June 15, 2012

NEW YORK -- Seven months after Occupy Wall Street's eviction from Zuccotti Park, the round-the-clock encampment in lower Manhattan that was once the movement's center, one protester has created his own version of the communal living experiment in Brooklyn.

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The spacious apartment in Crown Heights where Austin Guest, a 31-year-old Harvard University graduate, lives with another seasoned protester is a far cry from the crowded, chaotic Zuccotti Park of last fall, where hundreds of protesters camped out each night.

Nevertheless, inspired by Zuccotti, with its free meals and free books, Guest said he and his friends are pursuing an Occupy-like experiment in mutual aid.

In the apartment, for example, the protesters follow a code of conduct designed to prevent one person from dominating a conversation. Guest, who majored in performance and media studies at Harvard, said he has had to "unlearn" the sometimes "impenetrable" rhetoric of the Ivy League.

"I was trained to speak in, like, five paragraphs at a time, with really clearly delineated, bulletproof arguments. And that kind of communication doesn't leave a lot of space. That's the point. It's impenetrable. And that's not how we talk in OWS," he said.

FEWER TENTS, MORE TABLES

Guest, a California native with a slight build and a beard who prefers his trademark cap tilted to one side, called the Occupy movement "the best thing that ever happened to me."

It is not clear how many other Occupy Wall Street alumni continue to protest in New York on a full-time basis. Several hundred protesters packed into Times Square on May 15 as part of a coordinated action timed to JPMorgan Chase's shareholder meeting. Several dozen people regularly congregate in Union Square, especially on Friday nights. And there are several communal-living arrangements in Brooklyn.

At the same time, an analysis by Reuters earlier this month found that donations have slowed to a trickle, while the movement's social media popularity, a key indicator of its strength, has fizzled since its zenith last fall.

"We're finding less people living in tents, but we're finding more people sitting around kitchen tables, and more people meeting up in cafes," said Ed Needham, a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street. "There's an awful lot of decentralized organization going on."

Guest, who is white, moved to the predominantly black neighborhood of Crown Heights on June 1. He and another protester, Marisa Holmes, split the $1,400 monthly rent while they look for a third roommate to lower their costs. A number of other Occupiers come and go but don't pay rent.

Outside Guest's apartment building, one Crown Heights resident expressed support for his new neighbors.

"In my opinion, most of the people who were occupying Wall Street were upstanding people," said Johnnie Godette, who works for a local education organization called Foundations for Life. "Them coming here to move and diversify the neighborhood is definitely a good thing."

LOAVES AND SUSHI

Several times a week, Guest bicycles to wealthier Brooklyn neighborhoods, like Park Slope and Cobble Hill, where he and other protesters help themselves to the bread and vegetables that gourmet shops deem spoiled or unfit for sale.

On a good night he might find trays of sushi stacked neatly in an oversized trash bag or still-fresh-looking loaves of bread from Caputo Bakery.

Last September, when the Occupy Wall Street encampment sprang up in Zuccotti Park, Guest was working a few blocks away as an online community organizer. He began dropping in on the camp every night. By November he had quit his job and committed himself to the movement.

Some features of the movement that have frustrated other supporters, such as the refusal to set out concrete goals and a disdain for electoral politics, Guest sees as refreshing.

"Every organization ... that I have ever worked for is just trained to say, 'Oh yes, well, at some point we all have to be realistic,'" said Guest. "And I said, 'No. I don't want to.'"

"BIG GIANT TRAUMA"

Guest struggled with convention at Harvard as well. Antics tied to his experimental theater work and academic problems that he described as writer's block, prompted school officials to ask him to leave, twice. He graduated in 2007, eight years after enrolling.

Toward the end of his time at Harvard, Guest and several friends showed up at the university's career fair, dressed as superheroes, to protest the participation of U.S. military recruiters. Guest, in Captain America garb, was kicked out before he could approach the recruiters.

These days, Guest spends most of his time planning protest actions and refining the model of group living and self-reliance inspired by his experience at Zuccotti Park. He earns money by working for a friend's moving company and by doing freelance community organizing.

Guest said there is "no going back" to the life he knew before Occupy - a full-time job in Manhattan and a comfortable apartment in Prospect Heights.

"The world is a big giant trauma right now. And this community that I'm in is something that tries to build pockets of healing," he said. "All you have is other people. That's what this is all about. It's people who care for each other against an unaccountable system that doesn't have to listen.

"It's like, are we going to live in a world where we throw each other under the bus every chance we get, or are we going to live in a world where we take care of one another?"

(Editing by Dan Burns, Douglas Royalty and Prudence Crowther)

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