November 2011

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See You at the Demo

by Jonathan Wallace

My first demonstration was in 1969, when a friends's father drove us, then fifteen, to Washington. The following year, I led the demonstrations outside my high school after the Kent State killings (I was the kid with the bullhorn). In 1971, on May Day weekend, I went back to DC and slept by the Reflecting Pool, with 100,000 other people.

In the intervening decades, I have often longed for the resurgence of an authentic, grassroots American protest movement. In 2003 and 2004, I attended massive demos against the Iraq war, which gave me hope but which, as movements, seemed to evaporate a day later in the most mysterious way, like snow in the desert. To this day, I don't understand what happened there, except possibly that those were top-down movements, driven by celebrities, who have also in the past proven they can get a half million people into Central Park when they feel like it, to demonstrate against nuclear power, but without any on-going organizing or other aftermath.

I came to fear that Americans were too busy lying on couches, rubbing their aching pot bellies, while sipping McDonald's milkshakes, scratching lottery tickets and watching "Real Housewives".

As the economy tanked, as we increasingly became the prey of wealthy businessfolk and politicians getting ever wealthier while taking what remained from us, as the former givens of housing, employment, education and health care became urgent questions, as the middle class slipped away, I wondered why Americans weren't angry. For every story of people whose neighbors gathered to help block the eviction sheriff from the door, millions more people seemed to gather their possessions and slip quietly away, defeated before they had ever resisted, humbly accepting it was somehow right, their destiny, to have everything taken away from them by people who became ever wealthier: the people who sold crappy mortgage based securities while betting against them. Of all the images produced by the ripple effects of the economic decline, that of starving horses freed on parkland by the owners who could no longer afford to feed them is among the most vivid. Some people, for whom their normally obtained, less dangerous billions were not enough, played with fire, as a result of which everyone else was burned, and they mostly were not.

Now, after several visits to Zuccotti Park, I dare to hope that what has arisen is a genuine, grass-roots protest movement, and one which will endure about as long as the inequity does.

You get off the subway at Fulton and walk downtown on familiar Broadway. One of the miracles of Zuccotti Park is that I actually never noticed it before, though it stands directly accross Broadway from 140 (the building with the orange cube outside), where I did my first summer law internship in 1977, and 150, the smaller, drabber building immediately north, where I had an office from 1887 to 1992 or so.

The demonstration, though it involves constant drumming and murmuring of voices (little shouting), is almost imperceptible n a city of constant drilling and sirens, until you are about 100 yards away. Then you see the park is full to capacity of people of all ages and ethnicities, carrying signs, milling about, talking to one another, sleeping on stone steps and plazas wrapped in tarpaulins, and doling out and receiving food from a central commissary which presents a very hopeful sight, both because of the smiling, competent faces of the people who run it, and the variety of food which you know has been donated by supportive people all over the country and the world. I heard a story of someone who called a local pizzeria from thousands of miles away and had fifty pies delivered to the park.

Demonstrations and the people who attend them are archetypes, or come in patterns, like everything else. On my very first visit, I encountered the pony-tailed man with the recumbent bicycle, every bit of metal covered by political stickers. Have I seen him before, in a dozen places, wherever there is a street fair or outdoors event, or a dozen like him? I wondered also about the fifty-ish woman with the African gray parrot on her shoulder: I think there are also scores of her, to be met whenever its sunny and there's a crowd. On my second or third visit, I saw a middle aged accordionist. "It couldn't be a revolution without an accordion," I said. He agreed, and commented, "I'm not the first accordionist here, I've met several others." Me: "You're the first I've seen, though I've encounterred a number of ukeleles." Him: "And the great thing about it is the acceptance. Nobody laughs at the accordion." The people at Zuccotti Park are vivid and not exactly who you would expect. I adored standing next to some twenty-something women from Framingham, Mass., who were smart and funny and enjoyed playing a kind of word game with each other. "Are you complacent?" one asked another. "I might be complacent," the second replied. "I don't think I will be complacent any more." Later, one spotted a great, beautifully trite word known to all protest movements on her friend's poster: "hegemony?" she asked with raised eyebrows, and that word too went back and forth, with variations. The alpha female of the group, the one who engaged strangers who came to sympathize or argue, wore one earring, with a piece of bone dangling large enough to be a human wrist.

When I'm at the park, I mainly stand at the southeast corner, with a sign, facing the tour buses and the sidewalk foot traffic passing by. The reason I do it is a desire to be an unexpected face representing the protests to the world, a gray haired 57 year old man where you expected to see hippies. But I am not the only one; one my third visit, my wife and I stood next to a couple in their seventies, who had known the Rosenberg children, and demonstrated against the execution of their parents. A man my age, the financial officer of a Pennsylvania college, came over and spoke with me a while. He said,adult night students are dropping out of his college because they are losing their jobs and can no longer afford the tuition. Every reasonable and compassionate American, I think, knows something is very wrong, and the only ones who deny it are the selfish, the stupid, the ideologues, the corrupt and the blow-hards.

