A group of handcuffed Americans sat inside a fenced enclosure in Lower Manhattan on a blustery Saturday afternoon, their hands bound tightly behind them as fellow Occupy Wall Street protesters shouted words of support and thanks.
Challenging the public image of one of the chief beneficiaries of a New York City political machine dominated by real estate interests, Wall Street bankers and powerful religious institutions. The script reads like something out of Oliver Twist. However, instead of asking for a second bowl of gruel, the detainees had the effrontery to ask permission to spend the frigid Northeast winter living outside in a vacant lot just blocks from the Hudson River.
The lot belongs to Trinity Wall Street, a wealthy church that's located a block from the New York Stock Exchange and counts some of the world's biggest bankers among its supporters. In theory, the church exists to champion the needy, but in reality it has become one of the city's largest landowners – a tool of the 1% – with an astounding real estate portfolio of more than $10 billion.
That's "billion" with a "b."
When marchers sought permission to set up their tent camp on the patch of dirt along Canal Street and create a revitalized pro-democracy movement they call "Occupy Wall Street 2.0" the church responded with a resounding "no." And the city's billionaire mayor, a Wall Street tycoon who has hounded the nonviolent protesters of the 99% at every turn, responded by sending in police on Saturday, Dec. 17, to do the dirty work of the church's over-entitled leaders.
The bizarre spectacle
of a nonprofit church acting like a for-profit business venture was enough to prompt some pro-democracy activists to throw their hands up in frustration. More so, given that the Occupy movement is engaged in the very social justice that helped Trinity Wall Street earn the nonprofit status which has enriched it.
"I feel like I am living in a dystopian science fiction novel," said protester Elektra Buhalis, 42. "I'd rather live in a box at this point than contribute (to any more of this insanity). I'm boycotting my mortgage. I'm boycotting all of my credit cards. I'm just done. I'm not participating anymore."
Buhalis (above left), a scenic artist who paints backgrounds for Broadway plays, is not alone. Millions of Americans have stopped playing the game, either through choice or compulsion.
Nearly half the U.S. population of 312 million – a record high – now lives in poverty or qualifies as low income. The homeownership rate has fallen to the lowest level since 1965 thanks to wholesale foreclosures by the very banks being bailed out with middle-class tax dollars.
The employment-to-population ratio has fallen to levels not seen since 1983. Only 58.5% of the U.S. population was employed in November, compared with 63% in the same month of 2001.
Meanwhile, the rich are growing richer than ever.
The incomes of the richest Americans grew 275% between 1979 and 2007, thanks in part to the so-called Reagan Revolution. Middle class incomes rose 40% during the same period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The richest 400 Americans experienced a 392% increase in wealth from 1992 to 2007, but paid 37% less in taxes thanks to loopholes carved by the lobbyists who rule our pay-to-play political system.
Bloomberg, a Boston native who loves New York City so much that he spends many of his weekends in Bermuda, could not be reached for comment. His administration has made more than 1,400 Occupy-related arrests since a few hundred protesters began camping in Zucotti Park on Sept. 17 to shine a spotlight on three decades of unrelenting class warfare against the beleaguered middle class.
It was a diminished Occupy movement that filled Duarte Square Park beside the church's vacant lot on Saturday, but only in number. The day's roughly 10,000-person contingent (estimated from participants in all of the various Dec. 17 events) was
smaller than the 30,000-plus marches Occupy generated when it had a home in Zucotti Park.
However, the leaner and meaner Occupy 2.0 is more densely packed with people who know what they're about and what's at stake. People like LaGreca, who has made a bit of a name for himself as a blue-collar pundit since schooling Fox producers so badly during a Zucotti interview that they refused to run his comments.
One of the painful truths about Occupy Wall Street is that it lacks the resources to care for all the homeless and mentally ill street people it took in at Zucotti. Their absence Dec. 17 contributed to the intellectual hothouse at Duarte by allowing members of the movement to focus more on politics and less on filling in the gaps in our national health care system.
LaGreca held court in the middle of a circle of fellow protesters with a Civil War-era Union Army cap perched above his cherubic face. Similar exchanges were underway throughout the park at a level far above the typical Tea Party nonsense and the orchestrated dog and pony shows of the "Town Hall" events held by the two political machines, which routinely treat middle-class Americans as props.
"I didn't crash the economy, you didn't crash the economy, but we all have a pretty good idea who did," LaGreca told those around him. "The financial industries crashed the economy, the economic slowdown created a deficit, they used the deficit to demand more bailouts and the people got sold out.
"So, everywhere around the world all of these treasuries are being raided at the same time," he said. "Everyone is outraged at the same time. It's the same thing.
"It gets to the point where there's critical mass - where you literally reach that watershed moment where just too many people are aware," LaGreca said. "And that becomes its own revolutionary transformation.
"There's no going back," he said.
One of the ideas at the core of the Occupy movement, which is that the economic burdens and benefits of globalization need to be more equitably shared, has spread like wildfire. It spurred the creation of similar camps and groups in more than 200 U.S. cities before a coordinated crackdown by big-city mayors from both political machines shut many of them down.
Saturday's protest was intelligently organized. It was the nonviolent equivalent of a surgical strike that succeeded in highlighting the unholy alliance of money, politics and religion that preserves Wall Street's status quo.
