As a reader pointed out, my stuff’s been a bit esoteric of late. So, it’s time to weigh in on some broader happenings. Thus, I give you my take on Occupy Wall Street: that rambunctious rebellion, that righteous resistance, that random ruckus, that risible revolt (depending on your mood, or if you are part of the NYPD crew that has to work an extra shift).
I hadn’t been down to Zuccotti Park since it began, except for the movement’s first Monday, when I passed by while visiting the 9/11 Memorial. After a coup at lunch this week (aka a tasty turkey burger in the Financial District), I was nearby and checked it out.
I walked around the perimeter, scoping out the scene, and eventually walked through the tarp city that has sprouted up, bearing a passing resemblance to Krzyzewskiville.
There are a variety of reactions I have to Occupy Wall Street (#OWS). I’ve been reluctant to embrace it outright. (Apparently, I’m a Democrat in Congress.) Some of my pre-conceived notions were altered by being there and speaking with people.
As a result, my thoughts take on something of a dégustation menu: each portion is easily digestible, but at the end you’ll be pretty full. I’ll start with lighter fare and move into some larger dishes. Also, enjoy the pictures I took down there, as an intermezzo between courses:
On-site, OWS is pretty well organized. As you can see from the map and the Good Neighbor Policy pictures, the participants are doing their best to be congenial and have a sense of order, even if parts of it are humorous. The welcome desks and media area are practical. The library is a mishmash of random books, from filling-time novels to the tongue-in-cheek (I hope) Anarchist Cookbook. Suffice it to say, the kitchen is not stainless steel.
OWS also doesn’t want the community to take a hard line against it, especially after some earlier brush-ups with local businesses, as Samantha Bee exhibited. Hence, there are multiple signs like these around the edge of the park:
Living in a park for a month does not mean much. If you were down there and lived through every day and night since OWS began on September 17th, I’m sure it feels like a big deal, but to the city and the country surrounding you, and the corporations whose influence you hope to dilute, it’s a pittance. In the grand scheme of things, this is not an accomplishment. This is why OWS needs to adopt a core set of actionable talking points or requests. Don’t get me wrong, they are driving the national conversation on a worthwhile detour, and that is something to be proud of. However, business and government are not going to change simply because these people are out on the streets. In fact, I don’t think it necessarily matters, in contrast to CNN’s David Gergen at the last Republican presidential debate, whether the protesters stay in Zuccotti Park after the first frost. If the right ideas are out there, and the participants stay active in other ways, the message can prosper. If they come back bigger in the spring, that will speak more, as Ari Fleischer countered to the Gerg.
I’ll say one thing: the Tea Party ain’t global. Purportedly, the counterpoint to OWS is the Tea Party. This would make a great compare-and-contrast essay, but I’m not going all out on that. What I will say is that the Tea Party phenomenon is limited to America. The grievances of OWS have a socioeconomic core which traverses national borders. That explains why there are “Occupy” movement gatherings in 1,798 cities around the world. (Alright, maybe some of those are towns.)
They do not need a leader. Who’s the leader of the Tea Party? Rush Limbaugh? John Boehner? Hank Williams, Jr?! None of ’em. As the Tea Party rose up, different entities took root, all associating themselves with it. There is no head, but there are guiding groups and people: Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation. (Personally, I’m quite partial to the Defenders of Darjeeling.) It worked out well for them, at least in the 2010 elections. There’s no reason OWS can’t remain a “leaderless” movement, as long as people who contribute to it promote ideas that others can get behind.
The people are polite and respectful. Everyone I interacted with down there was civil and inviting. I didn’t observe heated arguments or ill will to passersby, since they want the public’s support. Most people were either engaged in active conversation, holding a sign up, or taking some down time. The participants are a wide range of ages and ethnicities.
One man gave an impassioned plea for why we need to restore the Glass–Steagall Act, but he was not mean to anyone: he is just pissed off at the results of corporate dictation of law.
It’s not all poor people and twenty-somethings. I tried to listen in on a two-dozen person working group meeting that was going on, but the moderator was speaking too softly for me to hear. Instead, I was sucked into a stimulating discussion with two guys.
