I attended my first revolution this week. I have to confess I was a little nervous as I walked closer to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, the epicenter for this once unimaginable American Autumn. For one thing, I'd been tweeting and blogging about Occupy Wall Street since the second day of the protests -- even wrote a screed asking why it was being ignored by the mainstream media that got me on on the TV with Keith Olbermann -- but the sad irony was that I hadn't yet journeyed the 100 miles north from my Philadelphia comfort zone to cover it myself.
Now I'd successfully lobbied my editors at the Philadelphia Daily News to send me up here, but they loaded me down with questions. What do the protesters want, exactly? Why is this different from all the other left-wing protests? Why now? And be sure to write about all the fringe people -- the Ron Paul fanatics and the bandana-wearing anarchists and what not.
Of course, adding such stress is why God created editors, but I had my own personal worries. What if the naysayers were right, that this was just a half-baked and patchouli-scented fringe, not the vanguard of a movement to take back American democracy from a corporate oligarchy? It didn't help that as I walked from the subway station up Wall Street -- already looking like a boulevard of broken American dreams, with odd trapezoid-shaped roadblocks strewn across cobblestones and clusters of anxious cops on every corner -- the first protest sign I could see in the distance read "Nazi Bankers."
The funny thing -- and I mean that in the literal sense -- was that later in the day, that "Nazi Banker" dude, muttering some other insanity of which I could only hear "the Jews," was followed around Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Plaza, as the occupiers call it) by two guys with their own arrow-pointing signs that read "Not Us" and "This Does Not Represent Us."
By then, I'd been at Occupy Wall Street for a couple of hours, and that was plenty of time to know that the crazy-Nazi-banker-guy surely didn't represent them, and also that the type of out-there, anarchy-worshiping whack jobs that my editors back home had imagined were in short supply, to the extent that they existed at all. Instead, I spent most of the afternoon talking to Americans like Nathan Lewis, who came to occupy Wall Street eight years after he occupied Iraq.
"That's when I started to wake up," said Lewis, now 29, saying his time in the Persian Gulf made him realize that he was protecting a corporate empire overseas, and not the American people. He protested the Iraq War after he left the Army, and also started a small farm in the upstate New York town of Trumansburg. His current frame of mind mirrored most of the folks that I talked to in Zuccotti Park; he told me that "since Obama was elected I've pretty much lost all hope in the two-party system."
And so a couple of days back, he hopped on a bus for New York City, and he hoped to stay here for another day or two, because that was all he could afford for now. In the meantime, Lewis, thin and intensely serious, in a green fatigue-style jacket, was almost a bit embarassed that his face was still painted a ghostly white, the remnant of a "corporate zombie" march through the Financial District a tad earlier. But he wasn't embarrassed in the least to be at Occupy Wall Street, surrounded at all times by a few hundred like-minded souls. He said simply: "I've been waiting for this day for years."
That was the refrain I'd heard over and over again, voiced over the pounding backbeat of the non-stop drumline in the northeast corner of the park -- that this was the moment that everyone here had dreamed would come eventually. I kept thinking about Barack Obama's famous pronouncement from the 2008 campaign, that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." Except that it took another three years and that "we" seem to have left Barack Obama in the dust, especially after he brought in his own Wall Streeters to run his financial plan and spared the other banksters from criminal prosecution.
What was fascinating, though, was that for a few folks in the crowd, it was a day they were waiting for a second time, after the Vietnam and civil rights protests of the 1960s. Consider Dennis Gronim, a 61-year-old Brooklynite who took part in his first protest march in 1968. Now here he was in the bowels of Zuccotti Park, with a long grey beard and looking a bit like Jerry Garcia if the late Grateful Dead frontman had been resurrected in purple Crocs, strumming a blues riff and growling anti-banker lyrics while a 20-something pinked-haired, punked-out woman spun to the music. "They're doing what we did when we were their age," marveled Gronim, who retired three weeks ago as the vice president of a tool distributor and has been coming here to Occupy Wall Street, singing the blues against the war in an Afghanistan, and, yes, for legalizing the marijuana.
