Tom Sgouros: What Occupy Wall Street Is All About

Monday, October 10, 2011


I went down to Wall Street last week, to visit the occupation of Zuccoti Park. It's quite a scene. There are, as you've probably read by now, a few hundred people sleeping in the park each night. By day they're joined by hundreds more. The foreign press is thick on the ground, and the US press is apparent now, too. The park is within sight of the World Trade Center site, and it's a very busy part of town, with thousands of tourists and business people passing through each hour.

Not a lot happened while I was there, though it was hive-busy with people coming and going and interviews and errands and calls for volunteers all around. There had been a huge march of 10-20,000 the day before, when a slew of unions showed up to support, and it appeared that people were still recovering from that. What I did see was an oddly efficient and well-run organization, with no detectable leader. 

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The park has been divided up into areas run by small committees. People are sleeping over there, the press area is over here, the social media folks are over there, the food area, the art and sign-making area, the supply area, the volunteer coordinator area, the information booth and more. I asked some questions at the information booth, and the woman there was able to get answers quickly, but she had to consult with the other folks at the booth about who to ask each time. It was all quite clean, too; these are not litterbugs. They have twice-daily "general assemblies" when everyone present talks together about managing the park site, about marches, as well as seminars and visiting speakers that have been scheduled, and about the police.

Did I mention the police? There are a few hundred of them, too, and barriers, fences, and paddy wagons. They come through the park from time to time in groups of four or five, but mostly seemed to stay on the sidewalk around the park, looking in. People told me they were less worried about the blue-shirted rank and file, from whom they got the occasional sign of solidarity, than the white-shirted higher-ups, who show a united front of hostile disapproval.

What to make of it all?

I've read articles about how diffuse and uncertain are the goals of the protest. That's silly and nothing more than the usual way the press disparages leftist protest in this country. Are the Tea Party protests united? I've been to some of those and talked to anti-abortion protesters right next to people who believe the Fed is part of a global conspiracy to debase the dollar. In that respect, there's nothing different here. I never saw a drum circle at a Tea Party protest, but I saw no tricorner hats in New York, either. The presence of street theatre and additional opinions doesn't detract from the underlying message.

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The people in Zuccoti Park are -- like me -- upset over the power of corporations and big finance over life in modern America. They -- we -- are furious about what can only be described as the sheer irresponsibility of the people in charge of those banks and corporations, not to mention the occasional outright incompetence. That's what this is about. I saw and heard not a peep of dissension from that message.

I've also heard it said that it's a problem because there are no specific demands, another absurd complaint. When was the last protest you heard about called off because its demands were met? No protest succeeds in that fashion. In reality, protesters take to the streets when success of that kind seems impossible. Many of the people who urge the protestors to be more specific in their demands are simply hoping to use that as evidence the protest has failed when the reality of winter weather sets in before their goals are achieved.

What is success?

The fact is that the protest has already succeeded in a big way. Support is pouring into Zuccoti Park, in the form of sleeping bags and food, in people showing up for marches, and most importantly, in similar actions around the country. Our nation has suffered, over the past couple of decades, from leadership unable to grasp that the normal ways of doing business are not only unsustainable, but simply destructive. This is a collective failure, and not the province of either one of our parties, but it's one we have to face and overcome if our nation is to progress.

During my visit I saw no signs and heard no chants demanding handouts. What I saw are people who recognize that the deck is stacked against them. Necessary credit can't be found, education requires going into deep debt for many, companies that were once the pride of our nation are hollowed out and shipped away, and "financial innovation" enriches the few at the expense of everyone else along with all the rest. The list is long. Our economy currently suffers not from a lack of handouts, but from actual financial oppression, causing the slow demise of the hopes and dreams of hundreds of millions of people. Our nation is still a great one, but we will only decline until we can find a way to provide a chance at a good life not only for the 1% who sit at the top of the economic pinnacle, but for the 99% that is the rest of us.

Tom Sgouros is the editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, at and the author of "Ten Things You Don't Know About Rhode Island." Contact him at [email protected]


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