The “Occupy” Movement Celebrates A Birthday

For those of you who somehow forgot, today’s a special day:  the first birthday of the “Occupy movement.”

The Occupiers celebrated the big day by staging some protests in lower Manhattan.  About a thousand protesters gathered and tried to block access to the New York Stock Exchange and various office buildings, and about 150 were arrested for disturbing the peace.  The stock market and other capitalistic activities went on undeterred, but one Occupier was enthusiastic about the turnout.  “It is encouraging getting 1,000 people out to do anything,’’ he said.

It’s hard to believe that the “Occupy movement” started only a year ago.  For a time the media and some politicians acted like the “Occupy movement” was going to be the next big wave, and there was a seeming obsession with breathless reporting about how the Zuccotti Park protestors engaged in self-government, used the “human megaphone,” and had drummers pounding away day and night.  It seems like ancient history now, doesn’t it?  What was supposed to be the next big thing now can only command a thousand protestors to commemorate a big day for the “movement” — and you’d be hard pressed to identify anything that was truly accomplished as a result of the urban encampments and drumming.

There may still be “Occupy” activities going on somewhere in Columbus, but if so I haven’t seen or heard of them.  On its first birthday, it seems like there’s not much movement in that “movement.”

A Curious Course

Sometimes you have to wonder about the intellectual rigor and objectivity of college courses.

A new class to be offered by Columbia University will focus on the Occupy Wall Street protests.  The course, called “Occupy the Field: Global Finance, Inequality, Social Movement,” will be offered by the anthropology department and taught by Dr. Hannah Appel, who is a veteran of the Occupy protests.  Appel says she will be able to be objective about the protests — but according to the article the class will require students to become involved with the Occupy protests outside the classroom.

I’m not sure how objective a course can be when it requires students to become involved with the “movement” being studied.  That fact, alone, makes the course seem like more of a recruiting device than a true academic exercise.  And what, exactly, is going to be studied in the classroom?  News clippings about protests that lasted for a few months in which only an infinitesimal fraction of Americans participated?  Or, how many of the “Occupy” sites had problems with crime?  Or, how the “Occupy” protesters developed their “mike check” technique?

The “Occupy” protests have been called a “movement” by some, but I think there’s no real basis for that characterization so far.  There’s no comparison between a few protesters huddled in a few parks and the long-term, broad-based, mass activities that characterized the civil rights movement, or the temperance movement, or the women’s suffrage movement.  At this point, are the “Occupy” protests really any more deserving of study than other short-lived fringe political activities in America, like declaring “nuclear-free zones” or “sanctuary cities”?

Zuccotti Park, After OWS

Today we were in lower Manhattan and decided to drop in on Zuccotti Park, lately the home of the Occupy Wall Street gang.  You can find it in the financial district, very close to the location of the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial.

Zuccotti Park has a sign that says “Open to the public” but, ironically, it was totally blocked off from public access by temporary fencing — presumably because it was being cleaned by a guy riding a street sweeper machine — and there was a significant police presence in the immediate area.  The area also featured a decorated Christmas tree and lots of holiday lighting, rather than tents, so it didn’t bear any resemblance to the encampment of protesters that was the subject of so much media attention.

Still, we could make a few observations.  First, Zuccotti Park is not really much of a “park.”  Instead, I would call it a plaza.  It’s almost entirely covered with concrete and stone, with stone benches and a few trees.  It couldn’t have been a comfortable place to camp, or sleep.  Second, it’s much smaller than I thought it would be — a small square, really.  It’s hard to imagine it was the site of dozens of tents, a working chow line, and so forth.

The Occupy Wall Streeters appear to be largely gone from their former headquarters, although I did see a few people with signs — including one guy who seemed to be protesting Occupy Wall Street and what its leaders had done with the money they received in contributions.

Black Friday Showdown: “Occupiers” Versus Shoppers

According to news reports, some “Occupy” protesters are calling for “occupation” of outlets of large, publicly traded retailers — that is, virtually every store found in America — tomorrow.  If it happens, it would set up a monumental clash of the titans on the biggest shopping day of the year:

Ladies and gentlemen:  Welcome to the Black Friday throw down!

