On Friday, October 7th, a beautiful blue-sky and warm-ish October day, I went to Zuccotti Park in NYC with Livio Sanchez (film editor) and Debby Brand (camera operator) to see firsthand what Occupy Wall Street was all about and record what we could.
What we found were people united by a sense that our national narrative is off course and that resentment over the patent unfairness of our current system is building. Perhaps the most common expression we found was that people, to varying degrees, thought that there was something systemically wrong.
Because of this widespread view of ‘everything being wrong,’ there was, naturally, no single message or thing around which everyone had gathered. Instead, the view was simply that the system being discussed — political, capitalist, economic, or monetary — was broken.
When you hold such a view, there’s really no ‘ask’ that makes sense. If the political system is irretrievably in the clutches of special interests, then voting new members into that system is perceived to be a waste of effort.
The short video below (less than four minutes) captures well what we observed:
The ‘protest’ is as much about participation and discussion as about airing grievances. People are talking. They are debating. They are doing exactly what you learn about in grade school when they teach you about how our political system has worked in the past and is supposed to work today. The difference, of course, is that no real debate, discussion, nor real participation is happening in Congress or the Senate.
The first stage of any movement begins with energy and passion, as pent up emotions find their first outlet. On this basis, the movement is in fine shape. To expect well-shaped messages at this moment is asking a bit much. Those will happen in time.
I thought this editorial in the NYTimes was pretty close to spot on:
Protesters Against Wall Street
As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities,the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions.
The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.
The protests, though, are more than a youth uprising. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. As the bad times have endured, Americans have also lost their belief in redress and recovery.
The initial outrage has been compounded by bailouts and by elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer.
Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.
There’s much that I agree with in that editorial. The main problems that led to the protests are quite obvious: a pronounced inequality in the distribution of economic gains and an even worse gap between the legal treatment of the well-connected and everyone else. Of course, ‘well-connected’ is merely a euphemism for ‘has enough money to stoke the self-interests of legislators and regulators’.
Who can doubt that Martha Stewart received very different treatment from Bernie Madoff? Or Lehman Bros. and their Repo 105 scandal, for that matter.
Of great interest to me is the even larger gulf between how most US media outlets began coverage of the protests (and continue to this day) and what we see in the foreign press.
According to Fox News, the angle worth covering is how the protests might hurt – wait for it – tourism!
Protesters Accused of Hurting NYC Economy
Oct 7, 2011
NEW YORK — Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday accused the Wall Street demonstrators of trying to cripple New York City’s economy.
“What they’re trying to do is take the jobs away from people working in this city,” the mayor declared in his harshest criticism of the three-week-old protest that has caught the attention of the nation.
“They’re trying to take away the tax base we have because none of this is good for tourism.”
These comments from Bloomberg have caused me to lose respect for him, both as a person and as a polished politician. His very poorly-thought-out complaints were not worthy of being the center of an article about the movement.
Contrast the above with RT offering a foreign view:
Occupy Wall Street: major protest against minority rule
Oct 9, 2011
“This seems pretty revolutionary to me. The spirit of revolution is here and so I need to be a part of it,” says campaigner Talib Kweli.
Labor unions, transport workers, teachers, nurses and US veterans standing shoulder-to-shoulder with young activists, spearheading a fight against US wealth inequality and corporate greed.
“Young people right now have no hope in our society. I just want to see a fair and more just society for the young people coming up, and all Americans that are suffering through these hard economic times,” a US army veteran told RT during the protests.
The “Occupy” movement has gained such momentum even the president, who promised change,has been forced to address the issue.
“I think people are frustrated, and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Barack Obama told a press conference. “The American people understand that not everybody has been following the rules; that Wall Street is an example of that.”
While the US has encouraged and supported democratic uprisings in the Arab world, the same events playing out at home have been met with batons, pepper spray and the mass arrest of nearly 800 peaceful protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. A scene that reminded some of Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
That’s a much more balanced summary than what Fox dished up…and it comes from the Russian press. The comparison puts US press in a rather bad light. Well, maybe not all that bad, as long as you don’t mind the rank hypocrisy of Fox News of wholeheartedly supporting the Egyptian people’s exercise of democratic rights while casting those exercising their same rights in the US in a bad light.
I had a great time meeting people and finding out what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about. My findings are that the energy is good and the movement is right about where it should be at this stage. I am very much in support of average Americans finally joining the world in making their voices heard.
Many of you have started an intelligent discussion in our forums of the OWS movement, what it represents, and what positive change might result from it. We encourage all interested minds to join the discussion.
I expect to go back and rejoin the movement as soon as I return from my California trip. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
Executive summary: Father of three young children; author; obsessive financial observer; trained as a scientist; experienced in business; has made profound changes in his lifestyle because of what he sees coming.
First of all, I am not an economist. I am trained as a scientist, having completed both a PhD and a post-doctoral program at Duke University, where I specialized in neurotoxicology. I tell you this because my extensive training as a scientist informs and guides how I think. I gather data, I develop hypotheses, and I continually seek to accept or reject my hypotheses based on the evidence at hand. I let the data tell me the story.
It is also important for you to know that I entered the profession of science with the intention of teaching at the college level. I love teaching, and I especially enjoy the challenge of explaining difficult or complicated subjects to people with limited or no background in those subjects. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Once I figured out that most of the (so-called) better colleges place “effective teacher” pretty much near the bottom of their list of characteristics that factor into tenure review, I switched gears, obtained an MBA from Cornell (in Finance), and spent the next ten years working my way through positions in both corporate finance and strategic consulting. From these experiences I gather my comfort with numbers and finance.