Negative Space: Occupy Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial
There’s a conspiracy theory making the rounds at Occupy Wall Street that alleges building 7 of the old World Trade Center was blown up deliberately on 9/11 because it housed documents revealing government collusion with widespread insider trading on Wall Street.
Ah-hem. Excuse me, guys. First of all, widespread insider trading is a fact of life among the wealthy in America. Just visit any country club. Secondly, your movement doesn’t need conspiracy theories to ignite outrage. If the fact that Wall Street bankers nearly ruined the global economy with their greed and corruption and then got the taxpayers to foot the bill doesn’t do it for you, no 9/11 conspiracy theory is going to strike the match.
Fortunately, the truth has been enough to get the public agitated, and a good many Americans (polls say 70% of us) agree with Occupy Wall Street and wish them well. My guess, however, is that it’s been a long time since most of us have thrown in with such a motley crew.
Letting the Cops Off Their Leash
Not since the 1960’s has such a carnival atmosphere prevailed amidst a serious protest movement. Tattooed freaks and dreadlocked slackers stand shoulder to shoulder with pot-bellied labor activists, nursing mothers and retired city workers.
The only ones who seem out of place in this crazy quilt of sign holding and slogan chanting are the poor put-upon Wall Street bankers who have stopped by to engage the protestors with exasperated lessons in Chicago School economics and long-winded explanations about why they should be prospering while everybody else is struggling.
Up to the day I arrived, violence had been kept to a minimum and the cops had been trying to play it cool. But all that was about to change.
The night after I left, the police moved in, arresting 147 people and roughly evicting the protestors. Three days later, the movement bounced back with its
“Day of Action”, marching on Foley Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. 245 were arrested.
Across the country Occupy protestors took to the streets and were met by an aggressive police response. In Seattle Dorli Rainey, an 84 year old woman, was pepper sprayed. A priest and a pregnant woman were also pepper sprayed. In New York City former Philadelphia police Chief Ray Lewis was led away in handcuffs.
At the behest of city officials, the cops were finally let off the leash and the protestors, regardless of age or reputation, began to reap what they had sown.
But as I stood on the corner of Church and Liberty in Lower Manhattan one day prior to all of this, the police were struggling to remain stoic. I watched as a
single very loud protestor harangued them for hours about his right to stand on the sidewalk and harangue them.
Finally the cops couldn’t take it. They confronted him and pushed him behind the barricade into the park, demanding that he not block the sidewalk. This brought a rush of protestors who shook their fingers and shouted at the cops.
Onlookers, including myself, drew near, snapping pictures and taking videos. The cops began herding us down the sidewalk, telling us the show was over and instructing us to move along. The occupiers shouted for us to stay. There was a moment of high tension.
Ultimately the cops didn’t take the bait. The situation returned to normal and I was left wondering what any of this had to do with corporate bail outs.
The Financially Shrewd versus the Criminals
To call the range of grievances expressed at Occupy Wall Street diverse is to understate the hodge-podge nature of the movement. Basically it has become a magnet for anyone with an ax to grind. I saw occupiers protesting fracking, grumbling about school loan debt, griping about health care, and complaining about not getting their city pensions.
Yet beneath it all was a consistent theme. The country is being run for moneyed interests and the common man is being given the shaft.
Which is why I wanted to come to New York and see it. Occupy Wall Street is evolving into a global movement. Anti-austerity Europeans are finding a kindred spirit in those who demand to know why the rich and powerful are getting off scot free while the rest of us are expected to shoulder the burden. People around the world are beginning to question a double standard that has long been accepted in western democracies. The rich skate, the rest of us pay.
A recent article about wealthy homeowners who have been walking away from their underwater mortgages says it all. Rich Americans who have the means to pay but simply don’t are said to be “not paying their mortgages for financial reasons” and are considered to be “more financially shrewd” for doing so. A different article on the same topic dealing with middle-class Americans discusses their “irresponsibility” and suggests that something needs to be done to stop this “criminal behavior”.
People are growing tired of an economic system designed to absolve the rich for their mistakes and malfeasance while rewarding them disproportionately for their successes. Zuccotti Park is ground zero for this outcry. Curiously enough it is right across the street from another ground zero.
If any single moment can be said to be the moment that started us down the road to Occupy Wall Street, it was September 11th, 2001. The ensuing co-option of that tragedy got us entangled in two prolonged and pointless wars prosecuted with a rah-rah fervor that stifled dissent and demanded unquestioning complicity.
When George Bush declared, “You are either with us or you are against us,” it was the high water mark for intolerance, a warning shot across the bow of anyone who dared question the administration’s methods or motives. Signs began cropping up on windows and bumpers that demanded “Support Our Troops”, code for “Don’t Question This War.” And most Americans meekly complied.
