NEW YORK CITY-With the sun shining in New York City after a rainy October morning, the Occupy Wall Street protesters were enjoying pizza when I arrived on site. At the Occupiers' press booth three men sat hunched over Apple laptops. Tarps, sleeping bags, and sleeping people covered the ground. The air was full of cigarette smoke.
As volunteers in burgundy hoodies wove their way through the campsite collecting trash, I interviewed many protesters who that morning were not making posters or chanting and clapping at the drum circle. They proudly described the protest as leaderless, democratic, and diverse, but some central concerns came out in conversation.
Meet Al Burgo from Long Island, an older man with a grey bandanna around his forehead. Burgo carried a sign reading "The Revolution Generation" and "Debt is Slavery." We talked about debt. I asked him about consumer responsibility, pointing out that debt is often a consequence of consumer choice. He struggled to combine free will and corporate predestination: Yes, consumers are responsible for their choices, but corporations trap and victimize consumers.
Chantel O'Brien, a young journalism major, railed against corporate executives vacationing on federal bailout money while other people live in poverty. O'Brien, like many other protesters, opposes corporate bailouts, but when I asked her if college students should receive loan absolution, she said yes-because they are not rich. Occupiers were acting on what they often had learned in school: A fundamental function of government is redistributing resources to poorer individuals.
Some Occupiers wanted to destroy large American corporations-maybe Apple would be an exception-but Lee Forsythe from Illinois was one of those who said, "I'm not mad at the people who have made a lot of money." Forsythe, pulling a tarp over our heads as rain started to fall, added, "I just don't like the fact that some people made money just by moving money." With a goal many Tea Party participants share, he called for corporate transparency and accountability: How are executives spending their bailout money?
When the drumming and chanting stopped for a moment, I listened to a woman in the middle bringing a message from the local community: drum hours, please, times during the day when drumming would stop. She pleaded for compromise but the lead drummer called it oppression and lifted his stick to resume his beat.
What is oppression? What is compromise? Occupiers so far have failed to suggest a reasonable balance of consumer responsibility, corporate responsibility and federal regulation: They are anti-corporation but enjoying the goods that companies large and small provide. Are the problems protesters sense much deeper than economic duress and funny politics? Are they protesting against a fallen world, but lack a narrative that helps them to reckon with suffering and injustice?
At one point in our conversation, Burgo became angry because someone said if he had a problem, he should just fix it. "You can't just fix it!" he exclaimed. But he just kept looking at me, repeating the phrase, unable to explain why.
Burgo has a hunch. The Occupiers have a hunch. The problem is deep and you can't just fix it. That's why Occupy Wall Street is a protest without demands.