As is pointed out today in Tablet Magazine, the Occupy Wall Street protests in Manhattan’s Financial District bear an eerie resemblance to the social justice movement that captured Israel’s imagination this past summer. Most significant is that neither movement seems to advocate—indeed, both take pains to avoid advocating—a particular political agenda. Instead, both are responding to a broader sense that things are going really wrong, and that something equally vague must be done to combat the amorphous airborne toxic events that by this point constitute the societies of the two countries. At a lower frequency, both movements contain leftist elements that stopped wondering why only the right-wing was permitted to get angry and instead decided to get angry themselves.
Such, anyway, was the impression I got last night during a visit to Zuccotti Park, a square block’s worth of open space crammed in between the charmless, tall new buildings of Wall Street, excepting a grand old prewar one that sits just south of it, on Broadway. Plenty of people were there for the scene. And it’s quite a scene! There were drum circles, and there was pot; there were costumes and chants, food-lines and free cell phone charge stations; in the southwestern corner of the park, as though consciously farther from where the sun rises, the open air bedroom of sleeping bags and tarp, dozens of tired young people sleeping on top of one another but none atop the impeccably maintained flower beds.
(Note: I did not witness the apparent violent confrontation with police, which reportedly took place a few blocks down, at Wall Street. I can say the only boos were at police buses that drove south down Broadway.)
But there was also a theme. Adam Chandler is right to point to the “99 percent” motto—the truly stupefying yet plainly true notion, or not notion but objective fact, that the wealthiest one percent of Americans controls 40 percent of the country’s wealth—as the controlling motif. “Affluence Creates Poverty,” read one sign. They are smart and they are organized. Here was one chant, called for as the police began to arrest a few people. “This is a peaceful demonstration. This is a peaceful demonstration. If you cannot behave yourself. If you cannot behave yourself. Go home. Go home. You are fucking us up. You are fucking us up.”
But what really got me was the coiled undercurrent of rage. It is a rage of reaction to the Tea Party, which over the past couple years has appointed itself—and why shouldn’t it have?—as the keeper of America’s true flame in a time of darkness. But this is a time of darkness for all Americans, and there are solutions alternative to those proffered by the Tea Party. “I Want My Country Back,” declared one sign. And my favorite showed the Gadsden flag: don’t tread on us. In so many ways, this was a welcome antidote to the last mass response to the Tea Party, Jon Stewart’s craven, useless Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
And yet, in another way, it’s just like that sorry spectacle. I approached an exuberantly upbeat man in full suit and tie with a nametag identifying himself as a media representative named Bill and asked him what all this was. He proceeded to emphasize that Occupy Wall Street is “not left, not right, not Democrat, not Republican.” There were hints of an agenda—corporate greed, unemployment—but everything implicit was pretty easily cancelled out by statements like, and I quote verbatim, “We don’t have a message, even.” Why not? It all sounded pretty lefty to me. But it was insisted to me that this is not a movement—at which point Bill leaned in and whispered that, yes, of course, he had worked for the Obama campaign, and he is from Chicago and worked for Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign there. Why separate the two, when they clearly go together? The problem isn’t corporate greed; it’s corporate greed unchecked by government. It shouldn’t be the Goldman Sachs CEO’s cardboard head I saw bloodily impaled on a pike. (And indeed, some people had better ideas of whom to blame; and I was treated to the spectacle of a young black man wearing a t-shirt with a picture of President Obama, a wide red diagonal line striking him through. I wish you’d told me in November 2008 to prepare for that.)
So what’s next? In Israel, the tent protests dissipated with little sign of anything. Yet all of a sudden that antique known as the Labor Party is polling in second place. Maybe this is how it begins; maybe the increasing involvement of organized labor will force a specific agenda to the forefront. Or maybe this is how it ends.
It feels manipulative to note that, exiting and walking a block uptown to the subway, you pass directly in front of Ground Zero. But you do, and any accounting of the scene—and of the movement?—feels incomplete without that coda.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.