#OWS: America’s Id

Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The police barricaded the corner of William and Pine streets in lower Manhattan, preventing the tributary of protestors who had broken off from the main throng from doubling back toward Wall Street. Cordoned off, several chose to sit in the street and accept incarceration in the name of civil disobedience.

It’s 9 a.m. on Nov. 17, the International Day of Action for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The arrests are just beginning.

I’m aware of the time because, for a moment, everything is eerily silent but for the sound of the bell from Our Lady of Victory Church tolling above us. The din of the helicopters overhead and the shouts of “Shame!” as protestors are dragged into the nearby NYPD van fade away while the bell rings for what seems like an eternity.

As the last chime echoes in the street, the cacophony returns as though someone is controlling the volume button to the soundtrack of dissent. Gradually, my eyes return to the scene unfolding in front of the church door, which bears a quote from Cardinal Spellman. It reads: “This Holy Shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in Thanksgiving for Victory won by our valiant dead, our soldier’s blood, our Country’s tears, shed to defend men’s rights and win back men’s hearts to God.”

How strange that a church, born during World War II and forged in blood, should serve as the backdrop for the nation’s symbolic struggle against the excesses of the neighborhood it calls home. America’s new Civil War is spilling onto the streets of cities throughout the country; and here, in this moment, it is raging beneath a monument to our spiritual and temperate selves.

Over the past few years, I have made no secret of my contempt for Wall Street and the insidious corporate interests that run this nation. Admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement has gushed from my fingertips and poured onto the page, as I am perpetually amazed at the breadth and fervor of the burgeoning revolution. Being here, seeing it evolve and take shape so quickly, so dramatically, has influenced every corner of my mind. Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The question of morality is central to America’s struggle. We perceive ourselves as a good and righteous nation, purveyors of liberty. At times this has been the case. Often, however, our actions belie this view of ourselves, particularly during imperialistic periods of expansion. To wit, we spent the better part of the 19th century expanding our empire to its natural boundaries, squashing and annihilating the indigenous people of the continent every step of the way. Then we deified the likes of Andrew Jackson by imprinting his likeness on our currency, thus bestowing him with the greatest honor of a capitalist society. These are not the actions of a moral nation, but victories such as these in the name of Manifest Destiny have always served to rationalize our pursuit of omnipotence.

The first half of the 20th century held more promise. The country as we know it today was nearly assembled and America was finally recognized as a dominant player on the world stage. Our financial and military ascension gave weight to the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, which established complete hegemony in our hemisphere. Yet despite Teddy Roosevelt’s bellicose nature and hawkish views, his and most subsequent administrations tended toward isolationism. Between the great wars, which were seen as moral imperatives, there was work to be done at home. And during this time, America hammered out a legal, industrial and economic infrastructure that fully recognized our potential as a nation.

Internally, this approach also allowed us to focus on social issues such as equal pay and civil rights in the latter half of the century. Unfortunately, while the nation toiled away at crafting a system that recognized the rights of all of its citizens, we began behaving badly in the rest of the world. At precisely the halfway mark of the 20th century we became embroiled in the fighting in Korea. This conflict and the conjuring of bogeymen in far-off lands presaged an era of unprecedented immorality when we would conduct costly battles against phantom enemies. More precisely, it marked the beginning of the Military Industrial Complex.

In his book A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn describes the dawn of this era as “an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for a permanent war economy.” Two million Koreans and 36,000 Americans perished in the formation of our newfound ideology, which continued into Vietnam and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. America has exported fear and death in the name of democracy but in the actual pursuit of oil and natural resources.

But our politicians did not go it alone. No one person owns these deeds. Over the past few decades the interests of Christian Fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, the ruling class and individuals of enormous wealth have gradually coalesced in the quest for a new world order. They are the 1%. They are the reason I’m standing almost nose-to-nose with a cop in riot gear, his club drawn and his eyes fixed on me as I chronicle the events by the church.

There are those who decry Occupy Wall Street as unpatriotic, misguided, or worse. These are understandable reactions to an uncomfortable reality.  The reality is that OWS is more than a movement to restore sanity to the financial markets and equality to our economy. OWS is a cry for help from America’s id. It is the realization that we have strayed not only from the optimistic perception of ourselves but also from what we strive to be as a country.

Ultimately this is a test of our commitment to the First Amendment. But it isn’t simply about free speech or the right to peaceably assemble. This is about the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As a free, democratic society this is the penultimate failsafe, the last opportunity before total revolutionary collapse.

So as the Occupiers continue to refine their message, our political leaders would be wise to listen carefully. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is a very real battle; perhaps the first battle since World War II worthy of the inscription at Our Lady of Victory.

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.

Occupy Wall Street

While American news organizations and traditional media outlets provided wall-to-wall coverage of the uprisings from Tunisia to Libya, they have been remarkably, if not scarily silent about the unrest occurring right here at home.

“Eyes on!” shouted a young man being dragged away, his hands cuffed behind his back. “We’re watching,” yelled several others as the moment quickly dissolved into chaos. It was hard to know where to look. In the center of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan a sea of blue descended upon another man, guilty of refusing to stand up when ordered. He too emerged in handcuffs, as did the screaming, crying woman who tried futilely to pry the gloved hands of the NYPD officers from the man now barely visible under the blue pile. As several protestors in handcuffs were lined up on the curb next to the NYPD command center vehicle, the crowd erupted in chants of “Shame!” and “The whole world is watching!”

Only it isn’t.

