Radiohead, Live From Wall Street!
My sister is a middle-class housewife in New Jersey. When I asked her this past weekend if she knew what #OccupyWallStreet was, she said no. How many other working-class Americans, those with a steady income, ones that can pay their mortgage and cable bill, are in the same boat? What will it take for them to care?
A couple Fridays ago I was in my apartment when I received this text message from a friend: “Free Radiohead show at Wall St 4 o’clock!”
I wrote back immediately. I’d been wanting to check out the #OccupyWallStreet protest, and this was the perfect day. So my friend and I walked around Zuccotti Park on Liberty and Broadway, talking about why people were there. He asked me, “This is about corporate greed, right?” And I explained it the best I could, telling him about derivatives trading and the housing bubble, which led to the economic collapse in 2008, and the bail out, and how many liberals, including Matt Damon, are disappointed in President Obama’s inability to enact legislation restricting financial behemoths like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs from toppling global economies.
The whole time we were talking I was observing what to me looked like a shakedown street at a Phish show. The park was a shantytown filled with dread-locked white guys playing guitar, people with facial tattoos and lip, nose, cheek, and eyebrow piercings; some looked homeless, sitting on the ground next to their sleeping bags; others were banging drums and smoking rolled cigarettes; but then, there were also other unconventional sights, like a young man in a tailored suit holding the sign, “I’m angry and I won’t take this anymore.” It was an incredible scene, but I got the feeling that this wasn’t the American middle-class. It was a circus, and at times, as I watched tourists snap pictures of the people sleeping in the street, a zoo.
At the far end of the park, in the shadows of World Trade Center One, formerly known as “The Freedom Tower,” we approached a drum circle, where a shirtless, long-haired white guy with his buttcrack hanging out was dancing around—gyrating and kind of just throwing his body in several directions while some spectators clapped, and some laughed, and I thought, “Is this a good thing at all? Is anyone, let alone Charles Schumer, or, even worse, John Boener, going to take this seriously?”
There were times though, when I felt inspired walking around Zuccotti Park. I read passionate and poignant protest posters like:
There’s Enough To Go Around.
Open Your Eyes: This Is The Revolution.
And I’d think back to when I read #OccupyWallStreet’s Declaration, which actually brought tears to my eyes:
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
And now, Radiohead! Radiohead was getting involved and going to usher in a new crop of protesters. They’d bring in young professionals and recent college graduates—more and more people would come out. It wouldn’t just be “goddamned hippies” anymore. There would be too many of us to ignore.
Of course, the free Radiohead concert didn’t happen. It was merely a brilliant hoax manufactured by #OccupyWallStreet to advance their cause—a genius marketing strategy that gave them millions of dollars in free advertising.
And now the movement has spread to 1,147 communities throughout the world, in all major American cities. People are arrested, pepper sprayed, Paul Krugman is writing about them in the New York Times, they are mocked on Fox News everyday, and every piece of reporting is another message sent out to the world:
We are the 99%.
Together we find strength and we find commonality in our diversity.
We stand together.
Since September 17th, the first day of the protest, #OccupyWallStreet has attracted 55,145 followers on Twitter, and there are hundreds of Facebook pages promoting (or insulting) their cause. Even President Obama said the other day, “I think [#Occupy Wall Street] expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country . . . and yet you’re still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place.”
These are inspiring advances, but will they bring genuine political change? Is the shirtless, gyrating, buttcrack-showing dancer going to be the one to address our congressmen and women? Is the world going to care what “these goddamned hippies” think? Will the average working-class American grab a picket sign and march? Or is America so polarized that there only remains extremity in political activism—the Tea Party on the far right, #OccupyWallStreet on the far left, and the people in the middle who would rather not be bothered by both?
I returned to Zuccotti Park last Thursday, and the hippies were still playing guitar and banging drums, dancing and having hula-hoop competitions, sleeping in their sleeping bags, but they’d built more of a home: there were kitchens, desks, cabinets, and bureaus.
There was also more infrastructure, organization, and rhetoric. Harry Braun, an independent democrat from Arizona running for president in 2012 was giving a speech on hydrogen energy. There were scientific exhibitions promoting sustainability through permaculture, clothing donation centers, information booths, first aid medical treatment centers, #OccupyWallStreet Security, a barbershop, cell phone charging stations, performance artists, and people. More people. Longhaired people talking to people in suits, people laughing, people exchanging ideas.
I talked to some of these Zuccotti Park residents, people that had been sleeping in the streets since day one. Eli, a homeless guy in his twenties, arrived on September 19th, two days after it began. I asked him why he was there and he said, “The world has everything we need in it, why can’t we learn to share? We need to live in harmony with one another.” He said, “Countries are absurd. We draw lines against each other.”
Justin, who was only there for two days and was about to drive back to Virginia, said he supported the movement after being out of work for almost a year. He told me how difficult it was for him to find a job and how even if he did, the pay was far less than he thought he deserved. In an economy filled with workers struggling, companies can offer less money knowing people will take it. Justin was dissatisfied though, with the leadership of #OccupyWallStreet. “It’s disorganized,” he told me. “It won’t work. There’re so many people here with different opinions, and nobody’s anti-American, but we need someone to bring us together and make something happen. I’m not out here for nothing.”
When I asked the “residents” I met what types of reforms they’d like to see enacted, not one person had an answer. They were vague, saying they wanted the world to be more fair and free but offering no method for doing so. One woman told me she just hoped that people would not sleep in the dirt in third world countries.
But I also interviewed Allyson Villars, a Former Executive of Youth Services in Southern Vermont, who came down to Wall Street for the day. She did have specific demands: she sought education and job reform as a way to give opportunities to our youth. She said that young people are disenfranchised because the foundation has been knocked out from underneath them. She complained about the disparity of wealth in this country, and the fact that older generations like to point the finger at younger ones, and said, “Who’s to blame here?”
To me, Allyson Villars represented the type of people #OccupyWallStreet needed to bring in: educated, outspoken critics, people who could be taken seriously. How many more will come out and support? How many will push around their political leaders and force them to do something?
And then I started thinking, “Would Allyson Villars have heard of this movement without the circus?” Maybe #OccupyWallStreet, or any activist movement, needs the eccentric subculture to stir things up—to get arrested for banging a drum, for closing down a bridge. Maybe it’s the only way to bring about sociopolitical change. What else would wake the middle-class up to join the march? 300 million citizens have been wronged, and they don’t know what to do about it. Will they join the circus and jump into a cage in the zoo, willing to be laughed at (and, if there were 300 million in the cage, could anyone laugh at them?)?
But isn’t the middle class of America already in a cage? The cage of unemployment, the cage of debt, of no opportunity? What will it take to bring it on board? A free Radiohead concert? The Dave Matthews Band? Kanye West? How do you get my sister to join the march?