Occupy Wall Street: Beyond the Caricatures

Outsiders are criticizing a heterodox movement that they choose not to understand.


It's very easy to decree from afar that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators flooding Lower Manhattan right now are there for no other reason than to recite hackneyed leftist bombast. Indeed, without interviewing a single attendee, National Review editor Rich Lowry determined that the thousands who have flocked to Liberty Plaza in recent weeks are nothing more than a "woolly-headed horde" spouting "juvenile rabble."

I strongly disagree. By and large, the folks I've spoken to have not come off as "woolly-headed" in the slightest. On Wednesday, for instance, I chatted with Jack Zwaan, a self-described "Tea Party Libertarian" and Ron Paul supporter who had flown in from Little Rock, Arkansas, to attend the demonstration. Zwaan wielded a humongous Gadsden flag—yes, the kind of flag commonly seen at Tea Party protests.

While there's no question that the Occupy movement has an ethereally left-leaning tilt—and to be sure, the appearance of traditional unions can make that tilt more pronounced—all the "End the Fed" advocates, Ron Paul supporters, Internet freedom activists, and even some who identify as "Tea Party Patriots" in the mix make this phenomena difficult to characterize with pithy soundbites.

I think that's one reason why Paul was basically supportive when I asked him to comment on the demonstrations last Friday, after a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire. "If they were demonstrating peacefully," Paul said, "and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed—I would say, good!" Then on Wednesday, hours before more protesters and journalists were beaten and pepper-sprayed by the NYPD, Paul elaborated on how he views the protests: "I think civil disobedience, if everyone knows what they're doing, is a legitimate effort. It's been done in this country for many grievances."

Of course, the type of loudmouth gadflies who show up at all large outdoor political events, whether Tea Party gatherings, GOP coffee klatches, or Democratic National Conventions, can be found in Liberty Plaza. But to dismiss an entire movement—one that is gathering momentum in cities all around the country—based on the inarticulateness of a few teenagers is entirely the wrong response. It's far more useful to try and understand what is going on here, to grok the meaning of these protesters' motivations, before prematurely passing summary judgment.

Caricatures cannot do justice to the fully uniformed Marine who stood at the northeastern corner of the square last Sunday night, glaring emotionlessly out into the street. John Cortes told me he'd come from Staten Island to monitor the goings-on at Liberty Plaza. Why? When a U.S. Marine takes the oath to uphold the Constitution, Cortes said, he also vows to protect the right of citizens to peaceably assemble. "We're supposed to defend our fellowmen, right? So if you see somebody, whether it's the police or not, abusing somebody—you're going to do something about it, right?"

On Monday afternoon, an elderly man approached me on the corner of Broadway and Cedar St. to ask if I was covering the demonstration. He had a comment. "I'll be 89 this month," the man said. "I served in the United States Navy during World War II. I remember the Great Depression, when my parents had to go [on relief]. And I realized that this is a wonderful country, but there are too many greedy people who control it."

Walter, from Manhattan, asked not to have his last name printed. "I hope this continues," he said. "Not only here, but throughout the United States, and in larger groups. This country has suffered enough from the plutocrats."

"The police had no right to treat people so badly," he added.

Paul Isaac, an auxiliary firefighter from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, stood in Liberty Plaza holding up an American flag that bore the names of police officers and firemen who perished on 9/11. "I was down the block when the North Tower collapsed," Issac said. "I never made it to the buildings." On account of being an auxiliary firefighter, Issac said, New York City has neglected to compensate him for the medical treatment he required after being exposed to toxic air near Ground Zero. "But so what?" he asked me. "We're still fighting. History is occurring here."

The prevailing sense among demonstrators who started camping out three weeks ago is that something remarkable has caught fire. Ironically, their optimism is borne out of longstanding frustration that has only increased with a series of distressing recent events: The execution of Troy Davis, for example, motivated many, as did last week's drone-strike assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Alaki without due process. Then came the revelation that Wall Street's own JP Morgan Chase made a $4.6 million donation to the New York Police Department, slated to cover future expenditures on things like "security monitoring software." It was the largest donation in New York City Police Foundation history, and did more than all the Alex Jones broadcasts in the world to stoke conspiracy-mongering among the disaffected. (Jones, by the way, has called on his listeners to agitate at Federal Reserve buildings throughout the country.)

Sarah Marshall, a 21-year-old woman from Columbus, Georgia, flew to New York for the demonstration. Just days earlier, she attended a vigil for Troy Davis, the man executed in the Peach State on September 21 despite serious questions surrounding his guilt. "The SWAT police marched out in riot gear—it was nauseating," Marshall said. "The verdict was just completely heart-wrenching. It was unlawful for them to execute him." I asked if she favored any of the current presidential candidates. "If anybody, it would be Ron Paul, but there's always a catch—he is a little strange sometimes."

