After 10 days out of town, I finally made it to Occupy Wall Street on Tuesday and had a chance to see for myself what's going on. My conclusion: almost everything the media told me about the protest is wrong.
Based on my observations, here's what I consider the Top Ten Myths About Occupy Wall Street.
Myth #1. The Movement Is Violent.
One of the most striking images I witnessed at the demonstration was a young black man holding a sign that read "End NYPD Violence!" in front of a group of police officers.
The officers quickly challenged his accusation. But the young man didn't leave. Next, the police turned away and ignored him. But he still didn't leave. Then the officers chuckled and let out an unexpected laugh when they realized the man wasn't going away. The scene was confrontational, but definitely not violent.
In fact, one of the first things I noticed was a sign posted on a wall that embraced "Kingian Nonviolence," the peaceful principles that guided Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Myth #2. It's Just A Bunch Of Pampered Kids.
Although I supported the concept of the Occupy Wall Street movement when I first heard of it, I admit I didn't think the group had much to offer me. From what I could see in the media, they were well-educated, well-intentioned young white people, but they didn't really represent me.
I was wrong.
What I found was a wide-ranging group of people from various backgrounds, young and old, male and female, black, white, Latin, Asian and mixed. It was the essence of New York, the reason why I moved to this city 10 years ago.
Myth #3. There Are No Black People Involved.
I was taken aback by how many black and Latino participants I noticed at the demonstration. I hadn't seen them on the television coverage of the movement, but they were clearly there.
Myth #4. They're Anti-American.
In my experience, I saw a lot of American flags being waved proudly at the demonstration. The protesters may not all think the same things, but many of them were clearly hoping America would live up to its promise as a land of opportunity where the rules are fair and all are welcome.
Myth #5. They're Just Modern-Day Hippies.
To watch some of the media coverage of the movement, you would think the protest was filled with long-haired hippies left over from the 1960s. In fact, from my experience, I saw a few people who might fit this description, but I also saw just about every type of person you could imagine at the demonstration.
There were high school-aged kids with their parents, college students in their school sweatshirts, men in business suits, mothers with baby carriages, people with jobs, people who were unemployed, white-haired retirees, African drummers, rhythmic dancers, and one person who appeared to be wearing pajamas.
Myth #6. They Don't Know What They Want.
I found many different people gathered in Zuccotti Park with many different interests and agendas, but they seem to be unified by one common purpose. They're tired of a system that seems only to cater to the rich and powerful while ignoring the concerns of the vast majority of Americans.
Myth #7. The Labor Unions Are Behind This.
I saw only one labor union table at the demonstration, but most of the people seemed to have no connection to organized labor. Even if they had, there's nothing wrong with that. Labor unions are an important part of our country, and while not perfect, they've helped throughout history to improve working conditions for millions of Americans.
Myth #8. They're Pro-Obama. They're Anti-Obama.
"I don't have facts to back this up," Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said in an interview recently, "but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration." That seems unlikely.
Not long after I arrived I found a Hispanic man in a camouflage jacket complaining about Obama to a small crowd of onlookers. "Obama is not the savior," he cried out. Moments after he finished, a young black man in a sweat jacket stood up to defend Obama to the crowd, acknowledging that the president wasn't perfect but he was doing the best job he could to clean up the mess he had inherited.
Both sides had their points to make and both were respectfully acknowledged.
Myth #9. They're In The Wrong Place.
I love to hear conservatives complaining that the protesters should be in Washington instead of Wall Street, as if the conservatives were really concerned about the most effective way for the demonstrators to make their case.
This location-based argument suggests a limiting "either/or" mentality that you can't be in both places, and also assumes that there's no reason to be on Wall Street at all.
As Herman Cain said recently, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself.
But there's a good reason why Wall Street serves as an ideal venue for the demonstration. Unlike politicians in Washington, who have to answer to voters every few years, corporate executives on Wall Street don't have to answer to the public, even though their actions have a huge impact on all of us. It seems to me, the protesters picked a reasonable venue to launch their movement. In fact, judging by the row of satellite trucks parked outside the protest, I'd say Wall Street was exactly the right place to draw attention to their cause.
Myth #10. They're Taking Over Wall Street.
I've lived in New York City for 10 years, but I'd never been to Zuccotti Park until the Occupy Wall Street protests took place. I assumed the protesters were camped out at a park somewhere at the end of Wall Street, throwing around garbage and creating a mess.
Once again, I was wrong.
First, the group was clean, neat and orderly when I saw them. The park was actually cleaner than any park I've ever seen in New York City. Some demonstrators even walked around with brooms to clean up any mess that might have been left, and signs were posted advising the occupiers to observe a "good neighbor policy."
Finally, as it turns out, Zuccotti Park isn't even on Wall Street. It's a couple blocks away. As you can see from the image below, the only mess on Wall Street came from the police horses standing guard in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
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