On Wednesday afternoon, we marched out of Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have bedded down for the duration. Drums were pounding and shouts of “Whose streets? Our streets!” “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street,” and “This is what democracy looks like, that is what hypocrisy looks like!” rang out as we headed directly into New York City’s version of a police state. The helicopters with the high-tech sensors and high-resolution cameras hovered in the distant sky, the security cams peered down from walls, the barriers the police had set up hemmed us in -- no street, just sidewalk for these demonstrators -- and the cops, scores of flexi-cuffs looped at their belts, were lined up all along the way, while empty buses wheeled past ready for future arrestees.
This was not exactly a shining Big Apple example of the “freedom” to demonstrate. It was demonstration as imprisonment and at certain moments, at least for this 67-year-old, it was claustrophobic. This is the way the state treats 15,000 terrorist suspects, not its own citizens.
Still, the energy and high spirits were staggering. The unions were out -- nurses, teachers, construction workers -- the bands were lively (“… down by the riverside, ain’t gonna study war no more…”), and hand-made signs were everywhere and about everything under the sun: “Crime does pay in the USA -- on Wall Street,” “When did the common good become a bad idea,” “4 years in college, $100,000 in debt, for a hostess job,” “Eat the rich,” “Arab Spring to Wall Street Fall” (with the final “L” in “Fall” slipping off the sign), “We are the 99%,” “Legalize online poker, occupy Wall St.”
Amid the kaleidoscopic range of topics on those signs and in those chants and cries, one thing, one name, was largely missing: the president's. In those hours marching and at Foley Square amid the din of so many thousands of massed people, I saw one sign that said “Obama = Bush” and another that went something like “The Barack Obama we elected would be out here with us.” That was it. Sayonara.
It’s as if the spreading movement, made up of kids who might once have turned out for presidential candidate Obama, had left him and his administration in the dust. Like big labor, the left, and the media, the administration that loved its bankers to death (and got little enough in return for that embrace) is now playing catch-up with a ragtag bunch of protesters it wouldn’t have thought twice about if they hadn't somehow caught the zeitgeist of this moment. (Don’t forget that the Obama administration was similarly left scrambling and desperately behind events when it came to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo last January.)
The best Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner could say a few days ago, when asked about his sympathies for the Occupy Wall Street movement, was: "I feel a lot of sympathy for what you might describe as a general sense among Americans that we've lost a sense of possibility." Really? White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley didn’t know if the movement was exactly “helpful” for the White House agenda. Truly? And White House press spokesman Jay Carney commented blandly, “I would simply say that, to the extent that people are frustrated with the economic situation, we understand.” Do you?
Suddenly, last Thursday, with news about the anti-Wall Street movement whipping up a storm, the Obama administration found itself out of breath and running hard to reposition itself. Vice President Joe Biden said, “The core is the bargain has been breached with the American people,” while at his news conference addressing questions about the movement the president added, “I think it expresses the frustrations that the American people feel... [T]he protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”
Still, those signs with everything but Barack Obama on them should be considered a warning. Recently, Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer and activist, penned a message from a man who died in the attacks of September 11th. His name was Salvador Allende, he was the elected president of Chile, and the “terrorists” on that day in 1973 were the Chilean military backed by the CIA. (Strangely enough, afterwards no one declared a global war on anyone.)
Dorfman, author most recently of Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, channels warning words from “the dead” to Barack Obama. But mark my words, Allende’s isn’t the only warning to the president at this moment. Those kids in downtown Manhattan (and increasingly across the country and the world) are offering their own warning, and theirs, after a fashion, comes from the future, one in which Obama’s presidency could someday be seen as little but an irrelevancy.