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.

9/11 x 10

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many.

The “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on Nov. 22, 1963. It was the first defining moment of a generation that would bear witness to a series of culture-shifting events over the next decade; events that included the Vietnam War and the assassinations of other iconic figures such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Beginning with that fateful moment in Dallas until the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam 10 years later, America would never be the same.

Today, as we reflect upon the decade that transpired since the seminal moment of the new millennium, those of us who belong to the generations that followed the Baby Boomers find ourselves in a state of malaise and slow-moving transformation, unsure of our place in history. The  Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should have been our awakening. Instead, it is as though we were collectively numbed and placed in suspended animation. Our grief is still palpable but our actions have been muted and confused—our hopeful innocence resting silently beneath the rubble.

This week we will be inundated with remembrances of that horrible day with many waxing poetic about America coming together and paying homage to our unity. This is not one of those essays. For me, 9/11 is when it all fell apart. The sight of it, the smell of it… It’s all right there. The sick feeling in my gut never left—didn’t even dissipate. Tragically, the ensuing decade haunts me now as much as the day itself.

Hopefully, Sept. 12, 2011 we can begin putting the pieces back together again. Recall, however, how tumultuous the healing process can be as the decade that followed the end of the Vietnam War was rife with unrest and discontent; an unfortunate harbinger for the decade ahead.

From JFK’s assassination until the withdrawal from Vietnam, the “Hippies” of the Sixties and Seventies were on the right side of liberty. They were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. They protested the war and railed against greed and corruption. They challenged conventional wisdom and raged against the machine. They had no children, no responsibilities—only outrage and determination. In defining themselves they redefined America and over time naturally found themselves in charge.

And then it happened.

Over the next few decades the revolutionaries came to embody the status quo. The generation that fought racism, unjust wars and corruption began suffering from selective amnesia. After years of excess and living high on the hog, the Baby Boomers now control the world’s purse strings, and they’ll do anything not to let go.

When 9/11 overwhelmed our nation, we looked to them. Instead of offering guidance they led us to war. Twice. They assuaged their own guilt over the mistreatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam by teaching us to revere service during wartime. Yet they were too cowardly to allow photographs of those who returned home in pine boxes. They called those who spoke out against war “unpatriotic” even though it was this freedom that defined their youth. They famously told us to spend, not save, even though the “Greatest Generation” saved enough to support them after World War II. All we had to do was stay vigilant. Say something if we saw something. Shut our mouths and fall in line.

And since Wall Street was attacked it too became sacrosanct. Only it wasn’t Wall Street that died that day. It was people—people who deserve more than the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and who are worthy of being remembered for all that liberty truly stands for. Like helping our fellow citizens in their time of need—not vilifying the poor while lining the pockets of the rich; or establishing just and equitable laws that protect every American—not just those who can afford to be protected.

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many. Their triumphant legacy? Our food is unrecognizable, the air is poisonous, and our jobs are overseas. America is fat, polluted and broke. After a solemn decade of reflection upon the chicanery of those who promised to defend our freedom it is time to speak out on behalf of those who are asleep but desirous of truth and those who are awake but unsure of how to speak it.

To be clear, I am not defending the inaction of my generation—the so-called Gen Xers—merely proffering a reasoned explanation of our latent response. When the Baby Boomer generation was jolted from the post-WWII cocoon in 1963, they were young and restless. Their enemies were clear, defined and from within. Racism was overt and ugly. The draft was omnipresent. The Vietnam War was televised, and someone you knew was either there or going. When 9/11 came, our enemies were nebulous and far away. They attacked innocent people and our way of life, instilled fear in our hearts.

Because the enemy wasn’t from within, we had no choice but to heed the call of our leaders who assured us our path was righteous. Only it wasn’t. We began on the right foot by giving chase to our enemy, sealing them off and punishing their leaders. Then, with the wind of public sentiment at their backs, our leaders pulled off an imperialist coup in a blood-for-oil campaign, squandering trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of American lives and tens of thousands more Iraqis and Afghanis.

Today, the charlatans in government who call themselves leaders are turning Americans against one another. They have ratcheted up the partisan dialogue to such an extreme many Americans believe that unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending and a health care bill that doesn’t take effect until 2014 are to blame for the failing economy instead of two decade-long wars, historic tax breaks for wealthy Americans and the destruction of oversight in the financial markets. All of this after George W. Bush decided to liquidate the nation’s entire surplus upon taking office.

The same Baby Boomers who fought against this type of irresponsible government have borrowed and refined the playbook in order to protect themselves. Their fear of growing old and losing what they have accumulated, ill-gotten or otherwise, is so acute they are actually trying to tell us that poor people and funding for Sesame Street are the reasons Social Security and Medicare might not exist for us.

So, why have subsequent generations been unable to coalesce as Boomers did when revolution beckoned them? The answer to this is far simpler than the remedy. 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?

America’s youngest citizens have a long and troubled road ahead littered with greed, incompetence and willful ignorance. It is on them to connect beyond the invisible walls of social media and discover the revolutionary spirit that defined the Boomers, but eluded the Xers, and overcome the sordid legacy we jointly bequeath to them. In doing so, they will truly honor the memory of the people who perished on 9/11, rise above those who would do us harm and piece together what remains of our lost decade.