In the first instance of on-the-street Razor reporting (razoring?), our good friend Will dove into Occupy Wall Street and wrote down his thoughts and impressions. Though a bleeding heart liberal like myself, he went into this unbiased, and looking to find the good as well as the bad. Here you have it.
To be brutally honest, the OWS area downtown looks like a cross between a traditional protest, a small Woodstock, and a Hooverville. There are signs. There’s music. There are speeches. There are tents. The main area at Liberty Square is just one city block, packed full of people from different lifestyles and situations. This is a good thing and a bad thing.
The OWS movement will keep an impression of hippies, anarchists, and nutjobs that it will have a hard time shaking because it has tons of hippies, anarchists, and nutjobs. There is such a diversity of ideology it’s mindboggling, and a good chunk of that diversity is extremists and crazies. I will not deny or whitewash that. There are classic artsy hippies with not an ounce of sense in their heads, there are anarchists angry at everything, there are communists who want to end money as a concept, and there are even Obama-hating leftists and rightists alike who think he’s responsible for unspeakable horrors. They aren’t shouted down, and they aren’t given an undue amount of space or time. Everyone has a chance to speak.
However, for every nutjob there are at least two with a genuine passion for the cause and a good amount of common sense and understandable complaints. The vast majority of protesters are there to protest the massive disparity of wealth in this country between the top 1% and the rest of the nation. Beyond the stray side projects, the main message of OWS is this: 1% of Americans have far, far too much power, and the richest of that 1% are even more obscenely powerful than that. That has to change, and while everyone has a different idea of how that has to change, they almost all agree that it is either the cause or the main symptom of the biggest problem in this country.
While there isn’t a lot of organization with the message, there is a remarkable amount of organization with the logistics of the protests. The park has work schedules, food preparation lines, sanitation, health supplies, sleeping areas, and even a t-shirt printing area where people can get custom OWS shirts by bringing in their own blanks. There are also several teach-in and reading circles scattered through the protest, where handfuls of protesters sit down and talk about what’s wrong and what should be done. People read books, they discuss politics, and they actually look at the problems. OWS might have just as many crackpost signs as the tea parties, but I think the conservative movement has far fewer book readings and honest, salon-style discussion of issues.
If you’re concerned about a huge brawl between the police and the protesters, don’t worry about it. While I can’t speak for city hall or the NYPD itself, the police on the ground at the site seem fairly relaxed and in control, focusing on making sure the sidewalks are clear and not much else. There are a lot of police there, but it’s almost all crowd control, with the most intimidating sight the deployed surveillance tower on the southwest corner of the block. There are no armored trucks, no SWAT police, and no sense of a pot about to boil over. The protesters are similarly at ease, with some unhappy about the heavy police presence and surveillance, but most accepting it. If something bad happens at OWS, it won’t be from the protesters and it won’t be from the cops there. It will be either an agent provocateur from the anti-OWS side of the aisle, or a true crazy unsupported by the hundreds and thousands of peaceful protesters on the OWS side. Neither group on the street is keying up for a fight.
I was impressed and troubled by the entire thing. It’s huge. It’s populist. It’s inspiring. It’s also full of crazies that I recognize as the same sort of whackjob on “our” side as the racist, anti-government lunatics on the tea party side. There are many important differences between the two, though. The tea party had a unified tone: Taxes, government, and Obama are all bad. Everything came from that idea. There are clear connections between the anti-Obama racism and violent anti-government comments and the Tea Party’s message as a whole. The Occupy Wall Street protesters have a fractured tone but a relatively unified grievance: the top 1% are too powerful. The sensible voices in the crowd came out of that concept. The insane voices generally came into the concept, tying their pet cause to the movement as a whole. The OWS protesters are far less ideologically homogenized than the tea party protesters, and unlike the insane anti-Obama and anti-government rants in the tea party, the insane rants within the OWS protesters don’t link directly to the underlying message. OWS truly isn’t a political movement. It’s a social one, and it’s much larger and better organized logistically, even if less organized ideologically, than anyone expected.
As a side note, I talked to several police officers and none of them had a crowd count. I’ve yet to hear any media outlet say specifically how many protesters are in Liberty Square, or even at any occupy event. Based on the crowd I saw, they’re clearly trying to downplay it. A park the size of a city block was full of people who set up their own small village. They’ve been there almost a month. It’s remarkable.