10/18/2011 04:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's Not Just About the Economy

"My last occupation was car salesman . . . actually I still am," declares Keith Hamnib, one of the Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York City. In a video interview last week with one of my journalism students, Karina Rajchman, Hamnib described his journey from North Dakota and why he was drawn to a temporary life on the streets and in the parks of Manhattan. He is not of the type dismissed by the media as dreadlocked protest "professionals" who never met a sit-in they didn't love. He is not affiliated with or a disenfranchised union. He's just a young car salesman, on temporary leave from his job, who could melt easily into the crowd at a Rotary Club luncheon.

His haltingly sincere attempts to characterize his motivation didn't make good sound bites. He didn't carry a sign or have a pat chant to offer. But he knew where he wanted to be and why. "I had no one to discuss this with (in North Dakota)."

These growing protests are making some folks angry and leaving others a bit confused. During last Tuesday's debate at Dartmouth, Newt Gingrich, while acknowledging the rights of Americans to protest, took a gratuitous swipe at the majority of the younger protestors, claiming that they were trashing downtown Manhattan. All reports, including multiple eyewitness experiences of my students, portray a peaceful, respectful and surprisingly clean environment. Each of the GOP candidates said the protestors were aiming at the wrong target -- that the evil government was responsible for poverty, corruption and the increasing concentration of wealth in America. Evidently in the conservative narrative of this economic mess, the Bernie Madoffs of the world are just innocent bystanders

Perhaps the most widespread criticism, including from many progressives, is that the protests seem unfocused. Where are the policy proposals? What exactly do these people want? I think these critics are missing the point.

There are certainly a great many things that might be done to mitigate the corporate influence on politics and reverse, or at least slow down, the skewed distribution of wealth and opportunity in America. But these protests represent something different, something of far greater power. It is indeed reminiscent of the late 60's and early 70's, when the illegal war in Vietnam was the catalyst for a social movement, but the collective action was more deeply rooted in searching for a different way to live together.

The yawning economic chasm in America is not the only, or even the primary, thing that divides us. In this fast paced, competitive era, a great many Americans are chasing the illusion of success, fueled by conservatives and libertarians who, while often denying the science of evolution, are ironically Darwinian in their confidence in the natural selection of unfettered free markets. Any allusion to collectivism, regulation, progressive taxation or a broad social contract is angrily dismissed as socialism or naïveté. It is a competitive, dog-eat-dog world these folks seem to think, apparently unaware or unconcerned that in such a world a lot of dogs don't fare very well. In the rather odd case of Tea Partiers living on the precipice of poverty, the narcissism of libertarianism seems to blind them from the reality of the very system that is viciously biting at their own ankles. Strange, that.

On the other side of this chasm is an eclectic and growing coalition of women and men who don't want to live that way. Ranging from Warren Buffet to the homeless, these folks know we are all in this life and on this planet together. They are grasping at and longing for something more than revised tax policy or punishment for financial scam artists. Some have been social activists for decades. Others have drifted for years from the Grateful Dead to WTO protests, finding comfort and solidarity in the company of kindred spirits. Others still are union workers, police officers, teachers or unemployed bankers, who recognize that our society is being torn asunder by greed and power. And yes, there are probably a few who would go most anywhere for a good party.

But the experience they share is the power of genuine human love, expressed in spontaneous moments of song or chanting, hugs from strangers, meals shared, cooked, donated together. For the diverse folks gathered in Lower Manhattan or any of the 200-650 (depending on the source) cities where sister protests are arising, this movement is about finding refuge from the relentless "messaging" of political campaigns, the numbing ubiquity of commercialism and jarring harangues on cable television.

There's no way to know if this nascent "movement" can even change debit card fees, much less the world. But recognizing and embracing our common humanity is not a bad place to start. As the Buffalo Springfield anthem sang to us a generation ago, "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear." "It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down."

Keith Hamnib, the car salesman from North Dakota, can feel it, even if he's not quite sure what "it" is.

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