24 October 2011

Occupying Myself around Wall Street

“Occupy Wall Street has become an event for its own sake, a destination for the aimless,” the columnist Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post today. On Saturday, if he’d seen me, Cohen might have thought my presence confirmed his analysis. After all, I was in Zuccotti Park primarily because I’d attended another event nearby, and I arrived at this particular hour because that event, a wine-tasting, had left me too buzzed to go to the gym, as I’d planned. Once I got there, I started taking pictures, and I bought two buttons for my mother’s collection of political memorabilia (somewhat neglected, lately). Just so, Cohen describes the ongoing protest in New York as “something that occurs on countless iPhone cameras, a tourist attraction with the usual vendors.”

Well, I don’t have an iPhone, but it’s true that I came mostly to observe. I’d been planning to do so for a couple of weeks, but you know how it goes: a new job at weird hours, the fact that Zuccotti Park lies at the opposite end of Manhattan Island … it took me a while. Yet I wasn’t quite “aimless,” and ultimately, like Richard Cohen, I find Occupy Wall Street interesting at least as much for the reactions it provokes, as for what’s actually happening in the Park.

Having heard so many tales from Madeline Gilford about how FBI agents used to station themselves at protest meetings (and any kind of gathering) to take photos of suspected left-wingers, I felt terribly conspicuous when I began to take pictures in Zuccotti Park. To make matters worse, the protesters kept moving around.

It occurred to me that the very blurriness of my photographs was a proof in itself that my intentions were benign.

See? I wasn’t spying.

I don’t disagree with the Occupiers, so much as I find myself constitutionally incapable of joining them. In life there are Antigones and there are Ismenes, the late Bruce Donovan used to say, and even as a boy in his classroom I knew I wasn’t an Antigone. Grown-up now, I confess that the solidarity I feel with the protesters is of a vague and somewhat awkward sort.

Occupy Wall Street is serious about tidiness and recycling.

This is my prerogative, not only as an American but also as a journalist, a calling that entitles me to get the story completely wrong, where Occupy Wall Street is concerned. Or so it would seem. We’ve been told that “the media ignored the protests for weeks,” yet when I got to Zuccotti Park, there seemed absolutely nothing suspect about this ostensible “media blackout.”

The demonstrations downtown are (still) very small, and the most remarkable thing about them — endurance — was by necessity untrue of them at their outset. I know it will come as a shock to the protesters, but there are other stories to be reported, competition for airtime or print space is fierce, and they simply didn’t stack up. Not at the start.

By now, the Occupy protests in New York (and several other cities) have engendered lots of media coverage, much of it wrongheaded. Some of the claims made by those who sympathize seem grandiose. Then you look at claims made by those who disagree — and they’re even more extravagant, especially in comparison with what you see when you go downtown.

This is what’s threatening our institutions, our prosperity, our national security, our very identity? Really? This is going to give aid and comfort to our enemies, and not incidentally make Barack Obama a one-term wonder?

Here for the long haul? The protesters have brought tents and sleeping bags.
Proof, perhaps, that the protesters aren’t all college kids.
How many do you know who make their beds every day?

Winter is coming, and it will get harder to camp out in Zuccotti Park. That’s why it was important to me to shlepp downtown, and not to wait any longer: I wanted to see this while it was still in some sense thriving. I wanted to observe, as I say, and also to think. Even if I never picked up a picket.

Ultimately, I wonder who’s more naïve: the folks who think their little sit-in may deserve some attention and bring about change — or the folks who thought they could toy with the economy and let the guilty run free?

At the very least, the scofflaws and their enablers know now that impunity isn’t a divine right: it was pure luck, and it may not last.

Beast behind bars?

No comments: