New York, The East

Negative Space: Occupy Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial

A tattoed cowboy at Occupy Wall Street.
A tattoed cowboy at Occupy Wall Street.

Tattooed freaks and dreadlocked slackers stand shoulder to shoulder with a wide range of other people at Occupy Wall Street in New York..

There’s a conspiracy theory making the rounds at Occupy Wall Street that alleges that building no. 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 unvarnished truth has been enough to get most of the public upset. 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

Cops confront protestors at Occupy Wall Street in New York.

The cops pushed the protestors back, demanding that they not block the sidewalk.   (Click any image to enlarge).

Not since the 1960’s has such a carnival atmosphere prevailed amidst a 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 are the poor put-upon Wall Street bankers who stop by from time to time to engage the protestors in earnest discussions about Chicago School economics while providing long-winded explanations about why they should be prospering while everybody else suffers. So far, violence had been kept to a minimum, and the cops had been playing it cool. But all that was about to change.

A Wall Street type debates with the Occupy Wall Street protestors.

A Wall Street type lectures Occupy Wall Street protestors about the infallibility of supply side economics.

The night after I was at Zuccotti Park, the police moved in, arresting 147 people and roughly evicting the protestors. Three days later, the movement bounced back with a “Day of Action” march 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 thrown to the pavement. 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.

A day earlier, as I stood on the corner of Church and Liberty outside Zuccotti Park, the police were struggling to remain stoic. I watched as a

The cops confront the Occupy Wall Street protestors.

Finally the cops couldn’t take it. They went after the protestors and pushed them back.

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’s over” and “Move along”. The occupiers yelled for us to stay.  There was a moment of tension.

Trickle down economics ridiculed.

Many are tired of a system that strives to reward the rich on the discredited assumption that they will provide for the rest of us.

But ultimately the cops didn’t take the bait, not then. 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 being expressed at Occupy Wall Street unfocused 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 to 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.

An angry protestor at Occupy Wall Street.

Anger and defiance is palpable at Occupy Wall Street. People are fed up and no longer afraid to say it.

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 discussed their “irresponsibility” and suggested that something needed to be done to stop this “criminal behavior”.

People are growing tired of an economic system designed to absolve the rich for their errors 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.

 

Negative Space

National Guard at the World Trade Center collapse in 2001.

The tragedy of 9/11 was one of lost lives and lost opportunities.

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 expropriation of that tragedy to justify a war of retribution against a despised dictator who had nothing to do with it speaks volumes about how easily the rich and powerful can take advantage of us to get what they want at our expense.

When President 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 his administration’s methods or motives. Signs began cropping up on windows and bumpers that demanded “Support Our Troops”, code for “Don’t Even Think About Questioning This War.” 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.

The 9/11 Memorial with the new World Trade Center rising behind it.

The 9/11 Memorial with the new World Trade Center rising behind it.

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 good and decent out of the ashes of that calamity.

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 take care of things. We could have risen above our attackers, acting with courage and dignity.  Instead we sank to their level, shrugging off collateral damage, embracing torture and using fear as a  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 would have amounted to heresy.  fter 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 well-nigh traitorous.

 

What a Rising Tide Raises

A bronze statue of a Wall Street trader leans toward a jobless mother and her child at Occupy Wall Street.

A bronze statue of a Wall Street trader leans toward a jobless mother and her child in Zuccotti Park.

So we kept mum and drank the Kool Aid of supply-side economics, holding fast to the fallacy that by permitting the wealthy to remove regulations and escape paying taxes, we would all benefit. As Reagan said, “A rising tide would raise all boats.”

So we kept quiet while American employers shut down 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 to prevent us from reaching a safety line.

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.

Masked protestor strokes his cat.

A protestor in a Guy Fawkes mask strokes his cat. In addition to lots of people there were plenty of pets at Occupy Wall Street, dogs, cats, birds and a ferret.

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 off a cliff, taking us with them.

For the first couple of years we remained silent, stunned by what had happened, clinging to the discredited belief that if we just made sure the wealthy were taken care of, 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 positions in congress.

Tent city in Zuccotti Park for Occupy Wall Street.

Tents covered Zuccotti Park on the afternoon of November 14th.

But our generosity had earned us nothing. We got nothing in return. It turned out we had been 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 red-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 in America. They lit a spark.

Zuccotti Park on November 15th after the protestors were evicted.

By the morning of November 15th Zuccotti Park was cleared and police defended it.

They pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, that in fact the rising tide had raised just a few boats, primarily yachts. Most of us just 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 us to shut up. It was amusing for awhile, but now it’s time to move on. Wall Street traders are being inconvenienced by the protests. The protestors are dirty, noisy and dumb. Their lack of a central mission is pointless.  Soon they will be painted as dangerous, menacing, a threat to law abiding citizens. There is any number of ways to take the wind out of the movement’s sails.

A baby wears a protest button at Occupy Wall Street.

“Do it for the children”. One rally cry among many at Occupy Wall Street.

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 energy is an improving economy. Give these people a job and you may be surprised how fast the movement goes away.

 

What Occupy Wall Street Really Wants

These people are not complicated. And it’s true 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.

9/11 Memorial.

Water will continue to drain away down the black hole of the 9/11 memorial. Negative space. A reminder of what’s been lost. But can it be regained?

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 like tools to be exploited. In other words, they want what the founding fathers wanted. They want to be Americans.

If that’s too much to ask from the people who hold the purse strings, it may be quite a while before the movement disappears. Occupy Wall Street may have been expelled from Zuccotti Park, but increasingly it has come to occupy a place in most Americans’ hearts.

 

Check out the Complete Occupy Wall Street Slide Show at Flickr 

 

Video: Occupy Wall Street Protestors Being Evicted from Zuccotti Park – Nov 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protestors being evicted from Zuccotti Park

 

Previous stop on the odyssey: Bedford, PA  //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Pennsylvania Oil Sites

 

Image Credits:
All images by Malcolm Logan, except Trickle down, David Shankbone; National Guard at WTC, Public Domain; and Zuccotti Park emptied of protestors, David Shankbone