Politics & Policy

Occupy Wall Street Starts to Crumble

Inevitable divisions arise in Zuccotti Park.

Whether or not the Occupy Wall Street movement has a legitimate or coherent purpose and to what extent its ongoing “occupation” of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park represents a violation of the law have been discussed and debated since the first tent was pitched on September 17. But we might put these questions aside for a moment and hope to agree on one thing: that, regardless of one’s views about its message, the camp itself has become a disgrace. If this is utopia, then deliver us from it, for imperfection has a fresh and heady appeal.

For an organization whose rhetoric casually claims “unity,” and which absurdly considers itself to be a mouthpiece for 99 percent of America, it is devastating that division and infighting increasingly mar OWS’s New York City franchise. The kibbutz has fractured. Walking around the site yesterday, it was clear that “one world” has become many. There are now palpable borders within the commune, and battle lines have been drawn.

The “original” protesters resent the “hangers-on” and the latecomers, as early fans of a rock band might hate those who discover their heroes only after they have become popular. As always, the hard-liners despise the reformers and those who would “compromise with capitalism,” and the anarchists predictably reject all such labels entirely. Meanwhile, an unfathomably asinine dispute rages over whether the movement should seek to represent the “100 percent” or the “99 percent,” with few taking the time to consider whether it actually does either. The homeless, much praised on placards and flyers, have clearly proven themselves useful only in the abstract, and have become a rather less attractive proposition now that they have joined the fray, bringing with them something of a crime wave.

Where unity does still exist, it is in the universal hatred felt toward the belt of “crazies” that surrounds the camp, even if the definition of “crazy” remains elusive to the vexed, and is largely reserved for anyone who “makes us look bad.” Fans of British comedy Yes, Minister will remember that “crazy” is an irregular verb: “I have an independent mind; you are an eccentric; he is round the twist.” Thus, in hushed tones, each faction complained to me about the others.

Moreover, OWS is discovering that it is by no means inured against the sort of political and economic problems that face all polities, utopian or not. A fistfight broke out yesterday on the testy northeastern side of the camp, when one protester fashioned and displayed a cardboard sign that read, “Food is for OWS only!” This, said some of those camped nearby, was “fascism.” “No, no,” came the rejoinder, “it’s only fair! We paid for it; it’s for us! You can’t just walk in and take our stuff!” And thus, in microcosm, the debate over welfare raised its head — as it always will.

Likewise, there is growing consternation over the group’s finances. The more than $500,000 that OWS has raised from supporters is in the hands of a shady eight-person finance committee, which is made up of “non-occupiers” who have a right of veto on proposals before they get to the General Assembly and are, thus, “becoming like the banks we are protesting.” Most of the money, the gripe goes, is “just sitting there doing nothing,” and “our ideas are not being listened to.” Worse still, some of this outrageous fortune has found its way into Amalgamated Bank, which has the temerity to deal with billionaires. To spend or not to spend, that is the question! It seems clear now that, however noble the protesters might consider themselves, and however unorthodox the community they have established, there will always be slings and arrows to suffer.

Then there is crime. Even as Zuccotti Park has become a sea of troubles, it has been regarded as unsporting to bring up its obnoxious elements, as if to report on the dark side is to tar all associates unfairly with the same brush. But the unpleasant are demonstrably in attendance, and are no longer necessarily in the minority. I asked a “press representative,” named Justin, how many of those in the park he considered to be genuinely part of his movement, and was surprised to hear him say “less than 50 percent.” Such a confession makes the “we are the 99 percent” chant seem somewhat comical. But then, it always has been. The idea that the camp represented something new by bringing a diverse group of people together was always solipsistic. Surely, I would ask, that is what America does? What is this country if not a grouping of different people who disagree, and who work out their differences through common institutions?

Every citizen has at least one gripe. There is something that abrades each and every one of us. But most of us do not join communes that earnestly and loudly pretend to be above the noisy and boisterous process we call democracy, even as our replacement society crumbles ignominiously around us.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate for National Review.


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