Something is happening in our streets. Something new to me. While I’ve had more than the usual amount of exposure to demonstrations large and small as a member of various media organizations, what’s happening out on the asphalt in several dozen locales is something entirely different from what I’ve seen before.
The genesis occurred a few weeks ago on Wall Street. A few hundred folks got together under a loose title of “Occupy Wall Street” to send a message to trading houses, banks and the government. There were many voices with many messages. But the gist could probably have been boiled down to something like “Prosecute the criminals in the financial industry who have stolen from us, gotten richer and have created our huge economic mess.” There were some lesser voices talking about jobs and foreclosed homes but that pretty well captures the essence.
In one more week, new but similar groups got together in several cities espousing much the same message. Another week went by and more people began marching in other places. And the Wall Street group continued protesting. In about the third week, Portland, Seattle and other Northwest cities got in on the action.
Now we’ve seen all sorts of marches in this country. From spontaneous reactions to something like 9/11 where the message was sympathy mixed with patriotism to the highly organized street theater of the Tea Party in Washington, D.C. where the message was dictated and controlled by those paying the bills. And pulling the strings.
But these more recent outpourings – these are different. No fancy printed signs handed out by organizers. No mixed messages tinged with racism and contrived patriotic symbols including the American and Confederate flags. Or the “Don’t Tread On Me” emblems. No signs or banners depicting political leaders as Hitler or threatening to use weapons to accomplish their desired results. No guns on their hips. Rather, if there are signs at all, we’re seeing mostly hand-printed words on flattened cardboard nailed to a stick. The speakers – if there are any – tend to be economists not rabble-rousers.
And the people. The faces. Very different kaleidoscope. Lots of 20, 30 and 40 somethings. Most dressed in sport clothes or other casual wear. Their demeanor, for the most part, is quieter and seems focused on the many messages of individual economic hardship, wanting both help and justice. Nothing threatening or hateful as we’ve seen so often recently.
Oh, there’s some theater. Especially in New York where street theater is part of life. A few kids with wild makeup playing the role of zombies as if those they were protesting against were treating them as less than human. But, again, peaceful, nonthreatening and nonviolent.
As a reporter, I’ve stood in the midst of 300,000 people – sometimes more – who wanted us out of an Asian war. I’ve been tear gassed and arrested during street marches making headlines around the world. I’ve been confronted by police officers out of control, angry at the crowd and striking out at anyone they could reach. Demonstrations can get pretty nasty.
Ones we’re seeing now are a far cry from the ‘60′s and ‘70′s. The tone is more temperate. The message more personal. There are no folk musicians or rock groups. Aside from a few over-eager cops in New York early on, no police anger, baiting or interference.
But two large changes strike me. The first is there really appears to be no one behind these outpourings; no billionaires, no political opportunists, no central organization pushing a pre-determined, self-serving message. They are what they appear to be: spontaneous.
The second difference seems to be there’s no desire to have thousands of people descend on New York or Washington as we’ve seen so often in the past. The drive this time appears to be to have more and more homegrown demonstrations until all states are involved. Locally.
If these two differences are borne out, and if we see more of these gatherings, it will be extremely difficult for any one group or any self-serving opportunists to get control or direct the message as we’ve seen in the Tea Party. What you’ll have is a truly people-driven movement of like messages reflecting the widespread distrust and anger most of us feel toward political entities and financial institutions.
I’m damned mad at both. And I’m ready to take to the streets. Again. This time as marcher and not an observer. It may be nearly impossible to get changes in our financial institutions by demonstrating. But members of Congress and the guy in the White House are more within our reach. In those cases, we might make a difference there.
Actions in the streets gave birth to the political will to end a war. Maybe this time we can start a war. For justice – delayed or denied.