Turning political protest into a freakfest

Why do the great and good of America want to be best friends with the Occupy Wall Street oddballs?

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstration in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan is now in its fifth week. When it started, few would have predicted that it would gain as much attention as it has, or that it would spread to so many other cities in America and around the world.

What began as a gathering of a few hundred mostly young adults is now said to have become a more substantial movement. First, celebrities and academics began turning up at Zuccotti Park, but students and labour-union representatives joined in, too. Politicians from President Barack Obama to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney have expressed their support for OWS, too. A poll this week found that 67 per cent of New Yorkers sympathise with the protesters.

In light of all this, when I went down to Zuccotti Park on Monday, I expected to see a large group of people from different backgrounds. It was nothing like that.

First, there weren’t all that many around. I’d venture a guess of about 1,000. Multiple reports have said that far fewer, about 200, sleep in the park overnight. A thousand isn’t tiny, but in New York City it’s not a huge gathering compared to what you might see on a regular afternoon in places like Central Park or Times Square. It is also relatively small when you consider the tons of publicity the protest has received. In addition, a significant proportion of the people I saw – I’d say at least a quarter – consisted of journalists, tourists and other onlookers. Indeed, OWS has become something of spectacle that people want to observe, another activity to cross off the sight-seeing list while visiting NYC.

I saw the reports that said many of the first protesters were hippies and other assorted bohemians, and I imagined that this group would have given way to a more assorted mix by now. But no. Walking through Zuccotti Park was like taking in a freakshow in Coney Island. It was a sea of mostly twentysomethings with dreadlocks, piercings and, of course, tattoos. In one corner was a group of 50 people sitting in a circle chanting ‘HAR’ over and over. With their hands clasped behind their heads, they moved their elbows back and forth. (I think this may have been a form of yoga.)

There were assorted sleeping bags and other makeshift bedding strewn about the park, and a food station with a long line of people waiting for handouts. There was also a sanitation group with brooms, set up in response to an announcement that the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, was going to clear it out for cleaning. (Brookfield eventually backed down after pressure from city politicians and others.) Despite the cleaning efforts, there was a foul smell in the air, which was not surprising given the protesters’ lack of bathing facilities for the past month.

At the front of the park was the so-called General Assembly, a regular gathering for people to make presentations. The ‘people’s mic’ system, whereby people repeat the speakers’ words sentence by sentence, is downright creepy, and reminiscent of the ‘you’re all individuals’ scene in Life of Brian.

At the outset, it was said that the protesters did not know exactly what they wanted. I was curious to see if there was now any more clarity in the message coming out. There wasn’t. There was a mish-mash of slogans: ‘Quit coal’, ‘Stop hurting animals’, ‘Support revolution in Peru’. One woman held up a long-worded poster complaining about Staples, the stationery store.

Indeed, the striking thing was that there was little proper discussion and debate, despite the General Assembly forum. It was not the lack of a coherent message, but rather the lack of any attempt to come to a better understanding about things that was remarkable. These are the children of the politically correct era, who have no desire to express judgements or make distinctions – lazy slogans are enough to them.

I did see a few earnest-looking college students, but they tended to hang around on the sidelines. The only union rep there was a speaker from the Communication Workers of America, but his fellow union members didn’t join him. I know that a broader section of society says they support the demonstrators, and do show up on weekends, but it is clear that there is a hardcore that is just as strange as it was on the first day of the protest a month ago.

I was also struck by a class contrast, but not the one everyone is talking about. This protest is supposed to have something to do with blaming the rich of Wall Street, the so-called one per cent, for the country’s ills, and proclaiming support for the other 99 per cent (the most popular t-shirts at the park read ‘I am the 99%’). But the hippies and other oddballs were clearly not from working-class backgrounds, nor were they lumpenised proletariat – these were the sons and daughters of the middle class. They did not come from, nor were they speaking for, the working class.

Ironically, the people who were most working-class in background were those who actually work in the financial-services firms around Wall Street and walk past the encampment every day. (In fact, the bigger investment banking firms left the financial district years ago for midtown.) Many of the financial-sector employees come from modest upbringings and have sought to better themselves in an industry that pays well. The destruction of the Twin Towers killed people with the full range of incomes, from the highest to the lowest. But, as was noted at the time, a preponderance of the bankers and firemen were from the same backgrounds and neighbourhoods: Irish-American working-class people from the outer boroughs.

The class contrast was highlighted in a New York Times article on the weekend that brought together a protester and a stockbroker: ‘One, Edward T. Hall III, 25, was barefoot and dressed in loud, multicolored tights. He wore a beaded American Indian necklace and New Age jewelry, with a baseball cap pulled sideways over his long hair. The other, Jimmy Vivona, 40, wore a smart blue pinstripe suit, a conservative red-and-blue striped tie and good shoes. He had neat hair and a close shave.’

Hall was described as ‘a well-educated young man with a privileged upbringing’, and a ‘small trust fund’. Vivona ‘grew up in a working-class family in Staten Island and now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife and two young children’. You can get an idea of Hall, the trust-funder now taking free food handouts in the park, from this video footage:

After my walk through the park, I went away asking myself: How can it be that everyone is so worked up about this relative handful of incoherent clowns? The President of the United States and other world leaders are supporting this group of losers? This is what the media and chattering classes are talking about incessantly?

What becomes abundantly clear from visiting the encampment is that the attention paid to this small group really has very little to do with the group itself. In a city like New York, coming across a gathering of strange people is an everyday occurrence. There is nothing to be gained from trying to analyse them, their methods, and so on: they are the same people who have been showing up at fringe events for years.

No, what really needs to be explained is: why does the world’s elite feel the need to latch on to a rag-tag group? In this regard, the protesters’ lack of a clear message is an advantage; it means that politicians and others can now project their own pet ideas on to them and endow the group with more coherence and moral authority than it really has.

Don’t look to the happy campers at Zuccotti Park to try to figure out why the world is ga-ga over OWS – there’s really no there there. Ask instead why Obama and other leaders want to be their best friends.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics USA


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