Editor's Note: Contributor Joe Durwin spent the weekend in New York City with Occupy Wall Street. Here is his take on what on the OWS movement.
NEW YORK — The questions on the minds of New York City civilians I spoke to Saturday mirrored those of many in the nation following the Occupy Wall Street movement's apparent victory over Zuccotti Park.
They are similar to the questions that much of America has asked since the occupation began last month, but were given a greater gravity as the occupiers demonstrated their staying power and prepared to stand in solidarity with more than 1,000 cities worldwide the following day.
What do they want? What are their demands? When will it end?
These are complicated questions, with many possible answers.
I quickly realized upon settling in at Zuccotti Park — Liberty Square to the occupation movement — that trying to solidify answers to this, or indeed, "cover" or represent my gleanings of what the occupiers were feeling or saying in any traditional journalistic sense was extremely difficult. What follows is a result of many hours of informal chats, innocent questioning, and constant eavesdropping as I spent the day with them at this pivotal turning point in their occupation.
So, what do they want? One possible answer is: A Lot.
The laundry list of things individual participants tout as priorities to them are nearly as diverse as the occupation supporters themselves. Better banking regulation, tax reform, campaign finance reform, wage increases, unemployment, the healthcare system, outsourcing, military spending, environmental concerns ... the list goes on indefinitely. It is difficult to think of any political or economic issue that has been on anyone's radar in the last few years that I didn't hear mentioned at some point in my day spent at Liberty Square.
As people kept reminding me, though, one of the things that distinguishes this from any other mass demonstration movement is that there isn't a true party platform. There isn't a set agenda or list of formal demands.
Some of the occupiers are concerned about this, worried that the effort cannot be taken seriously or produce any concrete changes until it does produce some kind of "99 Theses," to borrow one woman's clever reference to Martin Luther's "95 Theses," the document which sparked the Protestant Reformation.
Others contend that it is precisely the movement's slippery, hard-to-pinpoint structure and purpose that has made it so successful. "All we're saying for sure is that the current situation of injustices, inequalities, and corruption, and really all of that ... in this country is simply not acceptable," a college student named Ann says, "and people are going to start Occupying everywhere in this whole country until it changes. It's going to be a nuisance ... it's going to be an inconvenience. Deal with it."
"We're the real majority," her friend adds, "and we're just going to swarm and stick like sore thumbs everywhere until America's ours and its government is ours and then we need to make sure we never lose control of it again."
Another young man touts the inclusive nature of the "99 percent" strategy in a rant to some curious visitors.
"If you have a problem with Occupy Wall Street, come change it. If you think it's too this or that, show up and add your voice, your perspective. The Occupation isn't an agenda protest, it isn't a platform, it isn't left wing or right wing. It's an attempt to restore participatory government and participatory society. If you think there is something that needs to be addressed, why not step up and address it, now that the whole world really is watching, too ... here or in a city near you. If you think it's too silly, come make it serious. That's the thing - we know we're not representing the whole 99 percent - not yet. We're calling ourselves that so you'll know that you're all invited."
I asked a lot of people if they foresaw an end date for the New York occupation.
"Who says it's going to end?" Said one young man, as we both moved quickly to get our ponchos on as a brief torrential downpour begins. "Eight hundred people have been arrested, we're still here. A month has gone by, we're still here. The mayor of New York tried to evict us, we're still here."
He points up at the heavy shower falling on us. "And when it snows, we'll still be here."
"I think it's one of the obstacles," said Donald, an older gentleman who said he was a veteran of protest actions going back to the '60s, "that people think it will end. That the Powers That Be think it will go away, that they don't realize yet this time it's different. Nothing will change until they realize this time it's not going to blow over."
These sentiments are mimicked in the weekly community newspaper circulated through the park, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. "It will not stop until the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into massive debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops ... ."
While the reaction of many casual passers-by around Liberty Square on Friday was one of vague confusion, and sometimes open resentment, some New Yorkers not directly involved in the movement seem to appreciate the logic of their approach.
Sherry, an attorney in Manhattan, described herself as an "interested spectator" who had been coming down to the park occasionally on her lunch break. While she understood why some in the city were agitated by the demonstrators, and that the behavior of a few had been "over the line," she seemed generally positive about their approach to what she called "a problem we all see, but have no clue what to do with."
"These people never claimed to have all the answers ... they know that it's not necessarily going to be up to them specifically to craft the solutions or rewrite the laws," she said of the perceived lack of agenda. "They don't need to do it all themselves, and they know it. The longer they stay here, the more it inspires and shames the rest of us into doing more about these things."
"They have an appeal right now that no political party has going for it," said Thomas, a "communications expert" in town from Chicago on business who came by to check it out. "They don't have a platform to pick apart, or a recognizable leadership to scrutinize for personal flaws and scandals."
