Thursday, October 13, 2011

Conversations with Occupy Boston

Because the Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless and does not fall behind a single cohesive message, nearly every conversation about it devolves into discussing what the real purpose of movement is.

So last weekend, I headed out to Boston to talk with the Occupy Boston protesters in person to see what its all about. I wanted to base my opinion on my own observations and interactions with the group.

This is not an exercise in idiot hunting; I did not search for people I could make look foolish, and I do not present any of them as official spokesmen. Everyone I talked to was friendly to me and eager to speak, even after I said what kind of blog I write. I enjoyed our conversations and I want to be as fair to them as I can.

Garrett was holding a sign listing specific financial legislation he'd like to see. "Restore Glass-Steagle, Replace the SEC, Regulate hedge funds, tax carried interest and protect our economy."

He's been following financial issues issues for five years and this was the first time he's protested since Richard Nixon's second inauguration in 1973. His plan was to display his sign for a few hours and he was there with Max, his gentle goldendoodle dog.

Garrett is very specific about what changes he wants to see for the country, as listed on his sign, and he expressed mild frustration that the Occupy Boston isn't targeting Wall Street the way the New York protests are. Instead, he said, the focus is on inequality and freedom of speech

I spotted Kevin wearing a Ron Paul shirt. He said he did not support the anti-capitalism message that's so common at the protest and supports ending the Federal Reserve, which is a libertarian message that was extremely popular with everyone at the Boston protest.

The protesters were camped a few hundred feet from the Federal Reserve bank of Boston and I wandered through the tent city and found a young man and woman with a cardboard sign about legalizing medical marijuana in Maine. They said they'd rather I talk to Victor, a young, shirtless tough-looking guy who didn't want to appear on camera.

Scrawled on his left forearm in sloppy permanent marker was the phone number for the National Lawyers Guild in case he was arrested.

Victor said the people there feel like outcasts. He said the protest has a real "community vibe" and its not controlled by any outside political groups, including liberal ones. From my own observations, I saw zero no signs supporting Obama or the Democratic party while I was there, nor did I hear anyone say much about them.

George Orwell would have loved Victor's no-nonsense honesty when I asked him what solutions he supports. With no hesitation, he said he wants to support the middle class by depopulating the Earth. In his world, rich people would be allowed to exist unless they get lazy and do nothing productive. Victor said rich people who get lazy would be "murdered."

I appreciate Victor's boldness and inability to mask his views. I asked him if he's read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," as his clarity is exactly what Orwell endorsed, and he confessed he's not much of a reader. Despite the violence of his message, he was completely civil to me.

Mark had just arrived a few hours before as a "weekend warrior" who planned to protest until Monday's college classes. Safety-pinned to his sleeve was a red cross labeling him a protest "medic."

Mark's medical background is limited to lifeguard duty and he's there to clean pepper spray out of people's eye and help with any bumps and scrapes in case anyone tripped on the concrete.

"Capitalism is basically collapsing around us," Mark told me. The issues he cares about are the income gap and injustice. This was his first protest and he said everyone is there for scattered reasons, but the event feels like a big party.

"I think it's fair to say a lot of people here are pissed-off liberals," Mark said. He considers himself somewhat of an anarchist and wants to see the world organized with more local control. He'd rather decisions be made in the community, rather than at the state or federal level.

As I spoke with Mark, a protester named Justin came by and picked up some litter around us.

"I don't want this place to get shut down because there's trash everywhere," said Justin. He said the organizers asked for a few volunteers to help keep trash managed and he was eager to help.

At first glance Vlad seemed like a stereotypical surfer dude with a hippie drum, but his positions were nuanced and thoughtful. He's opposed to inequality between the rich and poor, greed and the way the banks are run.

However, after taking business classes he opposes the minimum wage because it will "drive jobs away." He said he was at the protest to help send a message that people are unsatisfied with the nation and the economy.

Vlad deserves a lot of credit for saying he doesn't have a firm opinion on the Federal Reserve because he doesn't know enough about the issue. It's somewhat rare to hear someone say "I don't know" or "I was wrong" in any political discussion, and I see them as a sign of thoughtful engagement, independent thinking and honesty.

Daniel had a table filled with socialist books and newspapers and he said while the movement has a lot of different viewpoints, the protest is socialist at its core. He said the reason the anti-FED view is so big is that the Federal Reserve is part of the corporate structure that controls the world.

I talked to him a bit longer than anyone else, and once again, everything was civil and courteous.

For econ nerds, when he tried repeating Marx's theory that firms with the lowest wages would be the most competitive, driving down wages, I cited Sean Masaki Flynn's book Economic for Dummies and the response that there is a finite supply of workers firms compete for by offering higher and higher compensation packages, and his only response was that there is an infinite supply of workers, which is silly.

As I was leaving, Daniel offered me a newspaper titled from his stand. It turned out to be a Dutch treat, as after I picked it up he asked for a "suggested $1 donation." In the spirit of capitalism and free market loopholes, I paid him for his product.

This movement is like a horoscope where everyone reading it thinks it is tailored to their own experiences.

Occupy Wall Street started as routine anarchist/Marxist protest, and regular liberals have jumped on, so now the protest is a mix of anti-capitalists and Democrats. Each group thinks the movement is about their beliefs, not the others, and the Democrats get really upset when the movement is characterized as socialist.

It'd be really easy for me to take Victor and Daniel and say they are the core of this movement, but that would be dishonest. I saw a lot of average-looking young people mixed in as well, and a lot of moderate liberals support the movement from afar. However, the bomb-throwers can not be ignored

Anarchists protests do contain people who want to riot and assault police officers. They carry clubs disguised as flags and wear masks to cheat video evidence. This is not a news flash.

The National Lawyers Guild number Victor and Mark wore demonstrate organizers expected arrests, and a few days after I was there more than 100 protesters went out of their way to trespass and resist arrest. The left has this habit of trying to get arrested, then looking at the arrests as a noble sacrifice and proof that the police are thugs. That doesn't mean that police never brutalize protesters, of course, but the protesters aren't always the victims they claim to be.

If you've never heard "The people's Mic," than you have no idea how annoying it is. Try watching this Occupy Atlanta clip without skipping ahead. Speakers have to stop every few words to allow the audience to repeat them in a jumbled fashion. It's supposed to amplify the message, but it comes out like Apache Chief on an old radio. The sound rings of conformity, not solidarity.

All the classic criticisms of the Tea Party were there in Boston. It was mostly white people, there were poorly-written signs, plenty of people were angry, some protesters didn't know what they were talking about, established political activists are pushing it along and protesters started with an unfocused goal. Because there is no central leadership, anyone can idiot hunt and drag up something stupid a protester said. Critics will say that person is a typical member of the group, and supporters will say they're not.

I'm glad I went, as I feel I have a firmer grasp of why people feel so energized by this movement. I support few of the causes they care about, and even less of the solutions they support.

We really do have problems with a lack of jobs, an expensive arms race for college education, an out-of-control Federal Reserve, corporate bailouts and high health care costs. Those problems need to be addressed, but I see hands-off government policy as the solution, not expansion of Washington I heard on the streets of Boston.


  1. I think that 'government planning' sign was meant to show how poorly the government plans. the words were designed not to fit correctly to illustrate the point.

  2. Whats their excuse for the rest of the signs?