Like many other families this past Sukkos, my husband and I took the kids to the park over Chol Hamoed. But we left our mitts and bats in the car when we arrived. This was a trip to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.
We were curious to see the much publicized protestors of Occupy Wall Street, and I wanted our kids to get a taste of “history” in the making. And, rest assured, this is a piece of history my kids will remember.
The first thing that greeted us as we parked our car several blocks away and got closer to the police barricades surrounding the park was the odor. It was a terrible stench that crept up on us and, both physically and figuratively, never left us until we moved out of the Wall Street area the protesters now claim as their own.
I repeatedly warned my kids not to touch anything as we navigated our way through clusters of sprawling protesters on grounds littered with empty food plates, grimy tarps propped up by poles to cover sleeping bags, and a distinctly strong smell of marijuana. It was dark when we arrived at the park and a large group of protesters were loudly and almost absurdly communicating via their “mic-check” system.
These Occupy Wall Street protesters were predominantly young and white. Most of them looked like college students from universities like the New School or residents of the Village. They did not exactly impress me as being “disenfranchised.” Indeed, the only truly poor people I was able to make out were a couple of homeless men eating donated food from a makeshift open kitchen, surely blessing their luck and hoping the supply won’t run out anytime soon.
I stopped some protesters and asked them what they hoped to achieve. I was dumbfounded. Apparently the caricature of brain-dead college kids hanging out in the park is not an exaggeration. The first several protesters gave answers in an inane and almost adolescent tone: “We want a better world.” “We want equality.” “We’re here for a better planet.”
Though we finally did strike up a conversation with one hardcore opponent of the capitalist order – a young psychology teacher with no real working knowledge of finance – most of the protesters simply struck me as Woodstock wannabes.
I was relieved when we left the park. Relieved to end a conversation with one of the protesters, a teacher who told us how proud he was to be part of “the 99%” – the protesters’ phrase for the percentage of Americans supposedly united against the one percent of our country’s top earners. It wasn’t “fair,” he claimed, for so few people to have so much wealth – never mind that many of them worked hard to earn it – and it was only “fair” to demand the government tax them further to ensure that everyone shares in that wealth.
What a difference from the last protest I took my daughter to – a Tea Party rally in midtown Manhattan. Besides the common bond of a shared philosophical affinity, there’s something comforting in taking your child to a gathering where you see a patriotic man dressed up as a founding father rather than a man holding a sign proclaiming “Queers love the 99%.”
The Tea Party rally was a G-rated event to which you could bring the whole family. It promoted family values over vulgarity, work ethics over entitlements, and independence rather than dependence for 100 percent of Americans.
As an Orthodox Jew I not only felt welcome but validated. Tea Party goers waved Israeli flags along with American ones, while Occupy Wall Street protests are laced with signs that read “Hitler’s Bankers,” “Gaza Supports the Occupation of Wall Street.” and “Congress Should Print the Money, Not the Zionist Jews.”
The difference between Occupy Wall Street protesters and Tea Party rally-goers is greater than just one group wanting more government intervention and one wanting less. It’s more than a difference between one group contesting American capitalism and one wanting to restore that capitalism to its earlier glory. It is an intrinsic conflict between two peoples and two social ideologies, between protesters with no real message who want to continue on the downward moral spiral that began in the 1960s and rally-goers yearning for the bygone era of “Leave it to Beaver.”
One cannot separate fiscal and moral values. They are intrinsically intertwined. Work ethics and work go hand in hand. Internalized values that restrict misbehavior and encourage good behavior cut across the spectrum of our daily lives. And caps set in place to govern social conduct and prevent misconduct are similar to caps erected to govern monetary behavior and prevent financial liability. Those bent on an agenda of accepting monetary entitlements and forcing others to grant them look for entitlements in other areas of life as well.
I didn’t just sense the difference between the rally at Zuccotti Park and the Tea Party. I felt it. And I resent the Wall Street protesters co-opting percentages of fellow citizens in their quest to collapse our existing capitalist and social structure. No – alas – I am not one of the “millionaires and billionaires.” But don’t lump me together with the anarchists in “the 99%.”
Sara Lehmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn.