My Kind Of Party: Occupy Wall Street

I spent the entire day Friday at Occupy Wall Street in New York, and I learned a secret—something I haven't heard from its backers and boosters, not from its participants and organizers, and certainly not from its lunatic detractors, the ones

I spent the entire day Friday at Occupy Wall Street in New York, and I learned a secret—something I haven't heard from its backers and boosters, not from its participants and organizers, and certainly not from its lunatic detractors, the ones like Senator Orrin Hatch, who says, "We are going to have riots in this country because of what these people are doing," or Herman Cain, who says the whole thing must have been "planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration," and Eric Cantor, who says they are "occupying mobs," incredulous that "some in this town have actually condoned the pinning of Americans against Americans." Here's the secret. Drummmmmroll:

This thing is just a huge, non-stop party.

It's a lot of other things as well, of course. I'll talk about those too. But my dominant impression on stepping onto the square after taking a little tour of the Ground Zero site (it's about two blocks to the West), and walking the four corners of the space, was that this is just like walking into the open door of an apartment where a giant old house party is happening, one so big that you know anyone is invited, where the only qualification is a willingness to feel welcome. Where you can talk to any stranger without feeling awkward—dance with any stranger without feeling awkward, as I did in the scrum in front of the drum circle on the western edge of the park—and maybe even feel yourself part of a conversation that's been going on for days or weeks, even with someone you've just met. I did that with a young college student named Melinda (Belinda?) after Jeffrey Sachs spoke in the designated speaker's corner by the giant red I-beam sculpture by Mark di Suvero (I just looked it up, and it's called "Joie de Vivre"—ain't that grand?), but more on that later. The point now is the party. A party that's bigger than a party. The only time I'd felt like this before, in fact, was at Barack Obama's inauguration on the mall. And, of course, in Wisconsin, marching around the State Capitol this spring.

Fun? A dead-on Sarah Palin impersonator. Folks taking turns shouting questions at her: "Is Africa a country or a continent?" "Tell us again about Paul Revere." She, in turn, plays her part to the T. Also: a parody Fox News camera, interviewing volunteers. Marvelous fake "arguments" break out, everyone playing their parts—a ritualized exorcism of the stupidity of our media discourse. We are all the performers, the audience, the directors and producers. Fun! "FOX NEWS," read a sign: "DON'T WORRY! WE DON'T TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY EITHER!"

The signs. Signs are fun!
"99% > 1% EVEN MATH IS ON OUR SIDE"
"THIS IS LEVERAGE" (arrow poitning in all directions beneath it)
"MR. OBAMA TEAR DOWN THIS WALL (STREET)"

Again: we are all the performers, the audience, the directors and producers, seeking to out-clever one another. And if you didn't bring your own sign, or can't think of anything clever, pick up your own from the free piles of them on the east side of the proceedings. Right by the library. What? You didn't know about the library? The one where the volunteer anarchist librarians sort and index dozens—hundreds?—of free books, there for the taking if you want to sit and have a chill? It is right by, in turn, the buffet line. The one maintained by the volunteer anarchist cooks, presiding over piles and piles of free food.

I said it's easy to come here. It's also easy to stay here. For days and days and days, if you feel like it. There are piles of sleeping bags; I suppose you are allowed to just borrow one. Although—people are having fun—maybe you can find a friend and share. Then read the newspaper in the morning: the "Status Board," updated daily. ("STEVE JOBS DEAD AT 56—BUT THE DAILY NEWS AND NEW YORK TIMES PUT US"—"us" underlined three times—"FIRST.")

I like this party better than most, in fact, because at this one there's much more political discussion. You hear it wafting through the park. Like the time, when I'd been there for a half an hour, I heard someone talking about the IMF, and "the oligarchs," and Robert Rubin—and, oh, it's Jeffrey Sachs, the Harvard economist famous in the 1990s for being one of the bad guys, responsible for neoliberal "shock therapy" in Russia that fought hyperinflation at the expense of the general wellbeing; or at least according to the arguments people were having with him.

Arguments regular people were having with him, I should say. There also was a CNN microphone, and plenty of "real" reporters with fancy digital recorders, but best I could tell none got more respect or attention from Sachs or anyone else than the regular people just throwing out questions.

Then he was led to the concrete embankment that was just then serving as the speaker's rostrum, and took command of the now famous "human microphone": the system, since officialdom has ruled against artificial amplification in the park, by which the speaker incants half a sentence, the crowd repeats it to amplify it to points beyond, and the whole thing takes on a beautiful collective sanctity of people thinking together as one, all the while disciplining every speaker against any bullshit people wouldn't want to repeat; and making it impossible to heckle to boot. It's better than a microphone. It's a microphone with a conscience.

"One percent doesn't get it yet!"
"ONE PERCENT DOESN'T GET IT YET!!!"
"I've been studying the one percent for a while!"
"I'VE BEEN STUDYING THE ONE PERCENT FOR A WHILE!!!"
"For a long time in this country we had the one percent were under control!"
"FOR A LONG TIME IN THIS COUNTRY WE HAD THE ONE PERCENT UNDER CONTROL!!!"
"The country started to slip out of our hands and into their hands around 1980!"
"THE COUNTRY STARTED TO SLIP OUT OF OUR HANDS AND INTO THEIR HANDS IN 1980!!!"
"In 1980, the top one percent took home nine percent of nation income!"
"IN 1980, THE TOP ONE PERCENT TOOK HOME NINE PERCENT OF NATIONAL INCOME!!!"
"Now the top one percent take home 23 percent of the income!"
"NOW THE TOP ONE PERCENT TAKE HOME 23 PERCENT OF THE INCOME!!!"...
"...worst inequality since 1929..."
"...WORST INEQUALITY SINCE 1929..."
"And you know what happened then!"
"AND YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENED THEN!!!"...

It was hard to remember why he was one of the bad guys. Belinda (Melinda), though, has her copy of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine handy, and we looked it up. Then had a spirited discussion about it. Which was joined by an angry Marxist whose brother-in-law had been tortured by the government in Bolivia for protesting Jeffrey Sach-inspired shock therapy policy there, who said that if Bolivian tin miners would have been having the argument with him with dynamite, not words, and that everything he could possibly say now was coutnerrevolutionary bullshit. (For the record, he recommended the following volumes for his point of view: Bolivia's Radical Tradition and Revotionary Horizons.) Belinda/Medlina and I came back that maybe things should probably be more complicated. That went on for fifteen minutes or so. It was...fun.

Political arguments with strangers. My kind of party. You all should go check it out.

About Rick Perlstein

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