Saturday, November 5, 2011

New York Fall - Friday Night

Continuing into our first night in the City...

It is a glorious autumn night, cool and clear. There is a front moving through bringing rain and maybe snow, but now it is still nice, lots of people on the streets. We come to a beautiful old church where they are holding a Halloween party for the neighborhood.  The kids are running around in the churchyard, hopping over tombstones and playing in a sculpture made from the roots of a tree that was toppled when the World Trade Center collapsed nearby.

Trinity Churchyard and rear of church

Trinity Root statue
The church is Trinity Episcopal and we go in for a brief look around, then head on to a restaurant I found in a guidebook, Pongris Thai in Chinatown.

The Chinatowns I’ve visited in some cities seem to be more tourist attractions than actual Asian communities, but this one, like the one in San Francisco, is very much by and for the Asian population. All of the newspapers and magazines for sale on the street and in stores are printed in Chinese, or other Asian languages. The streets and stores are filled with a great diversity of people, seemingly mostly Asian. It reminds me of Whitman’s poems, written in Manhattan:

…The machinist rolls up his sleeves….the policeman travels his beat….the gatekeepers marks who pass,

The young fellow drives the express-wagon….I love him though I do not know him;

There seem to be a thousand Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai restaurants. Pongris is a great Thai restaurant.

On the way back we get a little lost again. (My iPhone map lags a bit in locating us, so when we stray off course, we might not know it right away. Still, navigating with GPS is one of my favorite parts about living in the 21st century!)

We find ourselves passing a long array of NYPD police cars and vans. These are not just parked, but each has at least one cop in them, some have two or three, sitting in the van talking. This is just outside City Hall.  Police presence in the city, both with uniforms and video surveillance, is obvious but this concentration is curious.

Walking a block on we realize we are beside Zuccotti Park, the site of the current Occupy Wall Street, “We are the 99%” demonstrations.

Zucotti Park, Halloween weekend

We had intended to join this protest, since we were going to be here, though we had not come to town just for that purpose, so tonight I am feeling a little like an interloper. But I am part of the 99%.  Cami and I moved to Delaware two years ago to help care for our aging parents, and since then have only found part time work, though I have sought work very consistently since arriving. My retirement fund was depleted by the unregulated capitalism that caused the Great Recession of 2008, the year I retired, and has failed to thrive as expected because of that recession.

So I am frustrated with our financial system. I am frustrated with our law-makers and leaders. I found myself agreeing a few years ago with much that I heard from the Tea Party, which was another protest movement in reaction to our political system. I am frustrated at the increasing power of corporations over my life and our leaders.

I have been watching and waiting for the groundswell of protest that I think is inevitable. “Even a rabbit will bite when it is cornered.” I wonder if Occupy Wall Street is the protest I have been hoping for.

I found a Wikipedia article that states the purpose of the protest pretty well:

Although the movement is not in complete agreement on its message and goals, it does have a message which is fairly coherent, according to Bloomberg Businessweek:

They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the influence that corporations—financial firms in particular—wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.

You can see the "Library" on the right

There are signs all over the park, and they cover a variety of issues, like global warming, the increasing power of corporations, and the need for jobs. One of the signs read:




Another I see reads: “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when I see one exhibit Love & Empathy”

Here is another:

There are websites you might have seen with signs like this one:  Funny and Clever Protest Signs From Occupy Wall Street

So when we first arrive we hear the crowd chanting something. As we get closer we are on the fringe of the crowd of about 150 people, and we can see that people are gathered around a few people on the stairs which lead down from the upper sidewalk along Broadway, and they are repeating what the speaker is saying. This “human megaphone” is, I have read, a response to the ban on megaphones. It seems quite bizarre at first. Everyone repeats every word that every person says. The speakers are not making announcements so much as having a debate of sorts. When a new speaker wants to say something, they shout “Mike check” and the crowd responds “Mike check”. Then the new speaker makes their point.

Initially the effect is that the crowd seems to be repeating and accepting everything that is said. But of course they are not. It is simply a mechanism so that the maximum number of people can hear what is being said.

I am reminded of the orators of the 18th and 19th century, who may have spoken to crowds near hear, who could be heard by hundreds of people. Of course they didn’t have the sounds of New York City traffic all around them, plus occasional sirens and such.

