Late last week, I went to the southern tip of Manhattan to see what all the fuss is about, but discovered that the only people occupying Wall Street these days are a bunch of tourists and the few remaining bankers who actually work there.
There wasn’t a protester in sight, in large part because three weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, the New York City police no longer allow anyone remotely interested in complaining about banker greed, income inequality or other perceived systemic injustices anywhere near the symbolic center of capitalism. The police have connected the steel barricades that line much of Wall and Broad streets near the New York Stock Exchange, and strategically placed late-model SUVs at intimidating angles in the roadways. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, cars have been banned from most of Wall and Broad. Now dissenters have been, too.
If you want to take the pulse of Occupy Wall Street, you have to head a couple of blocks north to Zuccotti Park, a 33,000-square-foot, rather unlovely, pink-granite-covered zone named for John Zuccotti, a former chairman of the city’s planning commission and the co-chairman of Brookfield Office Properties Inc., one of nation’s largest real-estate developers. Brookfield owns the World Financial Center complex across from ground zero and was runner-up to Larry Silverstein for the right to own the 99-year lease on the World Trade Center.
It’s probably lost on the Occupy Wall Street crowd that its home is across the street from Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., one of the oldest private Wall Street firms around, and is named after Zuccotti, a wealthy developer who received, according to the latest Brookfield proxy statement, $1.3 million in compensation in 2010, has $1.5 million more in unexercised options and is also a senior counsel for the Wall Street law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP.
Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, made the unlikely comparison of Zuccotti Park to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, thereby bestowing upon Occupy Wall Street a degree of gravitas and importance it doesn’t yet have. Kristof was in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring protests and is a first-rate reporter, but it’s difficult to believe the laconic, idiosyncratic scene on display in downtown Manhattan last week bears the slightest resemblance to what occurred in Cairo earlier this year. There, people were fighting for their freedom. Zuccotti Park, truth be told, seemed more like a low-energy Manhattan street fair in desperate need of funnel cake and grilled sausages than the world-changing movement Kristof imagines it to be.
At a corner of the park were some large artworks from the Beehive Design Collective, a rural Maine artist colony. Just inside the park, one could catch the dulcet tones of Harry Braun, the white-haired chairman and senior scientist for the Phoenix Project Foundation, which is dedicated to making sure people understand the consequences of unchecked growth. Braun is running for president of the United States. His principal beef seems to be that the U.S. is not a democracy but rather a republic ruled “by the tiny few in secret with lobbyists.” (He may be on to something.)
In a real democracy, Braun said, “instead of raising the national debt limit, the U.S. Congress would be instructed by the majority of citizens to cancel the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and any further secret banker bailouts” and return tax rates on the wealthiest Americans to 91 percent, as they were during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Good luck with the campaign, Harry!
Sleeping Bag Economics
Near Braun, a young bearded fellow was getting an afternoon shave. Another young guy was massaging his bare foot where an ugly looking sore had opened up. A woman was playing with her pet squirrel, much to the delight of a group of kids. Other protesters were sacked out -- obviously exhausted from their ongoing vigil -- for the first time in sleeping bags, thanks to the collective decision at the previous night’s loosely organized general assembly to spend $2,000 of its $25,000 in cash on those luxury items.
Nearby, another young man, probably in college, was doing his economics homework by writing out mathematical formulas on a small whiteboard. At the far end of the park, there was bit of performance art -- people lying on the ground for 30 minutes, staying still and silent, while looking up at the sky.
Just to the side of the silent sky watchers, I met Michael Badger, a youthful 38-year-old New Yorker, and one of the leaders of the protest’s “coaching” effort. He and a few other “coaches” were attempting to help the protesters achieve their loosely defined goals -- not that any have been officially sanctioned, of course. He said he helped one woman who thought it would be a good idea if Occupy Wall Street arranged to have office space, “where we could all move into,” to help it get things done. He said he had no idea what became of the woman or her idea.
Badger, an energetic straight-talker who was one of the 700 protesters arrested Oct. 1 when they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, said he had no understanding of what Wall Street does or how it greases the wheels of commerce. He felt a little uncomfortable admitting that fact, then confided that he did not know what issues the group wants addressed, nor did he seem to care that much.
“Asking people here where this is going or what our demands are is like asking a patient to tell a doctor what his treatment should be,” Badger said. “We’re just here pointing out the symptoms of the problem.” It is hard to imagine that statement being made in Tahrir Square.
Last week an unnamed Wall Street CEO called Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times, and asked him if there was anything to fear from this protest. The obvious answer -- no -- doesn’t provide the full picture. This group is much too amorphous, uninformed and disparate -- like a tropical storm sitting in the Caribbean unable to organize itself into a hurricane -- to pose any near-term existential threat to “the system.”
But in the longer term, peoples’ increasing frustration -- with the fact that trillions of dollars have gone to the rich while close to nothing has gone to the poor and middle class; with the fact that the so-called “job creators” are not creating any jobs; and with the fact that Wall Street still seems oblivious to the role it played in bringing all this about, while not much has changed there -- is starting to get some serious traction.
As I was leaving the park, I ran into David Carr, the Times’ eagle-eyed media columnist. We fell into step together. He said he was sensing a Tea Party-like movement in its early stages. He said he was a romantic about these kinds of historical moments and was especially impressed by the four-page broadsheet -- “The Occupied Wall Street Journal” -- that the protesters had somehow put together and were handing out in the park (donations encouraged, of course). He seemed inspired by what he saw. I told him I wasn’t all that impressed.
“All nascent political movements start out aimless and amorphous,” he said convincingly, before breaking away and heading into the McDonald’s, one block north of Zuccotti Park.
(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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