As I stood at the edge of one of the enormous granite reflecting pools watching water cascade down the sides and into the square recess at bottom I was put in mind of negative space. The pools, which are located at the footings of the former Twin Towers, memorialize the tragic loss of lives on 9/11. The surrounding plaza is planted with 400 swamp white oak trees which, when fully grown, will provide a canopy of rustling leaves, a symbol of rejuvenation each spring.
But that water will continue to drain away down those square black holes, a constant reminder of what has been lost, not just the lives of innocents but the opportunity to make something better out of the ashes of the collapse.
We could have come together as a nation – we were galvanized to do so on September 12th – but were told instead to go about our business and let the government and military take care of things. We could have risen above our attackers, behaving with courage and aplomb. Instead we sank to their level, shrugging off collateral damage, embracing torture and using fear as a primary motivator. And, like them, we openly questioned the loyalty of anyone who disagreed.
Given the tenor of the time, any objection to income disparity and the risky behavior on Wall Street amounted to heresy. After all, we had been attacked by people who “hated our way of life”. To suggest that free market capitalism was not all it was cracked up to be was traitorous.
What a Rising Tide Raises
So we kept mum and drank the Kool Aid of supply-side economics, holding fast to the fallacy that by permitting the wealthy to gut regulations and escape paying taxes, we would all benefit. As Reagan said, “A rising tide would raise all boats.”
So we kept quiet as American companies shuttered factories and moved jobs overseas. We kept quiet as incomes stagnated and fell. We kept quiet as our indebtedness climbed and the banks moved to strengthen the bankruptcy laws against us.
At the same time, wealthy corporations and the top 1% of income earners prospered. They bought influence in congress, jiggered the system in their favor. They hoarded capital and rewarded their shareholders lavishly. If you complained about the disparity, it was pointed out that you, too, were a shareholder, by way of your 401-K. You would retire nicely. The system was working.
And then the bottom fell out. In their zeal to create ever more Byzantine financial instruments to generate wealth where no actual value existed, the under regulated, over compensated financial industry plunged us all off a cliff.
For the first couple of years we remained silent, stunned by what had happened, clinging to the discredited belief that if we just took care of the wealthy, they would take care of us. Thus, the bailouts. Thus, the lack of accountability.
Not only were there almost no prosecutions for the criminality on Wall Street, but the bankers and financiers who had created this mess were rewarded with plumb positions, fat bonuses and leadership roles in congress and the White House.
But our generosity earned us nothing. We were watering a dead tree.
How to Take Steam out of a Movement
It is a credit to the right wing media machine that it took us this long to stand up. We had become so accustomed to being shouted down by purple-faced Rush Limbaugh clones that we hung our heads and fumed rather than speaking out. Exasperated, we had begun to accept that our fellow countrymen were mostly noisy tea partiers, raiding town halls and elevating air heads to positions of power. It was depressing.
And then came September 17th, 2011, nearly ten years to the day since the tragedy on September 11th. A Canadian activist group called Adbusters initiated a protest in New York’s Zuccotti Park to speak out against economic inequality and the undue influence of corporations on the government. They lit a spark.
They pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that in fact a rising tide was raising just a few boats. Most of us scratched our heads and said, “You know, they’re right.” The aggrieved flocked to Zuccotti Park and to other encampments across the country. A movement was underway.
Now, of course, the powers that be want it to disappear. It was amusing for awhile. Now it’s becoming a pain. The right wing media writes hand-wringing stories of business owners and Wall Street traders who are inconvenienced by the rallies. The protestors are vilified as dirty, noisy and dumb. Their lack of a central mission is characterized as pointless. Next, of course, they will be painted as dangerous.
There is any number of ways to take the wind out of the movement’s sails.
Already a Washington based lobbyist group has circulated a memo outlining ways to discredit the protestors by prying into their backgrounds and claiming they have cynical motives. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party is looking for ways to co-opt the movement. And then there’s the abiding hope that the whole thing will just run out of steam.
But that’s unlikely. The movement has struck a chord. People are fed up, and they are no longer afraid to say it.
At this hour the only thing that will rob the movement of its power is an improving economy. Give these people a job and you will be surprised how fast the movement will dissolve.
What Occupy Wall Street Wants
These people are not complicated. And yes they have cynical motives. They want an income. They want an income adequate to pay their bills. They want to be able to get sick without going broke.
They want to be free of a system that seeks to encumber them in debt. They want to be treated with dignity and respect and not be treated as tools to be exploited by a wealthy elite.
In other words, they want what the founding fathers wanted. They want to be Americans.
If that’s too much to ask, the movement is only getting started and will be with us for a long time to come.
Occupy Wall Street may have been expelled from Zuccotti Park, but increasingly it is coming to occupy a place in our hearts.