Monday, November 21, 2011

On Being the Moral Compass for a Nation

All my troubles, Lord, soon be over, all my worries, Lord--about what might happen if Wall Street protesters tried to survive a bitter "Valley Forge" winter in Zuccotti Park--soon were over. Within twenty-four hours of my previous post, the whole Zuccotti encampment vanished overnight without a trace. On November 15th at one a.m., New York police, using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, raided the park, removed all the tents and tarps, and tossed everything on the site into the maws of waiting sanitation trucks. Not even the library books were spared.

On that November morning, when the rest of the country woke up, Zuccotti Park had been restored to its former pristine state and resembled nothing so much as an old-growth forest that had been newly clear-cut. The ferocity of the Occupiers' resilience and will power would not be tested here. Sanitary conditions reigned again, the messy remnants of those who had been lamenting the disgrace of humanity's rampant greed dutifully hosed away. Gone, too, was the exemplary democratic village they had so carefully constructed as a rebuke to the crummy, second-rate world they have inherited, with its fatal indifference to those in need and to the very earth itself.

"They had to go," a friend's husband, now 92, told me the next night over dinner. "What they were doing was illegal, camping on someone else's property, and it was unsanitary." Maybe so, I said, but was it more illegal than when we went into Iraq to "shock and awe" the population? Was it more unsanitary than the mess we created there?

Previously, police had brought prisoners released from Riker's Island who had nowhere to go into the park. The homeless and the mentally ill also arrived, but the protesters did not recoil from this invasion. On the contrary, they included these people in their tiny model society, even arranging for on-site treatment by drug counselors and social workers. In one tent, you could get vaccinated against the flu. In another, you could borrow a business suit to go to the bathroom in one of the restaurants nearby without attracting undue attention.

"We decided we wouldn't marginalize these people like the rest of society does," one of the movement's most devoted organizers, Katie Davison, a film-maker in her early 30s, told Michel Greenberg, who has written about Zuccotti Park in a recent New York Review of Books. "I guess we've created our own welfare state, and I mean that in the best sense of the term." Zuccotti Park was not just a tent city. "I want us to be the country's moral touchstone, its unofficial conscience. It's a model for what is good." (I actually cried when I read that.) It was part of the movement's effort to show the world a better, more humanitarian form of democracy, a new kind of social system, not motivated by a corrosive appetite for power, influence, and control of the political system. Occupiers cherish their status as ethical defenders of the 99 %.

"At some point in time," a character muses in Haruki Murakami's latest novel, "IQ84," "the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place." Sadly, on November 15th, that analogue replacement world also vanished: it was forcibly evicted. Fortunately for us, however, the story doesn't end with eviction or pepper spray. A huge network of like-minded people has been galvanized, who will not back down in the campaign against plutocracy and greed. Exactly what direction that energy will take now that the model community in Zuccotti Park--symbolic of the movement as a whole--has been dismantled, still remains to be seen. Plans are being developed for a national occupation of the National Mall, the big park that runs between the Capitol and the Lincoln Monument. A national General Assembly is in the works for April 1, which will focus on the failure of Congress to represent the views of the majority of people, and allowing special interest groups to dominate the political process in favor of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

One Occupy member reports that a rotating team of thirty to forty volunteers, minus their sleeping bags, still patrol the park all night, drinking hot chocolate for warmth. Other Occupiers who came from out of town have found places to sleep at friendly neighborhood churches, and the kitchen still operates out of nearby Trinity Church. It is both ironic and compelling to me that humanity's fate, now playing itself out in the grimmest of ways, will depend on the fate of tandem teams of men and women standing watch and drinking cups of steaming cocoa at two in the morning in an otherwise deserted park at the bottom of Manhattan. But as their story goes, so will go ours as well. Whatever happens to them will be what happens to us. We are the 99%.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Freezing for a Fair Deal

When, much too early, winter made a sudden, unwelcome appearance in New York City, arriving in the form of a freak snow storm late in October, the impromptu OWS encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park was likened by some to General George Washington's beleaguered brigades at Valley Forge. Struck by the analogy and concerned for the protesters, I checked out Valley Forge in Wikipedia, because I worry about how these (mostly) young people currently putting their lives on the line for the future of humanity will get through the freezing winter. Here is some of what I read:

"In 1777, with winter about to set in, General George Washington moved his army to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania where new grounds for brigade encampments were selected, and new defense lines were planned and begun. The troops were poorly fed, ill-equipped, weary from long marches, and plagued by critical shortages. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry or warm. Soldiers received irregular supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "fire cake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. . So severe were conditions at times that Washington despaired "that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place ... this Army must inevitably ... starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can."

