A Local’s Impression of the Wall Street “Occupation”

One of the better signs; click to enlarge.

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:

MIC CHECK!

Mic check!

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 AmericansIf 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.

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9 comments

  1. Nothing?? Really?? This is so controversial!!!

    1. Hard to be controversial when there’s nothing specific you’re protesting for.

      But since you insist… what breed was the missing puppy?

      Cats are better anyway.

    2. See, I agree. :)

      1. Yeah… there are some awesome cat videos on YouTube (plus the Simon’s Cat animations!). One of them is of a guy rescuing some soaked kittens from the floodplain of an overflowing river, and he looks like the sort of guy who’d be at his local Occupy Wherever protest.

  2. Okay, here’s something:

    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.

    I agree, and that is exactly why it will probably fail unless these people get their shit together and find out what they want fairly soon. It’s all very nice to sit around and be pissed off about bad stuff, but unless you also have something that you are for, some sort of solution to the problem that you’re protesting, no one will take you seriousy.

    The comparison with the [T/t]ea [P/p]arty is quite instructive, because misguided as it is, it has had a very clear and understandable message, which has been the key to its success: “Your life sucks. Big government is to blame. Cut spending and taxes.”

    On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street are saying (as far as I can tell): “Your life sucks. Big corporations are to blame. Uh… maaan!” Until they find something coherent to put into the third part there, they might as well be occupying Never Never Land for all they’ll get out of it.

    And they’ll have to wok pretty hard because, let’s face it, “Fully implement the Dodd-Frank Act!” is not exactly a crowd-raising slogan.

    1. True. I actually don’t know what the end of your quasi-syllogism is for OWS… the problem is, all the good ones are impossible. Overrule Citizens United? Not going to happen without an amendment. Meaningful campaign finance? Republicans will never stand for it. Regulate? Like you say, hardly a ringing slogan. Tax the rich? Maybe.

      1. “Kill the scapegoat!” always works.

    2. “Tax the rich” is straightforward and would probably resonate with a lot of people, but on the other hand, I think going that way would just really turn OWS into the Tea Party of the Left: a group of angry people with a solution that doesn’t actually solve very much. I’m not sure that would be either useful or healthy.

      As far as what’s impossible… I think if significant and persistent protests started appearing all over the country calling in unison for e.g. an anti-Citizens United amendment, that might suddenly seem a lot more doable than at present.

      Or maybe the President’s recent jobs plan? In real terms, that seems like the best way out of the crisis, but I don’t know how much of an impression it’s made on the political discourse yet.

  3. An amendment to end corporate personhood and the passage of the ”Warren Buffett Tax Act” are two real aims they could push to achieve. Slogans like ”how many corporations are buried at Arlington?” and variation on the old Edward Thurlow quote might vibrate well. Remember part of the success of the tea party movement was it had catchy slogans, not that it had a consistent ideology behind it. It is still big on rhetoric and small on actual ideas.

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