Occupy Wall Street: “You Should Have Expected Us”

By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it.

San Francisco has it. So does Boston. It’s heading to Phoenix, Chicago and even making its way across the border to Toronto. “It” is the movement the media only acknowledge when it shuts down a bridge or broadcasts police brutality. “It” is the movement that Glenn Beck claims will lead to “gas chambers, guillotines” and “millions dead.”

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its third week. It’s stubborn, plucky, organized and here to stay—weather and cops be damned. For the third week in a row I am dedicating this space to an undertaking so captivating it has garnered grassroots support throughout the country despite obvious and ignominious attempts to stamp it out. Forgive me as I provide some context to my preoccupation by regurgitating a segment of this column written only days before the occupation began:

Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept. Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

As it turns out, America’s youth is keenly in touch with its rebellious nature and wholly capable of harnessing it through social media and on the ground. Moreover, it seems, they know exactly how to protest derivatives and tax loopholes. Occupy Wall Street is not an exercise; nor is it a group of out-of-work malcontents and spoiled brats as some pundits and commentators would have you all believe. But given the disgraceful job my colleagues in the “traditional” media have done covering the last three weeks, it’s little wonder there is such a misconception about the protest or the character of the protestors themselves.

Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other hack, ratings-hungry news operations have done their level-best to seek out the most outrageous or ill-informed members of the movement in an effort to discredit the entire affair. This has served only to embolden the members of the occupation and play directly into the hands of the organizers who are able to maintain their underground “street-cred” while pointing a finger at corporate media with righteous indignation. It’s one of several ingenious ploys (or anti-ploys depending upon which side of the barricade you reside) being exploited by Anonymous, the group at the heart of the protest.

Most of the news reports and the people I speak with about Occupy Wall Street have the same question: “What do they want?” It’s little wonder why the reporting has been so poor because the question itself fails to grasp the meaning of the gathering. Asking “What do they want?” is placing the cart before the horse. It’s not that it’s a bad question; it’s simply impossible to answer. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street is to begin a dialogue among disconnected citizens and encourage a process of self-discovery. Although they have posted a declaration of principles that lists pernicious policies and highlights social and economic inequities, it only serves to provide the framework for the discussion.

But behind this grassroots and organic process is an organizational brilliance in the restraint shown by Anonymous and the surreptitious group in charge of the demonstration on the ground. By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it. It’s why dimwitted reporters have a hard time grasping it and why renowned authors such as Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlet have been here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people in Ron Paul tee shirts, Vietnam Veterans, union construction workers, lawyers and even some Tea Party activists. They have managed to truly make this the “people’s movement.” Or, as they say: “We are the 99%… and so are you.”

Life In The Park

As for life in Zuccotti Park, the scene is rather surreal. Between the time I first visited the encampment on Day 4 and Day 18 on Tuesday of this week, a mini-city had emerged. Rules of conduct are posted along the walls of the park. There is a media center, a volunteer booth, food line, barrels of drinking water, a compost pile, rows of books and a tobacco-rolling station. They even have their own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Every evening at 7 p.m. there is a General Assembly meeting where the faithful gather to air their grievances, plan for the days ahead, and coalesce some of the more substantive ideas that have percolated throughout the long days of demonstration, learning and discovery.

In the morning I caught up with Julian, who had casually greeted me on Day 4 with a warm and comfortable smile. Upon hearing of the protest, Julian had purchased a one-way ticket from Oregon to attend the occupation. He couldn’t say how long he would be there, only that he planned to stick it out as long as possible. This time around, Julian had the look of someone who had spent the better part of two and a half weeks battling sleeplessness and, at times, punishing weather. He was grittier and weary, though he claimed to have finally snagged a decent night’s rest.

“I would say this has far exceeded my expectations” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind one ear and a scraggly beard adorning his tired face. “The growth of the movement speaks to the level of despair in this country and desire for change,” he said, as he greeted another volunteer who clapped him on the back and hung close for our conversation. When I asked whether he had booked that return ticket yet, his warm smile returned as he said, “I decided to keep the next six months to a year totally clear.” Politely, he then excused himself and settled in behind the volunteer table. Julian was all in.

I spent the next couple of hours weaving my way between citizen journalists, musicians, poets, activists, union workers and teachers. Another familiar face from the first week was Gio Andollo, an artist and musician from Harlem who has spent “some part of the day, every day and usually nights” at the protest since it began. He too is committed to occupying Wall Street for “as long as it takes,” and thinks the protestors have “done a really good job of diffusing potentially violent situations.” Gio, like so many of those involved in the Occupy Wall Street protest, is disappointed with the media coverage but shrugs it off. “What we’re trying to accomplish here doesn’t lend itself to media-friendly sound bites,” he says. But unlike others who cry foul at the blatantly misdirected coverage of the protest, Gio is somewhat sanguine. “It’s just a matter of time before even politicians start paying attention.”

Ironically, across the plaza a group began to gather around two men who clearly stood out from the crowd. Lo and behold, politicians had finally found their way to Zuccotti Park to engage the activists in person. City Council Members Daniel Halloran (R-Queens) and Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) took center stage for a while to participate in the ongoing dialogue with Wall Street occupiers. Halloran, a self-proclaimed Libertarian Republican, told those around him that he supported their “constitutional right” to gather in protest, but the only way out of America’s economic mess was to “elect better people” to office and “get out and fucking vote.” He touched on hot button issues like diminishing the influence of the Federal Reserve and putting “teeth back into anti-trust regulations,” while Rodriguez, no stranger to controversy and an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, said, “Wall Street should contribute more,” instead of the city having to “cut agencies and education.”

