As some of you may know, I live on (and so have ostensibly been “occupying”) Wall Street for the past two years or so. Some thoughts, then, from the front lines.
For those who live or work on Wall Street — a group increasingly composed of the former as opposed to the latter — the inconvenience factor remains more bark than bite. To walk anywhere on Wall Street between William and Broadway, locals must suffer through a gauntlet of more-annoying-than-usual tourists, and tolerate the baffling presence of three-officer mounted patrols by the Stock Exchange, but that’s about it. Call it a large-footprint, low-impact police presence.
To the protesters themselves, let’s correct a few misconceptions. First, contra this guy, if the group is “mostly white,” it’s because the occupiers represent a pretty decent cross-section of America. College-age white hipster-types, or what’s become the pejorative media face of the movement, are in the minority next to middle-aged men and women of all races: the tea party age range, in other words, but with the racial and gender diversity of the left. Latinos represent somewhere on the order of 10-12.5% of the group, and come with translators, Spanish-language signs, and a parallel Latino “Assembly” (more on that later). You won’t hear much of religion beyond some signs (“Jesus stood with the 99%!”, etc.), but the movement has appointed, badge-carrying chaplains, and apparently sports its share of observant Jews. On Friday night, across the street from Zuccotti Park, about 200 people gathered for a crowd-chanted Kol Nidre, followed by a full Yom Kippur service. I’ll have pictures later; it was impressive.
Violence and violent rhetoric are nowhere in evidence; for all the media makes out of the Marxist presence (“Down with corporations!”, etc.), they’re a minority clustered at the back of the park, and hearing them speak, they lack the bloodlust of their progenitors. Apparently, violent revolution is passé; these guys just want a constitutional convention. Similarly, anti-police activity and signs seem blissfully contained, the latter limited to one or two signs on the periphery, and the former to marches, which draw from a broader population base than the “occupiers.” Most of the protesters are affirmatively non-violent, with more than their share of puppies and guitars, and a free massage station that (I was told) was purposefully designed as stress relief for those occupiers who get too angry, at the police, or the city, or whatever. Yeah, it’s kind of funny, but it beats the alternatives.
I can’t disagree with those who say the protesters lack a coherent message; they still do. But the organization of the movement itself is more than a little impressive. Every night at 7, the occupiers hold an Assembly to discuss the day, their philosophy, and issues of camp management; later in the night, the same information is communicated in Spanish at a Spanish-language Assembly. On Friday, we heard a debate about whether to ban smoking in the park. A schedule of events is prominently displayed on the south side, convenient to the sleeping section of the park, and cleaning crews circulate throughout the area to preserve some semblance of sanitation. Labor is cleanly divided, with “stations” to fulfill most of the occupiers’ needs: there’s a Food Station, a “Comfort Station” for distributing toiletries, donated bedding, and hygiene products, and a sign-making station (pictured above). The National Lawyers’ Guild has a small volunteer outpost, and volunteer Legal Observers circulate throughout the park (and on marches) in bright green hats, so you can find them in a pinch. New Latino arrivals are greeted with translators at another station, where legal staff warn how political activity can impact your immigration status. City regulations forbid the use of microphones and amplifying equipment, but the group makes do with the “People’s Mic”: when an announcement has to be made, a leader yells “Mic Check!”, and those just within earshot respond, and repeat the message as needed. “Mic Check” comes in handy for everything from speeches and religious services to mundane camp management announcements. One we heard:
A PUPPY IS MISSING…
A puppy is missing!…
Think of it like the Beacons of Gondor, but for hippies. I hope they found the puppy.
At this level of organization, it might seem baffling that the group still lacks a coherent, unitary political agenda. But focusing on this deficiency might risk misunderstanding the movement. This isn’t a protest for something; instead, it’s a (thus far) remarkably effective way of increasing the visibility of the radical left generally, in all of its iterations. For most movements, that’s the first, not the last step: it took the Continental Congress months, and the monumental efforts of one John Adams, to translate decentralized anger into an independence movement, and it took Fox News, Dick Armey, and Glenn Beck to forge a movement from the angry rabble of the tea parties. Give these guys time, and some support at the top, and something interesting might come of it.
That said, I admit that there’s a lot to dislike about the protesters. According to some, the occupiers have solved the “bathroom situation” by using customer restrooms at local businesses, all without (of course) paying a dime. That’s inappropriate, gross, and provides an unnecessary point of friction between the protesters and the community. Second, there’re far too many Ron Paul supporters. Ugh. And some locals have apparently “joined” the protesters just so they can smoke pot in public (though to their credit, I heard a few organizers getting very angry about the potentially de-legitimizing effect public drug use would have on the movement).
Finally, we can already derive a central theme to the movement: that corporations wield too much influence over the daily lives of Americans. If we woke up tomorrow and Dodd-Frank was fully implemented, Citizens United overruled by constitutional amendment, and investment banks healthily restrained by a resurgent SEC, I think most of their demands would be met, and the country would be better for it. These are people who actually care about their country — one sign, “If corporations are people, how many corporations are buried at Arlington?” really hits home — and want to leave it better than they found it. At least they’re doing something about it, and I for one see no irony in using corporate products to promote an anti-corporate message. Didn’t we use English law to dismantle the English monarchy? As far as causes go, I’d already take this one over the tea party’s cause célèbre of re-establishing child labor.