As news and religion editor for UrbanFaith.com, I went looking for diverse voices at Occupy Wall Street, and found the 9/11 memorial a better metaphor for "too big to fail."
What I hadn't seen written about -- until last weekend -- in the many stories about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan is its proximity to the World Trade Center site. The park, which fills a small city block, sits across from the southeast corner of the site, where Four World Trade Center is being resurrected.
Late last month, as I mingled briefly with men and women protesting corporate greed, construction workers labored above us and a bevy of police officers ushered visitors toward the nearby entrance to the new 9/11 memorial.
I had thought I could quickly connect with a few occupiers before my scheduled appointment at the memorial, but discovered that building rapport with OWS sources would take a lot more time than I had.
Things began on a promising note as I approached Marvin Knight, a retiree who lives in Brooklyn. "Herman Cain is Clarence Thomas minus a black robe," Knight's sign said. When I inquired about it, he explained that when he heard Cain express support for Thomas, he knew there was "no difference between them." He also said Cain's 9-9-9 plan "will make the poor pay more money, the rich pay less, and the middle class pay more."
Knight has been protesting corporate greed for the last 10 years, he said, and he hopes OWS "opens up the eyes of the world that capitalism has failed." He'd like to see socialism take its place, he said. He estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the Zuccotti Park protesters are African American and said he thinks their interests are represented. "Everything is covered as far as I'm concerned," said Knight.
Flush with that success, I approached an older man who was sitting on a chair next to a sign for a homeless organization. As I introduced myself, a handsome younger man sat down next to him, so I offered to interview them together. The older man objected to a dual interview and couldn't be dissuaded. He shooed me away.
Next I introduced myself to Derek Brown of the Bronx. I ignored Brown's request for a donation and asked why he was there. "I got occupied in this movement, not actually thinking I was going to be a warrior or soldier for the movement. I came down to check it out. Once I got here, I never left. I've been here for 14 days," said Brown.
He left his job as a messenger to join OWS, he said. "When I leave here, I'm going to have to re-establish my ties with the economic system because I have to subsist."
The scale of justice and economic equality is tipped, Brown said. "We don't want the rich to be poor, we don't want the rich to be middle class, we just want you to concede and understand that you have to spread the bread to a degree where people are not so discontent," he explained. "What we want as a whole is equality. We want room for growth and development and there seems to be no capacity for that right now."
Brown asked me for money again. I declined, saying ethical journalists don't pay for interviews. He implied that I had knowingly deceived him. I said if that was true, I wouldn't have waited until the interview was over to ask if I could take his picture. He let me take it anyway.
With my memorial appointment looming, I approached a young woman who was manning a literature table. She expressed skepticism when I told her I was particularly interested in speaking to people of color at Zuccotti Park, so I said I was actually trying to find a source to dialogue with an African American from the Tea Party movement. She and her fellow protesters expressed derision at the idea.
I caught wind of conversations about putting bags out for collection in a timely manner. Trash bags were piled high, but the site was organized. An emergency community meeting was called with five minutes notice.
A group that was meditating around a collection of crystals and other artifacts seemed oblivious to their surroundings. As a steady "om" filled the air, numerous bystanders and photographers milled about.
Leaving the park, I passed a group of musicians playing bluegrass on the north side walk. The sounds pouring from their instruments spoke of the discipline, nuance and complexity that I struggled to find at OWS.
When I returned after my visit to the memorial, a drum circle was pounding out another beat. I couldn't stay, however, or I would have been late for a screening and discussion of CNN's fourth Black in America documentary "The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," which was hosted by journalist Soledad O'Brien at the Time Warner building in midtown. There a room full of African Americans talked about how they could garner a bigger piece of the tech entrepreneurship pie. (More on that here.)
The dichotomy reminded me of 2001-2002 when I worked at a public television show on Park Avenue and took the subway down to Wall Street to catch the ferry back to New Jersey. I couldn't help but see Zuccotti Park through the lens of that terrible time.
At the 9/11 memorial, I found the vast pools of flowing water that lie in the footprints of the Twin Towers profoundly depressing. From a certain vantage point, the victims' names etched on stone around their perimeter appear on the verge of disappearing forever into the void below.
Somehow that image feels to me like a better metaphor for the folly of "too big to fail" than a protest in the park, even though, or perhaps because, my earliest New York City protest memory is of attending the 200,000 person No Nukes protest concert in Battery Park on the east side of the WTC in 1979.
That park was replaced by an expensive planned community a long time ago and we're still dealing with nuclear disasters. But a 2004 New York Daily News article concluded that No Nukes wasn't "the first, last, biggest or most musically striking" cause concert in rock history, but it may have been the most effective. "In the quarter-century since those shows, no nuclear power plants have been built; indeed, a number have been decommissioned," the Daily News declared.
I wonder what we'll say about OWS in 25 years.
Author's Note: Most of the links in this post are to my OWS photo set on Flickr. To view a slide show of the collection, go here.
This article is republished with permission from UrbanFaith.com.