For powerful developers, there is no better friend than a religious organization willing to shelter idle land from property taxes until they're ready to build.
One of the painful truths about Trinity Wall Street is that there simply is no way for a single nonprofit house of god to justify having a $10 billion real estate portfolio in a city plagued by high rents, homelessness, and astonomical property prices. Funneling excess profits into excess real estate and exboritant employee compensation is supposed to be forbidden for nonprofits, even those with powerful friends in the ruling political machine.
The gap between reality and perception stretches even wider when that same institution turns its back on a social justice movement devoted to the poor and middle class.
It's not clear whether Cooper was speaking as a man of God or as the head of a lucrative real estate venture seeking to maximize revenue. He and his church appear to be both.
It is clear that there is no end to how much land a religious group can control in New York City, provided it legitimizes Wall Street greed and aligns itself with the ruling political machine. Meanwhile, the members of any group challenging those powers can't even sleep in a park or vacant lot.
Much like a corporate CEO in the for-profit world, Cooper seems to have a curious concept of how much he should be paid for doing god's work. A 2009 IRS nonprofit tax return for a group called "PTC Properties Corp.," lists Cooper as receiving a base salary of $345,937 and $943,212 in other compensation for a combined total of $1.29 million. The five other officers of the church listed on the form had average compensation of $436,008.
Why Trinity Wall Street needs more than one corporate entity - a practice perfected by Enron Corp. - is another issue. The IRS form lists seven other related tax-exempt organizations.
PTC, which has the same address as Trinity Wall Street at 74 Trinity Place, lists its mission as being "to help further the exempt purpose of the Parish of Trinity Church, which is dedicated to the betterment of human life, according to god's vision through spiritual leadership."
Clearly, god's work is costly at Trinity Wall Street.
Trinity's mercantile behavior crystallizes the conflicts that have created a growing rift between Americans and organized religion in recent years. The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found tht 16% of American were not affiliated with any religious faith in 2007 and that 28% had left the faith in which they were raised.
What would Jesus do in a similar situation?
It's a popular bumper sticker. It's also a pertinent question a week before Christmas as we evaluate the actions of a religious institution that has been liberated from the property and sales taxes that burden the 99% - ostensibly because of its charitable works.
The Rev. Stephen Chinlund (left), an Episcopal priest, was pondering that very thought as he held a sign that read "The Church Should Not Be For $ale" a few hours before the Saturday arrests. The retired clergyman said he had no doubt Jesus would be on the side of the needy and the 99%.
Chinlund felt it was necessary for him, and for other members of the Episcopal clergy, to support Occupy Wall Street and make it clear that Trinity Church does not speak for everyone in the Episcopal faith. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu took a similar stand from his home in South Africa earlier in the week. As did George Packard, a retired Episcopal bishop who scaled the chain-link fence to join more than 40 other protesters inside.
Packard's full-length magenta cassock rippled in the chill wind as he sat beside other members of the pro-democracy movement who took aim at the "the greed is good" community Saturday and the institutions that have become its servants. At least 49 arrests were made on the day.
"I think they should just say 'take the fence down,' because Occupy Wall Street does need to have a locus - they need to have a place," Chinlund said. "It's a missed opportunity to cement with the 99% and be a hero."
The difficult choices facing Cooper are similar to those that face all of us in these turbulent times as globalization pushes an ever larger share of the world's wealth into an ever smaller group of hands, according to Chinlund. We all must decide whether to stand on the side of what's right, or support the powerful with our silent acquiescence, he said.
"Life is full of challenging choices and when you're dying and you look back on your life do you want to say 'I was there and I did what I could to help the movement' or 'that I did nothing?' " Chinlund asked.
Bloomberg, the wealthiest elected official in U.S. history, has already chosen to stand with his customers –the Wall Street financiers that have helped him amass a $19.5 billion fortune and funnel another $7 billion in annual revenues to the financial information company that bears his name. This flag-bearer for Wall Street excess is hardly a noncombatant in the current class-warfare fracas.
However, Bloomberg is regularly accorded neutral third-party status by a mainstream media that downplays the inherent conflicts of news organizations accepting billions of dollars in political advertising from the same political machines they're supposed to be to scrutinizing.
Neither Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser nor Paul Browne of the New York Police Department returned emails from The Cynical Times seeking comment.
Bloomberg and his fellow mayors have tried to trivialize the Occupy movement, but philosophy professor Douglas Ficek (below right) says it represents the most significant radical political event in the U.S. in more than 40 years. That's why he got involved in October.
"Even though there's a lot of diversity here politically in terms of where people are – you have anarchists here, you have socialists here, you have libertarians here - at the end of the day everyone agrees that there is something profoundly wrong with the way our democracy works and how it's benefiting such a tiny fraction of the American population and the world population," Ficek said. "It's profoundly destructive and that's a huge part of what's happening here, which is in some ways akin to a lot of the events in '68."
In 1968, Americans took to the streets en masse to protest the war-mongering policies of a presidential administration that mistook silence for approval. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the first time that dynamic has been repeated since the end of the Vietnam War, according to Ficek.
"This movement is important," he said. "It represents what could be the most important sort of radical political event in American politics in generations."
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