They are both informed and not delusional in the slightest. Neither is living down there, and neither comes close to being a millennial hippie. They are both in their 40s or so. These are men who have had careers and done well, but are still upset. One is an environmentally-focused architect and professor. The other sold his stake in a successful ad agency he founded to make his interest in politics his chief pursuit. He’s quite well connected politically, to the degree that he makes and takes calls from senators, congressmen, chiefs of staff, and campaign managers on a regular basis.
He has seen firsthand how, despite themselves, elected officials are bought and sold through donations and the threat of withholding donations, and how their careers are handcuffed and beholden to these interests.
I won’t mention his name because I did not ask for his permission, but he is the kind of person you could see being helpful in influencing the strategy of OWS. As someone with that grounding and pedigree, I asked him if what was happening was what the protesters should be doing to get a reaction. He said this is exactly what they should be doing.
When your occupation is occupation, you better be good at it: the public at large really does not know what Occupy Wall Street stands for. And yet, 46% “think the views of people involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement generally reflect the views of most Americans,” as the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows. The question I want to see asked next is, “what are those views?” I think we would see dozens of different answers.
I support the spirit of the movement, but I’m ambivalent about the reality on the ground.
There are some ridiculous forms of costumed protest and hilarious signs in Zuccotti Park. I guess those are supposed to get a rise out of of us, and then get some snippet of the message to stick, but I can’t see it being effective with so many messages.
Listen, protests on the left always end up drawing all manner of demonstrators and dumb practices. A few crazy people will come to everything. I’m not trying to rain on your parade, OWS (the rain yesterday already did that), but stop doing stupid shit. Don’t be about everything.
Bankers and private equity types in the neighborhood continue to walk by without a stutter in their wingtipped steps. That may never change, but I talk to well-educated friends and acquaintances and they say they still don’t know what OWS is about, or they don’t get it. When I was down there, the view was clearer, but still not consistent.
The guiding ideology I glean from Occupy Wall Street is a deep-seated unrest and desire to remedy the unjust and greedy means with which corporations impose their outsized, undue influence on government. This is particularly true of financial companies in the wake of the Great Recession.
They can tweak it, but I’m probably in the ballpark.
Rename the movement. This dovetails with the prior point. If people don’t know what the name Occupy Wall Street means, how can they hope to know what it is about? Most people can’t or won’t spend the time learning about civic, economic, and political doings. The simplest, shortest possible term that can get across what a group is and what it represents is the best chance to gain traction and support.
It’s somewhat clear what exactly Occupy Wall Street’s initial planners had in mind, but the name feels like it is more of an isolated event than the group or movement it has evolved into. At a certain point, it is too late to rebrand, because the media and the public have already adopted the initial label, despite its vague or inaccurate connotation.
“Global warming” came to define the environmental movement for much of a generation. As a result, the term has led to the substance behind it being belittled, lampooned, denied, and brushed aside too often. (How many times have you heard someone spout off half-seriously on a cold day, “Forget global warming, man! It’s freezing out!”) Only recently has “climate change” made significant inroads in replacing “global warming” and offering a terse, clear understanding of what the issue really is. “Global warming” has hurt the cause, unmeasurably but undoubtedly. The damage has been done in terms of time lost, conditions worsening, and minds becoming less persuadable.
It may be too late for OWS, but I think there is still an opening for an impactful name change as things focus. I could come up with a few ideas, but the most viable one is contained within a meme and a message the OWS protesters are already saying: “The 99%.” It’s short, and you either know what it means by now or it causes you to find out. Either way, you get it quickly, and there is a pretty good chance you are part of the 99% of Americans who are not part of the 1% of the population with the highest income. If so, perhaps you agree that you “will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”
And if you are in the 99%, you probably are not psyched to see news this week from the Congressional Budget Office showing that for the top 1%, “from 1979 to 2007, average inflation-adjusted after-tax income grew by 275 percent.”
The 99% did not come anywhere close to that. Something to keep in mind. Hope it doesn’t give you indigestion.