In this corner, a ragtag band of “Occupy Wall Street” protesters with a bad case of “bed head.”  They’re scruffy, angry, and utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. 

And in this corner, legions of amped-up holiday shoppers.  They’ve been up for hours, they’ve chugged gallons of black coffee, and they’re gunning to get all of their holiday shopping done in one stressful 18-hour period. 

The contest has begun!  The Occupy protesters have blocked the door to the Wal-Mart!  They’re doing their annoying human microphone shtick and trying to explain why large corporations suck.

 But the shoppers aren’t listening!  They’ve formed a flying wedge of shopping carts handled by angry plus-sized women who want to take advantage of the big Black Friday sales!  They’re ramming the Occupy protesters.  Wait just a minute!  Some of the shoppers have fainted from that special “Occupy” odor!  And the “Occupiers” are demanding free stuff from the shoppers!

Ladies and gentlemen, the confrontation has turned into a general melee.  The shoppers are clubbing the Occupy protesters with their heavy purses!  But now a phalanx of “Occupy” drummers has entered the fray!  Their loud, discordant drumming has momentarily stunned the shoppers!  Hold on a moment — the shoppers have regrouped!  They’re slashing at the Occupy protesters with the edges of their credit cards, and the Occupy protesters are giving way . . . .

If the “Occupy” protesters follow through with a Black Friday attempt to occupy stores, I’m betting on the shoppers.

Zuccotti Park Debris

New York City sanitation workers have been sifting through the debris removed from Zuccotti Park when the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters were evicted by police — and in the process are helping to flesh out the tale of the protests.

In all, 26 dump trucks of material was removed from the park.  (Twenty-six dump trucks!  The protesters must have been doing some serious accumulating and consuming.)   The people charged with sorting through the pile of refuse found at least two dozen hypodermic needles, rotted food, discarded personal belongings, and lots of broken glass.  There was so much broken glass mixed in with the other items that workers had to stop protesters looking for their stuff from sifting through the debris pile, so as to avoid injury.

Life at Camp Zuccotti sounds like it was pretty dangerous and dreadful in the days before the police closed it down.  I wonder how many of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters secretly were relieved when the police took action, so the protesters had an excuse to leave the squalor and go back to their parents’ suburban homes for a hot shower, a hot meal, and a good night’s sleep?

Checking In On “Occupy Columbus”

This morning I walked over to the Statehouse to check out the “Occupy” protest, Columbus version.  It’s changed a little since my first visit.  Big doings were planned today for the Occupy Wall Street folks in NYC, so I thought the Columbus chapter might also be kicking into gear.  That turned out not to be the case.

As the photo I took indicates, the Columbus encampment is small and shabby — a few tents, a few wooden pallets, a cooler or two, a few garbage cans, and some stray signage fastened to steel fencing on the sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse.  At least one of the tents was occupied, but no one was out chanting or doing anything else.  It was cold, so maybe the Occupy protesters decided that tapping on their laptop keyboards inside the tents was the smarter course.  The people waiting at the nearby bus stop, who far outnumbered anybody huddled in the tents, were trying to stay warm in a brisk wind and weren’t paying much attention to the Occupy folks, anyway.

The whole point of the Occupy protests still seems pretty obscure to me.  The signage at the Columbus camp didn’t provide much clarification, either.  Here were the signs that were visible this morning:  “The finest democracy money can buy,” “Monopolies kill off competition,” “Kill your TV and Do Your Research,” “Integrate the Federal Reserve,” and “Commercialized Culture TV, Radio, Music, Art, Religion.”  Is there a common, articulable theme in those signs, other than reflexive opposition to whatever might attract their attention?

Camp Closure

Overnight New York City police cleared Zuccotti Park, home to the Occupy Wall Street protesters.  According to the police, the decision was precipitated by health and fire safety concerns and allegations of criminal activity — the same issues that seem to have plagued the OWS camps elsewhere.

