When I visited the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City's financial district earlier this week I heard repeated messages about peace, non-violence and egalitarianism. This 'leaderless resistance movement' aims to 'restore democracy in America' by camping out on Wall Street for a few months.
A key strategy is to hold so-called 'people's assemblies' where anyone can get up and voice their opinions and grievances. A young speaker at one of the many assemblies held at the protest headquarters in Zuccoti Park urged attendees to try and 'keep a revolving point of view between age, gender and ethnicity'. Another called for 'anti-oppression workshops'.
In fact, there was so much imploration for participants to be tolerant, to hear each other out, that the 'human megaphone' procedure at the people's assemblies (instead of using a real megaphone, everyone within earshot of the speaker repeats his or her words, sentence by sentence) gave it the air of some kind of slow-motion 12-step meeting. 'I respect you, please respect me', everyone asked of one another.
But despite the peacenik atmosphere of the messy Zuccoti Park encampment, some protest supporters seem to have trouble controlling their true nature. Behind the flower-power veneer (protesters were actually distributing flowers, lighting up joints and reading Beatnik literature) lurk an alarming number of intolerant, bigoted, conspiratorially-minded, free-speech loathers.
After spending hours at the protest on Saturday and Monday, talking to participants, listening in on people's assemblies and taking pictures, I wrote a report on it for the London-based online magazine, spiked. It was an unflattering account of what I saw as a farcical happening, like something taken straight out of a Monty Python skit. It was surreal and I was astonished that the protesters could expect, let alone demand, to be taken seriously when they engage in such shenanigans as 'political yoga', human megaphone meetings, face-painting and fancy-dress parades. One woman even had her boobs out, with the words 'Free Bradley Manning' written across them (a reference to the jailed WikiLeaks whistle-blower).
But the responses I got to my article were even more astonishing than the carry-ons in the Financial District. I received a string of indignant emails and tweets about my Jewish, kleptocrat banking connections; demands that I reveal the details of my pay checks and that I come clean about my not-so-hidden agenda. I was told that my family name disqualifies me from having any opinion about the protest and that I have 'the karma of a demon'. One reader posted my article online, headlining the post 'Journalist & Jew - Nathalie ROTHSCHILD'.
Yes, I am indeed Jewish and I do share a surname with a bank that is owned and run by a rich family. Unfortunately, though, I have no wealthy backers. And to the person who wondered whether spiked employs any non-billionaire journalists - the answer is yes.
One Twitterer told me that 'peaceful protest should be permitted'. Absolutely. Everyone has the right to demonstrate and to voice their opinions. But you also have to be prepared to get called out on your views and your behaviour. There is no right not to be criticised, or even ridiculed.
The protesters demand to be heard as serious critics of 'the corrupt system'. But if you want to flaunt your anti-racist credentials and to be treated as an adult upholder of democratic values, then it might be a good idea to think of the implications of turning around and saying 'shut up, Jew' when someone criticises you - even if that person shares a surname with a key player in the financial world.
For some of the protest's supporters, their commitment to free speech comes with plenty of qualifications. It's alright to speak out - unless you criticise the Wall Street occupation, unless you say negative things about the demonstrators, unless you have a certain name, unless you are a Jew. So much for 'restoring democracy' in America.