One sign read, “Our economy could be more fair.” Well, that was what it was all about, I guess. As I wandered through the crowd at Occupy Wall Street on a Saturday last month I saw that all the usual suspects were out. Dreadlocked, shirtless, smelly backpackers littered the ground with their wool blankets and blue plastic tarps and gave each other back massages. Mixed in among them, middle-aged, bald anticapitalists handed out Socialist Party literature and The Occupied Wall Street Journal and told anyone who would listen to “open your eyes to the coming revolution.”
I guess you could say a lot of these guys were weird. One lady told me that the Federal Reserve was completely responsible for the financial collapse because it was controlled by the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the mafia, and then said something like “America-is-turning-into-Nazi-Germany.” An old man there said he had won an Emmy for his documentary filmmaking, and that he had been a protester all his life, at the ’63 march with Martin Luther King, Jr., the ’68 protests against “the war,” and the ’03 protests against “the other war,” but that this gathering at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan was the greatest sharing and interchange of humanity he’d ever seen. I asked him to tell me the name of one of his films and he dodged the question, muttering something about anti-Semitism in Poland.
I stopped trying to talk to people and checked out the signs. “This is what democracy looks like.” “We are the 99 percent.” “Mr. President, tear down this Wall (Street).” “Todos somos O.W.S.” “End all war; End all greed; End the fed.” “I’m a human being not a commodity.” “Ronald Reagan sucked balls.”
Occupy Wall Street is a movement of discontents. Lefties of all stripes, from Communists to anarchists to supporters of President Barack Obama to independents—even some Ron Paul libertarians—gathered to stare down the New York Stock Exchange and display to the bankers, traders, and CEOs the mass of humanity that didn’t like what Wall Street was doing. Then the police told them to move, so they spilled into a nearby park and stared down a Brooks Brothers store and a Burger King.
This kind of thing wasn’t new to me. I’d been in Madrid during the May 15 movement of los indignados, the indignant, who sat down in the plaza that serves as the beating heart of Spain’s capital and decided they weren’t going to move until they felt less indignant.
But then, I thought I was witnessing a European phenomenon. I couldn’t imagine a similar group of Americans protesting against nothing in particular and for nothing specifically in a manner that violated all manner of municipal regulations. In Spain, even the president merely shrugged his shoulders and said he understood the protesters’ ire and that evicting them would cause more problems that it would solve. In America, I reckoned, protests became weird sometime between the ’70s and last fall’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., where I and a quarter of a million other people all made fun of the idea of protesting.
Unemployment in Spain pushes 20 percent, and among young people it’s over 40 percent. Neither of the nation’s two biggest political parties has any idea what to do. Politicians in major cities, such as Valencian Community president Francisco Camps, have been indicted in corruption scandals and gone unpunished. Short of Franco’s grandchildren, who wouldn’t be taking the streets? But it’s a Spanish thing. Right?
Spaniards in all major cities protested against the political and economic system. They began in May a week before national elections. They didn’t vote. They camped there all summer, beginning to disband in June but not actually leaving until the beginning of August, when the police finally retook the plaza. They tried to come back, but the police blocked the streets, so the protestors all went back inside to find some air conditioning.
As I strolled through Occupy Wall Street last month, I tried to figure out what the protestors wanted. One man’s sign listed the ratios of average CEO salary to average worker’s salary in Britain, Japan, and the United States. Twelve to one. Fifteen to one. Four hundred and twenty-two to one. Yikes.
I found myself helping out with what the protestors call the “people’s voice.” Someone starts talking. People nearby repeat the words loudly so that a large circle of people can hear the speech. (The New York Police Department has prohibited megaphones and other noisemaking devices.) A woman gave a speech on behalf of an organization she called the New York Society of A-G-L-B-F-I-O-Z or something like that. (It got a little muddled in the process of repeating.) Then she began to tell us the economic story of our young lifetimes: “Since the early ’90s (‘since the early ’90s’), average worker salaries have remained constant, but the super rich keep getting richer.” More people repeated her words. “In the financial collapse, (‘in the financial collapse’) ordinary Americans lost their jobs and their homes, but Wall Street kept on profiting.” Loud and clear.
I walked to Washington Square Park, where another protest was underway. It may have been true that every corner on Broadway, the street in America with the most overbearing corporate advertisements, was just as crowded as Zuccotti Park, but Washington Square was lively. New York University students and young people surrounded the central pond and repeated each other’s speeches. TV cameras surrounded a pretty, well-dressed college-age girl as she explained her sign listing concrete demands for the movement. Another man waved a stake topped by the impaled effigy head of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein bloodily gaping at us. Most people seemed to recognize Blankfein. So there’s another concrete demand.
Why Washington Square Park? Well, the movement spread. Everyone wanted to take part. As we listened to a speech by environmental activist Bill McKibben railing against oil pipelines and government secrecy, a group of kids wearing tie-dyed T-shirts held signs saying “Christians for Occupy Wall Street” and “Who would Jesus foreclose on?” By October 15, when people all over the United States and the world marched in solidarity with OWS, there were protests in my hometown of Atlanta, in London, England and Lubbock, Texas; in Cape Town and Mumbai and Seoul; in socialist-equality paradise Stockholm, in multiple buroughs of New York City. Oh, and fifty thousand indignados retook Puerta del Sol.
The hardcore people camping on the cold New York concrete have started something, and I don’t mind if a lot of them are weird. It’s about time someone stood up and said it: the economy could be fairer. I’m orgulloso—that’s “proud”— of my country because so many of us are doing just that.