What is the middle class if not America’s infrastructure of collective civility and individual enterprise? It is as much a concept as it is an income level, it is the communal space where social mobility is achieved through personal choice. It is an attitude, an indoctrination, a style; it is flexible, fungible, and functional. I believe our government’s policies are not simply failing to protect the middle class but actively crippling it. And so on Sunday, October 2nd, the day after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, the day I celebrate being born into a middle-class family, I traveled downtown to see and try to understand the much-discussed Occupy Wall Street movement for myself.
I entered Zuccotti Park from the northwest corner; I happened to wander in behind a bearded drag queen who wore a leopard print dress and carried a blonde baby doll as well as a placard reading: “Will work for money.” A brown speckled pigeon descended from a leafy tree and hopped across the many small protest signs spread out on the ground like a patchwork picnic quilt. Cardboard was the favored medium for these magic marker messages: and, in a sound-byte era, most of the writers had already whittled their complaints down to a concise utterance which fit neatly within the borders of a pizza box cover.
I often feel vaguely shocked whenever I encounter the heartfelt and sometimes nakedly aggressive sentiments of actual other New Yorkers. Is it because in my efforts to get along on this island I spend so much energy muting my own opinions? In no particular order, this is some of what I read on the many signs — none of them my own and each of them representing an individual other than myself — as I walked through Zuccotti Park:
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”
“Steal food get arrested. Steal $1,000,000 get a bonus!”
“Bring back Glass-Steagall”
“And those who have jobs, we’re barely making it.”
“Debt is slavery”
“They broke it (map of America split in two), we bought it; why do they still own it?”
“Hey banks stop using the money I deposit to screw my neighbors”
“Fight for your right to party”
“Democracy is not a spectator sport”
“Human rights trump corporate rights”
“The 99% includes police”
“#1 problem Wall Street Lobbyists — #1 Demand Make it Illegal Conflict of Interest”
“Donations for adopting puppies.”
“Tell someone what you see”
“The spirit of 1776 vs. the mindset of 1984”
“Open your eyes”
“Investigate Wall Street corruption”
“We the people over corporate profit”
“Outreach organizing volunteers needed”
“End war rebuild America”
“Fire the boss”
“I care about you”
“Wall Street Mafia, Washington Mafia, Pentagon Mafia, Supreme Court Mafia, WTF?”
“American Dream not just for the rich”
Police cars and vans lined Liberty Street; and where Liberty intersected Church Street, a watchtower, something like a palm tree in its top-heavy balance, sprouted with its many surveillance cameras aimed down at the park. Meanwhile, the expensive, well-equipped vans of mass media parked along Church. On Cedar Street, a white truck with large black letters spelling out “Wikileaks” (among other words — from my position in the park I could not read the entire message) stood between a Halal food truck and a Sabrett hotdog cart.
Inside the borders of the park itself, many many people — a couple hundred? twice that? — milled about; roughly half carried signs or actively protested while most of the other half silently recorded what they saw with cameras. Scattered about on the ground lay rolled-up sleeping bags and yoga mats, one mattress, beach chairs, and an unchained bike or two. A food station threading through the middle of the park displayed baskets of oranges, apples, popcorn, bread, sports bars, coffee and cookies. A drum circle on the Broadway side made itself heard.
I spoke with only a few people. A thirty-something guy sitting and reading the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” told me he had brought food to support the protesters, though he himself did not care to carry a sign. A twenty-something woman said she came to represent the Teachers Union; glancing around, she frowned to see a middle-aged woman boasting a sign that read: “Obama Sell-Out-in-Chief.” Meanwhile, a man wearing a Tea Party button passed between us into the park. A couple of boys stood still enough to be photographed by their smiling father who shouted commands in what I suspect was Mandarin. An elderly man, circled by rapt younger listeners, stood on a piece of carpet and lectured on the economy.
As I left the park, I overheard one woman say to another, “It’s so much more complicated now than it was even a few days ago.” Unfortunately, I fear exactly the opposite. I worry that this movement is being ramrodded into specific, pre-arranged form. An encroaching Democratic Party mind-meld appears to be taking place and as a lifelong registered Independent, I believe that soon all that makes sense to me in this movement will be destroyed. Certainly I worry about the influence of Wikileaks, an enterprise with questionable methods and motives. Organized labor, which to my mind sometimes exerts as destructive a force as the greediest of corporations, has begun to make an inordinate claim among those assembled downtown. And overly-quoted newspaper writers—who clearly have not strolled anywhere near Zuccotti Park—have begun to describe the inspired chaos there as a “liberal” movement and an “anti-Tea Party” movement.
From what I saw on October 2nd, Occupy Wall Street was neither... and it need be neither.
Why couldn’t this be a movement and a moment that unites not just a political party but an entire nation, maybe even an entire world? (Only after my visit did I learn that Occupy Wall Street had been inspired by Vancouver-based Adbusters, which describes itself as “a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.”)
As I rode the subway home, I could not forget the sign that read: “They broke it (map of America split in two), we bought it; why do they still own it?” Through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was overwhelmingly approved by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, American taxpayers handed out billions of dollars to, among others, American International Group and GMAC, a bank holding company and the financing arm of General Motors. (Subsequent to its bailout, GMAC changed its name to “Ally Financial Inc.”) If private corporations are propped up by public funds, hasn’t the nature and definition of ownership changed? If so, shouldn’t these same principles and benefits of ownership be uniformly extended to all corporations and the individuals they represent? At the very least, shouldn’t the public receive a share of the profits made by these publicly endowed corporations?
Am I a liberal or a conservative for thinking these thoughts? All I know is what I want most right now is to understand where on earth all that TARP money went. And of course, where are the jobs — researching and advancing new energy technologies, building and maintaining infrastructure — that should be a result of its expenditure. At least for a moment as I looked around at those assembled for Occupy Wall Street, I believed that others shared my concerns... we are citizens who fear the relative weakness of a national government compared to multinational corporations... we are quiet voices drowned by a mass media bent on controlling, harnessing, and subverting an autonomous movement — a group of disparate people provoked by an unimaginable seizure of our public funds, taxes paid by middle class individuals.