The Occupy Wall Street movement is for real.
No one is really sure exactly what OWS is yet. However, the nonviolent grassroots movement already has eclipsed the choreographed, astroturf protests that predominate in Manhattan since moving into the downtown financial district Sept. 17.
More than 1,000 marchers turned out on a rainy Saturday to voice their displeasure with a Fortune 500 which has placed short-term profit growth ahead of the greater good of the nation and promoted the idea that corporations have the same legal rights as indviduals, without the same obligations to maintain the social compact.
The marchers hail from a variety of states and backgrounds, but seem to carry a common message: "Greed is Not Good." That puts them on a diametric path with the financial professionals who have grown rich making zeroes by embracing the message of Gordan Gekko. The fictional villain of the 1987 film "Wall Street." infamously declared that "Greed is Good."
OWS has a significance far beyond its numbers by virtue of its demographic composition. About 90 percent of the marchers are unemployed young people, a demographic that traditionally represents the tinder for sweeping social change. This demographic has already displaced the status quo in Egypt, Tunisia and Lybia since the worldwide economic slowdown began and is responsible for massive unrest in Greece, Spain, France, England, Israel, Bahrain and Yemen.
The other 10 percent appear to be older Americans who took to the streets in their youth during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when social unrest nearly tore this nation apart.
Young people typically have far less to lose and fewer dependents than middle-aged citizens who obsess about the consequences a rebellious act might have on their dependent
s, possessions and future employment options. That's one of the qualities that ma
ke young people such a powerful force for change - a force which has been noticeably absent from American politics since the Vietnam War.
The most newsworthy aspect of OWS is that it seems to be capturing the imagination of that demographic. Young people aren't just marching, they're beginning to view themselves as being "cool" for marching.
Some of the young men stripped their shirts off Saturday, even though it wasn't particularly hot, suggesting the marches also are a time for them to be noticed by potential lovers.
That behavior is significant. Machine politicians could be in big trouble if young people begin to believe they can enhance their mating rights and social standing by protesting a status quo that has abandoned the middle class. That's the same dynamic that drove "flower power" and made the hippie movement popular more than 40 years ago.
Kevin Coombs, 34, wiped the sleep from his eyes Saturday morning and tried to explain why he and about 200 other protesters have been bedding down in the rain four blocks from The New York Stock Exchange in an open-air plaza called "Zuccotti Park," which faces the World Trade Center. The unemployed construction worker from Fort Lauderdale, Fla, said he made the 1,280-mile journey strictly for the protest.
"I don't believe in how the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer in this country," Coombs said as a young female friend nodded in support. "The big banks seem to want to separate us into rich and poor by destroying the middle class."
Coombs (right) said he simply has nothing to lose right now in a society where ruling elites have been grabbing an increasingly disproportionate share of the societal benefits while ducking their fair share of burdens like military service and taxes via our pay-for-play political system.
Neither NYPD Spokesman Paul Browne nor City Hall spokesman Stu Loeser responded to requests for comment for this story, reinforcing the idea that they have a separate standards for large for-profit corporate media operations like Bloomberg News and small nonprofit news operations that serve decent American families like The Cynical Times.
The two political machines and the ruling elites that control them - like Tom Donahue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former President Bill Clinton and the notorious Koch Brothers - helped create this social tinder by championing policies that encourage companies to move jobs to low-wage economies.
The U.S. has lost more than 3.5 million factory jobs since Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) in 1994, even as the national population has expanded by roughly 20 million to 312 million.
NAFTA opened the door to outsourcing and a more globalized economy, without enacting any effective system for policing global labor abuses or regulating global trusts that manipulate prices, like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countrties. (OPEC).
The result is a global labor market where U.S. workers - the most productive and highly trained in the world - will be unable to compete until they are leveled economically with their counterparts in developing nations like China and India.
It is a world that seems very much like a larger version of the corporate Wild West that predated the election of trust-busting president Teddy Roosevelt in 1901. One marked by business contempt for the environment, worker and consumer rights, and the property rights of small landowners. It is a world where modern robber barons and tycoons run wild and powerful nations grab the benefits of fossil fuels while shifting the many of the environmental burdens created by their extraction elsewhere.
OWS rhetoric and targets differ tremendously from The Tea Party, which has tried to bill itself as a grassroots movement but has been denigrated by critics as "astroturf" due to the presence of Republican lobbyists like Dick Armey and Sal Russo among its founders.
Unlike the Tea Party, there is virtually no criticism of President Barack Obama by OWS members. Instead, they blame the nation's economic ills on the investment banking and financial services industries, which have used their political influence to blunt Wall Street reforms.
OWS maintains that nonviolent resistance is the answer. Its members claim that the 1 percent of the population that has been waging class warfare in the United States is powerless when the other 99 percent acts together against them. Marchers have begun calling themselves "the 99 percent" in deference to that belief.
