Stop Making Assumptions About Occupy Philly

A believer tries to set things straight

As a citizen of Generation X, I was born with a silver spoon of irony in my mouth. I’m happy to get snarky about just about anything—spurious protest movements included. But some of the objections to Occupy Philly—and the Occupy movement in general, now in 192 cities—are misinformed. These comments come from people, I’ve noticed, who haven’t attended a single meeting or talked to anyone who’s involved. As much as it pains me to say this since I have a tattoo of the New York Times T on my right buttock, what you read in the newspaper isn’t the full story. So let’s clear some things up.

First, the claim that the movement is dominated by “kids.” This is simply inaccurate. At the second planning meeting of 1,000 people at the Arch Street United Methodist Church on Tuesday night, I’d say about half the people there were middle-aged or older. I base that assumption on the strands of gray hair, including my own. In fact, of the 10 people sitting in my immediate vicinity, I’d guess only one was under 30 and most were over 40. You’re going to see many more kids yelling and holding up signs and running around because their hips don’t hurt as much and they’re not struggling to adjust to their progressive lenses. But trust me, plenty of older people and professionals are taking part, including social service employees, lawyers, doctors, nurses, academics, writers, business owners and artists.

Second the claim that … waitaminute. So what if there are a lot of young people? Youth movements spur change. It was true in the ’60s and it’s true now. Kids have time, and they haven’t yet been beaten down by parenting, cubicles and failed marriages. They still believe things can change—and that’s what it takes. How many cynics have changed the world? When I think back to my own youthful activism, the struggles I was involved in were essential: getting my college to divest from apartheid, working with ACT-UP to change AIDS policy, expanding definitions of sexual orientation, lobbying on behalf of rape survivors. So I was a bit of an idiot. But change was effected. Sitting home and saying, “Kids today” does nothing.

Second, the kids are all dirty and have tattoos and piercings and dreadlocks and facial hair … do you hear yourselves? If you’re a baby boomer and you’ve said these things, you need to sit in a quiet place, breathe deeply (you can say “namaste” or whatever if it helps) and do a guided meditation back to your youth. Remember what the Establishment said about you? Long-haired hippies. Unkempt. Dirty. You look at these videos now of a young John Kerry talking about Vietnam, and his hair is in his face, and you know the brush-cut adults were at home, watching on the Emerson black-and-white, shaking their heads. Did you admire Kerry then? Did you admire the kids coated with mud and sleeping in tents? Were you one of them? So take it down a notch. Styles change. I wish I never had to see another hipster beard again. Why do they have to look like Orthodox rabbis? But does it matter when they’re trying to change the world? Certainly not.

Enough with the double standard. I notice that Americans love revolution—as long as it’s somewhere else. Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Greece … we see the images of, yes, kids chanting and throwing their fists in the air and we tear up. Democracy, we think. How beautiful. We don’t even know what they’re saying. They could be saying: “Down with sofa beds and up with rocking chairs!” But you see images of it happening in the States and you feel disgusted.

Third of all (is that where we are?), the claim that there’s no coherent message. Just because you don’t see a coherent message articulated by your favorite news outlet, don’t assume there isn’t one. Do you have any journalist friends? Are these people ever tired? Are they fallible? Do they get overwhelmed? Do they have bosses and deadlines? There is a message. Ninety-nine percent of us are struggling and don’t know what to do. Unemployment is sky-high. The unequal distribution of wealth is worse than ever. Last year, during a recession, corporate CEOs took the highest bonuses ever in the nation’s history. Wall Street got a bailout. What about the rest of us?

Final note of disdain I’m hearing: What are the protests going to accomplish? They’re already getting a dialogue going among the corridors of power, and that’s where change begins. Obama was compelled to call a news conference and answer some pretty tough questions about regulation of the banking industry. You think Bank of America is going to go through with that $5 debit card surcharge now? I doubt it. Even the Fed is getting conciliatory. Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher said, in relation to the movement, that he was sympathetic: “We have too many people out of work. We have a very uneven distribution of income.” Obama, Biden, Russ Feingold and Ben Bernanke have expressed sympathy with the protesters as well. Peter Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College, believes the activists could inject the foreclosure crisis—and the banking industry’s culpability for the recession—into the presidential and Congressional elections.” On HuffPost, he invoked Nothing to Fear by Adam Cohen, who wrote about the farmers’ protests in 1932.

Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and progressive Democrats in Congress kept FDR aware of these protests, which helped them out-maneuver their more moderate colleagues. This combination of outside protest and inside maneuvering soon led to passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act that “radically changed the economics of farming.”

Later protests “set the stage for the New Deal’s public housing programs, the first time that the federal government provided subsidies to create affordable housing.” And I suppose I needn’t remind you of Vietnam?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times covered Tahrir Square and said the American Occupy protests remind him of that energy. I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution here, but I do think there’s going to be some change that most will benefit from, even the naysayers. Either way, can you bring us some blankets? It’s kind of cold out here.