From news reports, it appears that most of the protesters left peacefully, although a number of them resisted and were arrested.  Some of the protesters chained themselves to trees and other objects in the park.  After the park is cleared of all of the tents, tarps, and debris and restored to its original condition, protesters apparently will be allowed back — but not allowed to stay overnight or set up an encampment.

After the last protesters are removed this morning, three questions will remain to be answered.  First, will the OWS protests continue with the Zuccotti Park semi-permanent headquarters closed down?  Second, what kind of stuff was found in the debris removed from the park?  And third, who gets the thousands of dollars that apparently were contributed in support of the OWS protests?

Edited to add:  A judge has upheld the city’s decision to evict the protesters and to refuse the erection of tents and other structures in the park.

The Occupy Protests Turn Weird

We seem to have reached a kind of turning point with the “Occupy” protests.  Last night’s violence in Oakland, among other incidents, raises more general questions about the “Occupy” protests.  Who are these folks, really, and what do they want?

Some mayors have lost patience with protests that disrupt neighborhoods and interfere with commerce.  In other areas the “Occupy” protests appear to have attracted the attention of criminal elements who sense the presence of trusting souls who are ripe for the picking. In still other places the protesters look to be lashing out indiscriminately, and doing curious things like deciding to occupy random buildings

The protests seems to be searching for a common theme — and I predict that the lack of a common theme ultimately will be fatal.  This isn’t like the ’60s, when protesters of all stripes — from the Weathermen to the Black Panthers to guys who just didn’t want to fight in some faraway country for some ill-defined cause — were unified in their opposition to the Vietnam War.  Economic issues, in contrast, are much more diffuse.   It’s one thing to say, in effect:  “The economy sucks!”  Most people would agree with that sentiment.  But after you get past the general, and start to focus on the specific, the fractures appear.  For every “Occupy” protester who wants to tear down our current capitalistic system and replace it with a New World Order, how many of the protesters would be perfectly happy to just have a job in the field that they studied in college?

The March Of Civilization, Writ Small (Cont.)

The Occupy Wall Street protests continue to teach us useful lessons about how civilization works and how individuals react in different social situations.

The latest story is of the revolt of the OWS kitchen staff.  They have been slaving over a hot stove — or whatever they use for cooking — for 18-hour days, turning out high-end grub.  They serve things like organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti bolognese, and sheep’s milk cheese and roasted beet salad.  Now they’re ticked because they believe “professional homeless” people, ex-cons, and other freeloaders are showing up at Zuccotti Park, eating the free food and otherwise acting as leeches on the buttocks of the “movement.”  So the kitchen staff protested by not serving food and then providing only low-end food like brown rice and PB and J sandwiches.  And in other developments, a 10-person volunteer security force patrolled the “trouble-prone southwest section” of Zuccotti Park in a “show of force” to clear out the rabble.

It’s like that Sim City game that Richard played years ago.  The OWS protesters were the “have-nots” until they became the “haves” — and then other “have-nots” showed up to try to get theirs.  So, the budding OWS civilization has to police who gets the chow and set up a security force to keep order.  If they don’t budget carefully and devote some of their energy and resources to security and preservation of property, their civilization will fail.

How long do you think it will be before the “professional homeless” launch an Occupy “Occupy Wall Street” protest?

No More Pity Parties

Language is a mirror of society.  Phrases track social developments, become part of the culture, and then drop out of favor and out of use as conventions change.

I thought about this yesterday when I heard a report on the Occupy Wall Street protests.  A protester being interviewed was complaining about how unfair our system is and how he isn’t getting the support from the government and corporations that is his just due.  My initial, admittedly knee-jerk, unsympathetic reaction was: “Let’s have a pity party!” — and then I found myself wondering when I last heard that phrase.

When I was younger, if you whined about something a listener would often curtly dismiss your complaint by sarcastically saying it was time for a “pity party.”  The clear message was, suck it up, stop bitching, and keep at it, because feeling sorry for yourself wasn’t going to get you anywhere.  That attitude seems to be a lot less common these days.  Now, no one wants to be viewed as judgmental or unsympathetic.  So, we tolerate people who whine and wallow in self-pity, and commiserate rather than criticize their defeatist attitude.

