November 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street?

I am in New York attending a conference. Tonight I had an opportunity to spend about an hour chatting with five people on their way home from a busy day protesting with the Occupy Wall Street group. I'm guessing these men and women were in their mid to late thirties. I was curious about the movement and asked a number of what I thought were "probing" questions. Here is what I learned from this small sampling of protesters.

All five agreed the tone of the protest and the composition of the protestors has changed since the movement got underway. In the beginning the protestors appeared to have a plan that was being executed. There were real "Leaders" of the movement and these people "were a few of the older, somewhat wiser people in the group." One person referred to a leader as "The Gray Beard." These people calmly spoke of the purpose of the movement, its goals and the aspirations of the protesters. There was to be no violence. There was to be a cohesiveness among the protesters. There were going to occupy Wall Street in order to get their message out to the world.

As time went on, these people saw a change come over the movement. The "Gray Beards" were not being listened to. A more militant, younger leadership was taking over. The protestors who were originally comprised of what these people described as "your average hard-working American," were now mainly homeless people and militants out to "over-throw the government." The tone of the movement dramatically changed. They suggested I look at YouTube videos from the beginning of the movement and compare them to videos now. They said I could see a dramatic change in the tone of the protests and the composition of the protestors.

When I asked why these people were protesting they just looked at each other waiting for one of them to volunteer an answer. Finally, one of them indicated they felt like they were part of a group while protesting and they wanted the government to hear what they were saying. I was confused and wanted more details. I wanted to know what their specific issues were. What was the outcome they hoped for? What was the message they wanted people to hear? What was supposed to happen as a result of these protests?

They told me they were part of the 99%. The 99% of people who weren't millionaires, and they didn't think that was fair. They think the system must be changed and there should be financial equity among the masses. They said big business was evil. They said the banks were evil. When I suggested that big business provided the jobs they were protesting for they looked at me with surprise. They strongly insisted the banks should liquidate all the funds they had in their possession and equally distribute them among the 99%. I asked if they wanted our government to change so they could live in a Socialist society. They said "No," but that the precepts of Socialism are what they were fighting for. No one could explain the contradiction to me.

I suggested that previous protests in our history had a clear message and everyone knew what had to happen in order for the protests to end. I suggested that the Vietnam War protests, for example, were to end when the war ended. When I asked what event had to occur in order for the Occupy Wall Street protests to end, all five agreed the protests would end when there was "change," but not one of them could define what "change" looked like.

From this small sampling of protestors, here's what I gleaned from our conversation:

The group no longer has "Gray Beard" wise leaders articulating a coalescing message.

The group is now being lead by younger much more militant people who get protestors riled up to "disrupt" the status quo only to disrupt the status quo, and nothing else.

There is no single unifying message being conveyed by the group.

The goal is chaos.

It feels to the protestors like this is a movement that has no end game.  They cannot define "change" and have no idea what has to happen to stop all this chaos.

The banks are evil and should take all the money they have and equally distribute it to the 99%.

The 99% do not want to live in a Socialist society.

Big business is evil.

The 99% want jobs and they want high paying jobs so they can support their families and afford to provide their children with college educations.

This was a peaceful initiative that has become militant in nature and controlled by a younger group of people and the homeless who got involved when the kitchens opened to feed the protestors.

My conversation with these people was fascinating and illuminating. I'm more confused than ever. I wish I had time to speak with more of the protestors to see if this was a good sampling, a good representation of what this was all about. For now, this is what I've got to base my own feelings about the movement on.

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