James Buchanan, one of our nation’s worst presidents, is reported to have said, “I like the noise of democracy.”
Horrible president or not, I with Jim on that one.
I am endlessly fascinated, inspired, and perplexed by the Occupy movement. It is sometimes ragged, often messy, usually chaotic, spectacularly unorganized, and stubbornly dedicated. On Wednesday, the movement turned one month old. Though the numbers of those actually camping out are modest, the numbers of those participating, supporting, and donating to the effort is silently and invisibly growing. It has been reported the Occupy Wall Street group has received more than $435,000 in donations. This is without doing much in the way of fund raising. Most of that money is being used to support the occupiers with food, shelter, clothing, and hygiene.
Mrs. Bagger and I marched with two to three thousand of our fellow Yinzers last Saturday and attended the Market Square rally afterward. Never saw Cher and Rich from AskCherlock because, did I forget to mention?, there were two to three thousand people there!
On Monday, I visited the camp to donate a bagful of hats and gloves, and some medical supplies. Donations of food, medical supplies, and clothing have been creeping in. To keep up with their needs, you can check their Website, which is updated daily. The camp itself has all the city planning of a small town. It is believed that somebody–either from the city or Mellon–hosed down the park beforehand to ensure that the camp would become a muddy mess. Did they think the protesters would go home because the grass was wet? Hmm. In the end, all that brilliant move achieved was to endanger the park’s grass. Hay–supplied by the good folks at NYMellon–was spread out by the protesters in an attempt to spare the green space beneath. Pieces of cardboard were then assembled into walking paths throughout the campsite. The campers refer to each group of tents between the paths as neighborhoods. At the upper end of the park (eastern side) are the tents for food, supplies, media, and medical.
I stayed to eat dinner with the occupiers and attended a General Assembly held across the street from the campsite. Although the group seemed small next to the tall buildings and city hubbub, there were approximately 150 people present. Some of them are what the media likes to call “unkempt.” If you didn’t know about the Occupy Movement, you might assume them to be homeless. In a sense, they are. This park is their home for an undetermined time. They are camping. Do you look ready for a job interview when you are camping?
Despite the media’s attempts, you can’t really pigeonhole this group. Certainly, some are of the younger counter-culture variety. Others are most likely college students. But there are also moms holding toddlers. There are fifty-plus-year-old men and women. There are even some grandparents. Most are wearing denim, plaid quilted shirts, or sweatshirts, but others are wearing business suits. This went along with my impression on Saturday that the Pittsburgh group’s median age is a little older than their New York counterparts. And for the record, they are not all unemployed. Some are, but others come and go from the park to work actual, you know, jobs.
This General Assembly was not like the ones featuring general announcements and calls for action that I had seen in New York. This was a down and dirty discussion about procedures, the decision-making process, and other questions of polity. From their first meeting, the group has dedicated themselves to utilize the Consensus Decision Making process, and were struggling even then to fully understand the method as they attempted to put it into practice. This led to many cul-de-sacs and pot holes in the communication and decision-making process. Ensuring all voices are heard takes great patience, understanding, and deference. It means respecting those with different ideas and opinions. It is slow and painstaking. It is where the Democracy sausage is made.
All in all, the protesters themselves have a great and positive attitude. They hear dissent and insults shouted at them from cars and from a few Pens fans as they pass by. For a while they kept a running tally of every time someone misguidedly shouted “Get a job!” Before long, that got old. They are not at all deterred by the haters. They are also aware of the constantly honking horns from sympathetic drivers on all sides of the park. They are aware of support from union bus drivers, custodians, and, yes, even police officers. On the first night, Mellon turned off the overhead lights, plunging the park into complete darkness. You might think this would be helpful for sleeping, but it also makes doing anything outside of your tent after sundown almost impossible. In support, the custodial staffs of both the Mellon and UPMC buildings turned on every light on their side of the building to provide a useful illumination.
I get a kick out of Conservatives who have let the protests worm their way so far under their skin. As far as I recall, as put off as Progressives and Liberals were by the Tea Party demonstrations, I can’t remember anyone on the Left suggesting that they shouldn’t be allowed to do what they were doing. You would think that Conservatives would take the position of Voltaire, who famously said, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!” Instead, many seem to be incensed by the very presence of protesters of any kind. They react with the most hateful name calling and character assassination. Protesters are routinely and inaccurately called “Commies,” “Whiners,” “Freeloaders,” “Losers,” “Criminals,” and much worse. I sort of think of them as Patriots facing an overwhelming opposition for the sake of their friends and neighbors. During my visit, I was pleased to discover that much of the criticism bothered me a lot more than it did the the protesters, who remain, for the most part, quite unaware of all the media and Internet vitriol. They don’t sit around listening to talk radio, watching cable news, or reading right-wing blogs.
What many are slow to pick up on is that this is not just a protest against unemployment or rich people. Fundamentally, it is a stand against systematic injustice and inequity. While there are individuals with some extreme views, overall, it is not a call to dismantle Capitalism or free markets. At its base, it is a clarion call warning people that our markets are far from free, and that our capital has been hi-jacked and grossly mismanaged by a few who continue to profit from their crimes. Do they have answers and remedies? Some do; some don’t. Even if they came up with a list of policy fixes, would it matter? Our system is so rigged, no such remedies would have a chance of being heard, let alone being made into legislation. When the party that holds both the White House and the Senate can’t even get a hearing for their ideas, what chance do the rest of us have?
And although this began in New York, this is no longer an American protest. Unlike the Tea Party movement, this party has gone global. And let me tell you, there are those across the ocean who are pretty hardcore at this protesting stuff. Consider Spain…
Here’s a list of demonstrations outside of the U.S. No, really, you should check out the size of this list.
Thus far, authorities and institutions have found themselves in a tough dilemma. On the one hand, I’m sure they’d prefer to just enforce the law and clear out the demonstrators. In most cities, the police could do–and have done–the job swiftly and with a strong hand. (See Chicago, Denver, and Phoenix.) In a Times Square confrontation over the weekend, New York police decided it was a good idea to ride horses into the crowds. This created some ugly scenes which led to several injuries and one horse having to be put down. You see, authorities are well aware that when they act, they will immediately appear on YouTube looking like some kind of third-world dictator. No city police force wants to be compared to Cairo or Tehran or Beijing. Damn that instant social media. It’s getting so you can’t crack hippies heads like in the old days when grainy black and white film had to be developed and then aired by a corporately owned TV news network. Today, everybody is freakin’ Edward R. Murrow. They also know that, like a weed, whatever they crush today will only come back that much stronger, larger, and angrier the very next day.
Still, as protests grow in size and volume, there’s only so much “the man” will take. At this point, I think the authorities are hoping against hope that the icy grip of winter will do their job for them. If the protesters prove to be weather resistant, however, it’s only a matter of time before confrontation occurs. Riot gear will be donned. Horses will be employed. Hopefully, Kent State has taught us that the National Guard should be left out of it, but you never know.
So, to borrow from David Letterman, if you were wondering if the Occupy Movement is something or nothing… a month old and global in scope, I think we can all say that this is most definitely something.