As a result, comments about “pity parties” have gone the way of the dodo.  In my view, it’s not a good development.

The March Of Civilization, Writ Small

Say what you will about the Occupy Wall Street group — it’s helping to provide people with an education about how civilization works.

It’s one thing to spend one night in a park, enraptured by your freedom and the spirit of the protest, listening to the tom toms and the snares of the “drum circle.”  But what to do when you’ve been there for a week?  Hey, how long can that damn drum circle play?  How are we going to divide the tips that those drummers get, anyway?  Are we going to let just anyone in?  Who’s going to make sure that my stuff doesn’t get taken?  This particular patch of the park is my patch, and I’m not going to move for the johnny-come-latelys who probably are here just to look for a good time.  Who is going to make sure that things are cleaned up?  Where’s my food?

New York magazine has a classic article on the growing pains of the OWS group, as “facilitators” and drummers clash, the old guard and the newbies bump heads, the “General Assembly” gets denounced as “unwieldy” and “cumbersome,” those who want to sleep and those who want to just let the music flow jostle for power, and property rights get asserted and exercised. It’s a living sociology class, confined to a smelly park in Manhattan.

The Questionable Consequences Of Student Loan Programs

Last year, Americans took out $100 billion in student loans.  This year, the total amount of outstanding student loans will exceed $1 trillion.  Amazingly, Americans now owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards.

The story of federal student loans is one of a well-intentioned program that has produced unintended consequences.  The underlying concept was that a college education has value and that qualified students shouldn’t be deprived of that value simply because they couldn’t afford tuition and boarding costs out of pocket.  Since many members of Congress went to college and enjoyed the experience, this concept wasn’t a hard sell.  And if the funds were loans that would be repaid, and couldn’t be discharged in bankruptcy, what was the risk?

Now, people debate whether student loans and student aid have contributed to the constant increases that have made tuition at most colleges exorbitantly expensive.  (Some, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, argue that there is no connection, but simple notions of supply and demand dictate that if there is a greater pool of funded applicants — i.e., demand — the price of the service being supplied can be increased.  Does anyone really doubt that if fewer people were going to college, colleges fighting to attract candidates from that shrinking pool would engage in price competition?)  The ready availability of student loans also has led to the proliferation of “for-profit” colleges, on-line programs, and schools that teach students technical skills or the “culinary arts” — in many instances, skills and capabilities that used to be taught by “on-the-job” training at no cost to the person learning the trade.  And how many parents decided to forgo attempting to save for college as their children grew up because they figured a pool of loan money would be available when the time came?

There can be no dispute, however, that for many student-borrowers the decision to finance their higher education through student loans has become an albatross.  Some years ago I sat with some associates at lunch when the topic of student debt came up; one of the associates mentioned, grimly, that on her current payment plan she would pay off her debt when she was in her 50s.  In good times, the payment obligations necessarily restrict the job options that the graduate can consider; if you will owe thousands of dollars a year, you may not be able to afford taking that low-paying, but likely fulfilling, public service job.  In bad economic times, the debt load becomes crushing.  You can’t find good-paying work, and what you can find pays barely enough for food and rent.  You fall behind on your loan payments, late fees get imposed, debt collectors come knocking at your door and that of your co-signing parents, and suddenly you are trapped in a desperate debt death spiral.

Recently I heard one of the Occupy Wall Street protesters interviewed.  She explained that she had received a history degree from a reputable college, and it meant nothing for her in the job market.  How many of the OWS protesters are frustrated recent graduates who see their futures swirling ’round the drain as a result of their student loan debt?  Isn’t it time that we re-examine this program, to see whether our good intentions have simply paved the road to a hellish lifetime of being dunned by debt collectors for a generation of college graduates?

Zombie, Or Not Zombie?

Halloween is just around the corner, and a person’s thoughts naturally turn to . . . zombies.  We’ve all seen movies about them.  We know there is a good chance that, any day now, some misguided government program, alien virus, or bacteria from the bottom of the sea could turn our peaceful fellow citizens into a crowd of ravenous, flesh-gobbling undead.

