2011-10-19 / Editorials

What I Learned At Zuccotti Park


“Ordinary trespassers” according to The New York Times. “Transients” and “wanderers”, said Fortune Magazine. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called their camping on public grounds “cheap heroics”. The Boston Herald described their behavior as “a hold-up of the undeserving”. One observer called them mere “vagabonds” and “ragged bands of youth who had graduated from school and could not find jobs, members of a locked-out generation”. Another reporter described the scenes as a “conglomeration of tented huts . . . with packing boxes serving as props”.

They were denounced as a “godless, selfappointed, nondescript, iconoclastic minority of grandiloquent egotists”. Still, “every group in society is represented in their ranks, from the college graduate to . . . young childless couples [and] grim faced middle-aged displaced from lifetime jobs”. Leaders complained of their “defiance of civil authority”. An Army general called them “insurrectionists” and warned of “incipient revolution in the air”.

“Responsibility is not hard to fix,” raged the Detroit Free Press. “The inciters were Red agitators.”

Sound familiar? Yet what I have cited above was not directed at the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park. They were leveled instead at the protests that paralyzed Washington D.C., New York, Dearborn and many other cities in 1932, as recorded in the early chapters of William Manchester’s masterpiece, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932- 1972 (Little, Brown and Company, 1973). The protesters were our parents, grandparents and in some cases our great grandparents: the very people who in decades to come would be heralded as “the Greatest Generation”.

It was with this knowledge that I decided to pay a visit to Zuccotti Park on Columbus Day to see for myself what really was happening. From what I had read in the newspapers and seen on TV, I expected to encounter putrid odors, marijuanainfused air, deadbeats of every kind, excrementladen pavement, verbally taunted police officers, drug addicts, pickpockets, con artists and other dregs of society.

What I found was quite different. The perimeter of the park was lined with what appeared to be typical middle-class types (those “college graduates”, “childless couples” and “grim faced middleaged displaced from lifetime jobs” who so infuriated the aristocracy 80 years ago). They held cardboard signs deploring the economic conditions. They were quiet, solemn. Inside the park a younger, more energetic group was busy making signs, playing music, or talking with visitors. Some policed the park, some manned information and counseling tables. Others sang songs and served food to anyone who wanted it from a long table set up in the middle of the park. All were peaceful, orderly and polite. I walked around and through the park several times and not once detected even a whiff of marijuana, something that can’t be said of the other events held in the city’s arenas and stadiums. Two small sections of the park were used for storage of tents, tarps and other gear and clothing. Standing near them an odor was apparent, but nothing more than one experiences in a boy’s locker room after gym class. This odor could not be detected once you moved more than 10 feet away.

Now I don’t doubt that there are a few knuckleheads who don’t belong there (just as the Tea Party has had its own small share of crazies), but I saw nothing that would pose a threat to the public. And though there have been some so-called “residents” who complain of noise, the fact is the park is bordered to the north and south by office buildings, to the east by an even noisier Broadway, and to the west by nothing but a wide gap where the Twin Towers once stood, where the noise of reconstruction is ever-present.

The focus of the protest is the widespread joblessness and the ever growing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots”. They call themselves the “99 percent”, a reference to the complaint that the wealthiest one percent of the population owns 99 percent of the country’s wealth. In 1932, the top one percent owned 59 percent of the wealth, according to William Manchester. And therein lies the heart of the protest: that Washington and Wall Street have rigged the game.

As I turned to leave, my eye was drawn to a young man who was standing on a chair in the park silently holding a sign intended for passersby. “I am here for you,” it read. In the background was the huge, black office tower which in large, shining letters boasted its address: 1 Liberty Plaza. Liberty indeed, I thought.

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