Even the Protesters at Occupy Wall Street Are Confused About What They’re Protesting

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 3 2011 3:24 PM

Vacancy

The Occupy Wall Street protests and the creation of the post-Obama left.

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A protester at Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 3

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

NEW YORK—“Mic Check!”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“MIC CHECK!”

In Zuccotti Park, temporary home to a few hundred activists shaming the financial system, megaphones are not permitted. Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement—and really, anyone who stops by the park is a member—have gotten around this with an old protester’s trick: If you speak, you shout “mic check,” as if you’re onstage tuning your guitar. People around you repeat everything you say, so that the people around them can hear. This happens twice a day. The protesters call it the New York City General Assembly.

It takes a lot of time. On Saturday, the crowd was especially impatient. More than a thousand of them had tried to march over the Brooklyn Bridge, and more than 700 were arrested. Rumors about the arrests were spreading. Some protesters had watched liberated or lucky protesters walk back onto Manhattan, past a watchful phalanx of cops, pumping their fists. Now, this organizer was going to testify.

“Direct action.”

“DIRECT ACTION!”

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“Planned for.”

“PLANNED FOR!”

“A peaceful march. Over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway. During the march. A small group of individuals. Took it upon themselves. To take the vehicle roadway. That was not blocked off. Immediately. People from direct action. Started communicating. To protesters. That there were two options. The planned route. On the pedestrian walkway. Or, if they wanted to. To autonomously take. The vehicle roadway. Which we warned them. Was illegal. And highly unsafe.”

The Varied Signs of the wall street occupation slideshow promo

The movement has been taught a few hand motions to keep this process going. Holding up their fingers and wiggling them means “I agree” or “I like that.” Turning their hands as if turning a wheel means “get to the point.” A few hands have turned into wheels.

“Many people. Were unfortunately. Corralled into. The vehicle roadway. I was a scout. For today’s march. I found it bizarre. That there was very little security. Or police presence. On the Manhattan side. Of the Brooklyn Bridge. It should be noted. That there was a lot of. Police activity. On the Brooklyn side. I arrived. In the middle of the march. When I got there. Most of my committee. Were directing people. To take the legal. Pedestrian walkway. As was planned. Despite this. When I got there. Hundreds of people. Were marching. On the vehicular roadway. I saw almost. Nobody following. Our committee’s recommendation. To follow the pedestrian walkway. In fact, the crowd. Marching on the highway. Was so big. That I myself. Followed them.”

But I had just spent an hour talking to protesters who’d escaped arrest. They were saying that the police, not the marchers, had created the confusion on the bridge. “If you didn’t get out in four or five seconds, you were arrested,” said an activist named Constance Quinn, lisping a little bit behind some mouth piercings. She was about to sign up for YouTube to post the video she took. “There were people climbing over the railing to get back on the pedestrian side.”

The reality was that the arrest was a muddle, a mistake exacerbated by some police (“some” because other protesters said they’d been let free, their plastic handcuffs snipped off, by cops who told them to beat it). It was also their media breakthrough.

On Friday, they’d been griping about their portrayal in the press, which tended to be either snark or a blackout. On Saturday, they’d gotten a story on the front page of the New York Times. On Sunday, the arrests led the New York Post.

So the arrests were the hook. What’s the story? I hung out with Occupy Wall Street on Friday and Saturday, which wasn’t enough time to figure out what the movement is about, because no one knows what it’s about. The professional radicals who provided the jargon and call-and-response technique had not pressed their agenda onto the protesters. The union members who’d started to show up, like the SEIU volunteers who dropped off free ponchos and food, admired the protest without co-signing it. They’re saving that for an Oct. 5 march, which will bring dozens of unions in league with the nascent movement.

That’s going to help with optics. The packs of young anarchists at the head of the crowds look like the people that Middle America ignored when they protested the WTO, or the War in Iraq – not people who look like they share Joe Middle Class’s concerns.

The arrival of the unions will add more average-looking, worried people to a movemene that’s already happily incoherent. At any moment on Friday and Saturday, there were more Ron Paul 2012 signs than “Free Mumia” signs. On Friday afternoon, the crowd had swelled because of a rumor: Some smartass claimed that Radiohead would be playing in the park, in solidarity. Two construction workers stood near the south side of the park watching a bunch of drummers and horn players blast free jazz with occasional infusions of Thom Yorke’s songs. They figured that the band wasn’t showing, and they left, but most of the new gawkers stayed. A sign appeared in the crowd: “A Radiohead rumor was the tipping point in Cairo, too.”

David Intrator, who was playing saxophone with the band, talked about why he was there. “I saw one kid with a sign that said: ‘I’m Here ‘Cuz This Shit is Fucked Up,’” said Intrator. “That about says it, you know? We need a systemic, fundamental change in society. I wish I could give you a definition of that. I can’t. I just know that the system is fundamentally flawed.”

There was almost no talk about politicians. “The last six or seven presidents have been fakes,” shrugged Teddy Curtis, who’d taken off work early from his job at a waste energy conversion company to hoist an “End the Fed” sign. “I think They know who we’re going to get before we do. Nothing changes.”

The anarchists and minarchists in the crowd might not like this observation—no parties, man!—but Occupy Wall Street is post-Obama left-wing populism. It will be post-Obama even if the man himself holds office until January 2017. Seven years ago, the people protesting in Zuccotti Park had marched outside the Republican National Convention, decrying George W. Bush. Three years ago, they had channeled their energy into the messianic candidacy of Barack Obama. And here they were again, inspired by AdBusters and Democracy Now, ashamed of how the Tea Party movement became the de facto populist response to the crisis.

On Saturday, before the arrests happened, the volunteer organizers of the protest handed out a four-page newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal. They had raised more than $10,000 to quickly print 50,000 copies. “There is a worldwide movement of resistance and rebellion building,” write Eric Ribellarse and Jim Weill in the paper’s lead story. A timeline starts the movement on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi poured gasoline on his head, then sat in public in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, then lit a match. The Tea Party has always been ostentatious in its American exceptionalism, starting rallies with recitations of the Pledge of the Allegiance. The loudest mic-checkers in Occupy Wall Street want the opposite—a mind-meld with the developing world. Americans are letting financiers rob them and foreclose on them because they think this country gets a pass from the global class war. On Saturday night, as the occupiers got debriefed on the arrests, the connection was complete.

“Why isn’t the Tea Party here?” says one occupier, darting past me to get a better position near the speaker. “They got no balls!”