This was the scene around 10 o’clock in the morning, day four of the leaderless protest known as “Occupy Wall Street.” The protest is a loosely defined coalition of mostly young people raging against the death of American democracy and consolidation of wealth into the hands of the top 1 percent. In fact, many simply refer to themselves as “the 99 percent.” And while they may indeed represent ninety-nine percent of America in financial standing, the more concrete parallel might be that ninety-nine percent of America has no idea this is even happening.

“If this was a Tea Party rally, Fox News would be here with us day and night,” says Julian (pictured below), a student and seasonal worker who flew in from Oregon after learning about the protest on Twitter. Like the others, Julian has no intention of leaving Wall Street any time soon. So serious is he about this commitment that he purchased a one-way ticket. Julian was compelled to join the rally because of what he calls a “crisis of democracy” and says he is “worried about the direction of the country.”

I had only heard rumblings of a gathering down on Wall Street this past weekend when the protest was already underway. Though officially organized by no one single group or person, Canadian magazine Adbusters—whose stated mission is to “coax people from spectator to participant” in the quest for a “world in which the economy and ecology resonate in balance”—is credited as the wind in the sails of the Occupy Wall Street protest. What is clear is that Occupy Wall Street is designed to harness the grassroots and spiritual zeitgeist of the Arab Spring, which has spread like wildfire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Yet while American news organizations and traditional media outlets provided wall-to-wall coverage of the uprisings from Tunisia to Libya, they have been remarkably, if not scarily silent about the unrest occurring right here at home. I personally began following what was happening on Wall Street on Facebook beginning Sunday evening and was as captivated by the event as I was by the lack of coverage surrounding it. On Tuesday morning I set out to Manhattan to begin my day with the protestors.

It didn’t take long to hear the steady, rhythmic drumbeats and chanting as I passed through the turnstile and ascended the stairs of the Wall Street station. Slowly making their way through a gauntlet of bike racks and officers were scores of young people shouting “We are the ninety-nine percent” with “and so are you” being offered in a call-and-response echo. Though already into the fourth day of protest, the crowd was ebullient, even smiling and polite to the officers and those passing by.  This morning they were dispatched from their base camp in Zuccotti Park to continue raising awareness and remind the scurrying Wall Street crowd of their presence during the morning rush.

As the crowd snaked around the bike racks on Broad Street and picked its way back toward Broadway, every moment was being streamed live by two men in thin, red parkas—one carrying a camera, the other monitoring the feed on a laptop. As they paced backwards and looked warily about, I noticed a member of the NYPD on the other side of the barricade also filming every moment of the protest. I started toward the man holding the laptop but he averted his eyes and motioned slightly to the cameraman in front of him who was quite clearly the spokesperson for the pair.

When asked what this gathering was about, the cameraman said these were just “people with a common set of principles” seeking to highlight “fundamental, systemic issues.” He had a slight accent and spoke in a measured and purposeful way about the similarities between Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the uprising in Spain, which he also attended. But, he noted, this protest was “becoming a first amendment issue about the right to assemble.”

With this he was referencing attempts by the police to scuttle the demonstration by blowing the dust off an antiquated law that prohibits the wearing of masks by two or more people during a demonstration and confiscating supplies such as tents and gasoline for generators used to power cameras, laptops and phones. A handful of protestors had already been arrested for resisting these attempts and the cameraman was clearly concerned about each subtle turn of event.

At this point I decided to loop down around Broadway instead of hobbling along with the slow-moving group to capture the scene of their return to Zuccotti Park, now dubbed “Liberty Plaza” by the organizers. As most of the thru streets were barricaded off, I inquired of an officer as to the fastest way to beat the crowd to the park. As I approached him I couldn’t help but overhear him comment to the uniformed officer next to him, “This is some killer overtime.”

The sight of bearded young men with instruments and tattooed young women clad in tie-dyed shirts and plastic parkas was casually anachronistic and out of step with the modern, business-like efficiency of lower-Manhattan. Blue tarps covered cardboard signs and coolers. Some milled about with trays of sandwiches and fruit, eager to feed their cohorts. As the rest of their group crossed the street into the park, they were greeted with applause and the square again began to swell with their ranks. The happy homecoming was to be short-lived.

As the protestors reunited I was speaking with a man from Queens named Akio who said he was there “to offer smiles, hugs and morale” when the police suddenly converged in the square. Addressing the group with a bullhorn (an action that resulted in the arrest of a protestor leading a prayer the day before) an officer told the crowd to move so the police could confiscate the tarps. Apparently tents are illegal as well though these could hardly be considered such; another thinly veiled attempt to break the spirit of the protest as by now it was raining steadily in New York. One of the protestors who sat silently on top of one of the tarps wasn’t budging. Unfortunately, the NYPD weren’t either.

Within moments the scene turned hostile as officers peeled him from his perch, which was met with a mixed reaction from the crowd. Cries of “Obey!” and “Don’t give them a reason!” were mixed with “fucking pigs!” and “courtesy, professionalism and respect!”—a dig at the NYPD slogan. After a handful of arrests and angry exchanges the morning molestation of the movement appeared to come to an end.

Then, in the center of the Zuccotti Park, a man stood atop one of the planters and addressed the crowd; several were still angry, some were in tears and others just milled about in disbelief. Gradually the attention shifted to the speaker, although it was difficult to hear him as his back was turned to me at first. But I managed to hear enough to know that he was imploring the group to stay strong and stay focused.

I raised my camera to capture a glimpse of him as perhaps there was a nucleus to this thing after all and got off a decent shot only then recognizing him as the cameraman I had spoken to earlier. Confident he had control of the situation once more, the cameraman stepped down and resumed his role of real-time, anonymous documentarian—true to the moment and true to the movement.

As the crowd exhaled I stepped back to pack up my own camera, but not before deleting his picture—true to the moment and true to the movement.