Sunday, September 25, 2011
WALL STREET-Capitalist Capitol of the World....Occupied!
Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times
By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka. A blonde with a marked likeness to Joni Mitchell and a seemingly even stronger wish to burrow through the space-time continuum and hunker down in 1968, Ms. Tikka had taken off all but her cotton underwear and was dancing on the north side of Zuccotti Park, facing Liberty Street, just west of Broadway. Tourists stopped to take pictures; cops smiled, and the insidiously favorable tax treatment of private equity and hedge-fund managers was looking as though it would endure.
“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” Ms. Tikka, 37, told me.
“This,” presumably was the opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival. Occupy Wall Street, a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater, had hoped to see many thousands join its protest and encampment, which began Sept. 17. According to the group, 2,000 marched on the first day; news outlets estimated that the number was closer to several hundred.
By Wednesday morning, 100 or so stalwarts were making the daily, peaceful trek through the financial district, where their movements were circumscribed by barricades and a heavy police presence. (Various arrests for disorderly conduct were made.) By Thursday, the number still sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the central base of operations, appeared to be dwindling further.
Members retained hope for an infusion of energy over the weekend, but as it approached, the issue was not that the Bastille hadn’t been stormed, but that its facade had suffered hardly a chip. It is a curious fact of life in New York that even as the disparities between rich and poor grow deeper, the kind of large-scale civil agitation that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently suggested might happen here hasn’t taken shape. The city has two million more residents than Wisconsin, but there, continuing protests of the state budget bill this year turned out approximately 100,000 people at their peak. When a similar mobilization was attempted in June to challenge the city’s budget cuts, 100 people arrived fora sleep-in near City Hall.
Last week brought a disheartening coupling of statistics further delineating the city’s economic divide: The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.
Most of those entrenched in Zuccotti Park had indeed traveled from somewhere else; they had come from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and so on with drums, horns, tambourines and, in the instance of one young man, a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers.
One of the few New Yorkers I met, a senior at Bronx High School of Science, was stopping by in fits and spurts, against the wishes of his psychiatrist mother, who feared the possibility of tear gas and had chastised her son for giving his allowance to the cause.
That cause, though, in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher. The group was clamoring for nothing in particular to happen right away — not the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry. Some didn’t think government action was the answer because the rich, they believed, would just find new ways to subvert the system.
“I’m not for interference,” Anna Katheryn Sluka, of western Michigan, told me. “I hope this all gets people who have a lot to think: ‘I’m not going to go to Barcelona for three weeks. I’m going to sponsor a small town in need.’ ”
Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.
“I want to get rid of the combustion engine,” John McKibben, an activist from Vermont, declared as his primary ambition.
“I want to create spectacles,” Becky Wartell, a recent graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Maine, said.
Having discerned the intellectual vacuum, Chris Spiech, an unemployed 26-year-old from New Jersey, arrived on Thursday with the hope of indoctrinating his peers in the lessons of Austrian economics, Milton Friedman and Ron Paul. “I want to abolish the Federal Reserve,” he said.
The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”?
One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”