Wednesday, October 12, 2011

One More Unsolicited Perspective on OWS

I’m not politically minded. A staunch independent, I run from the divisiveness that is partisan politics. Too often, I avoid any discussion of politics because most people narrowly define each other based on political views, which leaves us all split up on different sides of a fence. Half the country, it seems, watches Fox News. The other half, MSNBC. Let’s face it. There is no such thing as unbiased. We’re all bias. I’m just going to fight bias except when it leans towards compassion for one another. Otherwise, there’s that fence again and that gets us nowhere.

That said, I decided to ignore what the various media pundits were telling me about Occupy Wall Street and went down there to check it out for myself. My husband, Tim, a huge fan of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London, expected some lively conversation. My children, all of the impressionable ages of 15, 13 and 10, were going because Mom said they needed to learn “independent investigation of truth.”

“Don’t listen to other people. Just check it out for yourself!”

We arrived mid-day. Not a cloud in the sky, I picked up my pace as we neared Zuccotti Park. I heard drums, which lifted my expectation. The first person I witnessed wore a shirt that read, “I love you.” Pants rolled up and no shoes on, he swayed while he waved his sign that read, “I stand for compassion.” I considered yelling, “I LOVE YOU, TOO,” but stopped myself. The music could have been from any corner in New York City. Wild sounds echoing off the sidewalk and into a park we weren’t sure was even a park. I looked over at Tim who was walking into the area as if walking on hot coals. His discomfort was palpable. If we must politically pigeonhole Tim, he’s been a member of both major parties and is now a registered independent with right-of-center leanings. The Economist magazine is his chief news source.

Throngs of people flooded the area. Sleeping bags, every color of the rainbow, lined the park. As we made our way through the crowd, we realized many people were still in their sleeping bags.

“Mommy, people are sleeping here,” one of my girls said as we stepped over someone, forging our own path through the park.

As I looked around, I realized there really was nowhere to step, no direction. People were laying in their bags, camped out in random places, piles of pamphlets and handouts propped near them. There seemed to be no one path or direction.

While wandering for a clear path, a sense of aimlessness hit me. It was not complete anarchy because the crowd was peaceful and respectful, but there was no clear direction or purpose. I considered that most people without jobs feel exactly that way – aimless and without direction. Lost. Without hope. Disenfranchised. We all know the feeling when hope takes a vacation. Unemployment, unexpected death of a loved one. As I looked around, I saw this same sense in the eyes of everyone there. Hope on vacation.

We forged ahead, trying not to step on anyone. My husband, less sensitive, blazed right through the medical area, which was cordoned off with tape. I dared not tread in an area that said, “Medical area only” so I found myself stuck in a space surrounded by sleeping bodies and a medical area where a woman was giving massages. Tim waved us to follow him, but the man politely asked us not to step through the medical area. So we found another way over the sleeping bodies.

As we made our way over to Tim, one of my girls yelled, “What is that smell?” People sat at a card table rolling something that smelled like good ole cannibas.

“That’s pot,” I told her. “If we breathe deep, maybe we’ll all get stoned.” Well trained, they all covered their mouths with their shirts.

We found Tim finally. “Why didn’t you just follow me?” he asked.

“Because the guy said not to pass through the medical area.”

“He can’t tell you where to go. It’s a public park.” This restriction, along with the sign that hailed Karl Marx as some kind of savior, seemed to have incited Tim to a point where I worried for the next protester in his path. “I’m disappointed. This is it?” he said as we all stood and looked around at a pretty mellow crew of people.

Al Sharpton sat surrounded by people eager to hear his wisdom. The music kept a steady beat filling the area with a sense of commonality, even though a single message was unclear.

My girls definitely got the message that 1% of Americans seem to have most of the money and that the rest aren’t too happy with that. Daddy gave them a quick lesson in economics, capitalism and government, suggesting that the protesters really should be in Washington DC and not on Wall Street. I suggested that maybe the protest was less against capitalism than "unbridled capitalism." These words raised Tim's eyebrows. What is the role of government in bridling the capital? Isn't that why we're all fighting in the first place?

All that aside, on a fundamental level, I thought the protest was about much more than taxing the rich. It felt like a movement by people who stopped believing in the ethos of what our country has prided itself on for years. Freedom. It felt like disillusionment, discontentedness and despair. It felt more like a rallying cry for someone to please just step up and give them hope. Hope in something.

I saw destitution.

One woman held up a sign, “College-educated and working three jobs. OWS is my only hope.” Seriously? This protest is your only hope? Now, that tells me we're in bad shape if this protest is this woman's only hope.

Taking away the fence of political debate, what I witnessed on Occupy Wall Street were people who are coming together with a common purpose.

These are all people desperate to find something they lost along the way...



  1. After visiting #occupyboston and #occupysf, I also feel the need to offer my unsolicited opinion :P

    Many people have written about the lack of clear goals or direction of the #ows movement, but given the long history of social upheaval, we should expect nothing more. No revolution has begun with a clear mandate - they start with seeds of malaise and discord amongst the general public and grow from there. Once destitution is reached by a large enough section of the people, an idea takes hold and becomes the rallying cry of the huddled masses. Sometimes it takes a great leader (MLK, Jr., Gandhi, Mandela), and other times a greatly terrible one (Stalin, Genghis Khan, Idi Amin). All of these people feel wronged in a general sense, with no clue how to fix their current situation: In most countries, this desperation would lead to outright revolt, but the (mostly) peaceful protests in the US may have some chance to effect change without bloodshed.

    Wealth/power inequality in the US isn't new, and it's been percolating for the past few years. It completely crosses political boundaries, even though people are just beginning to find that out. Despite media attention focused on the bigots in the Tea Party, their rallying cry is against corporate power that infringes upon that of the individual. Even though #ows has been portrayed as the liberal stoned slackers without direction, their message is one against the financial organizations that take their investors for granted. The two movements are more linked than they probably want to admit to each other, but they should:

    When corporate profits have recovered from the financial bust (even accounting for inflation), but unemployment is still close to 1 in 10 US citizens (not counting under-employed), there is something terribly wrong. Inflation-adjusted GDP now at pre-bust 2008 levels of $13.3 trillion. 9.1% currently, not nearly the highest (10.1%, October 2009), but still not anywhere near the 6% it should be.

    What should we expect from #ows? Nothing in particular. We should, however, recognize that its reasons for existing are valid. Moreover, Congress and Wall Street should recognize this. The 1% might be something to aspire to in a purely meritocratic society, but they are quickly losing their appeal in the US.

  2. Thanks for posting, Pace! Sorry I didn't see it until now. :( I'm not a good blogger, I guess. Yes, disillusionment and despair seem the order of the day. Leaders need to recognize that people sitting in dark, cold houses with no power are not happy when others have bright lights and heat. Frankly, if I live in the house that's lit and warm, I'd like to share that with my friends who don't have it. And how grateful I was to my friends and family who opened up their warm, lit houses to me when we were here in the dark, cold. Isn't that what this is teaching us? Isn't that what life's about?? When you're a "have," be generous. When you're a "have not," be grateful. That's how I'd like to live my life.