But several of the speakers tonight had voices that could be heard without the repeating, but the crowd repeated what they said nonetheless.

As we stand listening, for perhaps an hour all told, the content is a debate over the process of spending money by the finance committee with oversight by the “GA” (General Assembly) and the Spokesperson Group, and about making a written statement of purpose. There is a circular being passed out that proposed that the demand of the group be stated as “Jobs for Everyone.” This crowd is not what I expected. Being from the generation of protests during the 1960s I expected a group of people there for a good time, smoking pot, drumming, dancing, and being somewhat frivolous. That’s not what I see on this fall night. This is a crowd of serious dissidents, most young, in their 20s and 30s, who are educated and seeking consensus and solidarity on issues of process that most of them feel very strongly about.

I also kind of expected older people, I don’t know why, perhaps because of the apathy about government that I perceived in the younger crowd in the past two decades. I looked up the OWS and found this about their demographics (the next two paragraphs are cut and pasted from web sources):

According to a survey of Zucotti Park protesters by the Baruch College School of Public Affairs published on October 19, of 1,619 web respondents, 1/3 were older than 35, half were employed full-time, 13% were unemployed and 13% earned over $75,000. 27.3% of the respondents called themselves Democrats, 2.4% called themselves Republicans, while the rest, 70%, called themselves independents[50]

On Oct. 10 and 11, the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland interviewed nearly 200 protesters.[51] Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, 98% would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and 31% would support violence to advance their agenda. Most are employed; 15% are unemployed. Most had supported Obama; now they are evenly divided. 65% say government has a responsibility to guarantee access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement. They support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and are divided on whether the bank bailouts were necessary.

Sometimes the debate gets heated. One voting block feels that amendments to the statement should be voted on and consensual now, rather than after the vote. There is discussion of the actions of the District Attorney’s office in response to the protest. After a while I lose the sense of awkwardness about every point and counterpoint being repeated by the crowd, and start to form my own opinions about what the group should do.

It looks like a nascent group of people forming into self governance by consensus. It reminds me of two early forms of democracy.

The first is democratic ancient Greece. I think about early Greeks debating matters of public policy, and then voting by casting black or white rocks into an urn.

The second is early English settlements in Jamestown, or Roanoke. The business venture that financed the colony had policy, but day to day decisions were voted on democratically, one man, one vote.

I learned in school that true democracy works with groups no larger than can hear what each speaker is saying, about a hundred. That seems true with the Occupy Wall Street group. They are still struggling, six weeks after forming, to make a statement of demands or positions.

I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would recommend. I believe it would be that they take a stand on a specific public policy they want to have changed, and then create protests involving civil disobedience. This group marched over the Brooklyn Bridge a few weeks ago, and 700 were arrested.

I wonder what Mohandas Gandhi would recommend. Perhaps a hunger strike? This crowd is well fed, with plates of hot food available.

My overarching thought about this process is that their purpose is their presence, and nothing else needs to be written or said. Simply gather in protest. But people, particularly young people, are driven to describe, to learn, to debate, to evolve. And people need something to think about, something to do of an evening.

Beside the crowd are tents which cover most of the rest of this small park. Some are two person tents, some larger dome tents. These are not makeshift, they are pretty nice tents, pitched on the paving stones of the park, though most are covered with blue tarps to increase weather resistance. This is a fairly small park. Maybe half a city block by less than half a block. There is a sanitation station with brooms and trash bags, 20 gallon buckets with water for washing, and other hygiene items. There is station for making signs. There is a welcome desk with literature and flyers for passersby and seekers, and there is a library with books for people living here. There is one corner with a couple of young women collecting donations to offer otherwise free coffee. Along the side walk are food vendor carts, opportunistic business people, and in a closed street beside the park is a specialized van with a generator running inside and a tall post with satellite dishes on top.

New York's finest, on the j.o.b.
And everywhere on the fringe of the crowd and the encampment there are police officers, standing casually in pairs, watching, listening placidly. Cami stops to thank one of them for their service. He is a personable, friendly guy, who says that a slice of pizza would be a welcome thank you.

