So last night I wandered down to Occupy Wall Street for the second time. I’d visited the night before, and been impressed — impressed by the richness of the space, impressed by the process and enthusiasm of the general assembly. I wasn’t (and I’m still not) sure what it all adds up to, but I found it invigorating and compelling. So I went back.
I spent some time strolling around, talking to people and checking out what was happening. I ate some free food. I sat in on a workshop on building democratic structures in progressive organizations. I compared notes with a couple of friends who were there.
And then the general assembly got started. The evening GA is a decision-making meeting, but it’s also a place where lots of announcements get made — OWS has a lot of working groups on issues ranging from first aid to legal support to action planning, and the GA is where they all check in. I’d sat through all those announcements the previous night, and been mostly fascinated, but it was less compelling the second time through and the pavement was cold and hard, so after a while I figured I’d stretch my legs a bit and circle back in time for the meat of the meeting.
So I took a stroll through the neighborhood, and wound up at a deli that was open and had comfortable seating in the front. I bought a beer for a couple of bucks and sat down to check my email and read a few pages of the book I’d brought.
There was a young woman at the register, paying for a soda and chatting with the counter guy about the Occupy Wall Street protests — she worked in the neighborhood and was on her way to check them out for the first time. I didn’t catch much of what she said, but when the counter guy made a comment about Eisenhower, I listened … and tweeted:
“And Eisenhower was a general.” I remember the guy saying. “A general.”
A few minutes later I tweeted this:
I was tweeting all this, by the way, not because it struck me as strange, but because it struck me as so ordinary — while at the same time so at odds with dominant narratives of the Occupy Wall Street protests. (And not just those in the big media, those in the look-down-your-nose left, too.) New York City is a left-liberal city. It’s a city that went for Obama over McCain by an 85-15 margin. It’s a city whose majority white districts went for Obama 2-to-1. It’s a city where what passes for reactionary is Staten Island, where Obama took 47% of the vote. To hear this middle-aged white guy saying this stuff didn’t surprise me at all.
But I kept listening.
The other guy behind the counter was younger, and black. The woman who’d started the conversation had long since moved on, but a couple of regulars had taken up positions with their own beers at a table in front and the discussion was rolling on.
I wish I’d transcribed more of this, but by the time I thought to try to write down what I hadn’t tweeted, most of it was gone. I do remember him saying “some guys are all ‘The niggers! The spics!’ But niggers contribute to the economy too. Faggots too.”
He repeated the bit about faggots for emphasis, looking around, kind of hoping that someone would say something he could correct. But by now the four of them were all enthusiastically agreeing to everything, egging each other on.
This was, I think, in response to the white deli guy saying that no American president in half a century had ever taken the interests of ordinary people seriously.
I’d bought a second beer at some point along the way, but by now it was kicked. As I was about to head out, I piped up for the first time. “You guys are killing me,” I said. The white counter guy grinned. ” I thought the meeting was up there,” I said, pointing in the vague direction of the plaza.
We talked for a few minutes more. None of the four of them had been up to the protest, it sounded like, at least not to do more than walk by and check it out on the fly, so I shared some of my impressions. We did the enthusiastically-agreeing-with-each-other bonding thing for a few minutes. We all agreed that the protest was a lovely development. Then one of the guys sitting at the front table said “But what’s their plan?”
I said I’d gotten the impression that people there had a lot of different ideas about what needed to be done, and that I wasn’t sure they were all going to agree on an agenda for change anytime soon. Then I said that I wasn’t sure that was a bad thing.
I said it seemed like pretty much everyone there basically agreed on certain basic principles — that something was seriously broken in the American economy, that something was seriously broken in American politics, and that an accelerating concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small minority was at the root of most of of that brokenness. People differed on how to address that problem, I said, but they all pretty much agreed about what the problem was, that it needed to be tackled, and that it wasn’t really being tackled now.
I was struck by the “what’s their plan” question in a few ways. First because it was the first even vaguely critical comment about OWS I’d heard in the whole discussion — for half an hour these guys had been been talking about and around the protests, and everything they’d said was emphatically positive. Second because it wasn’t asked in a spirit of attack but a spirit of curiosity, and maybe gentle prodding — a central premise of the conversation I’d snooped on was that there’s no obvious fix for what’s gone wrong. For many on the chattering left “what’s their plan” is the rhetorical leadup to a dismissal, as if it’s the job of five hundred strangers in a park to come up with a concrete step-by-step proposal for reforming (or overthrowing) global capitalism. But here it wasn’t that. Here it was a real question: “What can be done?”
If Occupy Wall Street is as marginal as its liberal-left critics assume, then no answer to the guy at the table’s question would make any sense at all. Five hundred strangers in a park will never themselves be the engines of any profound societal transformation. But if what I saw last night is real, if OWS is offering a critique that resonates in content — if not necessarily in form — with a broader and more eclectic swath of the country, then maybe those five hundred strangers are pounding on a door that’s a bit less well-armored than it looks.
Maybe what they have to offer isn’t a plan so much as an opportunity to have a bigger conversation, or even just an invitation to continue and expand a conversation that’s been going on in small ways in small places for a long time.
And that’s a conversation I’m really eager to see continue.