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.