘It’s nice you did your little thing but you have to work on your personal stuff.’”
Hunt replied, “I have to work on both at the same time.”