Occupy Wall Street has found a face — finally, one to replace Che Guevara’s. Perhaps the movement’s first iconic image, the bloodied face of Brandon Watts, was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News and Metro last Friday. Watts was in the process of being arrested when a photographer caught a striking image of him surrounded by New York police officers, his face soaked with blood and contorted in pain.
It’s a pathetic image — like many from Occupy Wall Street, of the homeless and deranged who have descended on Zuccotti Park over time. But Watts’s story demonstrates multiple facets of OWS — the brash, immature criminality of it all, the sad delusions of many occupiers, and the directionless, anarchic refuge it has established.
On Thursday, the Daily News reported, Watts was seated atop a wall on the border of the park, hurling AAA batteries at cops standing along the street. He then jumped off the barricade, charged the mass of cops, grabbed a hat off the head of one of them, and dashed back into the park, with policemen in pursuit. They were eventually able to wrestle him to the ground as he fought back; his bloody wound came from striking his face against the ground, and required four staples when the police brought him to the hospital.
Watts has now been arraigned and charged with assault and grand larceny, and held on $1,500 bond (it’s expected that the protesters’ financial committee will provide his bail).
This is Watts’s fifth arrest since the protests began — previously, he had been detained for escaping from a prison van, resisting arrest, stealing temporary police fencing, and loitering in disguise. In an October interview with the New York Times, Watts claimed he had actually been arrested eight times already.
Brandon Watts is 20 years old, and came to New York from his home outside of Philadelphia, Pa. — some in the movement have asserted that he was one of the first protesters to pitch a tent in the park in September. In the same Times interview, after a friend had explained she had come to lower Manhattan because she “agreed with the Occupy Wall Street demands” (though the movement has repeatedly claimed to have none), he described his motivation for coming to the park: “I came here because it felt like something I could help out with.”
At the time of that interview, Watts seems to have been taking advantage of Zuccotti Park’s anarchy — he explained that, with his friend, he had “drunk six Four Lokos . . . a beer or two” (Four Lokos are a notorious fruit-flavored alcoholic drink, each of which is equivalent to three or four beers). Watts also explained that he had lost his virginity in the park, an event he was “amped for.”
Brandon Watts doesn’t necessarily deserve to be demonized, as he has been by some. It’s been suggested that he may have real mental and emotional issues, and harsh judgment should be reserved. His violence against the police nonetheless deserves to be condemned and punished, but the lesson here is not that Watts is a “thug,” instead that the Occupy movement attracts, enables, and defends people like him.
The Left has never been particularly circumspect when picking its iconic faces, from the aforementioned Che to Malcolm X or Mumia Abu-Jamal. Though Watts’s crimes rank nowhere near theirs, he is no exception, and represents what is both pernicious and pathetic about the Occupy movement.
For one, the outpouring of support and sympathy for an accidentally injured, likely felon has been absurd, and shows just why this unruly movement won’t gain the support of the “99%.” Many Americans may be unhappy about income inequality or unemployment, but few of them think it’s right to harass the police because of those grievances and, worse, once justly arrested, break out of a paddywagon to continue to make one’s point.
Moreover, Watts represents one of the occupiers’ main constituencies — the bored or disturbed transient who has been attracted to the openness and hospitality of the movement. Many of their stories are lamentable, but those people represent one of the practical issues that have beleaguered OWS, a movement whose only clear priorities are openness and equality.
Occupy Wall Street, whose media relevance relies in large part on accusations of police brutality, has found a useful icon. But like the movement itself, Brandon Watts isn’t quite the beacon many have hoped for.
— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow