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.

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation.

The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.

Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.

Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.

Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.

By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.

Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”

Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.

When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.

What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.