It is late and we are getting cold. We are now in the thick of the crowd. When people in the crowd have left, we have all taken a step forward, so that gradually we have been pulled deeper into the crowd, pulled into the debate, pulled into the movement so to speak.

The speakers have decided to take a vote. There is general approval in response to the fact that they are taking a vote, expressed not through applause, but through raised hands with fluttering fingers.

“All those in favor of adopting the living document as currently amended, raise one hand!”

Almost all of the people in the crowd raise a hand. Then someone shouts

“Mike check”.  The crowd repeats: “Mike check”.

“Point of order” The crowd shouts: “Point of order”

“The first vote” The crowd shouts: “The first vote”

“Should be” The crowd shouts: “Should be”

“For those who” The crowd shouts: “For those who”

“Oppose the vote.” The crowd repeats: “Oppose the vote.”

“OK. OK. All those opposed to adopting the living document as currently amended, raise one hand!” A few hands go up. I want to vote in favor, but again I feel like an interloper, that I don’t have a right to vote here, that I haven’t earned it by occupying the place. A couple of people at the front of the crowd carefully count the hands aloud. I wonder why they don’t just declare that “the yea’s have it” since it is obvious that the vast majority now approve the measure. Then I recall that they are seeking a 90% consensus, with dissenters being able to propose amendments later.

I am reminded of a hot summer in 1776 when a convention of representatives met in Philadelphia to gain consensus of the states on a declaration of independence from Britain. There were some heated debates and endless votes there as well.

“14 votes opposed.”

“OK, All those in favor of adopting the living document as currently amended, raise one hand!”

And again the two people meticulously count each hand raised. “Put your hand down when I count you”. The young woman on this side counted 110, and there were as many on the other side.

We turn to leave as the votes are being carefully tallied. We walk around the outside of the park, looking at signs, at the people. There are four people with jackets that read “NYPD Community Relations”. I think to myself, ‘They are also the 99%.’

I notice one couple walking up the sidewalk. There are quite a few tourists here, but these two stand out. They seem to be locals. They are walking home, probably; from an evening out, maybe, and happen to go by this park. They clearly don’t belong there. He is dressed very nicely in an expensive suit with no tie, and she is also dressed in expensive clothes with all of the accessories. Nice shoes. I catch a sense of haughtiness in their glances and smiles and comments. Harrumph.

I received an email last week from a well-off friend who likes to attempt to goad me into responding to his callously conservative propagandistic forwarded emails. I do the same by forwarding him my own callously liberal propaganda. This email from him contained a cartoon of a man at his door greeting three small trick or treaters.  He says “Oh, look honey, three children with bags full of candy. We can take that and give it to the children who are too lazy to go out and trick or treat for themselves!”  One trick or treater says to the other “Great. A Democrat.”

I responded that this looks like the philosophy of “I got mine, to heck with you!”

He readily agreed.

That did kind of grate with me.

As we were leaving the park we hear a cheer rise from the crowd. Apparently the vote passed and they could move on to the next piece of business. We resolved to return and put some money in the donation tin, and continued our walk home.

As we passed by Trinity Church again, I noticed a large headstone with a name engraved on it:  “Alexander Hamilton”. This is one of the graves the children in Halloween costumes had been cavorting upon earlier. Of course he was the first Treasury Secretary, an ardent Federalist and lifelong confederate of George Washington, and the architect of the early United States financial system.

Gravesite of Alexander Hamilton

The graveyard is dark now, Hamilton long dead, killed in a duel with the then Vice President Aaron Burr. George Washington long dead of old age, bones resting in Virginia.

It occurs to me, in this wash of thousands, millions of people here in this great city, that people today are in essence the same as they were back then. These days we are looking into our electronic devices, and conducting commerce and social relations through them now. We get around faster, in cars and trains and all sorts of fast conveyances.

But we still seek a good meal at the end of the day. We all want the best for our children, those who have them, and for our families. Our standards of living are vastly improved in some ways, but greatly diminished in others. We all want a good life for ourselves, and some of us want that good life for others, less fortunate, less able. And some are still willing to revolt against the powers that be to seek more equality for all.

New York fall. Can you smell the rain coming?

Next: Old Town and Fraunces Tavern - the original revolution...

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