Experiencing history in New York

My wife and I enjoyed a fine anniversary weekend in New York City. Always interested in the reality of something versus how it’s reported in the media, I wandered down (wife in tow) to observe the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests.

The protesters weren’t at Wall St. Wall St. was partially closed off with steel barriers and a heavy dose of mounted police. The street is small and the buildings so large that they shield out the sun. There was a weird, sterile silence near the NYSE. It was like like being in a canyon. Perhaps it’s a metaphor.

Anyway, the protesters were actually occupying the smallish Zuccotti Park a few short blocks away from Wall St. What was Zuccotti Park like on Saturday? Zuccotti Park was a circus. There were steel barriers. And police. Lots of cops. The protesters looked like mostly college kids along with some more seasoned protesters. I walked through the middle of the park a few times. It didn’t smell at the park. It looked pretty clean overall, but in the middle of it where I wandered there was a lot of tarp and blankets and dirty-looking kids. Some looked like bums. I wouldn’t sleep there, we’ll put it that way. There were people holding signs of varying types in a phalanx next to the sidewalk on 6th Avenue. As the police fought to keep it clear, gawkers filed like sardines down it, snapping pictures, while protesters determinedly held their signs. Many of the signs were anti-war, many anti-Wall Street, some were calling for socialist revolution, and there were a few (not many) libertarian ones sprinkled in. The free market made an appearance in the form of opportunistic food trucks, an ever-present feature of New York street corners. Business seemed brisk.

I think there were more gawkers than protesters. This is life in the age of social media and iphones. Protesters snapping photos of themselves and gladly accepting the embrace of what Muggeridge called “that most ubiquitous of panders,” the camera lens. It struck me while watching all of this that many of these kids were pretty attention-starved. There was a guy doing a one-man play (there just cannot be a worse form of entertainment than the one-man play). There was a young girl in a garish outfit who seemed almost giddy at a gawker snapping her picture. My wife soon entered a store and went shopping while I wandered. She couldn’t take it any more. Her thought process: let’s not encourage them with more attention.

OWS struck me as silly. And shallow.

It makes you wonder a little about “history” itself. Fifty years from now, if the Lord hasn’t returned, perhaps we will look at OWS as a seminal moment for something or other and we will forget that a lot of it was people posing for pictures and satisfying their inner needs. It was people like me there to watch a reality show being filmed. “Are you not entertained?” There was a self-consciousness of “history” being made. We don’t like to think of history in this way, but maybe a lot of it is this way. I guess we can be happy that they didn’t have Droids in the Civil War, or tweets to commemorate the fall of Rome.

Later that day we saw a few hundred protesters marching up toward Times Square with their ever-present police escort. If you haven’t been to Times Square lately– I was at a trade show in NYC back in the mid 90s when it seemed like one big peep show– it’s now a series of huge electronic billboards. The ads light the night. There’s a lot of people, a lot of pricey delis, and a lot of places to shop. It’s touristy. The theaters overflow.

Well, the protesters decided that they were going to march in the middle of this zoo on its busiest night (the quest for attention again). We were in the area. One protester held a sign saying “Keep Shopping.” I don’t know if this was outrage or some type of Madame Defarge threat. Another held a sign saying to never, ever, ever vote for a Republican. The flip side said “Tax Hemp.” I wasn’t sure how to do the math on that one. So anyway, the police shut off part of Times Square for a time, and it turned the zoo into a mega-zoo of people being diverted from their theater or wherever they were going. It reminded me of an MTV-style, reality show re-enactment of that peaceful protest march scene from Dr. Zhivago, except less momentous. Instead of the cavalry leaving some dead bodies, there were some broken windows and arrests.

We didn’t see much of this action at Times Square, but you can’t win ’em all when it comes to experiencing “history.” Maybe someone DVR’d it.

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