One Year of Occupy Wall Street
This day marking the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street started quite differently for me than did September 17, 2011. On this same day a year ago, the Village Zendo held a Zazenkai (a full day of meditation practice) featuring a dharma talk by Ryotan Sensei. So last year I spent the 17th of September in an outwardly very quiet and law abiding manner in a beautiful loft on Broadway, whereas this year I spent the day in a very noisy, chaotic and supposedly lawless manner one mile south on Broadway.
Today's festivities began early -- though not so very early by Zen standards -- with the members of Occupy Faith convening at Liberty Plaza at 6:45am. By coincidence, this was the time of day my tyrannical Wall Street boss demanded I report to work as a stock research analyst back in 1996. But instead of sitting nervously in a cramped office as I did 16 years ago wondering if I might be screamed at by my supervisor, today I was merely an ex-Wall Streeter shuffling sleepily out of the Fulton Street subway station. I was there to swell the numbers of those incurable malcontents who have a beef with the established order of things.
What is the established order of things? Gross inequality of social, educational and economic opportunity (from which I have personally benefited); racism (endemic in our culture and especially in our so-called criminal justice system); a love of violence, weapons and war; corporate “personhood” accompanied by endless corporate welfare and corporate-government cronyism; and an unsustainable mode of living based on endless consumption, mountainous debt and a torrent of waste. America seems entirely divorced from the just, balanced and sustainable society enshrined in its mythology and toward which we collectively seem unable to move so much as an inch.
What responsibility do I bear, personally, for the mess we find ourselves in? I’ll say that my burden of responsibility for the dreadful state of things is above average, based on the simple calculus that all the privileges enjoyed, all the success derived, from a bad system serves as an indictment of the person who was privileged and successful. Put another way, those who profit most from dysfunction are most guilty for dysfunction regardless of how innocuous their intentions or behavior might actually be. Because I have derived a fair amount of privilege and success during my lifetime from our increasingly warped, dysfunctional society I am, in fact, the enemy. Thus, I went downtown today to march against myself.
Does my protesting today “make up for” my past transgressions against the responsible social order I now advocate? That is a question I am not competent to answer. Moreover, whether I am sitting in an office waiting to be abused by a megalomaniacal boss, or meditating, or sculpting a vase, or meekly protesting on the street, what is the ultimate difference? As the years roll on -- artificial and meaningless demarcations to which we attach so much importance -- I understand less and less how it all fits together. Better still, I need less and less to find a way that it might all fit together. I cannot make sense of my life and feel no great urgency to do so.
Returning to the topic of today’s Occupy Wall Street protests, what was the essence of those? Was it the smaller numbers of protestors on the streets compared with the peak of the movement back in October 2011? Was it the 125+ people who were arrested today for no reason other than the established order’s reflexive reliance on arbitrary, overwhelming police power to suppress people raising legitimate grievances in the public square? Was it the barricades surrounding every access point to Wall Street, or the one percenter with outrageously bad posture declaring his sympathy with the 99 percent, or the roving brass band carrying mock tombstones, or the tourists gaping quizzically at crudely drawn signs decrying corporate greed, banksters and crooked politicians? Or was it the dog with the bandaged leg I saw lazing on a sidewalk hours later in the West Village? It is no easier to make sense of my impressions of Occupy Wall Street – to make things fit together there – than it is to make sense of my own life.
As usual, the police did not cover themselves with glory today. They offered a very disproportionate response to the “threat” posed by the protesters and were confused and heavy handed in their tactics. For example, while walking peacefully north on Broadway, the Occupy Faith crew was suddenly ordered by the police to turn around and head south. For reasons best known to themselves, New York’s finest had drawn an invisible line in the street and most of our group was not permitted to cross that line. But a few people in the front of our group had already crossed the invisible line so abruptly drawn by the police, and those few were summarily arrested -- arrested without any warning at all, simply for walking down the sidewalk. Had I been a mere 15 feet farther north at the time I would have been arrested as well.
Then, those of us who had not been arbitrarily arrested were loudly ordered by the cops to turn south. We promptly obeyed and had not walked more than 20 feet south when we were loudly ordered by another group of cops to turn north. So there we were, trapped, with dueling groups of police telling us to walk both north and south. It seemed there was no way out of this dilemma above ground, so we descended into a subway entrance and convened a meeting underground. As we debated the best way to deal with the police and avoid more arbitrary arrests, we were ordered by yet another police officer to leave the subway so as to not block pedestrian traffic.
When we emerged above ground, we were allowed to cross to the west side of Broadway and then we regrouped on a small side street. After we had spent about 10 minutes in this seemingly unobtrusive location, we attracted the attention of an entirely different clutch of police who ordered us to disperse or be arrested for blocking pedestrian traffic. Thus, in a span of no more than 20 minutes a very small group of clergy and their followers were ordered by police to move four times within a one-block radius. The basis for all of these orders was the urgent need to keep streets, sidewalks and subways free of extraneous people.
The deep and abiding concern of Mayor Bloomberg and his police about the free movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in New York City is truly a wonder for the ages. If our municipal authorities were half as worried about protecting our petty constitutional rights (such as the equal protection clause, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech) as they are about protecting traffic, New York City would be a beacon of liberty and justice unto the world. But alas, our plutocratic mayor tears the constitution to shreds on the thinnest of pretexts and with zero accountability.
While our experiences with the authorities today were not at all comforting, it was good to know that our presence downtown was a serious thorn in their sides and a real wake up call to anyone who thinks our current system is fair or acceptable. It was good to taste the confusion, anger, humor and creativity that the protesters brought to our lively day in the street. It was good to taste my own confusion and culpability vis-à-vis the system. Most of all, it was good yet again to Occupy Wall Street.