But what to do to defend your home and loved ones against the scourge of shuffling, groaning ex-humans who hunger for brain tissue?  What devices are most likely to thwart or permanently disable the rotting horrors who may be shambling down the street at any moment?  Or what if, God forbid, you became a zombie?  What if you had to repair that broken arm caused by the terrified bat-wielding neighbors who won’t let you feast on their children, or you needed to remove an eight-inch nail shot into your abdomen?  America is crying out for answers to these crucial questions!

Fortunately, the Westlake Ace Hardware Store Zombie Preparedness Center has the answers.  It’s an equal opportunity website, too, offering assistance to both human and zombie.  For humans hoping to knock off any zombie that might stagger by, the helpful hardware folks recommend nail guns, sledgehammers, chainsaws, shovels, and pickaxes.  For zombies, caulk, duct tape, and sealants will come in handy when bodily repairs are needed, whereas air fresheners and carpet cleaners can avoid the embarrassment of undue rotting odor.

In fact, forget Occupy Wall Street!  The best thing for our economy right now could be the government’s release of its secret zombie virus, leading to an uprising of Zombie Nation.  No other government program is more likely to cause a stimulative run on America’s hardware stores.

At Today’s Sparse “Occupy Columbus” Protest

Today the “Occupy Wall Street” group held a protest in downtown Columbus at noon today.  The protest was mentioned on NPR this morning, so I walked over to check it out over the noon hour.  It was, to say the least, underwhelming.

I would estimate that about 20 protesters were there — and with the mention of the protest on NPR and the many college students and political types in town, I was expecting a much larger number.  The skimpy turnout was only a tiny fraction of the huge crowds that showed up for the Senate Bill 5 protests at the Statehouse earlier this year.  Then, the protesters filled pretty much every square foot of the Statehouse lawn and surrounding walkways.  Today’s little band, in contrast, was huddled on the sidewalk in front of the McKinley statute facing High Street.  Their numbers were so small that you could easily walk past them on the sidewalk.

The protesters were a motley group, with no apparent theme.  Among the signs I saw were one supporting prisoner’s rights, another opposing Issue 2, one simply reading “Glass-Steagall,” and another handwritten sign purporting to be a quote from Andrew Jackson.  There also was a sign opposing corporate greed, one that was anti-yuppie, one that advocated taxing the rich and ending “their war,” and another that blamed Goldman Sachs.  There were no chants, or drums, or much of anything in the way of noise. If it weren’t for the fact that two police cruisers and uniformed officers were present, you wouldn’t have even known a protest was going on.

According to the news media, the “Occupy Wall Street” protests are growing and spreading to other cities.  In Columbus, however, not so much.

Occupy The Smithsonian?

In addition to “Occupy Wall Street,” there’s also an “Occupy D.C.” protest afoot.  Yesterday those protesters tried to enter the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and clashed with museum guards.  At least one protester was arrested and the museum had to close two hours early.

The “Occupy Wall Street” people apparently are consciously leaderless; some news stories describe how the loosely organized protests allow everyone to have their say.  That may sound good, but if it causes the protesters to make decisions as idiotic as trying to occupy the Air and Space Museum, the protests will quickly become the object of anger and ridicule on the part of most Americans.

If there is a single concept unifying the diverse messages brewing in the “Occupy Wall Street” protests — and I’m not sure there is — it is anti-corporation.  How is closing down the National Air and Space Museum consistent with that generic message?  Do the protesters really think most Americans view the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and the space program as tools of an evil corporate culture — as opposed to, say, inventors and brave aviation pioneers and a proud example of what Americans can do when they put their minds to it?

Even if you consider the National Air and Space Museum to be a repository of artifacts of a greed-addled corporatist state, trying to occupy the museum is a stupid political decision.  I’ll wager that every tourist who was inconvenienced by the clash of the protesters with the museum security people is furious at the protesters.   If you’ve traveled to D.C. to take your excited 10-year-old to the Air and Space Museum to see the Spirit of St. Louis or touch the moon rock and the antics of a band of protesters has left you with a disappointed child on your hands, you’re not going to be likely to support the “Occupy D.C.” cause.