One of the lovely features of Zuccotti Park is the sign making area, where pieces of boxes, markers and paints are displayed. Arrive at the park, make your sign, then mingle or stand where you want. It had been very many years since I made a protest sign. The first visit, I came up with a statement that was insufficiently captivating: "The only pledge a politician should take is to respect Americans." It earned me a couple of nods and smiles from older people, and a sense of "That's your issue? That's why you're here?" from the others. Even less successful was the most rousing quote I know, from the last page of "Walden", and representing the spirit which has brought the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators to the park: "There is a tide rising and falling behind every man" (I changed it to "each of us") "which can float the British Empire like a chip." "What's the British Empire got to do with it?" asked one passer-by, his brow honestly furrowed. Even worse, a fringe groupie wanted to talk about the present day role of the remnants of the British Empire in the conspiracy of the Illuminati or some such.

The final one I hit on, and with which I will stick, has the makings of a really good economic protest sign: "Billlionaires or democracy? Your call." Its succinct and to the point; a bit oversimplified ("Why can't we have both?" a man asked, and that's a long conversation). But it represents my view, as I have explained here, that billionaires have become the biggest existential threat there is, to American democracy.

On my corner, I also met a union woman in her fifties, part I think of a contingent sent by large local unions to support the protest and share in its visibility, who bonded with the Framingham women, and even mothered and protected them a little. They kept pushing further out on the sidewalk, and the cops moved us back behind an invisible "free speech line" they had drawn. The union mom kept guiding the young women behind the line. Meanwhile, cops had started massing on the corner, maybe drawn to the spectacle of young, smart and sexy women completely out of their control.

A sinister and constant presence at the demos is the white, unmarked TARU truck with its huge antenna. TARU is a unit which spies electronically on protestors, and is the subject of an order in the long ongoing Hanschu civil rights litigation, directing TARU not to photograph or videotape lawful demonstrators. The first day, I saw one female uniformed cop taking pictures, but the TARU people, who wear jackets with the unit's name on their back, mostly stay inside their truck. When I sent an email from my android phone, to a web site which tracks TARU, informing them the unit was present on Wall Street, I wondered if my email was crossing someone's screen inside the truck.

Parked near TARU, on my third visit, was a Wikileaks truck, filled with some fairly imposing men, who loocked more like mercenaries and hackers then demonstrators. The TARU cops were all standing peering into the Wiki truck at first, then left it alone.

While there have been hundreds of arrests, mainly when demonstrators left the park and walked elsewhere, the police presernce at Zuccotti is mostly careful and professional. One cop even gave me a thumbs up after reading my first sign, about politicians. One exception was a fat cop with a mean, childish face, the face of a bully, who sidled up to demonstrators and stood uncomfortably close, talking to them nonstop while they avoided eye contact and barely answered him.

A remarkable feature of the demonstration, one that is entirely new to me, is the way communications are handled. The "leaderless" concept, inherited from the successful demonstrations of the Arab spring, is genuine. Unlike the American protests of the sixties, which threw off commanding personalities who spread out to become armed terrorists, businessmen and lawyers, Zuccotti Park seems to represent a genuine collective, where decisions are made jointly and without ego. There are committees, which anyone can join, which take responsibility for things as diverse as cooking, clean up, legal issues, and communications with the media. (I chose not to attend a lawyers' group, because I was there simply to be a middle aged man with a sign on the corner.) Meetings are held, more or less constantly, which begin with each speaker saying the words, "Mike check" two or three times. People around her echo this back, to confirm they are interested and paying attention. the speaker proceeds in short sentences which can be similarly repeated. Therew are no actual microphones; the crowd is the microphone. When a proposition such as a proposed action (lets march up to Tompkins Square park; we may get arrested) is put on the table, people vote on it by raising their hands and wiggling their fingers, to indicate consent, or holding their arms straight down with fingers wiggling, to vote no. The whole thing is silly and glorious, and very effective.

What else? There is a library, bins upon bins of books in a corner of the park, mysteries and histories and the Lord knows what. There is a medical tent, with wonderful radical nurses in scrubs, ready to attend to anyone who feels faint or is short of breath. A theater company came and performed a full production of "Godot" on a streetcorner, completely drowned out by the drum circle and "mike checks" nearby. There are schizophrenics everywhere: on my second visit, mysterious signs through-out the park said "Stop government rape sorcery"; last night, I saw a man with a complicated sign proclaiming that the USA-Turk army ended his diplomatic career, while a casino was stealing his salary as a driver. Groups which have seized the opportunity presented by Occupy Wall Street include, of course the unions, and a couple of politicians who made visits and even spent a night there, but also some Rand Paul supporters who want to End the Fed, anarchists (I took away an Emma Goldman pamphlet), and followers of various bizarre and twisted prophets. A man who has shown up on television as "proof" that the demonstrations are anti-Semitic carries a sign which says "Google Jewish billionaires". Various other people have shadowed him and demonstrated against him, blocked his sign with theirs, but he cannot be ejected from the park, because Occupy Wall Street consciously has no mechanism for ejecting anyone. I did hear a story that when some people started a march leaving the park, and refused to let him come along, the cops inserted him into the line. "He's a provocation," someone told me. "If anyone starts fighting with him, it will give the police an excuse to charge in." You hear that a lot, about not giving the cops a reason. Last night, in the chill, someone wished for kerosene, and that was the reply.

