Guest Column: Don’t disparage the Wall Street occupiers

11/10/2011 4:00 AM |

It was, admittedly, a clever play on words.

“Occupy Wall Street animals go wild …ZOO-COTTI!” trumpeted the cover headline of last Friday’s New York Post. The headline referenced a story inside about a brawl between two men — “wackos” the paper called them — encamped at their lower Manhattan protest site.

“This is the new face of Zuccotti Park!” the story began before recounting the details of the fight and enumerating the (totally justified) complaints of nearby residents about the megaphones, incessant drumming, graffiti and public urination that have accompanied the seven-week-old protest.

But if there was anything good about this display of direct democracy — which has been emulated around the world — the Post wasn’t telling you.

What a shame.

I visited the park last week and circulated for three hours among the dozens of tents crowding the site, which covers a city block and is about three-fifths the size of a football field. There, amid the occasional whiff of human waste and the occasional sophomoric sign (“Prosecute Ben Bernanke for TREASON”), the protesters I met spoke impressively on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Not surprisingly, at the top of the protesters’ list was the widening income inequality between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the rest of us. “We are the 99 percent” was the message I kept hearing and seeing, and it couldn’t have been timelier.

Just last month, the Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that between 1979 and 2007, the after-tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent. In the same period, according to the report, the income of the three-fifths of Americans in the middle of the income scale increased by just under 40 percent.

This kind of news resonated with a 26-year-old protester named Dustin, who declined to give his last name. Dressed in a suit and tie, he displayed a poster with compelling charts on the country’s increasing concentration of wealth at the top.

“Now,” he told me, “people are actually discussing the way we’ve been robbed blind.”

“Middle America is feeling it and slowly waking up,” said Xiomara Hayes, a middle-aged teacher in the city and a daily protester.

Then she imparted this gem: “We are being forced to realize we are all one, but the 1 percent doesn’t know it yet,” because they’re still “locked in by power and money.”

Hmm. Locked in by power and money? Could this explain why the Post’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — whose net worth of $7.4 billion makes him the 37th wealthiest person in America, according to Forbes magazine — uses that paper and other properties like The Wall Street Journal and Fox News to disparage the protesters?

Indeed, dissatisfaction with press coverage of Occupy Wall Street inspired David Ippolito, 55, a self-described singer/songwriter, actor/playwright, to wield a homemade placard saying, “MEDIA please be honest about the spirit of the movement.”

News organizations, he told me, were focusing too much on “the fringes” of OWS, like a sole holder of anti-Semitic signs at Zuccotti Park, and not enough on “the thoughtful, kind, committed, informed people” who participate in the protests.

“Informed” would fit Joe, a 70-year-old New Jersey man. He sat beside his homemade sign, which asserted, “The Heart of the Problem: Corporate Financing of Political Campaigns Leads to Corporate Control of the Country.”

Alluding to last year’s disastrous 5-4 Supreme Court decision allowing corporations the same First Amendment rights as people when it comes to spending directly on political campaigns, Joe, who also declined to give his last name, joked to me, “They’ve got to get rid of personhood” for corporations “unless they want to be drafted or executed.” (He supports mandatory public campaign financing.)

Jenny Heinz, a protester sporting a tunic emblazoned with the message “Granny Peace Brigade,” said she thought Occupy Wall Street had changed the nature of the national discourse.

“It’s added words like inequality and democracy and injustice that the corporate media weren’t mentioning,” she said. “They can’t ignore it.”

And sometimes direct democracy really does make a difference. As the aforementioned David Ippolito reminded me, “Without protests, Richard Nixon would never have ended the Vietnam War.”

Yes, there are good and thoughtful people protesting with Occupy Wall Street. They deserve respect, not ridicule.

Mr. Henry is a former Times/Review copy editor and a resident of Orient.