Sunday, September 18, 2011

Wall Street’s Day of Irritation

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Like the two photos above, September 17’s “Day of Rage” in lower Manhattan sent mixed messages. Inspired by this year’s protests in the Middle East and northern Africa, and named after Chicago’s Days of Rage activities in the late 1960s, Saturday’s activism was… well…

What was it, exactly?


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It was a call for the end of unlimited political campaign contributions. It was an indictment of government overextension – and a protest against NYC budget cuts. Marchers called for the fair treatment of Troy Davis and Bradley Manning. “Ron Paul 2012” banners flew comfortably next to signs calling that very same politician a lunatic. The Day of Rage was a lot of things.

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One thing it wasn’t: a snapshot of the American political landscape. It was more of a mosaic, a colorful collection of sincere and distinctly conflicting viewpoints converging against the verdure of Bowling Green Park. (Wall Street, the intended venue, had already been fenced off by an anxious NYPD.)

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Activities were as varied as the signs protesters held up to passing tour buses. Attendees held yoga sessions on the grass; marchers paced purposefully (that is, each to his or her own purpose) around the iconic Wall Street Bull; people strummed guitars, held forth on economic policy to anyone willing to listen, or just sat, smoked and took it all in. Many of those on the green, myself included, mingled primarily for photos and interviews.

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The people I talked to couldn’t really explain what the protest was about. One boy, come down from Boston with his father for the event, explained patiently to me that this was by design – that the call to commune in Manhattan that day was only the beginning of the process. Protesters were due to hash out their message in “town hall” meetings over the course of the day; the product of these meetings would become their formal demand.

They’re in no hurry: despite the “Day of Rage” moniker, the protests are actually intended to extend for days, weeks or even months. When internet organizers called for attendees to “Occupy Wall Street,” they meant it literally, and some protesters insist that they’re in it for the long haul.

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Despite the yoga, emotions were running high on Saturday. When the police began lining up metal fences around the northern tip of Bowling Green, protesters jeered at their “freedom pens,” claiming they were being unfairly contained. As the mass of protesters gradually migrated to the more spacious south end, I perched on the steps of the National Museum of the American Indian, snapping pictures of the crowds in the plaza below. A man nearby, clad in proud tie-dye and waving a “Veterans for Peace” banner, affably discussed the protest with me.

But when a policeman approached the steps where we stood and demanded that the man move down to the plaza – apparently his banner was an illegal instrument on the museum steps – he lashed out angrily, screaming about his service to his country in Vietnam and his right to protest just where he wanted. At his outburst the entire crowd in the park swiveled as one and gazed up at the steps, and suddenly my little patch of land was center stage. I sidled off to the side as cameras clicked and the Vietnam vet raged on, arm extended, blessing the attendant crowd with a classic peace sign.

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He soon relinquished his spot to a preacher clad in dove-white and possessed of a practiced tongue. “We are a century storm,” he bellowed through a megaphone. “We are waking up… we will risk it all – amen!”
And the crowds screamed “Amen!”

What they were agreeing to with such religious zeal, probably nobody really knew then. Perhaps they know now, or will know in the days to come. Perhaps the Manhattan occupation will come to something in the end. I guess we’’ll know for sure if Troy Davis is freed, or if corporations are limited in their campaign contributions. Or if Ron Paul is elected.

Or, you know, if he’s not.

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