Occupying my thoughts

OCCUPY Wall Street, like a lot of media celebrities, is smaller in person than you had imagined. Zucotti Park is a pocket park, a public benefit given in exchange for a height-limit restriction or something. Last Saturday morning, when Foster Barnes and I went to check it out, there were maybe 300 Occupants, and a similar number of sympathetic onlookers, police and tourists.

Foster and I were staying at the Andaz Hotel Wall Street, a Hyatt boutique hotel chain with a touch of Ian Schrager. (I would recommend it.) The irony of staying in a place with free cappuccino in the lobby and receptionists wielding iPads with the band of protestors slept on the concrete, was not not lost on us. I remembered in 1969 encountering a bunch of well-dressed liberal swells in the lobby of the Hay-Adams after fleeing pepper-gas at a Moratorium march on the Mall. . . .


Two occupants with signs, sitting on the Zucotti Park sign.


“Eat the rich.”

This time it was I who took the role of limousine liberal. But it’s a less judgmental age: You can’t tell who are your friends just because they do or don’t wear a necktie or have long hair. We looked at the people in the park with a mixture of support and distance. There is much to agree with, and only a couple of wackos to ignore. Anyone who asks, “What do these people want?” just isn’t listening. They want to move the corporations out of the government.

That means: Get the lobbyists out of the legislation business, and restore democracy. How hard is this to understand?

Others complain that the Occupants lack a clear set of specific goals, keyed to actual pieces of legislation. They miss the point. The idea is to change the system, not to feed it.

The Occupy movement is spreading emotions more than agenda. The lack of “agenda” confounds Fox News pundits and Republican candidate-debaters. It makes it hard for them to formulate soundbites, as though any difficult political problem could be addressed with a catch phrase alone. But many normal people can identify with the complaints of the people in the park, and the need for change.

While there are some in the park with signs against fracking and sustainable energy, the green movement is more of an ally than a policy plank. This is a enigmatic reform movement, and it’s been quickly cloned. The Occupy Austin group, one of hundreds inspired by Occupy Wall Street, is similar in complexion, diversity and anger. There seems to be a wide realization that if we don’t change the way we do things in Washington (for example, the grotesquely corrupted Volcker Rule, which started as a one-page regulation and became a 300 pages of contradictory, unenforcible gibberish), this country will be trapped in a downward spiral of unemployment and declining lifestyles, while the super-rich get super-richer.

There have been plenty of interviews of the Occupants on NPR and the newspapers, so now we know they are not the slackers in Seattle in 1999 throwing rocks at a Starbucks during the World Trade Organization summit. Nor, despite Fox News’ convictions otherwise, is this a result of labor union machinations. Not that that would be a bad thing, considering how little influence the unions have anymore. No, these are regular people, out-of-work or donating their free time while bloggers post on donated MiFis recharged by cycle generators, and turn out the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which reminds me of the Mayday newspaper in 1971, published for a similar of occupation (they were camped in Potomac Park to protest the war in Vietnam). Occupied so far has gotten out three editions; we did five! But I expect that there will be more.

The Democrats don’t know what to make of the paper or the movement still, which makes you wonder if the party has any chance of getting a clue in time for the election.

The media, however, is beginning to get the connection with the Tea Party movement. The front page of the Washington Post Sunday suggested that they “occupy some common ground.” Certainly they share the anger of regular people who have been marginalized by the system. The Occupants’ enemy is the corporations, and the Partiers say’s it’s the government. How do you tell them apart anymore?

The Tea Party started as a libertarian uprising, but was co-opted by the religious right—and the GOP. A movement to get government out of our lives can’t get that done if it says in the next breath that government should tell women what they can do with their own bodies, or tell men who they can marry.

The Post quoted one Partier, “We agree the government should be made unbribable.” And throwing out the lobbyists is the fundamental reform both want. The writer concluded, “No one expects the Tea Party and Occupy movements to merge.” But why not? It’s not like there are boards of directors to vote. It could just happen. The emotions are the same. And this a movement not a ideology.

The great part about the Occupy manifesto is that there is no manifesto. This why I think of the movement as neo-anarchist. They’re intellectual anarchists, free-thinkers, not the bomb-throwing anarchists of 100 years ago. By refusing a platform with the usual planks, the movement is inclusionary. So some old lefties can join in, but there is no “line” like the leftists of the 60s and 70s argued into the night during their long occupations of the “Ad Building.”

In the 1971 occupation,  the Mayday Tribe, the leadership, spent most of its time sharpening the line—honing the differences between Marxist-Leninism and Maoism, instead of getting the folks trained in civil disobedience. Characteristically, they rejected the support of the Trotskyists, who held their own rally at the Washington Monument—and the Beach Boys played for it. Brian Wilson couldn’t tell a Trotskyist from a syndicalist; he just wanted to protest the war. I don’t remember anymore the ideological details, but they didn’t matter when some 12,000 of the Mayday demonstrators were arrested and thrown into RFK stadium without even a show of non-violent resistance.

There is no Tribe at Occupy, and not much intra-left argument. When the police moved on the marchers at the Brooklyn Bridge, they sat down and locked arms, and while 700 were arrested, they had won the day. Mayor Bloomberg, one imagines, explained to the police that they had to be cool, and they are. (There are several pro-NYPD signs at the park.) To the owners of Zucotti Park, you can hear Bloomberg saying, “Forget about that clean-up. It won’t end well. We don’t want a Cairo on our hands.”

So, it’s working. If the Occupants can keep their agenda inclusive, and about big reform and not planks, and realize that government may not be the problem, but it is not going solve everything, and that corporations are not all bad, they’re made up of people too, and there are rights of property worth preserving and free enterprise is what got the U.S. to where we are—then maybe more Partiers will realize they are fighting for the same thing.

And then if the Partiers can let get fundamentalist about the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of reigion”) and get real about the need for a social safety net in this country, they could build a movement that would upend the worthless two-party system we have now.

Of course sooner or later, they would have to make a manifesto. So, uninvited, here are bullet points for the combined movement, reforms that we can agree on, and which might actually push the country back to upward mobility:

• No more corporate campaign contributions.

• $5,000 limit on personal campaign contributions.

• Non-partisan primaries (and consider the none-of-the-above ballot line).

• Congressional reform: Every bill must be about one thing, and it’s title must explain the purpose of the bill.

• Abolish Electoral College

• Flat federal personal income tax: 20% above $20,000 per year per person. No exemptions.

• Flat federal corporate income tax: 20%. No exemptions.

• Major reduction in foreign wars and military spending.

• Major reduction in the security establishment.

• No federal laws restricting personal rights unless they conflict with others’ rights.

• Transparent adjustment of all entitlements across the board.

• Banking reform. No one is too big to fail.

• Medicare, medicaid for everyone, private and/or public.

• Minimum annual income guarantee for all of $10,000.