Zen and the Art of Occupy Wall Street

As a card carrying member of the Woodstock generation, it was like falling into a time warp: hundreds milling around armed with home made placards, the throb of African drums, young, half naked bodies sprawled on tarps, a teach-in under a tent, strains of Woody Guthrie. For a veteran of the 1960s, it was deja vu all over again -- with one key difference -- computer banks and hand held cameras live-streaming the event, and emails of support flashing on large screens from similar encampments as far afield as Seattle, Berlin and Buenos Aires.

At the entrance to the square, a circle of protestors was meditating cross-legged around a makeshift altar replete with didgeridoos and crystal skulls -- not to levitate the Pentagon, but to move some equally implacable edifices, the fortress-like financial institutions which ring Zuccotti Park. Instead of a black bearded and ascetic Allen Ginsburg, the baseball-capped Russell Simmons was exhorting demonstrators to take back their government and their own increasingly imperiled futures.

That was three weeks ago. Since then, the mood has changed in the OWS encampment from early euphoria to one of hunkering down for the long siege. It is getting cold, people are falling sick, squabbling over space, stuff is being stolen, nerves are fraying. Utopia in lower Manhattan is coming to seem less like Eden before the fall and more like the trenches of the Somme.

Having toughed it out through their first snowy weekend, however, it is unlikely that the People's Republic of Zuccotti Park will voluntarily take down its tents. Moreover, the politically-savvy Bloomberg may be reluctant to risk a violent clash to evict them, such as occurred in Oakland California, where police lobbed tear gas grenades at protestors, injuring 24-year-old Iraq War veteran, Scott Olsen. On the other hand, the confiscation of the encampment's generators late last month may be a sign of what is soon to come. The mayor might use the eventual onslaught of winter weather as a pretext for shutting down the encampment on public health grounds.

In either event, the spirit and energy of the protest will continue and doubtless morph into new forms. The movement will find other ways to keep attention focused on its issues. But what are those issues, and how will OWS fine-tune its message in the months to come?

Journalists fault the protest for being leaderless and anarchic, and for what they say are its vague goals and lack of a coherent political strategy. But if the pundit class is having trouble figuring out what the protestors are trying to say, a majority of the suffering 99 percent (recent polls show 54 percent of Americans back the Occupiers, double the number who approve of the Tea Party) have evidently heard them loud and clear.

What really ticks the media-cracy off, one suspects, is not that the Occupiers lack a coherent message, but that it won't fit into an eight second sound bite. It won't even fit into a political platform, because it is not just about taking positions and articulating agendas. It is bigger than that.

Occupy Wall Street is clearly about the economic woes of just about everyone, as the dazzling array of grievances scrawled on cardboard bear witness. Yet it is also about a nation that has lost its moral moorings, a society in an advanced state of spiritual collapse where millions are not just having trouble finding jobs and maintaining their middle class standards of living, but in believing in the fundamental fairness and decency of the world they live in. For many this is not merely a political issue -- it is a crisis in faith.

The critics who claim that OWS is politically unsophisticated, an amateur operation, are correct, in a sense. The populist movement remains disorganized and ideologically unfocused. Unlike the Tea Party, the Wall Street protest is not a partisan effort to take over the reigns of power, but, as one protester described it, "a wake up call and a cry for help."

It is also an oddly optimistic vote for democracy, a possibly naive, but richly hopeful declaration that this is still a country where one can speak up and be heard. You can't walk through Zuccotti Square without being drawn into one of the animated conversations that are still bubbling up in every corner. Occupiers are interviewing one another, discoursing into cameras, handing out leaflets, holding meetings. The park is nothing if it is not a ferment of impassioned communication.

I ran into Chris Cobb as he was cruising the square with cardboard box mockups of a Fox News Camera and microphone. The 41 year old all-weather resident of Zuccotti Park has used his reporter's guise as an entree to talk to thousands of people during the past few weeks. He told me how demonstrators heckled Geraldo Rivera off the air during a live feed for Fox News.

"A lot of these guys come down here with their own preconceived ideas, they want to pin us down and stereotype us rather than listening to what we are actually saying."

Unlike earlier protests, which looked to the press to get the word out, the Occupiers depend more on their own social media and networking. They may be the first mass movement in history that has been able to bypass the press and frame their own message in their own terms.

Chris told me that OWS has deliberately chosen not to come out with a list of fixed positions
and proposals. "It's a Zen kind of thing, we don't want to give them an easy target," he said referring to how martial artists wear their opponents out by weaving and eluding their blows. Compared to the protest movements of the nineteen sixties and seventies, Chris said, OWS is far less dogmatic and more open-ended. "

"Young people today are more comfortable with uncertainty, with not preaching, with presenting people with the facts and letting them arrive at their own conclusions."

Later on Chris emailed me this thumbnail sketch of why he and the others are there,

"We are not down at the park to build a Utopian society, we just want to have accountability, freedom from deceptive practices and adherence to the rule of law. Many feel they were given the choice of taking out enormous student loans or not going to college. People witnessed their parents homes being illegally foreclosed by the banks and were powerless to stop it. Opposition to these sorts of things is not idealistic, it is pragmatic."

It brought to mind the Zen saying: "Water that is too pure has no fish." If the Occupy movement can continue to steer clear of the Scylla and Charybdis of ideological purity and partisan politics, and continue to be the big, muddy and welcoming river that it is today, it will keep us all talking about what went wrong. An outcome that will more than justify the sign tacked up at the edge of Zuccotti Park, "WE ARE A SUCCESS!"