The New York Police Department has arrested more than 100 OWS members so far, but rank-and-file officers didn't seem to harbor any special hostililty toward the protesters until Sunday, when several marchers allegedly were maced and beaten. OWS estimates that 80 marchers were arrested on the eighth day of the protest after they tried to make their way uptown to Union Square Park.
Member's of NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) have been discreetly videotaping the protesters, presumably to identify the ringleaders. Unfortunately for the police, most of the marchers don't know who is in charge of the group, which describes itself as a "leaderless resistance movement."
Occupy Wall Street got its start in July, when the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters promoted the idea of a nonviolent protest in the heart of the financial world. The resulting marches and slogans have personalized the economic slowdown for traders, who traditionally rationalize their role in the transfer of wealth on the basis that if they didn't do it, someone else would.
The marchers favored shouts include "corporate greed has got to go" and "this is what democracy looks like."
OWS' young, computer literate members have turned to social media and the Internet to make their voices heard online. They're tweeting and have established a website. The anti-oligarchy hacking group Anonymous also is supporting the protest by posting video clips on its website.
"It's important for people to get out in the street and show how concerned they are," said Richie Machado (above right), 20, of Queens. "We know we're being watched by the cops, the feds and the corporate people. But this has to be done."
Instead of open confrontation, the police have largely adopted a corporate approach to insurrection by being publicly courteous to most of the marchers while quietly and indirectly undermining them.
- Protesters have been prevented from marching down the block in front of the New York Stock Exchange, although the sidewalk across the street from it remains open to foreign tourists.
- The public gathering area in front of the stock exchange, where people usually eat and drink at outdooor cafe tables, has been fenced off (right).
- The owner of Zuccotti Park is rumored to be preparing to close the area to protesters.
New York City is led by a 69-year-old mayor who is closely allied with the ideas that Occupy Wall Street opposes. Michael Bloomberg, is the founder of the financial company that bears his name and the wealthiest elected official in U.S. history, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $19 billion. He became a millonaire as head of equities trading at the former Salomon Brothers investment bank and is now the principal shareholder of the Bloomberg LP financial information network.
Bloomberg LP generates more than $7 billion in annual revenue by charging subscribers $1,500 a month for the use of a terminal that combines a trading plaftorm with corporate information and proprietary news. The vast majority are financial professionals.
Bloomberg used his fortune to win the mayor's office in a city where he was not raised and bent its electoral rules to give himself a third term in 2009. His metallic Boston accent is grating for some working class New Yorkers, particularly when he is raising fees instead of taxes and advocating other policies that favor the rich, including a 2008 congestion pricing plan that would have cleared midtown Manhattan streets for the rich by imposing a $8 surcharge on cars and a $21 surcharge on trucks.
That said, no one has ever accused Bloomberg of being dumb. He seems to realize that visible acts of police brutality will only fuel the flames of popular unrest. However, it's unclear if he realizes how unhappy most people now are in America, given the growing chasm between the super-rich and those who don't work for them.
The spread of information about the protest is also being blunted by the New York media's traditional reliance on public relations professionals. Manhattan newsrooms are barraged with press releases, press conference announcements and publicist emails. Likewise, specialized information providers now monitor police and fire radio frequencies for city news organizations, instead of the cop reporters of old.
The result is a short-staffed news industry that is more accustomed to foraging for news in a trough of prepared documents and orchestrated events, rather than finding real news on its own.
That habit puts true grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street at a disadvantage due to their lack of a professional publicist. It also means that those who depend on traditional mainstream media outlets for their news about these movements are less likely to learn what is really happening.
That media dynamic makes CWS's ability to draw 1,000-plus crowds day after day even more impressive. This number is significant for a city where the media has sometimes been blasted for making marches by 20 paid protesters look more numerous and influential than they really are.
The numbers being drawn by OWS are large enough to attract the attention of older and more radical groups that are hope to use the new movement to advance their agendas. A trio from the Workers World Party (right) arrived just before Saturday's march with dozens of pickets signs opposing the recent executon of Troy Davis. The same trio then began distributing copies of the Workers World newspaper - a Communist publication.
At representative of any group spent the march distributing a Marxist magazine called "Socialist Appeal."
The Communist Party and its various branches saw their popularity plummet after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now, the excesses of the U.S. ruling elite and their efforts to resurrect the kind of savage capitalism that characterized America more than a century ago are creating new opportunities for them.
America's falerting middle class have little to lose and seem unwilling to accept to accept a global labor market that levels them with workers in India and China. That makes them powerful and dangerous to the status quo that helped impoverish them by facilitating the offshoring of U.S. jobs to increase corporate profits.
A pair of black-clad anarchsists gave voice to that danger Saturday when they arrived as the march was getting underway with "Philadelphia" bumper sticker on their backpacks.
This is not anarchy," one shouted in disgust as the nonviolent protest swept past them.
Victor Epstein is a veteran journalist who has covered political and government issues for more than 20 years, for publications ranging from The New York Times to The Guardian. He is a former employee of Bloomberg News.