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American Spring? Is Occupy Wall Street a Be-In, or a New Movement?
NEW YORK - It was barely more than two years ago that a boyfriend told Joanne Stocker of Exton that there was more to learn about on Twitter than what baseball's beat writers were saying about her beloved Phillies.
Stocker, now 24, started following the thwarted uprising in Iran through social media and became an activist for Iranian women's rights - the start of an odyssey in activism that has landed her here, in the hard-steel shadows of Wall Street.
Pale and drained with the flu after a couple of nights in a rain-soaked sleeping bag under the skyscrapers framing Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, the Chester County native - on Twitter as @SabzBrach - has become a leading Internet voice of the Occupy Wall Street protest. The festive campout against corporate greed and corruption that started almost furtively through the Web about 17 days ago has slowly caught the attention of the nation's media and re-energized liberals angered by the tea party but disappointed in President Obama.
"I'm so proud of my generation," said Stocker, who plans to depart later this week to help launch a Washington, D.C., offshoot called Occupy K Street, targeting the influence of big-money lobbyists. Until now, she added later, "we've just been sitting around and watching 'American Idol.' "
There's something happening here, in a tree-lined swatch of concrete that lies exactly at the short midway point between the two disaster zones that have defined America's deeply troubled 21st century: the Ground Zero site of the 2001 terror attacks and the New York Stock Exchange that crashed and burned under attack from bankster shenanigans seven years later.
What it is, to continue the Buffalo Springfield paraphrase, ain't exactly clear. The ebbing and flowing tide of protesters who occupy the privately owned ground - they call it Liberty Park - by night and who march through Manhattan by day, have come here without specific demands, just a sense of outrage and their belief that too much power is concentrated among millionaires and billionaires who bought off both political parties with unlimited campaign cash.
Here are the "facts" about Occupy Wall Street: 1) It started this summer with a vague suggestion in a Canadian left-wing magazine called AdBusters, was endorsed by the shadowy band of hackers named Anonymous and gained steam on Twitter and Facebook, despite a lack of leadership; 2) it consists of a couple of hundred permanent occupants, swelled by day-trippers to as many as 2,000 or more on weekends; and 3) attention and support has soared because of heavy-handed tactics by the New York Police Department, including the videotaped pepper-spraying of women already in custody and 700 arrests Saturday on the Brooklyn Bridge.
But "facts" can't begin to explain what is, for all intents and purposes, the greatest American "be-in" since the last notes of Jefferson Airplane's "morning maniac music" echoed across Max Yasgur's farm outside Woodstock. In Zuccotti Park, gray-bearded Jerry Garcia look-alikes flash acoustic guitars just like switchblades, serenading 20-somethings with punk crimson hair while the rhythms of a nonstop drum line wash over a large yoga circle in the corner of the park. The political demands come later, and slowly, from the "general assemblies" held later at night.
The occupation itself is the message for now, a riff on Obama's famous 2008 pronouncement that "we are the ones we've been waiting for." They are a mosh pit of college students facing a jobless job market and a mountain of debt, of disgruntled Iraq War vets, of onetime single-issue advocates for gay rights or pot legalization who are now looking at the bigger picture, and of retirees who protested Vietnam in 1968 and can't fathom why we're still in Afghanistan in 2011.
"I'm here for as long as it takes for this revolution to take off," declared Lizzi Dierken, 47, one of the occupiers. A month ago, she was 3,000 miles away in San Francisco, driving a taxi, selling specialty baked goods and advocating for gay rights when she read about the protests on Facebook - and something clicked. Ten days ago, she was arrested by the NYPD, and yesterday she helped lead a "zombie march" over to Wall Street - attired in an oversize gray-pinstriped suit, her face painted ghostly white and splattered in mock blood. Getting arrested, she said, "only solidified our commitment to fight injustice."
Why is this happening now, and why does it feel different from the sporadic and small left-wing outbursts against global trade or the Iraq War? The tea party, while potent, was largely fueled by anger over Obama's victory in 2008. The movement spawned by Occupy Wall Street, with more than 100 offshoots in Philadelphia and other cities, is instead fueled by Americans who largely had hope in an Obama presidency, only to see Wall Street more powerful than ever and the gulf between the rich and poor grow wider since January 2009.
They've given up on both parties and taken to the streets, just like the young protesters they watched triumph in Tahrir Square at the height of the Arab Spring. And increasingly the established voices on the left - union leaders, bloggers, and some politicians like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders - who initially scoffed at the young and unfocused protesters are now signing on. Many liberals now think Occupy Wall Street is the only game in town.
Yesterday afternoon, a passer-by in an exquisitely tailored blue pinstriped suit turned to his well-attired acquaintance and muttered something about the protest winding down "in the winter when it starts getting cold." But the rest of his words were drowned out by the pounding beat of Zuccotti Park, a political drum solo with no end in sight for now.