First Impressions of Occupy Wall Street

L. R. Laverde-Hansen By L. R. Laverde-Hansen, 31st Jul 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Columns & Opinions

The demonstrations happening in downtown New York have become the talk of the world and have spread to large parts of it. This revolt will not be trivialized.

A Change Has Come

A few years ago, the singer-songwriter John Mayer wrote the song, "Waiting On The World To Change." In it he lamented that young people were aware that things were not right, but there was nothing they could do about it. They would wait until it was their time to take over (i.e., when they're no longer young). While I appreciated the fact that Mr. Mayer put political lyrics into a commercial pop song, I was disappointed by his cop-out response. Whereas Bob Dylan documented the changing times and the rap group Public Enemy implored listeners to literally, "Fight The Power," Mr. Mayer was saying his generation would pass when it came to protests.

For a long time, I felt that way too. I once helped organize a rally against a college's policies, and I noticed that even when people agreed with us, they were not interested in joining. To be sure some were frightened, but the larger reason was that they felt it was pointless and counterproductive. The sense I got over and over again was that it was better to work within the system, to conform and go along to get along. Somehow that's not cutting it anymore. Something has changed.

When I Went There

When I first saw the demonstrations in downtown Manhattan started by Occupy Wall Street, I was skeptical. I had seen things like this start and then falter. I wasn't holding my breath that youngsters would actually camp out for more than a week for anything more than the latest iPhone.

But now protesters are in their third week. I finally went down to Zuccotti Park to see what was happening. It's weird to note that Zucotti Park is on Broadway, literally a few blocks from Wall Street on one side, and a block away from The World Trade Center (yes, that World Trade Center) on the other.

At Zucotti Park

The park is basically an open block surrounded by enormous office towers. Its original purpose was to be a relief from all the high concrete canyons of downtown. Now it is the improbable scene of something so different: the start of the first widespread youth movement since the 1960s.

And that is important to remember. History does weigh on people, especially those who did not live in the Sixties, but feel its strong shadow. John Mayer wrote his song for a reason. I was expecting to see something like a new Woodstock or an Anti-Vietnam rally.

The Historic Nature of the Protests

'The scene,' however, was different. First off, I didn't get the sense of menace or tension between the police and the protesters. There was no barricade, no gauntlet. Police were nearby; a observation post hung above within site. Still, there was a respectful distance. Anyone could walk to the park without issue of any kind, which I promptly did.

Yes, there was a commune set up with sleeping bags on the sides, a cafeteria-style food line, booths with people handing out information. On one end of the park there was loud noisemaking, which suggested a carnival atmosphere. Yet on the other end, people gathered for a "general assembly," wherein they laid out the current agenda and took suggestions online as how to address them. In a not-so-subtle tribute to the late Steve Jobs, all the laptops were Macs. It was a bit chaotic: people were shouting what was on the screen, so that everyone could hear. I wondered if this was how Democracy started in Athens, or in Independence Hall or the Paris Commune. It was noisy, cumbersome, yet exciting.

Yes, there was the vague "aroma" of some people who had not showered or laundered clothes frequently. But no, that was not everyone. Many of the demonstrators were part timers, people with jobs or obligations who could not stay overnight, but were still lending their support. In spite of the fact that the space was lived in, it was not a complete sty. I saw people picking up litter and dumping trash bags into dumpsters. Demonstrators told me over and over again that even though they wanted their actions to be disruptive, they wanted them also to be safe, sanitary and legal.

There were the typical leftist images. Someone waved a huge red banner with Che Guevara's face on it, but I also saw balance. Not everyone was under thirty, white, or a radical. One lady from Long Island brought her children to be part of the experience. I never felt that the area was unsafe, though occasionally someone got frustrated and cursed at someone else (just like anywhere else in New York).

There was an older man who identified himself as a conservative. He criticized the protesters as being opposed to simple International supply and demand. I could see his point: it's hard for young Americans to compete with low wages of some other countries. However, I countered that in matters of trade, other countries often played protectionist games against our exports, though often very subtly. The man actually conceded my point.

Leftist sentiments aside, the youths were practical. None of them (to me anyway) endorsed Communism, less because they didn't agree with it, but because they were aware how that history turned out.

I met a well-groomed woman in her twenties from Germany. Three weeks ago she was headed for the airport to fly to Brazil, when she heard about the protests. She postponed her flight. Now she mans one of the booths in the park. She said that in Europe they were wondering when Americans were going to stand up. I met one man in his twenties who claimed to own a small firm. He designed a banner like the American flag, but instead of stars, he had the logos of famous corporations.

I met a young woman, originally from Seattle, who had been to Africa. She pointed out that even with their problems, the Africans were not beset by materialistic concerns. That inspired her here.

The Takeaway

The gist of my experience was that I was not meeting a group of losers or malcontents, but people who really wanted to change the conversation. One of the consistent criticisms of the protests is that they are all about demonstrations without solutions. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, has articulated such.

But I don't think that's the point. The truth is that young people are going through a major revision in their outlook. Globalization may be the way we live today, but it has displaced a great many people. Simply acquiescing to it alone does not make sense.

In time the kids are going to have to come up with something a little more definite. People have to know what are the requests, if not the demands, lest the protests only serve as a venting, and not something more. Nonetheless, I am proud of these guys. They are not yelling like idiots, but they want a conversation with the Establishment (sound familiar?). They are not trying to violate the law, but they are not pleased with the status quo. They're speaking up. The mere fact that some older folks (who ought to know better) are miffed is a good sign.

Originally Published on Yahoo Voices
New York October 13, 2011

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Tags

Occupy Wall Street, Protests, Zucotti Park

Meet the author

author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
Poet, playwright, commentator. I write wherever I can. Currently I reside in the City of New York.

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Comments

author avatar cnwriter..carolina
5th Aug 2014 (#)

most interesting your neutral perspective...time for change in the world for sure...

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
5th Aug 2014 (#)

Thanks Carolina. I approve of the idea. Unfortunately, some of the activists resorted to unlawful acts. Still, it was a start.

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
7th Aug 2014 (#)

It was a start. Wish it had gone better. I remember when I was teaching my ESL classes about this.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
7th Aug 2014 (#)

I agree. It represented something very promising.

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