Wall Street (Fall 2011)
I met my friend Tim on the corner of Park Row and Broadway and we walked over to the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zucotti Park. I have known Tim since he appeared in my dorm room almost 40 years ago looking for my roommate, a friend of his from high school. Tim had just come from California where he had been studying Scientology. He was a haphazard Scientologist and, for many years proved haphazard in most of his other endeavors.
But then he had gone to medical school in Guadalajara and gradually became an American doctor. For the past 30 years he had been practicing in the Village in New York. He was a family practitioner and one of the kindest men I have ever met.
* * *
On this fall day, Occupy Wall Street was an orderly operation, as far as an encampment of protestors advocating anarchy can be orderly. A full city block park filled with a honeycomb of camping tents. You could weave your way through the middle and pass a library, a kitchen, a compost pile, a small – I mean incredibly small – electrical storage battery/light combination powered by a bicycle in rollers. There was a medical operation set up in a square Red Cross tent that looked as if it had been lifted from the set of the English Patient. There was a table inside for an ailing protestor to lie upon. There were well-stocked shelves of medical supplies. You would feel some comfort and security being treated by one of the skinny owl-eyed medical students sitting on the bench outside.
The encampment was dense. Worker bees threaded the winding paths through the square carrying boxes of pizza and large plastic bags of trash. As you walked in one direction you had to frequently stop to let others coming the other way pass you.
Tim said, “Sort of reminds me of the 60’s”.
I could see why he said so. There were a lot of beards, a lot of long hair, a lot of students. But I didn’t agree.
“No way. Look at all these 99% signs. We never thought of ourselves as protesting on behalf of the 99%. We certainly never thought of ourselves as the 99%. We thought the 99% were the ones who blindly followed the military industrial establishment. We weren’t the 99%; we were the 1%. We were the 1% who were enlightened and smart and true and our mission was to make sure that everyone realized that they had gone the wrong way. We thought the U.S. government was wrong – in that way were like the occupiers – but the government was the 99%. Here the message is totally the opposite.”
“Yeah, but these folks aren’t really the 99%.”
“You don’t think so?”
“Look around,” he said.
* * *
I watched a man carrying a very large inflatable thumb – a thumb easily the size of a small Volvo – through the park. He waded into the sea of blue tarpaulin and plastic, the thumb arching over his head, the body of the hand in front of him. The sheer freight of the thumb bullied a path down the three stairs to the flat part of the square but from there he could go no further. I watched as he lifted the thumb to full arm’s length above his head but he had difficulty holding it steady. The thumb started at 12 o’clock sagged to 3 and then to 4 and then he gave up. He couldn’t even turn around so he backed up the stairs and I last saw him walking across Park Row by the Citi Bank on the far corner, the thumb dejectedly at half mast.
* * *
There was a gentleman my age who had painted a small box with bright patterns and the words “I think outside of my box” on the side. He was sitting in the box, his feet dangling over the front side but spread apart so people could read the words. He looked uncomfortable and, if he really was my age, I imagine he was. He had a tight and unforgiving sort of smile that said he was smarter and more just than those looking at him in his painted cardboard box.
* * *
I ran into a thin man in his fifties who was carrying a peace sign twice the size of a car steering wheel painted in vibrant day glow colors. His outfit was of the same motif as the peace sign, so that when he held the sign to his body it disappeared where it overlay his clothing. He was quite proud of the work.
“It’s one of my best ones,” he said.
“What’s it made out of?”
“I’ve made several. This isn’t my best but it is one of my good ones.”
“Is it heavy?”
“I just made it. I think it looks pretty good.”
“Do you mind if I take your photo?”
He smiled broadly. He had a good smile as if having his picture taken was fun. But by the time I snapped a photo he had closed his eyes and was moving on.
* * *
For a protest, the message was surprisingly diffuse. I couldn’t quite pin down what was being protested. In fact it was difficult to think of it as a protest. It seemed more like a press availability than a protest. There were young men and women, and old men and women, standing along the edge of the park holding signs and waiting, patiently, to be approached. They were incredibly orderly and courteous and, well, available for engagement by the press, or film crews, or other occupiers, or tourists, or New Yorkers who had come out on a nice fall morning to see what occupying was all about.
* * *
I walked past a small open area in the middle of the square. This was the densest part of the encampment and I almost missed the tiny passageway into the open space. There was a bench and a few boxes for seats. There were four or five angry looking women in an animated discussion. Above them, on a tree that rose up anemically from the square, was a large sign proclaiming Think Tank. On paper tacked below, it said Current Topic: Negative Portrayal of Women in Media.
* * *
I gave a buck to a young kid with good patter and a yellow plastic bucket for donations. We joked and he thanked me for the gift. I moved a little further down the edge of the encampment and began to talk with another fellow who was tending a sign that graphically depicted the branches of US government. He had the Judicial, the Executive and the Legislative branches drawn next to each other, each separate and of equal dignity. Just the way it was drawn on the board for us in Law School. But he had added a refinement that I had not seen in Law School. In his diagram each of the three branches had a vertical line above them connecting them to the fourth branch of government, the Corporate branch. The positioning of the names in the diagram made evident that the Judicial, Executive and Legislative branches all reported to the Corporate branch.
“You mind if I take a photo?” I asked.
