In the Spring of 2000, my friend and former colleague Zack Exley arrived in Washington, DC, to observe the protests that had engulfed the city during the World Bank's annual meeting. Driving into Washington from the airport, out the window of his taxi he saw "a teenage white girl with long dreadlocks who wore a homemade t-shirt proclaiming: WE NEED A NEW SYSTEM."
Later that evening he attended a party at the home of then-Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers along with "ambassadors, politicians, esteemed professors and what seemed like the entire combined senior economist staff of the IMF, World Bank and Treasury."
It turned out Larry Summers had seen the girl too and was eagerly telling his guests about an interaction he had with her:
And so I asked the girl: 'What is this new system that you want? Tell me about it!' And the girl had nothing. Nothing! She had no fucking clue what this magical new system was supposed to be. No one is saying that there aren't problems with the world economy the way it is today. But these kids out there -- they don't know what they want!
"Mr. Secretary," said Zack. "You've got 50 economics PhDs in this room who pretty much run the world economy. And you're asking that girl for a better system? Aren't the solutions your job? You admit billions are living in hell, but it's up to that girl to fix it?"
Summers chuckled and the conversation moved on.
More than a decade has passed since Larry Summers saw that teenage girl outside the World Bank, and our domestic and global economy has only further deteriorated. We've seen two burst bubbles, two recessions, two major wars (many more minor skirmishes), lower employment, and higher income inequality. Meanwhile, those with power in our financial, political and media worlds simply cheered or sat on the sidelines feigning powerlessness.
Over the last twenty five days across the media -- with several notable exceptions -- we've seen elites point fingers, chuckle and play punch the hippy while covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. Whether it's reporters at CNN mocking protesters while sympathizing with Wall Street traders, Rush Limbaugh referring to protestors as a "parade of human debris," or a conservative reporter acting as an agent provocateur at a protest in Washington, DC, at best many in the media seem desperate not to face the fundamental issues at the heart of the demonstrations, at worst they place blame for our failed economy at the feet of the protestors -- mocking them as unemployed drains on the country.
It also comes as no surprise that Fox, which actively worked to build the Tea Party movement, has attacked these grassroots uprisings as "astroturf," and "petulant little children," and compared protestors to the "Unabomber." The Tea Party and Fox News fight to protect our system's fundamental inequalities while Occupy Wall Street is a fundamental challenge to it.
In 2000, Larry Summers tried to outsource fixing a global economic system he bore responsibility for to a girl in dreadlocks. Elites in the media and our political system are now attempting to foist the same responsibility to those camping in Zuccotti Park.
As the New York Times astutely pointed out: "It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That's the job of the nation's leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies."
If those in the media casting aspersions on the protestors had spent a decade covering the underlying problems with our economy, instead of cheerleading the housing bubble; worked to expose the lies that led our country to war, instead of taking an administration at its word; and not allowed themselves to be manipulated by political and media figures whose goal was simply to distort our political processes, there might not be a need to Occupy Wall Street. Instead the dreadlocked girl is still right -- we need a new system.