by Hendrik Hertzberg – The New Yorker.
Everything else is made in China, so why not pithy aperçus about Occupy Wall Street? “A revolution is not a dinner party.” Or was it a Tea Party that the murderous Communist Mao Zedong (still officially revered in the most populous, most fearsomely capitalist nation on earth) declared that a revolution isn’t? Either way, Occupy Wall Street—O.W.S.? No, let’s just call it OWES, in honor of its sympathy for tapped-out debtors over bailed-out creditors—is hardly a revolution. It is a dinner party of sorts, albeit one with donated, often organic food served on paper plates. There’s tea, too, of course, mostly herbal—rooibos and camomile, though, not that other herb. (The distinctive aroma that the “straight press” of yore invariably called “the sweet smell of marijuana” is noticeably absent.) But, whatever OWES is, what will it become? Where is it headed? Will it dazzle or fizzle? Will it catch fire or backfire? Will it end up helping the Democrats or the Republicans? In short, what’s the meaning of it all? So far, the best answer is the one that Zhou Enlai, the Great Helmsman’s great henchman, supposedly gave when President Nixon supposedly asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell. At the moment, all that can be said with certainty—even if Mayor Bloomberg disagrees—is that OWES has become one of the city’s most interesting bargain tourist destinations.
Occupy Wall Street does not occupy Wall Street itself, which is narrow, easily cordoned off, and unsuitable for sleeping. What OWES does occupy is Zuccotti Park, a roomy rectangle of trees, benches, and open space two blocks up Broadway from Wall Street and about the same short distance from the 9/11 site. Zuccotti Park—formerly and, by its new residents, still informally dubbed Liberty Plaza—is privately owned but open to all, the result of a zoning deal between the city and a real-estate company. The OWES event, which began on September 17th with a minimum of attention from the straight press (now known as the mainstream media), soon got three shots of adrenaline, one small and two big. A false report that Radiohead would serenade the plaza drew a larger than usual crowd. A cell-phone video of an N.Y.P.D. deputy inspector spritzing strong pepper spray into the faces of three apparently inoffending female protesters, who fell to the ground blinded and screaming, went globally viral. And a Brooklyn-bound march over the Brooklyn Bridge ended in confusion and rancor, with some unnecessary police roughness and seven hundred peaceful marchers carted off to be booked, their wrists bound behind them, uncomfortably and egregiously, in plastic handcuffs. By last week, OWES was soaring. On Wednesday, some of the most powerful unions in the city—transit workers, teamsters, teachers, communications workers, service employees—helped pack Foley Square with fifteen thousand people for a rally in support. Afterward, it took them three hours of chanting and sign-waving to shuffle their way through a half-mile police corridor to Zuccotti Park. And OWES has gone national. There are now spinoffs in more than a hundred cities and towns from Atlanta to Anchorage, with plans for more.
At first glance, Zuccotti looks to a casual visitor like a crowded, messy homeless encampment. But it doesn’t take long to discern an earnest, underlying orderliness. The plaza is loosely divided into “centers,” each watched over by members of its own “working group.” A sizable corner, the Camp, is a jumbled welter of blue tarps, blankets, and stuffed shopping bags, and sleepers—hence the impression of homelessness, though in fact nearly everyone who chooses to spend the night has a home, often just a subway ride away. Next to it is a Comfort center, with piles of sleeping bags and warm secondhand clothes. Elsewhere in the park, there’s a Medical center, a Library, a Kitchen (actual cooking has to be done “off site”), and an Art/Signs center, where people make their own, ranging from the strident (“Jail Corporate Criminals”) to the winsome (“I Bailed Out a Bank and All I Got Was a New Debit Card Charge”).The only spot with access to electricity is the Media center, where a portable generator powers the laptops of volunteer programmers. There are many OWES-related Web sites; one, www.nycga.cc, is entirely produced and beamed to the world from Zuccotti Park.
The “ga” in that domain name stands for General Assembly, a daily mass meeting, open to all, which is the closest thing OWES has to a governing body. Because any kind of amplified sound is forbidden, bullhorns included, the meetings are conducted in an ingenious way. A speaker says a few words, then pauses; the audience repeats them, loudly and in unison; the speaker says a few more; the chorus repeats; and so on. If the group is unusually large, the repetitions radiate out, like a mountain echo. The listeners register their reactions silently, with their hands. Four fingers up, palms outward: Yay! Four fingers down, palms inward: Boo! Both hands rolling: Wrap it up! Clenched fists crossed at the wrists: No way, José! There’s something oddly moving about a crowd of smart-phone-addicted, computer-savvy people coöperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification—a literal loudspeaker.
What OWES doesn’t have—and is under some pressure, internal and external, to formulate—is a traditional agenda: a list of “demands,” a set of legislative recommendations, a five-point program. For many of its participants, this lack is an essential part of the attraction. They’re making it up on the fly. They don’t really know where it will take them, and they like it that way. Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de coeur, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point. Anyway, OWES is not the Brookings Institution. But its implicit grievances are plain enough: the mass pain of mass unemployment, underemployment, and economic insecurity; the corrupting, pervasive political influence of big money; the outrageous, rapidly growing inequality of wealth and income; the impunity of the financial-industry scammers whose greed and fraud precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; a broken political system hobbled by a Republican right willing and usually able to block any measures, however timid and partial, that might relieve the suffering. If Occupy Wall Street can continue to behave with nonviolent restraint, if it can avoid hijack by a flaky fringe, if it can shake the center-left out of its funk, if it can embolden Democratic politicians (very much including President Obama, who, lately and belatedly, has begun to show signs of fight), then preoccupied Main Street will truly owe OWES. Big ifs all. It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope. ♦
ILLUSTRATION: Tom Bachtell