Most of the demonstrators to whom I repeated Thomas' point seemed to agree. They said that while there were certainly people who stood out as having natural leadership skills, just as there were occasional "bad apples," most of the order implicit was arrived at by consensus. Most felt this made them stronger, and contributed to the sense of solidarity that seems to be spreading like wildfire, as the demonstrators against economic injustice spilled into what amounts to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, worldwide over the course of Saturday for the coordinated Oct. 15 effort.
It all begins to sound less like hyperbole now, as tens of thousands joined the New York movement as it went on the march Sunday, filling Times Square in the evening, defying a small army of NYPD, and expanding the scope of action with an eye toward beginning long-term occupation at Washington Square. Hundreds more have been arrested in more than 100 U.S. cities in recent days, and in states like Massachusetts, governors have taken it upon themselves to go down and see and hear these scenes of discontent. Despite continued downplay from many major media outlets, the scale and tenor of this movement can no longer be ignored, and for some the uncertainty around these core questions about what they want and demand, and when it will end, has become ominous.
The answer, as I was hearing it, is they have no demands, there is no one agenda, no piece of legislation they can be coopted or appeased on. Their grievances are almost as diverse as America. Their platform, as they depict it, is the platform of Everyman. What they're saying now is "Look around. It isn't going to end."
The message that's emerging, with a cautiously growing voice, is that they really do mean it, they haven't come to protest but to Occupy, and it's not just about Wall Street anymore. They mean for what they call the 99 percent to occupy America, and actually decide its future together.
After the events of the past two days, it's all starting to sound a little less crazy.
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Great article! I have been utterly confused with what the occupy wall street agenda was. I can't say I agree that it sounds less crazy, because without an agenda that everyone can rally around, I would suspect that eventually these groups will turn on each other.
What is the demand? Nothing short of DEMOCRACY.
What is the action? Building a society that values each human being through an exemplar community that puts a premium on DEMOCRACY.
What is the Problem? The crony capitalism of Wall Street is corrupting the democracy of the United States of America.
The demand is reasonable. The complaint is valid, and the methodology is peaceful. outlierideas.com
I think the protestors should ask themselves the question: "Are things any better since the Republicans have been in control of the Congress?"
Demonstrations or not, citizens strongest tool is "the vote."
This whole mess could not have been done without everyone's laziness and greed. People were ignoring their responsibility to participate in government, and wanting more than what they earn. We have two generations that expect someone else to provide answers and someone else to do hard work. They are waking up to the fact that this is not a sustainable reality.
Wake up America - yes, you need to take back government by doing the hard work of getting elected. After being elected, you'll need to do more hard work and additional sacrifice in order to make things better. Things would not have been great the last 50 years without the LIFETIME SACRIFICES of the greatest generation. Use them as a model and try not to dump the problem on your kids and grandkids. And they didn't brag about their sacrifice, because they knew there were countless others who gave more!
Enemy is us is right. How many of these protesters voted in the last national election? How many voted in their local and state elections? They say they want to be heard, and yet in each and every election we see low turnouts. What they want is a free ride. 50% of Americans pay NO taxes. I'm in the other 50% and I am no millionaire by a long shot. There are certainly hardships out there for many low income people, but there are also considerable numbers of people who just want more money added to the welfare state so they can keep collecting without having to work for it. Free college education? Who pays for that if they get it. I do. I had to work to pay off my student loans. You want a college education? Do the same. I'm no fan of the big banks that received bailouts and continue to fleece people who are in foreclosure, and THAT should be the core of this protest. Those homeowners took out mortgages and tried to make a go of it, and now can't pay it back. Give them a break, but no more breaks for people who CHOOSE to not work for a living.
Editor: Here's a better read on who exactly is not paying federal taxes - and they're not getting "a free ride." In fact, once upon a time, my federal income was quite low - offset by the mortgage, payroll taxes, local taxes, low pay, college tuitions and loans and dependents. I'll bet many people around here can say the same. I Agree (0) - I Disagree (0)
EnemyMine It's a pity in this day and age of accessible information that you're so poorly informed, and like so many others simply parrot what you've heard some blowhard pundits say.
First of all, this idea that only half of Americans pay taxes is absurd. Ever heard of income taxes, or sales tax, through which even illegal immigrants contribute billions each year to govt revenue?
If you bothered to pay attention to the reality of what's happening on OWS you'd realize these ARE precisely the small percentage of people who DO vote, for the most part. This movement represents the *politically involved* people from every party, age group and belief system, despite what your favorite Fox News "expert" may have told you.
One of, if not THE central issue is very much the absurd lack of accountability in banking practices, have you really not been paying attention AT ALL?
I don't think anyone has really been depicting it as a Welfare Rights movement, so don't worry, no one is trying to take anything from you and your white middle class home-owning friends (unless of course your home cost 10M+ and was bought off a CEO bonus paid for by OUR tax dollars.)
Thank you Bershire.com for welcoming critical, respectful dialogue.It is disgraceful when reading some of the comments from other venues. The use of profanity is unaccetable and disrectful. Bias and racial comments shopuld not be allowed. Again thank you for editing and deleting.