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Occupy Wall Street: elite befriend middle-class freaks

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstration in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan reached the one-month mark yesterday. Few would have predicted when it started that it would gain as much attention as it has, or spread to other cities around the world.

What began as a gathering of a few hundred generally younger adults is now said to have become something more substantial: first celebrities and academics turned up at Zuccotti Park, but then students and representatives from labor unions. Politicians from President Obama to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney have expressed support.  A poll published yesterday found that 67 percent of New Yorkers were supportive of the protesters.

So, when I went down to the OWS protest today, I had expected to see a group of people that had grown to large numbers, and now encompassed those  from different backgrounds. It was nothing like that.

First, there weren't all that many around in total: I would venture a guess of about 1,000. We do know from multiple sources that far fewer, about 200, sleep there overnight.  A thousand isn't tiny, but in New York it's not a huge gathering compared to what you might see in places like Central Park or Times Square. It is also relatively small when you consider the tons of publicity it has received.

The numbers were also not that large when you consider a significant proportion - I would say at least a quarter - consisted of media, tourists and other onlookers. These observers were mainly around the edges of the park.  Indeed, OWS has become something of spectacle that people want to observe, and another activity to cross off the sight-seeing list while visiting NYC.

I heard and read the reports of how many of the first protesters were hippies and other assorted bohemians, and I imagined that this group had given way to a more assorted mix. But no. Walking through Zuccotti Park was like taking in a freak show at the circus. Many in their 20s, it was a sea of dreadlocks, pierced faces, and of course tattoos. In one corner were 50 people in a circle chanting "HAR" over and over, in a strange movement: with their hands clasped behind their heads, they moved their elbows back and forth, touching in front of their heads (I think this may have been a form of yoga). 

There were assorted sleeping bags and other makeshift bedding strewn about, and a food station with a long line of people waiting for a handout. There was also a sanitation group with brooms, set up in response the announcement that the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, was going to clear it out for cleaning (in the event, Brookfield backed down after pressure from city politicians and others). Despite their cleaning efforts, there was a foul smell in the air, which was not surprising given the lack of bathing facilities for an entire month.

At the front of the park was the so-called "General Assembly", a regular gathering for people to make presentations. The "people's mic", whereby people repeat the speakers words, is downright creepy, and reminiscient of the "you're all individuals" scene in Life of Brian

At the outset, it was said that the protesters did not know what they wanted. I was curious to see if there was any more clarity in the message coming out. There wasn't. There were a mish-mash of slogans: "quit coal", "stop hurting animals", "support revolution in Peru". One woman held up a long-worded poster complaining about Staples, the stationery store.

Indeed, the striking thing was, despite the general assembly forum, there was little discussion and debate. It was not the lack of a coherent message, but rather the lack of any attempt to come to a better understanding, that was remarkable. These were the children of the politically-correct, who had no desire to express judgments or make distinctions - lazy slogans were enough.

I did see a few earnest-looking college students, but they tended to hang around on the sidelines. The only union rep was a speaker from the Communication Workers of America, but his fellow union members didn't join him. I know that a broader section of society says they support the demonstrators, and do show up on weekends, but it is clear there is a hard core that is just as strange as they were on the first day a month ago.

I was also struck by a class contrast, but not the one everyone is talking about. This protest is supposed to have something to do with blaming the rich of Wall Street, the so-called 1 percent, for the country's ills, and proclaiming support for the other 99 percent (the most popular T-shirts at the park read "I am the 99%").  But the hippies and other oddballs were clearly not from working class backgrounds, nor were they lumpenized proletariat - these were the sons and daughters of the middle class. They did not come from, nor were they speaking for, the working class.

Ironically, the most working-class in background were those who actually work in the financial services firms around Wall Street and walk past the encampment every day (in fact, the big investment banking firms left "Wall Street" years ago for midtown, but there still are other ones downtown). Many of the financial sector employees come from modest upbringings, and have sought to better themselves in an industry that pays well. The destruction of the Twin Towers killed people from the highest to lowest of incomes, but, as was noted at the time, a preponderance of the bankers and firemen were from the same backgrounds and neighborhoods: Irish-American working class of the outer boroughs.

The class contrast was highlighted in a New York Times article on the weekend that brought together a protester and a stockbroker:

One, Edward T. Hall III, 25, was barefoot and dressed in loud, multicolored tights. He wore a beaded American Indian necklace and New Age jewelry, with a baseball cap pulled sideways over his long hair. The other, Jimmy Vivona, 40, wore a smart blue pinstripe suit, a conservative red-and-blue striped tie and good shoes. He had neat hair and a close shave.

Hall, who insists on using the "III", was described as "a well-educated young man with a privileged upbringing", and a "small trust fund". Vivona "grew up in a working class family in Staten Island and now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife and two young children."

You can get an idea of Hall, the trust-funder now taking free food handouts in the park, from this video footage:

Most of all, after my walk through the park, I came away asking myself: How can it be that everyone is so worked up about this relative handful of incoherent clowns? The President of the United States and other world leaders are supporting this group of losers? This is what the media and chattering classes are talking about incessantly?

What becomes abundantly clear from visiting the encampment is that the attention paid to this small group has really very little to do with the group itself. In a city like New York, coming across a gathering of strange people is an everyday occurrence. There is nothing to be gained by trying to analyze them, their methods, and so on: they are the same people who have been showing up at fringe events for years.

No, what really needs to be explained is: why does the world's elite feel the need to latch on to a rag-tag group? In this regard, the protesters lack of a clear message is an advantage: it means that politicians and others can now project their own pet ideas on to them, and endow the group with more coherence and moral authority than it really has.

Don't look to the happy-campers at Zuccotti Park to try to figure out why the world is ga-ga over OWS - there's really no there there. Ask why Obama and other leaders are now best friends with them.

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