Last week my daughter and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan. The day was overcast. The bridge and city looked particularly dramatic in the gray light. We wanted to see the Occupy Wall Street protest. Actually, I wanted to see it. My daughter was ambivalent. She lives in New York City and would no sooner think to use a precious day off work to visit OWS than wander Times Square or climb the Statue of Liberty.
But this is important, I said to her, maybe even historic. My motives were selfish. For several years we'd all been talking about the system being out of whack. When our federal debt is a number higher than my brain can comprehend; when a mere one percent of the population controls 40 percent of the money; when CEOs earn 400 times their average employee and take multi-million dollar bonuses for laying off workers; when we bail out big banks and repossess the homes of individuals who trusted those banks to give fair loans; it's clear our great society is choking to death on its own greed.
But here's the thing: I am one of the lucky few. My husband and I bought our house decades ago. We earned fair wages as journalists. We were given decent severance pay when we volunteered for downsizing, and we've both found new jobs. We're far from wealthy. But we're not in panic mode like so many who can't find work, health insurance or hope. I wasn't about to walk away from my job, home and life to camp out on the streets, but I wanted to at least get a look at it and show some support.
My daughter pulled out her smart phone and led us to Zuccotti Park. It was small but packed with people. As we approached we saw about eight protestors standing side-by-side on one end of the park holding handmade signs. Most made some reference to the one percent. Another said something about 1 + 99 = 100 percent to point out that we are all in this thing together. There was a guy with an American flag sticker stuck, like a gag, over his mouth, and a guy dressed in an ironic business suit and tie. The police asked gawkers to keep moving so my daughter and I squeezed through the crowd and into the park.
The first things I noticed were all the tables offering information pamphlets on everything from the financial crisis to native tribal issues. There was a roped off area for OWS parents where one dad sat playing with a toddler. There was a generator to power computers, cell phones and heaters. Heaps of backpacks, sleeping bags, folding chairs, and guitars stashed beneath blue tarps were loosely guarded by a guy sitting on a lawn chair. Another man stood on a bench reading poetry aloud. About a half dozen people gathered close to listen. Near the center of the park, several portable buffet tables offered a spread of free hot food but there was no line, really. People walked up, filled paper plates and stepped aside. It looked more relaxed than a suburban Country Kitchen Buffet. There were a few gray-haired women wearing yellow panchos that read "Granny Peace Brigade." Another woman in a lab coat carried a sign that said she held a PhD in biomedical science and needed work. I'm not sure if she considered Wall Street responsible for her situation or she just hoped someone in the crowd would offer her a job. A group of teens sat on the ground fiddling with guitars while, on a tattered sofa nearby, a heavily inked-and-pierced couple engaged in public displays of affection.
"Get a load of the love birds over there," a middle-aged guy in front of me said to his friend. They both kind of groaned. At that moment I realized that a big chunk of the crowd in this packed park were, like me, simply curious onlookers passing-through, and I felt embarrassed, as if I'd suddenly noticed I was strutting around in an I-heart-NY T-shirt.
We walked through to the opposite end of the park, crossed the street and paused to look back.
"I don't know," said my daughter. "I wanted to be inspired."
Instead, she said she felt only confused. What did protestors even want? It wasn't clear. The message was muddled. I couldn't argue with that. But I didn't expect clarity just yet.
I recalled how many of the protests of the '60s, when I was child, left me absolutely baffled. The Civil Rights marches were crystal clear. But what was "The Human-Be-In" of Golden Gate Park, or "The Summer of Love" all about? There were demonstrations against the Vietnam War. But why were protestors angry with the returning soldiers who were drafted? There were phrases such as "Old enough to die/Old enough to vote," which clarified the argument for lowering the voting age to 18. But other popular phrases like "anti-establishment" and the "rejection of commercialism" were big and vague. When I was about ten years old, my Dad crammed we six kids in the station wagon to drive by the University of Minnesota to check out the frat houses decorated for a football game. But I was way more excited to spot a genuine hippie on campus. Until then, I thought they only existed in San Francisco. The guy walking down the sidewalk had long hair. He wore wire-rim glasses, jeans, a peacoat and beret. I flashed him a peace sign. He flashed back half-a-peace sign, if you get my drift. The times they were a changing but damned if I understood the metamorphosis.
The truth is, I watched most of that revolution on television. And I flipped channels often. But as I grew-up, I came to appreciate more and more those who were willing to engage in Civil Disobedience to change our world.
We tend to view the past in clear cause-and-effect timelines. But living through those times, is a lot messier. It's not always clear what the cause is, and what the effect will be. It's more like a tilted game of pinball with lots of ricocheting balls, bells, and flashing lights.
So Mayor Bloomberg can shut down the generators in Zuccotti Park, but I don't think he can pull the plug on the movement. The cops can break up a demonstration with tear gas, but video of their action will likely move far more people to tears. And though relatively few will join in acts of Civil Disobedience, millions of Americans sense that there's something happening here and, even if we don't know what it is, we are bearing witness.