Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Visit to Occupy Wall Street (Plus a Small Ramble on Economics)

We had crazy beautiful weather in New York today, so I went into Manhattan and visited Occupy Wall Street, the protest/live-in at Zuccotti Park (at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street). It seems to be a combination of an extremely uncomfortable but good-humored slumber party and a mass Speakers' Corner for all kinds of liberal causes, including:

  • Wall Street reform
  • Corporate reform
  • Electoral reform
  • Constitutional reform
  • Ending the Federal Reserve
  • Globalization (the link is about Steve Jobs, but it ties in)
  • Stopping fracking in upstate New York
  • Bringing an end to nuclear power
  • Freeing Leonard Peltier
  • The environmental movement in general
  • Marxism (with a table handing out The Internationalist)
  • Anarchism 
  • Fox News (a sign:  "Fox News:  I Don't Care About You Either")
  • Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.
I saw a man holding a sign that said "I'm 48 and this is my first protest," and many, many young people who could probably say the same. But the overall mood was cheerful, not angry or violent. A group sang "We Shall Not Be Moved." A drum circle inspired dancing. People shared their cookies, literally. And I came away really admiring the people who are there, bearing witness to their causes and their belief that what they're doing makes a difference. It reminded me most of the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington at more or less this time last fall -- that same sense of humor and even pleasure among the protesters, enjoying a beautiful day and the presence of like-minded people; but also with an underlying edge, not yet at but perhaps approaching desperation, in everyone's sense that the systems are broken, in the deep-seeded desire for change. . . .

The best witness to this need is perhaps the Tumblr associated with the protests, We Are the 99 Percent. If you have any measure of human sympathy in your soul, the stories there will hurt your heart -- and you perhaps have one of your own to add.

Naomi Klein gave this speech at the protests yesterday. It is powerful, and you should read it.

At the same time, I fear the movement's insistence on remaining leaderless and specific-demandless will end up undermining it in a media world that demands stories, meaning characters and plots. (Which may also just be human nature.) Nicholas Kristof's excellent column last week spelled out what the Occupy Wall Streeters should be asking for.

I work for a corporation. I believe in capitalism, because it seems like the best method yet devised to channel human beings' inherent self-interest into an economic system, and because all the communist experiments we've seen up to this point in history seem to have run aground on that self-interest, and then often crashed right over the rocks into repression and horror. I also believe in strong government regulation of capitalism and corporations; a social safety net; single-payer health care; public education; and paying taxes to support all of these programs. And globalization lets me have cheap electronics, clothes, shoes, and mangoes, and I love mangoes.

But I -- we -- have to look at the consequences of all of these things; and we also have to remember that change begins with our own desires, and to regulate those desires, as little as we like to do so. I often think about this quotation from Confucius, which appeared in a July Quote File on government:
To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.
If we could all want only what we need, and not more; if we could recognize that we shouldn't have mangoes, honestly, because getting them here is pretty terrible for the environment; if corporations across the board could agree that demonstrating growth every quarter isn't the most important thing, and instead value being a good corporate citizen and supporter of its workers; if there were some way to make American manufacturing costs the same as Chinese ones, without sacrificing environmental regulations or worker rights; if I spent less time on Twitter or playing Scrabble, or even "virtuous" activities like reading or writing, and more time volunteering or working for social change; if I could be willing to do what's best for all (environmentally, economically, altruistically) instead of what's just best for me at any moment . . . In a lot of ways, if we could not be America, and I could not be an American, with our historic, almost inborn emphasis on individual liberty and free will -- our genius and our curse.

It's easy to blame the 1%, and God knows they deserve a lot of the blame for the current economic mess and should be called to account. Things can and should be more fair. But 100% of us are responsible for how we spend our money and our time. I admire the protesters on Wall Street for providing a model that runs so idealistically against the grain of our present American life, and I hope their protests continue. Because however debased our president's carrying-out of his ideals may be at the moment, these words remain true:  We are the change we have been waiting for.


  1. Wow.
    Succinct and accurate on so many counts. Loved this... yes, I used the "L" word.

    I particularly agree with your thoughts on quarterly earnings and the "what's best for me" trappings.

  2. interesting thoughts! thanks for sharing1

  3. Thank you so much for this post.

    But--hey! Are you telling me you were at Jon Stewart's rally? Me, too--how could I have missed you?

  4. I found lots of interesting information here.

  5. Great story. Looking forward to read another one.

  6. Colleen Ryckert CookOctober 13, 2011 7:59 PM

    always appreciate your thoughtful take. Shared on my Facebook :)

    My best,
    Colleen in Kansas

  7. Thanks for visiting rally and writing about it. Down here with Occupy Nashville, I've been wondering what the real deal looks like. I agree with many of your comments about wanting only what we need.... if only mangoes didn't taste so good in martinis... but I guess we have to draw the line somewhere;)

  8. It's nice to see a protest that is so far staying peaceful. The last protest I was at (I marched with the AFL-CIO at the WTO riots in Seattle, '99) was a horrid example of the exact opposite.