I TRAVEL a fair amount in the course of my job I’ve had the opportunity to visit “Occupy” protests in several cities - mostly the one in New York City.
I go to New York City every fall for work. Every year since 9/11 I’ve taken the opportunity to visit the World Trade Center site to bear witness to the destruction (in the early years) and check on the rebuilding process in recent years. Those first few years were pretty heart-rending because even the buildings that remained standing, especially on the south side of the WTC still bore the massive scars and burns from that day. In the ensuing years it was frustrating to see how slowing the rebuilding process proceeded. However, my favorite place to visit has always been the small colonial era church that faces (still) the WTC site. Many of the men now considered “founding fathers” attended services at this church over two hundred years ago.
The churchyard that faces the WTC site across the street is a graveyard full of colonial-era headstones. In those early post-9/11 years it was a gripping experience to see the fence bordering the graveyard covered with mementos to those killed on 9/11. There were lots of flowers, pictures, poems, love letters to dead people, on and on. You could read hundreds of these tacked to the the graveyard fence, then turnaround 180-degrees and see the vacant and scarred WTC site across the street. It was poetic in a very spooky kind of way.
The church was used as a staging ground for the firemen working “the pile” those first few months after the attack and the interior of the landmark church had been severely damaged with the coming and going of rescue and work crews. Since then it’s been fully restored and it’s a sunny and beautiful little church with white and baby-blue walls. However, even after the restoration I noticed the pew benches were covered with a lot of deep scratches. That seemed odd given that the rest of the place was restored to pristine condition. A docent told me that these scratches were caused by exhausted firemen sleeping in the pews in their gear. The buckles, boots, oxygen tanks and tools had cut scratches in the pews. She said that during the restoration it was decided to let the scratches remain as a monument to those firemen.
This past year was the first year in all my visits that I noticed really significant progress at the WTC site. Construction on the new tower has reached about 50% of it’s final height and the the towering glass panels look great, it’s going to be a good looking site.
Zuccotti Park, the site of the original “Occupy” protest is only about 8 blocks away so after my visit to the WTC site this year I decided to walk over to Zuccotti to see the protest for myself. I spent about 2 hours there walking around and talking to protesters and people talking to the protesters and it wasn’t at all what I expected.
Curious that - when you think about it, I think it’s interesting how people, all of us, have such strong opinions about people we’ve never met and never will, about places we’ve never been and will never go. How is it that we develop such strong opinions about people and places we actually know so little about, not a lick of knowledge based on any direct experience.
Among the hundreds of signs at Zuccotti, I did not see one - not a single one - that anyone would consider “anti-American.” I did on the other hand see many - very many - that vehemently opposed: corruption, sending American jobs overseas, bailing out soon-to-be-broke corporations but not middle class Americans, home foreclosures, the soaring cost of college education, the Supreme Court ruling that removed limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns, the amount of money spent on the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The center of the park was occupied mostly by younger people among the tents. They’d divided up sectors of the park for various duties: kitchen area, library area, cleaning crew area, etc. There was even an area dedicated to generating the electricity that powered other operations in the park. This power-generating section was several guys on bikes up on blocks. The back wheels of the bikes were connected to generators. They young guys peddled, the wheels turned the generators pumped out the power. Residents took turns peddling the bikes to keep the power on throughout the park.
The demographics on the outer edges was completely different. There protesters were middle-aged plus a fair number senior citizens. I talked with a lot of these older people. Among them were teachers and nurses and other union types often portrayed as riff-raff on cable-tv and talk-radio. There was a garbage man. Another I talked to was a carpenter. This older group was particularly well versed in the subjects they protested. They knew what they were talking about and wanted to tell you there stories. All around were scores of signs encouraging people to behave respectably, avoid drinking, pick up litter and so on.
I met one person - exactly one among the many hundreds at the park - who was passing out communist literature on the sidewalk across the street. She was vastly outnumbered by several hundred Iraq War veterans who marched past at one point in support of the Zuccotti protesters and in support for a protester who was a fellow veteran that had been shot in the head with a police tear-gas gun in Oakland (having survived Iraq, he’s now recovering from brain damage in his home country. Life is funny that way).
Not all the Occupy protests I’ve seen are the same. The small San Francisco protest looked to me like a bunch of bums taking advantage of the situation to camp out on prime real estate. The NYC protest on the other hand was vastly larger, and was very principled and disciplined and erected on territory chosen to make a political statement - the heart of Wall Street. Then there was the Oakland protest which turned violent during the protest where the soldier was shot. Oakland has a long history of police/protest violence going back decades and it doesn’t take much to set Oakland protests off.
Whatever the case my impression was that these people, especially at Zuccotti, were not protesting against capitalism and certainly not protesting against America (there were patriotic posters and US flags everywhere at Zuccotti). What they were protesting was corruption and the structures that encourage corruption benefitting the super-rich at the expense of hard working middle class Americans.
The day the World Trade Center was destroyed was not the first time it had been attacked, a lot of people forget that. I remember the first time it was attacked a decade earlier I thought it was pretty silly that the assailants thought they could bring down those buildings with a truck bomb in the basement parking lot. Clearly we would have been well advised to see that first attack as a canary in a coal mine, something that needed to be attended to before it metastasized and grew worse. In my opinion, the politicians and their allies on cable-tv and talk-radio who denigrate the Occupy protesters railing against corporate corruption, political corruption, and the rapidly growing gap between the rich and middle class would be well advised to start taking these protests seriously. The Tea Party protests and Occupy protests actually share a surprising number of complaints against the system that saddled our generation with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
I have pictures.