The Occupy Wallstreet protest, which has lasted for nearly a month now, has been adopted by activists in several other major cities including Portland, Chicago, and Seattle. The one I visited in Portland Oregon is now the second largest "Occupy" with a population that wavers between 200 and 400, set up in a miniature tent town that takes up two city blocks of park space on 4th street.
At first glance the Occupy zone looks like a country fair had a fling with a Hoover-ville. Stepping into the tent-and-cardboard enclosure can be a bit claustrophobic, and the eye is distracted by the litany of anti-government, anti-bank messages scrawled on every available surface. The biggest message: We are the 99%, and we're mad as hell.
It was this 99% I wanted to speak to. But instead of visiting the Media or Information centers (kiosks of tent poles and cardboard), I went to the most functional part of any budding society: the kitchens. There, under the rain-heavy tarps surrounded by tables of foodstuffs and plates, I rolled up my sleeves and started washing dishes as a temporary volunteer.
It's said that in America 1% of the elite own or control 99% of the wealth. On Thursday the 6th of October, a fraction of the 99% of the not-so-elite banded together and marched through downtown. They numbered well over a thousand, and were met by police and swat who were called in from neighboring counties. The demonstration ended peacefully, and the die-hards settled in the park where the makeshift city began.
Thus far our iffy vagrancy laws and camping restrictions have failed to move the protesters. Mayor Adams has taken a patient stance, allowing them to remain so long as they don't interfere with traffic (which they have) or cause sanitary issues for the city. The police have followed this example, and both sides seem to be working together for this indefinite sit-in.
During my visit I spoke to several other volunteers working in the kitchens, the sanitary station, and the aid station, and I talked to a few of the more fanatical protesters who seemed content to stand around in Guy Fawkes masks shouting rhetoric. I asked everyone the same question. What are you protesting?
The general consensus was that nobody knew exactly what they were protesting against. Nobody could pick out one particular law or business or figurehead. And although everyone seemed in high spirits and were pleased to be doing something about the dire economic situation our country is in, the cause lacked direction. One person told me that Occupy held regular meetings, during which they would decide what to protest. But in the following days their signs haven't changed and their slogans are still vague, directed at the rich upper crust of society.
Guy Fawkes Lives!
One hallmark of the protest movement is the presence of Anonymous. What started as a meme on the hacker/image board/rant site 4chan, has spawned an organized group that uses the face of Guy Fawkes and passes out leaflets informing people which corrupt businesses to avoid, essentially to ban the use of their products. The group as a whole and their literature is cohesive and well-informed. As individuals, Anonymous struck me as narrow minded and volatile.
The first Anonymous I met was standing outside the sanitation station like a statue, watching the comings and goings with his hands jammed in his pockets. He was completely uninterested in me while I was washing dishes. But when he saw me scribbling in my notepad and asking volunteers about the movement, he shot toward me like an arrow, his ramblings muffled by his cheap plastic mask.
The first Anonymous, and the three others I spoke to all had the same solution. Down with the government. The volunteers of Occupy seemed to want to work with authority, and threw around words like Fiat Currency, Korean free trade agreement, and gold standard. The man serving in the kitchens told me taxation on non-sustainable products would go a long way in solving our dilemma. Anonymous simply wanted a revolt. Blowing up British parliament wasn't enough for Guy Fawkes anymore, he demanded a system without presidency, without representation, and without police. When asked who Guy Fawkes was, one Anonymous said; "He was an English guy who fucked the government's shit up for the people."
an.ar.chy ('a-nar-ke) ***noun*** 1. A social structure without government or law and order. 2. Utter confusion.
My understanding of the Occupy movement is no clearer than before I visited the tent city. Its followers are directionless and are soon to face a winter outdoors. Their lack of cohesive vision or goal makes them easy targets for public mockery. The local media treats them like a glorified hobo camp. And the emboldened men in masks are one step away from bandanna-faced looters.
The atmosphere is calm now, but it would only take one mishandled confrontation with the law to set off the more explosive elements of the protest. They lack the numbers for a full scale riot. That is, until someone is jailed or attacked and a rallying cry is called out. If that happens it won't matter what the group's goal is. If the tear gas is thrown and picket signs become clubs, nobody will remember it was the dissolving middle class that spurned the 99% into action.