Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I saw Jimmy McMillan at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Liberty Plaza. Plenty of people there recognized him--suit, beard, muttonchops and long silver hair--from his fringe candidacy in the 2010 New York Governor's race, and remembered his rent-activist slogan. Most didn't remember his name, so they called him "the 'rent is too damn high' guy."

A small crowd gathered around McMillan at the edge of the protesters' mattresses and tarps on the south side of the plaza. He said he was here to see how it was going, but "this is Ron Paul stuff." The supposed presence of libertarian Ron Paul supporters alongside anarchists, union members and other leftists at Occupy Wall Street had become a kind of metaphor in the media for how ideologically disorganized the movement was. McMillan said the protesters needed to vote instead, to elect a governor and attorney general who would put real pressure on the financial industry to stay in line. "In America, I don't come out here. I voted for you, you come out here."

"Don't let Rona Paul sucker y'all into coming out here and wasting your time," he said.

People from the crowd sparred with him. A grey-haired guy in business clothes said the protest highlighted the need for alternative energy job creation. Another guy said they were feeding the homeless. A British backpacker said voting was futile because "It's not a democracy, it's a fucking plutocracy." McMillan refused to give an inch. At some point, he said, "I know when I've hit a wall of Ron Paul" and made a dramatic exit, only to start a fresh harangue when somebody else approached him a few yards away.

With McMillan gone, the crowd kept arguing among itself, and that was how I met Sage. He was a youngish guy in a baggy green sweatshirt with black hair shaved close along the sides. He looked tired and had a hoarse voice but seemed to have a kind of intense energy pulling him along. He said people were out here because of oppression by "college debt, general malaise, a discontinuing of the democratic process, drug addiction."

Sage got here early in the protest, meaning a couple weeks ago. There were pizzas, water bottles and a media team, broadcasting online interviews with protesters. Sage said that for him, the living conditions weren't that much of an adjustment. "I was sleeping on the street already, so I just bedded down, lay down my head."

Sage had complaints about some of the college-educated activists at the protest, who he said lacked self- sufficiency skills like knowing when to secure a place to sleep at night. "They're gonna create a bureaucracy because they can't handle accountability."

"I'm a smack you upside the head kind of confrontationist," he said. "I'm never gonna get very far networking in academia."

Standing around the Liberty Plaza protest site at dusk, Sage told me an allegory in the form of a story about The Simpsons. At around eleven years old, he said, Bart Simpson finds Jesus, the Jesus who attacked the money lenders at the temple. He sees through everything, becomes a nonconformist, gets into trouble. But the other kids fool him. "Everyone tells Bart, we hate school too, but while they're saying that, they're going home and studying."

While he was talking, a young guy rolled around on the ground nearby and yelled at passersby to give him a dollar "or I'm gonna go crazy." "Man, there's free food and water here," Sage said to him, and there was a brief, tense exchange with the guy and his friend, who had oversized sunglasses and long, bright green hair. Later, a white guy with black dreads came over and gave Sage and another man plastic cups that he filled with water from a Poland Spring bottle.


On October 5, a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered in Foley Square and marched south toward Liberty Plaza and Wall Street. There might at any given time be a few hundred protesters in the plaza, so the Foley Square crowd was gigantic in comparison. One reason was the members of various unions, like the United Auto Workers, the United Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International, that had aligned themselves with the movement. Another was the students from colleges around the city who had taken off early from class to attend. The size of the gathering and the narrow chokepoints the police manned between barricades meant that the crowd drained out of Foley Square slowly, like sand flowing through a massive hourglass. Near me at the south end of the square, cameramen took turns climbing onto a lamp post to grab wide shots, while a helicopter hovered tiny and motionless above the forty-story Manhattan Municipal Building.