Special Report

Live From Wall Street

One clean-cut journalist goes undercover with the protesters.

By 10.7.11

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What exactly does one wear to a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions… [made up of] the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent"? This was my pressing question as I prepared to document the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest currently besieging downtown New York. Honestly, my greatest fear was looking like a total Narc. My personal style is best described as Bing Crosby updated for the present day. Surely the guy in retro glasses with a closely cropped hairstyle would stand out amongst the throngs of leftist marchers. Ultimately, I settled on a Johnny Cash t-shirt and ratty sneakers. My fandom of the Man in Black is about as close as I come to counterculture.

I also recruited a liberal minded friend to accompany me so I would stand out less and wouldn't be alone if I ran into trouble. I had at least some fear of being arrested. This past weekend, 700 people were jailed as protesters flooded the Brooklyn Bridge.  Surely some of them were just observers who got caught up in the mass arrest. I wondered how my modern day crooner shtick would go over as I cooled my heels while eating bologna in the Tombs, New York's downtown detention center.

What brought me out into the streets with the rabble? My first contact with these protesters was on the Internet. Initially, I took to Twitter and zinged them on a superficial level. I made all the obvious quips. They have the time to occupy Wall Street because they lack occupations. They are bringing down corporate greed one blog post at a time from their Apple iPhones using free wifi at McDonald's and Starbucks. If the powerful labor unions they recruited to their cause went on a "general strike," no one would notice because unionists hardly work anyhow.

In a particularly nasty Twitter exchange, an OWS sympathizer called me some unprintable words in retaliation for my unkindness towards the movement. When I remarked that he would not win my heart or mind that way, he retorted that he does not need to win me over. I am an enemy of the revolution because I write for The American Spectator. Touché.

But whether I like their message or not -- and believe me, I despise it -- OWS is a sizeable group of people exercising their rights to free speech. There are perhaps several hundred people who have established an encampment in Zuccotti Park, just off of Wall Street, for the past nineteen days. On days when marches are scheduled, their numbers swell into the thousands.  Perhaps I had been overly judgmental of their movement. Perhaps not. Either way, this was a spectacle worth checking out.

As it happens, I decided to venture downtown on the day that the ostensibly leaderless OWS movement received a massive influx of support from organized labor. The Transit Workers Union, the United Auto Workers, SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers and other powerful union interests staged a massive march in solidarity with the "occupiers." The irony is inescapable. The TWU, which constantly imperils the finances of New York City through its ridiculous wage and benefit demands, and the UAW, which put the last nail in the coffin of the American auto industry through its contract inflexibility, want to have their say in a protest about the economy. This is like Michael Moore applying to be night watchman at the Hostess Cupcake factory.

As I emerged from the subway, I was immediately treated to the din of wind instruments provided by the Musicians Local 802, who from time to time provide the music for Broadway shows when they are not on strike. A man holding a smartphone approached me out of nowhere to ask if I had heard the bad news. He showed me the Apple website with notice of Steve Jobs' untimely death.  A protester at a march against corporations celebrating the life of one of the greatest corporate visionaries without a trace of irony? It was going to be a long night.

Before visiting OWS, I had already formed an initial impression based on media reports, web videos, and my own interactions with supporters. At best, I thought, they have arguably reasonable demands that I disagree with (reinstate the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act preventing commercial banks from owning investment banks), or vague but laudable goals absent any prescriptions (corporations have too much power, the people need to take back control). At worst they insidiously call for socialist revolution, the downfall of capitalism, or even anarchism, or just make ignorant demands to abdicate all personal responsibility, such as the abolishment of all student and home debt.

Within minutes of my arrival downtown, not only were my preconceptions confirmed, I also observed a dizzying array of  grievances being aired that have nothing to do with the economic straits of this country. As a patriotic American, the first thing I noticed was that many of the thousands of protesters held signs that were either printed by socialist organizations, or called for socialist revolution. "Smash Imperialism Through International Socialist Revolution," breathlessly exhorted one. Ask any peasant farmer how that works out in the end. "Fight for Socialism," said another. Funny, I thought that as a free country many of our collective efforts have been devoted to fighting against socialism. "Marx was Right.  Resource Based Economy!"  Hmm… who would have invented that protester's iPhone in whatever the hell a resource based economy is? Even a fairly innocuous sign protesting cuts to the City University of New York said at the bottom that it was printed by a group called the "Party for Socialism and Liberation" -- an organization with two strikingly antithetical philosophies in their name.