An interfaith group of rabbis, priests and ministers showed up during a couple of my visits, in a procession bearing a paper mache golden calf resembling the Wall Street bull statue.

I hadn't been there in two weeks when I visited in the November chill on a Friday night. The crowd was a lot smaller, and at eight at night neither the passing tourist buses nor the line of sign waving people on the corner were there. THe cops had put barricades around the abstract orange statue at the corner where I like to post myself--apparently someone had climbed it--and around much of the park itself, so you have to walk a distance to find the entrances. There is an electric generator now, powered by bicycles, though I am not sure what the power is used for. The people remaining in the park seem to have shifted towards the tattooed, pierced and ideological, and some of the genuinely homeless. An announcement that portable toilets will finally be installed was received with great enthusiasm: people have had to line up at nearby fast food places, where they are not much welcome. Some of the local merchants however, like a camping store which has been in the area for fifty years, are perceived as very generous.

The biggest change I saw is that the improvised tarpaulins have largely been repaced by actual tents, hundreds of them, side by side, which I take as a hopeful sign that some people will stay the winter. I don't want them to leave. There were signs proclaiming the usual side activities: a march to urge free subway transit for the unemployed, several in solidarity with the Oakland protestors who were evicted from their camp, and particularly the Iraq war vet who was rendered comatose by a tear gas canister. I hung out near an older folkie, John Myles, who sang a mix of standards and original protest songs, including one called "Corporation Man" which ended with the title character dying and entering the afterlife: "I hope you don't meet Buddha cause Buddha don't care, he'll kick you back to be a maggot in a landfill somewhere". There were also some talented rappers: "Where's my money at? Where's my bail out?"

Visiting Zuccotti park is like warming myself at a fire. I don't want to do anything, say anything, I just want to be near these people, bask in their warmth, watch them live their lives in the park. Everywhere you walk, people are in enthusiastic conversation with each other, their faces alight, their hands gesturing in the familiar body language used when expounding philosophies and truths. There is beauty, experience, weariness, and a passionate commitment to justice everywhere you look. And some children, who I hope will remember this the rest of their lives, in the unimaginable far future I will not share with them.

Having spent some hours in Zuccotti Park, I was astonished and disappointed by the media coverage. The New York Times, a paper I read every day and largely trust, has barely mentioned the real story, the personalities and motivations of the demonstrators and the range of backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and experiences they represent. Most news page mentions have been exasperatingly shallow and even silly, such as a meeting the paper set up (the Times never stages news events), between a dull, honest, honorable, married stockbroker from Brooklyn and--wait for it--a barefoot, rich male graduate student wearing multi-colored tights. Another article even more astonishingly mentioned the smell of the protestors. I wrote a letter to the Times' public editor about each of these, and regarding the latter, wondered if the paper had ever mentioned the smell of the participants at a civil rights demonstration, a Tea Party event or an Iowa caucus. I got no reply. By the way, in my five or so visits, I haven't detected any special or newsworthy smells in the park.

However, the protestors, despite the lack of responsible news coverage, are making their mark: they tend to crop up in articles on very diverse topics, are mentioned in passing in economic and political coverage, and even in the cooking section. Columnists in the business and op ed pages take them more seriously than the news pages do.

Regarding the strange slant in reporting, which reminds me that even liberal newspapers are owned by billionaires, the single worst instance was a photo that ran in the Washington Post. After the tear gassing of the Oakland demonstrators, which earned no photo, a cop is seen petting an abandoned kitten.

The commonly heard criticism that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have no demands is a crock. They are demanding jobs, education, affordable student loans, and health care, and that Wall Street take its hands from our throats. In a democracy, and particularly in a republic, as the Framers well knew, the people are not intended to be experts on matters of policy and implementation: they are expected to communicate their hurts and desires broadly to their elected representatives, who then address them with legislation. That is exactly what the protests are doing. Accusing them of not having ten or one hundred point manifestos is like saying the patient is not a diagnostician, and is just one more of the grammatically sound but morally empty statements the billionaires and the wannabes are proliferating to confuse the basic issue: that America's middle class is eroding like the statue of Ozymandias.

Postscript At about 2:30 a.m. on November 15, as the police were evicting the protestors from Zuccotti Park, beating some of them with batons and scattering their possessions, I was arrested at Broadway and Cortland while trying to join them. I spent the night in a holding cell at 1 Police Plaza and was released at 8 in the morning with a desk appearance ticket requiring me to go to court in January, I have a lot to say about the experience, but won't be able to until after I have dealt with the legal stuff.