We’d drifted over there without design. The real moment would be tomorrow, down in Washington D.C., where a long-planned show of collective rage would turn into the new national cry: “Occupy ____”—Wall Street first, and now every major city. First we stood in Washington Square Park. We had joined the enraged students who surrounded its stately fountain, signs decrying corporate serfdom, student loans, and financial greed. They’re the 99 percent, they said. In an hour, we’d be on a bus, rocketing down I-95 to join the protests in Washington’s Freedom Plaza to commemorate ten heinous years of the war in Afghanistan.
With luggage in our hands we looked out of place, like tourists who had yet to become tourists. A homeless Vietnam veteran jovially worked me over for five dollars. He was happy we were heading to Washington. Like everyone else in the park, he was smiling because a bunch of people suddenly gave a shit, even if media outlets and pundits struggled to find a single set of talking points in these new mass movements—as if uprisings should be conducted like debate club meetings.
Later, a friend online would make this point after reading an article about Herman Cain’s condemnation of the Wall Street protestors: “Hermain [sic] Cain to Wall Street protesters: If you spent $120k on a Eugene Lang degree in interdisciplinary studies, Suck My Dick.” Crude words, not without some merit, but the point here wasn’t to sneer at NYU kids sneaking out of class to protest the establishment of which their parents may well be members. Protests, revolutions, movements—whatever you want to call Occupy Wall Street and its offspring—against pernicious forces in advanced societies require the manpower of all peoples and all classes. The poor and desperate occupy, and the people with a little more money occupy too.
As more people spilled into the park through the arch, maybe a thousand mobbing the genteel circle—student leaders bellowing “Power!” as the crowds joyously shot back “People!”—cameras capturing it all, we knew we had witnessed one of the countless middle fingers stuck straight at corporatism and unchecked greed this fall. Enough fingers, shouting, waving and singing, and maybe something might change.
Months ago, my girlfriend Vanessa and I had planned a journey to Washington D.C. to join this month’s protests at Freedom Plaza, footsteps from the White House. Originally, the protests were organized only against the war in Afghanistan, but now the tenor had shifted. Afghanistan was still a focus, but so was everything else—the military-industrial complex, corporate greed, unemployment, and income inequality. On a day that felt more like summer than autumn, we arrived, camera at the ready.
They’re still there, occupying the Plaza like they are Zuccotti Park here, making that simple yet controversial declaration that this land belongs to you and me. When we joined them on October 6th, Woody Guthrie’s spirit was alive and caterwauling—unlike the folks at Occupy Wall Street, many of the protesters at Freedom Plaza were not young.
This was refreshing, in a way: detractors too cynical to believe in a populace no longer somnolent or too entrenched in wealth and privilege to lay the foundations for a more just society have attacked the Occupiers for being young, spoiled, naïve kids who are bored with nothing better to do, out to have a good time and do what the cool kids seem to be doing. The silver heads in the crowd and the stage built at its front to host the speakers and musicians spoke to a retro zeitgeist; the ghosts of Vietnam and Woodstock hung close, and no one, thankfully, dared shoo them away.
This was good. Mass rage (and inept foreign policy) brought the Vietnam War to its rightful end. I understood, as the crowd, old and young, seemed to, that even more is at stake this time. Vietnam was still far away enough, and the draft loopholes still big enough, to not drag all of American society down with it. It was insidious, yes, but not a cancer like the current corporate stranglehold on American government that is ruining the ecosystem, eradicating the middle class, and financing endless Orwellian wars. Pundits decry the protesters’ “lack of focus” because what they are protesting cannot be summed up in one word or even five. The problems are not simple to solve, and they are titanic in scope, with consequences for everyone everywhere.
Languid fury, an apparent oxymoron, summed up our day and night in D.C. An old man with a peace sign drawn on his cast leaned close to hear the folk music on stage. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, the police were neither bullish, nor terribly visible. Clanging banjo music followed an emboldened group of speakers from Wisconsin, quoting Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how light gets in.” Tents and blankets covered the grass. Signs calling for a “maximum wage,” the end of a Wall Street White House, saving the 99 percent, stopping drone strikes, and prevailing love shared the warming air.
We dozed fleetingly on the concrete, and a man from Getty took our picture. It was one of those days. A woman running for Sheriff of Philadelphia vowed justice for all the homeowners now homeless in a raspy, Joplin-like voice. The words of everyone who spoke on stage echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe the president heard them.
Nightfall brought one of my heroes, Chris Hedges, to the stage. Like Ralph Nader, he is an individual fighting on the side of humanity. A former New York Times journalist turned crusader against corporate tyranny, he ambled to the microphone in his unzipped tan jacket and unpretentious guise, notes in hand. When he spoke, he boomed against a corporate state now “sinking its fangs” into the working man lucky enough to cling to a job, and everyone else without one. Too transfixed, I forgot to turn on my recorder. “Smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt, or sink into the miasma of despair,” he said at one point. The transcript of the speech he gave will probably be online somewhere soon. [Bingo. —Ed.] It was typical Hedges, hope and the threat of damnation sharing single sentences, drawing the crowd to their feet to chant his name as he left the stage like a hometown ballplayer.
We missed the march onto the Brooklyn Bridge, but we made it to Freedom Plaza, and it felt good.
(Photos by the author and Vanessa Ogle)