Occupying Wall Street - 10/23/2011

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 October 2011

"I am so proud to be here," said the folksinger Andy Cohen on Sunday afternoon. On arrival at Occupy Wall Street (at Zuccotti Park, under the shadow of the JP Morgan building), he did what he always does: run into people he knew and set up an impromptu band. That's what 50 years on the road does for you. By the time I got there, he and The Dust Busters string band were going strong. A day earlier, Pete Seeger marched a mile and a half or so d own Broadway singing songs and showing support – at 92.

Wendy M Grossman

These are the people I know, whose whole lives are given to folk music as "the people's music": it is both music of struggle and hardship and their favorite sounds. But they are only one tiny piece of the patchwork quilt that is OWS as it keeps expanding to more cities and countries; they are the piece I saw because they are my tribe. It would be impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all description of the people at Zuccotti Park, yet the folkies recognize the folks teaching each other to crochet sleeping bags out of old plastic bags, who recognize the folks touring with a "We are the 99%" sign and asking everyone to be photographed with it, who recognize the ad hoc sanitation crew as kindred spirits.

It's always a conv enient story to try to pin protests on a circumscribed group, but even the 1960s anti-war protests weren't as limited to hippies and young people as all that. Among the marchers on Washington in 1968, when I was 14, were my father and some of his friends. He was 62 and a businessman from an immigrant family.

Probably the biggest surprise for me was that the impression I'd gotten from media coverage was more or less accurate: that the occupation/protest is largely peaceful, good-natured, and that, despite the wide variety of specific goals ("Chefs against GMOs"…"Stop the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan"), there is a commonality of desire: reclaim America for the people. No one I met used the words "By the people, of the people, for the people," but if ever there were a physical expression of Lincoln's famous words in the Gettysburg Address, this is it.

I hear from New Yorker friends that OWS has drawn complaints from the neighbors, but it seems clear they've responded: pathways through the site were clean and clear of litter, and everyone seemed peaceful and orderly. I spotted a few police observers at the southern end, but they were doing just that: observing.

And being observed: this is a crowd full of cellphone cameras and others photographing and grabbing video clips. It would be hard for a police officer to do as some did in 1971 and beat up anyone daring to photograph them.

This was a Sunday afternoon; I would guess – and have been told – that things are a lot different on a rainy midweek evening. But on this particular day at this particular time the overall feeling was like an open-air festival or craft fair. Everyone has their space decked out with signs, often a make-shift table. Some are organized enough to have literature, buttons, or stickers to hand out; most want to talk.

Will anything come of it? I'd compare it to what happens now when people want to arrange to meet: they converge on a time and place via mobile phones, email, Twitter…or perhaps a dot-com start-up. First you build it. Then they come. They you work out what you have and how to make it into something substantial. For Twitter now, Facebook two years ago, Google ten years ago that's a business model. For OWS it's social and political change. Politicians can use the Net and the grass roots to raise enough money for a presidential campaign. But in the end what makes the impact is what the English like to call "bums on seats". For politicians, that's voters. For a protest movement that's people sitting amicably in a park and refusing to go away, knowing that at some point goals will have to be stated.

"No one thinks everything can be solved by a big sleepover," said Cohen's daughter, Moira Meltzer-Cohen.

I will be fascinated to see what happens next.

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