Bill O'Reilly called the Occupy Wall Street protesters "a bunch of crackhead drug dealers." Glenn Beck chimed in saying that protesters were "animals" lured by drugs. I wonder how they reached their conclusions.
Last weekend I made my way through the broad swath of protesters in Zuccotti Park and randomly chose fifteen people to interview (my interviews are ongoing) and briefer discussions with scores of others. The crowd appeared to be mostly in their thirties, but there was a good representation of forty and fifty-somethings, lots of gray hairs -- and more than a few people who might have been "Woodstock" veterans. Yes, I saw some pot-smokers and a few bizarre outfits, but the crowd appeared to be overwhelmingly peaceful and serious about their purpose. Wherever I pushed my way through the throngs I encountered twosomes, small groups and large circles of people in lively conversation and debate about politics, economics and sociology. It gave the appearance of an academic teach-in. Make no mistake about it. This is no street fair or drug fest. This is "America needs a fix," not "I need a fix."
I talked to a guy who looked like an aging hippie but turned out to have a respectable day job. Why was he here? I asked. "I get by," he told me "but I'm worried about the other Americans. I'm here to show my support for people who have lost their jobs, their homes, everything because of the corruption and greeed -- and the gap between rich and poor." I got a similar message from a neatly dressed teacher with three daughters, the oldest a freshman in college. "I'm doing OK now," she said, "but I'm painfully aware of the situation of the folks here" She waved her arm to indicate the throngs milling around us.
A casually but neatly dressed 21-year-old man said he recently lost his job at a cell phone store but was confident that he would find another position. He, too, expressed primary concern with what he perceived as the political and economic decline of the country and the lowering of our image in the eyes of the world. "And why are we wasting so much money on stupid wars," he asked. Another well-dressed young woman, who I thought looked like a casual tourist, turned out to be a local psychiatrist. Like others, she said she was fortunate and was doing all right but noted that her practice had fallen off significantly due to the recession. She, like virtually everyone I spoke to, expressed concern for others and the economic and overall future of America.
At one point I spotted a crowd snapping photos and getting autographs from an imposing, conservatively-dressed African-American man. His elegant manner led me to guess that he was a well known academic writer or politician. Getting closer I realized it was famed rap mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons. When the star-gazing ended I moved in and asked why he was there.
Surely, he wasn't at the protest because he was out of work or in personal financial distress. And I doubted that he had any personal beef against Wall Street. Why then? First he told me that he attended the protest every day. He said that he was distressed that the corporations controlled the government, and together they were responsible for all the suffering that was expressed on the signs and posters that people were carrying. He wanted to lend his support to help bring change, and even suggested a constitutional amendment to limit the power of corporations.
What struck me most in the time I spent interviewing and observing in the park was the protestors' sincere dedication to the well being of America and the soul of our country. They mourned the decline of our nation on many fronts. When I asked "Why are you here?" virtually nobody led with personal demands. They promptly cited broader issues: the plight of the poor, the failures of the education system, the lack of healthcare for everyone, the wastefulness of wars. To my surprise, jobs took a backseat to these issues.
These interviews dramatically conveyed how out of touch Wall Street and much of the media are with Main Street and the heart of America.
Let me set the record straight on drugs, because the right wing media's descriptions of Occupy Wall Street are both distortions and distractions, drawing attention away from the desperately real and pressing challenges that all Americans face today.
As for "crackhead drug users and dealers," if Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and other commentators who have demonized OWS by characterizing it as a drug fest are genuinely troubled about drug use they should round up a posse of their compatriots and join the police in a raid on Wall Street firms. It's been well known for decades that the Wall Street folks are among the biggest users and abusers of illegal substances and prescription drugs. And there are solid facts and sources to confirm this.
The New York Times, quoting an article by Bill Granahan in the business publication Investment Dealer's Digest, reported that "abuse of cocaine, prescription drugs and alcohol remains widespread on the Street" (Wall Street).
After a drug sting operation on Wall Street two federal agents once said that, "cocaine was either used or accepted by 90 percent of the people they met in the financial community."
Although rampant drug use has largely been associated with Wall Street of the 1980s, the death in 1994 of Wardell Lazard, the head of his own Wall Street Investment company, from an overdose of alcohol and a "cocaine-like" substance prompted Robert Strang, a Wall Street undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration to declare: "the problem is as bad, if not worse, than 10 years ago."
And substance abuse is so widespread that one Wall Streeter has offered a protocol for beating the drug testing that some Wall Street firms have adopted.
Here's another twist. The financial community is finding it profitable to deal with drug dealers. Apparently, bankers will do business with anyone they can squeeze big bucks (or euros) out of. An article in the online business tabloid Dealbreaker says that the European Central Bank is knowingly selling highly profitable high denomination euro notes to "gangsters, drug dealers and money launderers." In a recent research report, Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, said that the high value euro bills are increasingly "making the euro the currency of choice for underground and black economies, and for all those who value anonymity in their financial transactions and investments."
O'Reilly and Beck might be relieved to learn that the current recession has severely impacted Wall Street's drug use. The Wall Street Journal reported this past year that in a cost-saving strategy, Wall Street professionals have switched from cocaine to marijuana as the substance of choice.
So if the bashers, in their desperate quest to discredit the OWS protest, find a pot smoker here or there in Zuccotti Park, it's small change compared to the drug scene on the Main Street of Wall Street.
But let's have some sympathy for the bashers. It's tough to be "holier than thou" when you live in the glass house of journalism where your hypocrisy is in full view.
Follow Bernard Starr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/starrprobe