The last straw was when I was handed a copy of the socialist: Magazine of the Socialist Party USA. At that point, I had a strong urge to either report myself to HUAC or take a long shower. A man near me mumbled to no one in particular that "this is what democracy looks like." Apparently democracy masquerades as a ragtag bunch of would-be Stalinists.

My second observation was that the protesters have a distinct spirit of defeatism and unwillingness to do anything for themselves. "Jail Sallie Mae. End all Student Debt," said one sign. "F*ck your unpaid internship," said another. "You want demands? We want a future," was scrawled on a piece of cardboard playing off of the public perception that the protesters have no organized slate of goals. "Where is OUR bailout?" "Shelters are not family friendly!" "Tax the Rich!" The hits kept on coming.

Not surprisingly, the march also played host to a laundry list of unrelated lefty causes. One woman wore a button that proclaimed "I am Troy Davis." She was bearing tribute to a convicted cop killer who recently met his reward at the hand of the State of Georgia. Contrary to her claim, she looked suspiciously like a middle aged white lady in a dashiki. Many held signs protesting hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as "fracking." Fracking is a miracle technology that enables the release of massive quantities of petroleum and natural gas from beneath rock formations. Those in the know consider it safe, but the protesters (usually the first to bemoan our dependence on "foreign oil") think they have a better understanding.  And of course the 9/11 "truthers" showed up. Some just held signs calling for an "investigation", but two men shouted loudly into the night at anyone who would listen. My liberal friend bemoaned the fact that the two loudest people were the ones who were the greatest discredit to the march.

But the award for most ridiculous sign of the night goes to one I found on the ground just after wandering into the Zuccotti Park encampment, which read "Sex Workers Against Capitalism." I am reasonably certain this was not tongue in cheek; sex workers are a regular fixture on the radical left protest scene. But the sign is sublimely silly. "Sex work" is the oldest capitalist profession. What would the person who wrote the sign suggest as a replacement system? Should prospective clients barter for his or her wares? A bushel of corn in exchange for a roll in the hay?

Not far from this sign, a man begged his fellow occupiers to help him build puppets. He could not stress enough how crucial these were to the occupation. As I surveyed the piles of garbage, camping gear, and personal effects strewn across the park, I heard one man brag to another that he had helped bum rush several cops. Despite this, most of the occupiers seemed misguided but peaceful.

Interestingly, there was not much love for Obama in the crowd. Of the hundreds of signs I surveyed only two made direct reference to the president. One, held by a member of the CUNY Internationalist Club, said "Obama, Democrats: War-Makers, Union-Busters. For a Workers Party to Fight for a Workers Government." The second said, cryptically, "Osama Bin Obama Sucks." I also saw a sign that said "Democrats and Republicans: Two Parties of Racism, War, and Layoffs!" While the OWS movement claims to transcend the left-right dichotomy, I only saw one Gadsden Flag, the Revolutionary War era banner that has been adopted by the Tea Party of late. But that guy was with a group holding flags for Veterans for Peace, a generally left-leaning organization, and not far from him were people holding signs that said "Republicans are Greedy" and "Americans fed up with Tea Party Bullsh*t." Although most of the protesters clearly ranged from left to radical left, they all seemed generally suspicious of political parties.

Genuinely troubling, however, is the involvement of Anonymous, a group of geeks emboldened by their proficiency in computer crime. The hackers of Anonymous indiscriminately commit cyber attacks against groups they disagree with. They claim to be a leaderless collective, a theme which they have carried over to OWS. Their chief contribution to the occupation is a prevalence of Guy Fawkes masks. Fawkes, the engineer of the failed 1604 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the British Parliament, is a sort of mascot for the group. They also stress the notion that the occupation is for the 99 percent, essentially anyone not part of the 1 percent of Americans who supposedly hold the vast bulk of wealth. Political science 101: always be suspicious of someone who claims to speak for you, but whose appointment you had no hand in. Incidentally, a corporate Hollywood movie is responsible for the recent resurgence of Guy Fawkes as a folk hero. These anti-corporatists sure borrow freely from corporations.

OWS supporters will surely accuse me of being unfairly dismissive of their movement. They are shooting the messenger -- I can't help it if their cause is intellectually bankrupt. They are no more than a discontented mob carrying a jumble of disparate, even odious messages. The few among them who call for specific policy changes lack the good sense not to lie with socialist dogs. I will say to their credit that I was genuinely inspired to see thousands of energetic, passionate people fighting for a cause -- even though it's unclear what the exact nature of that cause might be. But ultimately, I found no common ground with them as I walked the downtown streets of Manhattan. I guess I am the enemy after all.

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.