Across the park, Peter Panelli -- a 20-year-old junior at Vermont's Marlboro College -- only knows of 1960s protests from what he's seen on YouTube or elsewhere on his computer screen. But in a weird way, that is what inspired him to come all the way down to New York just this morning. He explained that the widely seen video of a high ranking New York police officer dousing two passive women already under arrest with pepper spray reminded him of a photo he'd once seen, of a sheriff's deputy in Birmingham siccing a dog on civil rights protestors in 1963. And so now Panelli is here, struggling to articulate the modern cause other than "I don't like how the political system is funded by corporations."
Ah, yes, the question that my editors -- and anyone who's ever worn a tie for longer than the duration of a funeral -- is dying to know. What's the agenda, Kenneth? All these people camping out in a concrete park in soggy sleeping bags, and now checking off the box for "Have you ever been arrested?" on those job applications that no one was actually reading, anyway. For who? For what?
If you come here to actually listen and not to heap scorn, you will get it. Sure, there's broad consensus for ending corporate personhood and getting their buckets of dollars out of the U.S. political system, and for throwing the worst of the banksters in jail, but Occupy Wall Street -- and the sister movements springing up all across America -- is about something much more existential than one or two political issues. They are The Other 99 Percent who've been stripped bare of any real influence in a supposed democracy where both parties compete for the cash of the 1 Percenters, and so taking back their country starts with the simplest of steps -- re-occupying America, physically. I know this will sound weird, maybe trite to some, but I am reminded of the salvation of the little people of Whoville in Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who, so desperate just to prove their existence that they chant at the top of their lungs: "We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!"
And what's so amazing is the way they've made "here" in Zuccotti Park into a real and thriving community in less than three weeks, not just with an orderly cafeteria line of free food -- yes, pizza is king, but salad has a presence -- backed by donations from coast to coast, but also a library of donated books to read during downtime and a media center that gets electricity from... God knows where.
And their mini-America grows in population and diversity every day -- disgruntled Iraq and Afghanistan vets, college students who see their debt clock ticking even as they're told it could be years before the economy creates jobs for them, retired union guys and weekending farmers, and people who started out with one issue, like legalizing pot or ending the war, and now see a much bigger picture coming into focus. They are the vanguard of the millions who felt certain during the low moments in the 2000s that the electoral system was the American exceptional way to cleanse the sins of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, only to learn that it was not hope, change and a ballot box waiting behind the curtain on November 3, 2008, but a permanent government of hedge-fund traders and CEOs.
The Tea Party movement -- which I spent considerable time traveling among, for a book called The Backlash -- is a narrow group of mostly white, mostly middle class and mostly older Americans, angry that one party led by a man who didn't look like them won an election, commandeered and steered top-down by oil billionaires and the hucksters of right-wing meda to help the other party win back control. Occupy Wall Street is a diverse bottom-up movement fueled by a loss of faith in both parties, and it is steered by no one, steaming into politically uncharted waters. Which is what makes it all so thrilling.
The symbolism of the place they've chosen to create an America's homage to Tahrir Square could not be more powerful -- a tree-lined swatch of concrete that lies exactly at the short midway point between the two disaster zones that have defined our deeply troubled 21st century: the Ground Zero site of the 2001 terror attacks and the New York Stock Exchange that crashed and burned under attack from bankster shenanigans seven years later.
Maybe why that's why there's a gravitational pull here. So many of the people here in the park were drawn here by a force, one that's difficult to put into words. Lizzi Dierken, who's 47, was 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, driving a taxi, selling baked goods, and occasionally demonstrating for gay rights when she learned about Occupy Wall Street on Facebook and packed her bag. Now here she is, fresh from the "zombie march," in an over-sized grey pinstriped suit, white-painted face dripping in mock blood. She told me her story, about getting arrested on the day of the pepper spray and how that "only solidified our commitment to fight injustice," and at the end of the interview she gave me a long hug, my reporter's notebook still clutched in my right hand. It is possible to feel many things after a day in Zuccotti Park -- scorn perhaps if you're a big-time "financial journalist," or a rapture of solidarity for everyday people. The only feeling that is not possible here is detachment.
"I'm here for as long as it takes for this revolution to take off," Lizzi Dierken told me. She's left for home and been back once, and she may depart again, but she knows she'll come back.
As will I.
A few minutes later, I watched a banker type in his exquisitely tailored blue pinstriped suit turn to an equally well-attired acquaintance and mutter something about the protest maybe winding down "in the winter when it starts getting cold." The rest of his words were drowned out by the throbbing beat of Zuccotti Park, a drum solo of the American soul with no end in sight.