Shortly after that, I found this testimony on the Occupiers' chief website,, which I check in with every day. It chronicles life inside the movement--people telling their stories and op-ed writing by other well-known figures who support the movement.

"I opened the tent to freezing sheets of blowing, icy rain. Within moments my hands were so frozen they were barely usable...It was my own fault, I should have put on my gloves, but I had lent them to another woman whose hands were purple. It was a trying morning for all of us." Thus writes Bre Lembitz, a 21-year-old student majoring in Economics and Political Science, who took up residence in the park on September 25th, and plans to take another semester off to s continue her organizing efforts on the medical and financial committees. Lembitz sees OWS as the most important movement of her time.

"By five PM, tempers were short," she continues. "No one was dry or warm, we were all standing around in the cold, performing our various duties, and dealing with the other symptoms of the storm. A large majority of the people who are living in the park have never camped before. There had been twenty six cases of hypothermia, and there were emergency procedures in place to take people home...Panic was every where, people were not thinking clearly, but the community came through. One woman showed up three times, once to bring blankets, once to bring shopping bags full of soup, and another time to bring hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes, she brought me the bags of soup and said, 'I wish there was more I could do. I am so proud you are all here, and I beg you not to give up.' ”

The Occupiers have declared themselves allies to "all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world." They are unwilling to leave. Polls show that a majority of Americans agree that wealth is unfairly distributed, with the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent nearly tripling since the 1980s, while everyone else's income has fallen. One of the first people to show up in Zuccotti Park and address the crowd was Naomi Klein, author of"The Shock Doctrine." She spoke about how the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control--how corporations have become more powerful than governments, selfishly trashing the natural world as well as the economy. The struggle to overcome the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet will take many years," she warned in an open-forum discussion on October 6th. "Let's treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is."

During that devastating year at Valley Forge, clothing was wholly inadequate and many soldiers, already wounded from previous battles, died from exposure. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for diseases to fester. Although General Washington repeatedly petitioned for relief, Congress was unable to provide it, and the soldiers continued to suffer. Female relatives alleviated some of the suffering by providing valuable services, such as laundry and nursing, that the army desperately needed.

A report last week in the New York Times says that germs are spreading in Zuccotti Park, and many people are getting sick. Under these conditions, new recruits have become harder to find. Meanwhile, the response of the Congressional "Super-committee" has been to debate how much money to take out of the economy by cutting Medicare and Social Security for the elderly, along with many other essential government services--while otherwise seeking ways to lower top income and corporate tax rates. Two days ago, the following urgent request appeared on NationofChange's web newsletter:

"Freezing cold temperatures have hit the east coast and other parts of the nation. We have set out to raise $10,000 to purchase critical food and warmth supplies for protesters in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Denver, and Chicago. We will put 100% of our goal amount raised towards the purchase of prepared food, zero-degree blankets and sleeping bags, camp cots, tarps, men’s and women’s underwear, rubber boots, wool socks and other essentials.

Help us support these heroes who are making personal sacrifices for our future. Donate generously today!"

"It's time to take sides, folks," Tom Degan writes on his blog, The Rant. "This isn't a fad. This isn't some kind of mass, childish temper tantrum that will pass the moment the weather hits the freezing mark. Wake up and face the dawn. You're either going to be on the right side of history or you're going to be left standing in the sewer. The choice has not been this stark in a century-and-a-half. We've got to put hideous bastards like the Koch Brothers on notice. We need to make all of them realize that the people are standing up and they're not going to stand down under any circumstances."

Herman Cain, who recently bragged that he is "the third brother of the Koch brothers, by another mother," is also bragging that he pulled in $9 million in campaign contributions since October 1. Now just suppose Brother Koch-Cain were to take a paltry $10,000 from that amount and give it to the OWS movement. I expect he would either laugh in my face or snore low in the weeds at such a preposterous thought. It will never happen. That is precisely the reason so many people have become explosive, forging another Valley Forge even at the risk of freezing themselves to death.