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The Empire strikes back

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All I can say is, thank god it wasn't FOX.

Shortly after midnight on Oct. 18, a month after the Occupy Wall Street protest began, I was standing on the sidewalk outside Zuccotti Park when a man with a camera came up to me and said he was live-streaming the occupation for Global Revolution television. Right now, he told me from behind his camera, people all over the world — in the U.S., the Middle East, Africa — were watching us. Did I have anything I wanted to say to the world?

"No, not really," I said.

Whereupon a very tall man with what I took to be a West African accent put his arm around me, laughed and told the world, "That's what I like about New Yorkers. Nothing fazes them."

*****

While Americans, Middle Easterners and Africans may now believe otherwise, I am by no means a real New Yorker. I grew up more than an hour outside the city and now live in Colorado Springs, although traces of an accent may resurface when I spend too much time around city friends. And I was only at the demonstration by happenstance, having booked a flight home several weeks before the occupation began.

Being close by, I was interested to see how the demonstration compared to its media image, the collective impression fostered by the heavily edited footage on FOX and other purveyors of the 24-hour news cycle.

I'd already spent a few hours at the site that afternoon, where a substantial portion of the thousand or so people present were tourists and curiosity-seekers like myself. So a real New Yorker friend and I figured we'd go back later that night to see what it would be like with less of "us" and more of "them."

*****

First of all, let me admit that it's entirely possible, although not likely, that FOX host Bill O'Reilly spent more time hanging around the site than we did. But I would also note that the rats, drugs and outdoor sex — which he'd railed against so convincingly — were conspicuously absent.

What was instead apparent were much less lurid realities: a sea of tents and sleeping bags, a small lending library, and a row of pretzel, donut and souvlaki trucks attempting to compete with the free food being served inside the park.

Also conspicuously absent was the infamous guy with the Nazi tattoo who became the focus of media concerns about Wall Street protesters' "anti-Semitic problem." But I did see Hasidic Jews, each carrying a palm frond and a fruit called the etrog, which they would give passers-by to hold during the recitation of a prayer commemorating the Sukkot holiday.

There was also a large chalkboard detailing the upcoming speakers, workshops and other events, which later that week would include an evening Simchat Torah celebration, complete with singing and dancing, to be followed the next afternoon by a Muslim prayer ceremony with a sermon on social justice and Islam.

*****

It's no secret that, in the two weeks since my return to Colorado Springs, the Occupy movement has seen a lot of changes.

On the eve of last weekend's harsh snowstorm, fire and police officials confiscated the five generators that had been used to provide heat and power. Authorities insisted this was prompted by safety concerns, although the timing appeared suspicious given that they'd allowed the generators to be used without incident throughout the occupation's relatively mild first month. Protesters responded creatively, bringing in generators powered by stationary bicycles.

Meanwhile, as "Occupy XYZ" demonstrations in other cities continue to grow, incidents of violence appear on the increase, with the lion's share of casualties falling on the side of the protesters.

Close to home, police reportedly used rubber bullets and pepper spray on demonstrators Saturday to clear out a Denver encampment. But what garnered the most headlines, and proved most disturbing, was a 24-year-old Iraq Veteran Against the War being hospitalized in critical condition in the wake of last week's clash with Oakland police.

Watching video of the incident, my first reaction was shock and a sense that I no longer recognized my own country. But then I thought about Kent State, and realized that I recognize it all too well.

One thing I never expected to see was a half-dozen armed and uniformed Minutemen, the self-appointed guardians of the border with Mexico, turning up at an Occupy Phoenix demonstration. In an interview posted on YouTube, the group's camouflaged "patrol leader" says they're there to protect the demonstrators' right to protest: "We're exercising our Second Amendment right so that everybody can have a First Amendment right."

*****

At this point, there's still little indication that members of the Tea Party movement are finding common cause with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. And the mainstream media still claims to be mystified by what it is all these demonstrators are going on about.

My own sense is that, in the same way that the National Guard's killings at Kent State University made it difficult for journalists to depict anti-war protesters as aimless slackers looking for the next Woodstock, the current wave of police actions could potentially turn the tide on current assumptions about Wall Street protesters.

Or maybe not. But on my relatively tourist-free return visit to Zuccotti Park, watching what I'd estimate was a few hundred hardcore occupiers begin to bed down in increasingly cold weather, I couldn't help thinking this movement has more gravitas than it's currently being credited with. As I looked across the park and the cameraman walked off to interview more interesting subjects, I asked one of his companions how many folks he thought were camping out tonight. Before he could answer, another onlooker remarked with mock suspicion, "Somebody is asking a lot of questions."

Of course, the more important question, I think, is being asked by the protesters. In a country where the middle class is disappearing so fast that Brazilians now feel sorry for us, how can American politicians and media maintain the myth of social mobility in any direction but downward?

While there are no obvious solutions, it's the beginning of a conversation that's long overdue. The Wall Street occupiers, like the Wisconsin demonstrators who preceded them, will almost certainly disperse with no "Mission accomplished" banners in sight. But from what we're seeing so far, it's clear that the issues they're raising aren't going away anytime soon.

bill@csindy.com

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