He was more than happy for me to do so. “Can you help us with a donation?”
“I just gave some money to a fellow down the way”.
“Did he have one of these?” he said, pointing to a yellow tag pinned to his shirt. The tag was homemade and looked like it had been slept in and then put through the wash. It fluttered on his jersey.
“I don’t think so, though I don’t remember for sure.”
“Don’t give money to anybody who is not wearing one of these,” he said, ruffling his tag.
“Why is that?”
“Cause there’s a lot of panhandlers here. You shouldn’t give any money to them.”
I looked at his homemade tag and the sign that showed the four branches of government. Interesting that Occupy Wall Street had set up a regulatory structure to govern charitable solicitation.
* * *
I took a lot of pictures as I walked around Occupy Wall Street. At first I was shy. Taking pictures of people I don’t know has an awkward, invasive feel. So when I started I asked the occupiers whether they minded. To a person, they invited me to snap away. That was clearly what they were there for. Even then I only used my iPhone and did so in a cautious, respectful kind of way. But after awhile I took out my better camera. Nobody seemed to care.
* * *
While the subject of Bankruptcy is fascinating – filled as it is with issues of class and power and politics – I never thought I would see people in the streets carrying signs about the bankruptcy laws. I was surprised and pleased to see signs that protested the difficulty in discharging student loan debt in bankruptcy. I couldn’t tell exactly what, but clearly something was brewing.
* * *
You couldn’t dislike Occupy Lego Land, an elaborate Lego construction on a makeshift table. Occupy Lego Land presented a vision of what was going on at Zuccotti Square:
Occupy Lego Land made the case for the 99%, the little people, the hard working union members, the working people who built the country brick by brick, thrown up on the slaughtering stone of corporate greed.
But when you got past the simplified and idealized vision of Occupy Lego Land, it was hard to pin down the exact message of the protestors at Occupy Wall Street. You certainly couldn’t tell by looking at the signs. There were signs everywhere, each with a different take on the issues facing the country. I saw signs for legalizing marijuana and for eliminating the Federal Reserve. There were advocates of returning to the gold standard. Many thought corporations were the incarnation of evil and the repeal of Glass-Steagall a national disaster. A strong theme was that banks were bailed out while homeowners were put into foreclosure. Signs everywhere said We Are the 99%. There were frequent invectives against the corporatization of the American government. Rapers and pillagers of the environment were bad. Green energy was good while Frack Makes 99% Sick, 1% Rich. Some signs were philosophical: If the left wing is broken and the right wing is broken, how can the bird fly? Some were just confusing. One said “Corporatism is Not Capitalism.”
I found a helpful summary of positions:
* * *
There were no police within the encampment but their presence was obvious. There were several police wagons across the street from where the occupiers were making t-shirts. I made the error of draping an Occupy Wall Street t-shirt over the metal barrier that surrounded the encampment. I heard the growling of a microphone and then a booming voice from across the street. “You. Take that off the fence. Don’t make me come over there.”
It is a testament to the seductive power of Occupy Wall Street that my immediate thought was What an asshole! What is the harm in draping my still drying t-shirt on the fence? Fuck that. Asshole.
* * *
A row of occupiers at a long table were making t-shirts furiously. They poured paint on silkscreen and squeegeed off the excess. An Asian woman handed out blank shirts of different colors. There were a variety of messages you could get on the t-shirts. Tim got shirts for his 12-year-old girls that said: End Corporate Greed. Mine said: Occupy for Freedom, Peace, Truth, Love, Life. People asked, “How much are the shirts?” She said, “They are not for sale.” She pointed at a large sign on the front of the table: No Money – Make a Donation. On the table there was a plastic pot bulging with bills. Everyone that took a shirt seemed to be contributing.
* * *
One thing was apparent; there was no partisan component to this protest. Obama was reviled. Clinton – the wicked repealer of Glass-Steagall – was despised. There was no perceived difference between parties or their leaders. The banks and corporations had bought them all. In fact, there was a lively depiction of a bi-partisan group of political leaders of the last 20 years yuckking it up together. There was Bush and Obama and Clinton. Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. Joe Biden. Alan Greenspan. Amazingly, to me, Edward Kennedy. And what were they laughing at? What was it that provoked this cross-partisan hilarity?
The slogan: Change We Can Believe In.
* * *
I passed a dour, bearded 50-year-old man dressed in New York black holding up an iPad. On the screen he had used a sketching app to pen a message about corporate corruption. He held up the iPad so I could read what he had written. Next to him was a banner that said “Free Empathy”. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was it an exhortation or was it notice that empathy, here, was like a t-shirt; you couldn’t buy it; you could only make a donation.
* * *
As we weaved through the encampment a last time I saw a bearded man sitting on a stool. He wore a black serape and a black beret. He had buttons pinned all over his clothing that said Workers Power and Unite! and We are the 99%. He was obese. Indeed he was morbidly obese. He thoroughly occupied his stool. He had a goatee and a soul patch and with the beret he looked like a jazz hipster from a long ago era.
I was startled to see that he was studying me.
I nodded my head to him.
He looked me up and down in a sullen, grudging, way. And then he gave a snort and went back to talking to the occupiers next to him. He was on to me. I hadn’t passed the test he was applying. He was damned sure that I was not occupying.
– Jay Duret