"The banks got bailed out / we got sold out" is probably the most common chant I've heard at Liberty Plaza, and I think it best encapsulates the protest's overriding sentiment: that regardless of political persuasion, people are sick and tired of a select few billionaires, in collusion with government, making decisions that hurt the rest of us behind closed conference-room doors. The feeling is fundamentally post-partisan. Everyone knows, on some level, that "Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit"—as one placard put it. And rampant police abuse has only confirmed that something's got to give.

There is near-consensus that government's bailout-happy genuflection to Wall Street before, during, and after the financial crisis has caused tremendous damage, allowing well-connected and financially insulated bankers to reap record profits while social services budgets are put on the chopping block. Even if demonstrators have yet to hash out a tangible or credible remedy for addressing all this, most agree that identifying the problem must come first.

Many cited Saturday's mass arrest of 700 nonviolent protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge as a galvanizing moment. Among those taken into custody were New York Times reporter Natasha Lennard and a member of the National Lawyers Guild, who was wearing a green hat to signify his status as a legal observer. Shockingly, multi-billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg said police "did exactly what they are supposed to do" in carrying out this mass arrest operation. But unfortunately, Mayor Mike has not yet commented on why officers initially escorted and guided demonstrators across the bridge, giving dozens of people I interviewed the misleading impression that entry onto the roadway portion was being permitted. Once protesters made it about halfway across, they were suddenly cordoned off by rows of officers on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn ends.

Were protesters set up? The NYPD released a barely-audible video in which an officer announces via bullhorn that anyone who marches on the road would be subject to arrest. Ryan Devereaux of Democracy Now! reported from near the front of the procession that he personally observed the announcement. Yet despite his close proximity, Devereaux told me, he was unable to discern the officer's words. "Due to the buildup at the base of the bridge, and the chants of people around me, I personally could not understand anything that was being said over the megaphone," he recalled. "If you were any further back than I was, I can't imagine how you would've been able to hear anything at all."

No wonder protesters and many observers smell a rat. Conor Tomas Reed, a graduate student from New York, said the police operation appeared to have been a form of entrapment. "If there was that much of a fear that thousands of people would get onto the bridge," he told me, "they would've had a line of cops at the entrance, all with their billy clubs out, and several people with bullhorns making announcements." Instead, video shows officers leading demonstrators onto the roadway portion of the bridge. The subsequent mass arrest impeded vehicular traffic for more than six hours. Demonstrators estimated it would have taken them between 20 and 45 minutes to walk across unobstructed.

Reports have also indicated that NYPD officers are mocking protesters while they are in custody; one transgender man said he was subjected to a "disrespectful genital pat down" and then chained to a restroom wall for more than eight hours. Such claims are made more plausible by the behavior of pepper-spraying cop Anthony Bologna, the menacing deputy inspector who doused at least five people during a march to Union Square on September 24.

"I think that was disgusting," David Suker, an Occupy Wall Street participant and veteran who served as an infantryman in Germany from 1986 to 1988, told me. "I think that guy should be in jail."

Dozens of police officers encircle Liberty Plaza at any given time, and I interviewed quite a few on Sunday and Monday, asking whether they had heard about what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge. Twenty-eight officers replied with some variation of "no"—they hadn't heard what happened—including a captain and a lieutenant. It seems as if cops are not being permitted to interact normally with press and other citizens. When I asked this man—pictured wearing a striped suit on the right, and standing alongside a row of uniformed officers—if he was with the NYPD, he simply replied "keep walking."

On Sunday evening, as I spoke with a cop on the sidewalk, some kind of "community affairs" officer approached me and asked if I was recording audio. I said yes and showed him the voice recorder I'd been holding in my hand. He instructed me to cease recording. I complied, then took out a notepad. The officer informed me that I was not allowed to write notes either. When I asked the officer issuing these instructions for his name, he refused to provide it; he was wearing a royal blue polo shirt with no name tag.

"The directive that you had to stop recording and taking notes was unlawful," said Chris Dunn, an associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Not disclosing his name would likely be a violation of department rules." Indeed, on Monday, when I asked another community affairs officer whether departmental code requires members of his division to provide their names upon request, he replied in the affirmative.

The only white-shirted senior officer that spoke with me on a human-like level was Deputy Inspector Bernie Del Pozzo, who I found articulate and respectful. However, in the middle of our conversation, an unidentified officer with the police department's "TARU"—Technical Assistance Response Unit—came up to Del Pozzo and said, "Hey, what's going on detective? How are you? You got two minutes?" and escorted him away.

Yes, I'll concede that I entered high cliché alert upon encountering a huddle of protesters singing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'." But their passionate rendition would've made old Zimmerman proud. My takeaway from Liberty Plaza thus far is one of genuine pain and anger in the present, not a hipster-induced flashback to the sixties. Certainly it's worth acknowledging that for the past decade or more, under Republicans and Democrats alike, government and hugely influential corporations have dined out—and then gotten bailed out–by many of the people now calling for change.

Michael Tracey is a writer based in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.