Sunday, October 16, 2011
Occupy Wall Street, occupy the world
“Are you press?”
I couldn’t tell if the man was wary or excited by the prospect. I had just taken a picture of his little daughter. Amid the slow-moving ocean of protesters, gawkers, cops, journalists, and a couple of girls very keen to make it across Times Square to the Best Buy, she was balanced on his shoulders, bearing a sign calling for a books-not-bombs fiscal policy.
I assured the man that I wasn’t the press, though even as I was saying it I wondered what that word even meant anymore. The Occupy Wall Street protests have been documented far more comprehensively by amateurs, including the protesters themselves, than by the mainstream media.
That seems to be changing rapidly now as the protests gain steam in New York, Boston, London, Rome and many other cities. The loosely-affiliated protests have their own particular goals – Tokyo protesters, with the memories of Fukushima still fresh, have united against nuclear energy – but they are all flames from the spark struck by the bands of campers who converged on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan on September 17.
Those bands have expanded, diversified and coalesced. There were still drum circles here and there, and some rattling strings of hippie beads, but the crowd I fought through at Times Square was well-stocked with our society’s odd symbols of respectability – sculpted coifs, shiny trinkets, stiff white collars and black suit jackets and uncomfortable shoes. Retired schoolteachers raised banners alongside youthful longhairs; the mouths beneath trendy berets and traditional hijab chanted together.
Most of the media focus, unfortunately, has been on the loudest and most absurd individuals: the bedecked, the painted, those with the golden vocal cords, and especially the idiots wearing 2011’s misunderstood pop-protest accessory of choice, the Guy Fawkes mask. They make for the finest objects of ridicule, but they are also the minority. The protest crew, however it may have started, now truly spans an impressive spectrum.
Indeed, the outcry against the protesters seems to be much more homogeneous than the protesting group itself. Without exception, every negative remark I’ve personally heard about the OWS folk – and working both in midtown and in the West Village, New York’s centers of wealth and bohemian gentrification respectively, I’ve heard a few – has come from someone displaying the nonchalant accoutrements of wealth, as well as a conspicuous deficiency of melanin. If anyone can pull off a respectable “trust-fund baby” crack, it’s not going to be a wealthy white retiree taking a post-brunch ramble along West 10th with her identical girlfriend.
No doubt the Times Square gathering prodded some to annoyance, as the east side of the plaza became almost impassible between 43rd and 44th. (In my opinion, it was quite an improvement over the hordes of tourists who normally reigned over the square.) Under the gaudy lights of the most-visited attraction on earth, the center of the center of the world, thousands of people screamed their slogans to the skyscrapers.
Being heard is no longer the problem; that phase is over. And whatever comes next, that in itself is a mighty accomplishment.