The media may mock the Wall Street protesters, but their commitment and their cause are no joke.
The contrast between the press accounts of Occupy Wall Street and the reality is stark. That is what I noticed first when I was invited there to speak on Sunday and joined Joe Stiglitz in a teach-in. At first it indeed looks like anarchy. People are sleeping there overnight. You think you may never find an organizer, but my wife and I were guided by the young man who invited me. Soon you find that amid the seeming confusion there is organization. It is, I must say, organization of a most beautiful kind.
There are “facilitators,” who somehow round up the people, pick a spot and, oops, spontaneously, the teach-in begins. These facilitators organize who will speak at the general assembly, which addresses the entire crowd. And they create the now-famous echo, which overcomes the seemingly major obstacle that the police have not allowed the protesters and their guests any microphones or other amplification.
The echo chamber is extraordinary. You must speak in half sentences, which the group then repeats. In the general assembly, each phrase is repeated twice, once by those nearest the speaker, then again for those behind the front group. This has produced surprising benefits: People are engaged, they pay attention, and they force the speakers to talk briefly and get to the points. Ah, the benefits of no technology.
The other characteristic of the crowd is how friendly and courteous it is. The young people (though they were not all young) that Joe Stiglitz and I spoke to, perhaps a hundred or more, were very attentive, very much wanting to absorb what information and opinions we had to offer. We talked about income distribution, predatory lending, and ways to get out of the mess. They were eager and they were grateful. Finally, they asked good questions. They were also, after all, talking to a Nobel laureate standing on the wet grounds of Zuccotti Park.
Later, as dark descended, I spoke to the general assembly. It seemed like perhaps 500 people. I spoke briefly, telling them about how much money the top 1 percent make, about how steep the Great Recession is, about the lack of prosecutions, about the inadequacy of reregulation, and about how we need a serious conversation about what Wall Street is for.
As I left, I heard one sincere "thank you" after another.
Many criticize the protesters for not having formal objectives or an agenda. That is just fine for now. But many of the protesters are concerned about specific issues. They may well develop agendas over time, and people like Joe and myself may help them get better informed and focus their views.
What is most aggravating is how the press has mischaracterized this group and treated it as an event with no meaning and the participants as clowns. Even the progressive press often has a tone of condescension. Many of these people are educated, but all of them are frustrated and angry. Is there some reason they should not be? Try to get a good job if you are in your twenties today. Try to make sense of why Washington has not been harder on Wall Street. Try to understand why the unemployment rate is still 9 percent and may rise in 2012, not fall. Dressing up as zombies to mock Wall Streeters -- is that so wrong for capturing attention, letting off steam, and fighting wealth not with violence, but with humor?