Despite advocating for things over which neither councilman has control, they caused a stir by at least engaging in the conversation. But their presence only highlights the lack of support and involvement from the elected federal representatives who have stayed as far from the protest as humanly possible. But then again, as Gio pointed out, it’s just a matter of time.

The “Occupy” demonstrations sprouting up around the nation illustrate the strange and uneasy predicament we face. On one side, we see a group of disenfranchised Americans taking to the streets to raise awareness of an increasingly inequitable economic system by exercising their First Amendment right to gather peaceably and protest their grievances. On the other side of the spectrum are charlatans like Glenn Beck, who is warning his ever-dwindling flock of minions to stock up on food and guns because young people have decided to mobilize against the government—pretty fucking hilarious coming from a false-wannabe-prophet who organized his own march in D.C. against the very same government.

Here’s the funny thing. The smallest step back from the fray only serves to highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Like diminutive points on an impressionist painting, there is room in America for every color, from the muted tones of conservatism to the most colorful hue of progressivism. Independent of one another they inevitably clash, but when blended together on the artist’s canvas the true portrait of America is revealed—but only from a distance. In Zuccotti Park, Anonymous may have just emerged as one of the great impressionist masters of our time, portraying America at its finest and capturing the single greatest expression of democracy to occur in my lifetime.

Doth We Protest Too Little?

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”

On the very day alt-press publisher, Jed Morey, was covering “Occupy Wall Street” insurgents in lower Manhattan, I was taking a meet at a major bank nearby.  While an early morning text from Jed alerted me to the “Anonymous” event, the bank folks were alerting me to potential traffic jams engendered by the 66th convening of the UN General Assembly.  The NYPD so effectively contained and marginalized the protests that I had to wait on YouTube coverage to check it out.  Just as well.  Reminding the “99%” that they’re being had by the privileged 1% is a sharp message, but the rag-tag brigade from Liberty Square crying for attention aren’t the most effective messengers. (At Right – Mark Rudd, leading the takeover of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in 1968)

My forbearers have long challenged authority and questioned conventional wisdom.  Back in 1954, with impending defeat of the French at the hands of the Viet Minh, my grandfather, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army, wrote, “It seems highly doubtful whether U.S. intervention would ever be able to hold Indochina.”  As he was born in western Sumatra, he had a better handle on Southeast Asia than most Americans and passed that understanding along to his off-spring. 

So it was in 1965, at age fifteen, I found myself at my first Vietnam rally in the old Madison Square Garden.  Among the keynoters, were famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock, Coretta Scott King and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of only two members of Congress to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which Lyndon Johnson used as a blank check to escalate the conflict.  Bayard Rustin, who had organized the landmark Civil Rights march on Washington in ’63, challenged the Garden crowd of 18,000: “We must stop meeting indoors and go out into the streets.” 

A few thousand of us took up the challenge and started wending our way from 50th & 8th down through the Theatre District and over to the UN.  Filing across seedy 42nd Street in the dark of night, big, beefy red-neck types yelled, “Commies, love it or leave it!”  My 5’3” mother was accompanying me and, with a mouth that made truckers blush, dished dirtier than she got, scaring the be-Jesus out me and the red-necks too, it seemed.  It hardened me for events to come. 

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”  Participants were definitely hairier than earlier peaceniks, but the DC police remained chilled, in stark contrast to the Chicago police riot at the Democratic convention the year before.

The following year I moved from protest to an “environmental teach-in,” helping to organize the first Earth Week.  We drew support from across the board with some sixty corporate sponsors such as GE, Rohm&Hass, Scott Paper and Bell Tel.  At the feel-good culmination in Phillie’s Fairmont Park, Senator Ed Muskie, sponsor of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 delivered the keynote and the cast of “Hair” sang “Hello Carbon Monoxide.”  By the end of the year, Richard Nixon, perhaps as a tactical diversion from other deeds, created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Right now, if you go around the country,” Tom Steyer said upon receiving the 2011 Rage for Justice Award, “the fight is about the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment.”  Rage for Justice Award is not brought to us by the Day of Rage folks who Occupied Wall Street but from Consumer Watchdog who “expose rip-offs and injustice.”  And Tom Steyer is not your usual activist, but a billionaire hedge fund manager.  He received the award in recognition of facing down the gas-producing Koch brothers and their Texas oil brethren who attempted, in 2010, with Proposition 23, to overturn AB 32 that has turned California into the beacon of the clean energy economy.

“They we’re in a situation where they [Koch bros] were going to make a bet about protecting their bottom line,” Steyer said.  “So it was always a risk/reward bet the way businesses work.  So if they started to get behind that meant that the risks were higher and the reward less likely to pursue the fight.  So that, in a funny way, it’s like being in a fight with a bully.  You know that if you can ever get him scared, he’ll quit.

 “We view the environmental fight as something where the message is really important and the messenger is really important.  We believe that if people are going to understand it, they are not only going to have to hear something true, they’re going to have hear it from someone they trust.”

In the battle against Prop 23, Steyer was aligned with former Marine captain George Schultz who held four cabinet posts under Nixon and Reagan.  In the posturing over tax misrepresentation, Obama finally invoked Warren Buffet’s year-old call to tax the very rich.  While guerilla street theater can be tippingly pointed, establishment messengers of principle will likely gain far more traction in today’s America.  Which is why this 60s organizer found himself at a big bank during the Occupation of Wall Street looking for ways to make energy efficiency pencil out.