Occupy Wall Street needs a face and a message—now

I work in the financial district (not in the financial sector) near Wall Street. For about a week before September 17th, I noticed barricades blocking certain passages around the southeast side of town and a marked increase in police presence. I thought the President or someone else of note was coming to town, but the barricades never came down. By the time I was back to work on Monday, the 19th, I began to hear murmurs about the Occupy Wall Street protest, but not a sound from the protest itself. Those same streets (one of which being the actual Wall Street) I wandered down on my way to the bank or Duane Reade were just as empty as they were before the protest’s official start date.

Soon, friends from out of state/country began throwing up questions on their Facebook walls: Why isn’t the media covering the protest? How many people are actually there? What’s the demographic like? What are they saying, exactly? I told a few that though I work just a few blocks from the site, I neither saw a sign nor heard a word, but I would go on the hunt for some action.

When I finally made it to Zuccotti Park, the rally was more like Burningman Lite than a political protest . . . at least, what I thought a political protest might look like. There were signs, yes, and banners, and shouting, but there was no coherent message, no call to arms or action, and no one to talk to for some answers that wouldn’t be completely different from the next guy’s. I snapped a few photos and some video, and took note of the people who were standing around the perimeter of the park gazing in, as I was: tourists, some locals who happened to pass by, and people just getting off work in nearby offices. And cops. Lots of cops.

A Georgia-based friend later posted  an article on Facebook by David Rushkoff called “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it.” Rushkoff says, and I agree, “Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful.” There aren’t may of us who don’t resonate with some of the notes that make up the cacophony in Zuccotti Park. But even though it took me over a year and an impromptu relocation to New York to find a job after college, even though the two properties my parents own, their only assets, have plummeted in value while their medical bills have skyrocketed, even though the second half of Obama’s first term has been a huge disappointment, and even though there were many people there who were grieving about the same, I did not feel compelled to join their ranks. I empathize with many of them, but am inspired by none.

Even though there is an overall message—the dissatisfaction about wealth disparity and how money is used in politics and society—the lack of cohesion and leadership will ultimately render the protest unfruitful. How else can the protest be anything more than a personification of both our collective failures and grievances as a nation? Rushkoff’ attempts to answer this by saying the protest exists “to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.” We know there is an inappropriate disconnect; but no one downtown is articulating how to correct it.

And no, no one in politics or business is articulating (well) how to correct it, either. And hasn’t that been the problem? Rushkoff seems to be fine with Occupy’s not being able to do it, but not with Wall Street’s and Congress’s: “Are [the protesters] ready to articulate exactly what that problem is and how to address it? No, not yet. But neither are Congress or the president who, in thrall to corporate America and Wall Street, respectively, have consistently failed to engage in anything resembling a conversation,” and yet, somehow, the protesters “are pointing the way toward something entirely different than the zero-sum game of artificial scarcity favoring top-down investors.” Just today I heard someone who had been in the park a few days say he wishes someone from Wall Street would come down to the protest so that “there could at least be a conversation.” Wall Street simply is not going to engage with Occupy in its current, messy form. And without a message, or demands, or a leader, Congress won’t, either.

Rushkoff seems to prefer this 21st century, Internet-fueled method of uncoordinated civil unrest. Like the jumble of signs, tweeting iPhones, rogue flags and empty pizza poxes dotting the downtown scene, the American public (and press), Rushkoff says, is also guilty of being “unwieldy, paradoxical, and inconsistent,” and it is precisely this parallel that will make the protest “more applicable, sustainable and actionable than what passes for politics today.” But is there anything inherent within the parallel between the Wall Street in the offices and the Wall Street on the pavement that will necessarily yield results? Or is the parallel more indicative of a tendency for modern economics, politics, and social action to spin out control with no one to reign them in? Didn’t we elect Obama for that very job, and haven’t we been disappointed that he has failed to bring about unity and cohesion within his own walls?

I’ll end with this: The only time since the protest started did I feel an actual power to it, was when I heard shouting from my office, 2 short blocks away on the 26th floor. It happened the day the unions joined up. I couldn’t tell what they were chanting, and don’t know if the union members were a part of this particular scene, but the fact that they were chanting something, loud and together, stirred something inside me. I’ve been to the park many times since my first visit, and I’ve yet to have that feeling again.

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