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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
Some participants are protesting “corporate greed,” others object to the role of corporations in politics, and still others appear to be venting general anger and frustration about our economic problems. Similar protests have occurred in other cities, too. (The story linked above says “A group in Columbus, Ohio, also marched on the capital city’s street” — which makes our fair city sound like a one-horse town. Hey, AP! For the record, we’ve got more than one street in Columbus.)
I don’t blame people for protesting. In my view, the Wall Street protests are a flip side of the Tea Party protests that started in 2009 and spawned significant grass-roots politicking. The Tea Partiers dressed in colonial garb and the Wall Street protesters dress as corporate zombies, but both are expressing a deep concern, shared by many Americans, that the country is heading in the wrong direction. The economy sucks, jobs are scarce, and nobody seems to be doing much about the problem. The two groups’ proposed solutions to the problems are different, but the deep-rooted anger about the problems in the same.
The great thing about America is that the First Amendment allows the anger and frustration to be vented through peaceful protest, and the act of protest allows the protesters’ message to reach a wider audience. If the protest strikes a chord with a sufficiently large segment of the population, as happened with the Tea Party, then stray protests can become a movement. It remains to be seen whether the Wall Street protests have that kind of broad impact or staying power, but we’ll find out soon enough. Until then, I say let them protest, and applaud their exercise of their First Amendment rights.