By GAIL COLLINS
Published: October 7, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street encampment in Lower Manhattan is covered with damp sleeping bags, interspersed among piles of wet, abandoned clothes. Molding stuff is everywhere. It looks like a scene from “Outdoor Hoarders.”
Earl Wilson/The New York Times
“How about one big cleaning day?” someone asks during a morning meeting.
The others in the group respond by raising their hands and wiggling their fingers. This is a silent cheer, and I cannot tell you how well it works. You can also boo silently by pointing your fingers down and wiggling them. Why have they never used this in the presidential debates? Rick Perry could be standing there explaining his immigration policy while Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum point to the floor and wiggle like crazy. So much more civilized. Once again, youth has shown us the way.
The demonstrators have been in Zuccotti Park, a few blocks from the actual Wall Street, since Sept. 17, a small core group of a couple hundred that can swell to thousands when it’s time for a protest march.
It’s not clear that the world would ever have noticed them had it not been for the New York Police Department, whose officers keep getting caught doing ill-advised-but-photogenic things like shooting helpless women in the face with pepper spray. As Jim Dwyer pointed out last week in his column in The Times, it does make you reflect on the fact that these are the same guys who now boast that they’ve got the weaponry to shoot down aircraft in the name of antiterrorism.
Occupy Wall Street is now famous. Protesters mimic them in cities around the country. Mitt Romney denounces their “class warfare,” and the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, lashed out at them for “the pitting of Americans against Americans.”
This seems like a huge win for the demonstrators. How many average Americans are sitting at their kitchen tables fretting about class warfare? A Rasmussen poll showed 33 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of the demonstrations, while 27 percent were unfavorable and 40 percent had no idea what the questioner was talking about.
Now Zuccotti Park is the city’s newest tourist attraction, and the protesters seem dug in. They have made an infinite number of decisions about taking in donations, buying supplies, cooking food and mining the social media. What they have not done, as the watching world knows, is to come up with any political platform more specific than a general ticked-offedness about the way the rich keep getting richer while the poor can’t pay their student loans. And the Internet, which is so useful in rousing crowds for a march, is no help whatsoever when it comes to forcing everyone to come up with a specific agenda.
“You get so many voices and so many opinions, it’s hard to find consensus,” said Ambrose Desmond, a 32-year-old psychotherapist from San Francisco who was the leader of the meeting. Or would have been if there were any leaders. Which there most definitely were not.
The people sitting around with Desmond were studying a proposal for reorganizing the way that the various working groups — Donations, Finance, Outreach, Internet, Sanitation, Medical, Direct Action and many, many more — make their opinions felt in the evening assembly. The current system, it said, makes newcomers come away “exhausted by our model of direct democracy, rather than invigorated and inspired by it.”
Waves of nostalgia swept over me. This was exactly how I spent my college years, which were theoretically dedicated to creating a more humane society and stopping the war in Vietnam, but, in reality, mainly involved meetings. Endless meetings in which it was alleged that the winner was the person who managed to remain sitting while everyone else toppled over with boredom. I can’t say definitely, because I never made it to the end.
“Just make sure there’s not a whole bunch of white men speaking, please,” said a young woman to the group, which was largely a whole bunch of white men.
A young man with a knit hat, who was dubbed “the voice of people who are in the dark about what’s happening,” decried the movement’s hierarchical tendencies. “Finance is turning us into a 501-(c) nonprofit! I didn’t know about that!” he cried.
Democrats are hoping that Occupy Wall Street will become their version of the Tea Party, firing up the troops into the election. But the Tea Party was bankrolled by big Republican donors and cheered on by a big Republican cable network. Also, it is composed mainly of middle-aged and elderly people who have far less energy for meetings.
My bet is that these folks will only be remembered for having been there, taken a stand. But that’s no little thing. We all complain, but they showed up.