NEW YORK—Drums are the secret to understanding Occupy Wall Street, both what it is and what it could grow into. Bongos, congas, snares, and toms greet you at either entrance to Zuccotti Park, home to the tarp city of protesters that sprang up last month in Lower Manhattan. The drums slap, boom, and rat-a-tat from the morning deep into the night. They draw tourists in from Broadway and up from Ground Zero; they join guitars and accordions for spontaneous concerts; they drown out earnest young women shouting their opposition to free-trade agreements. When the crowd in the park gathers in the murky urban darkness for a day-ending exercise in direct democracy, the drums beat on, ricocheting off the high-rises like some unseen, descending attack helicopter.
It’s easy to think that the drums symbolize everything wrong with a group that stubbornly refuses to spell out what it stands for. It’s hard to hear anyone talking with all that drumming going on—just like it’s hard for Washington to hear demands left un-enumerated. But spend some time in Zuccotti, listening, and it becomes hard to escape the opposite conclusion.
The drums—the constant, self-announcing thump—are the point.
Occupy Wall Street is a movement rooted in the idea that the act of crying out, together, is more important than the grievances of the criers. If you made a Venn diagram of everyone’s concerns in the park, the shared middle area would include income inequality, mounting debt levels for students and families, and, most of all, the lack of opportunity to find good jobs. In the outer circles, you would find a wide range of beliefs that are sometimes at odds with one another, including some calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and capitalism itself. They’re mad at Wall Street but also at President Obama, at Congress, at globalization, at war, at “corporate greed” in general and at the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in particular.
But the crucial unifier isn’t a specific concern or demand. It’s a shared belief that the American political system has stopped hearing their concerns, because Big Money and corporate lobbying have drowned them out.
That’s why the protesters have set up a marginally self-sufficient society in Zuccotti Park with the trappings of homegrown democracy. They are giving themselves the voice that they believe Washington has taken away from them. And their presence in the park serves as a sort of breeding ground for people to come in, listen to others vent their frustrations, scribble a slogan on a cardboard sign, feel the joy of having their voice heard, and then export the spirit of the movement, across New York City and the country.
“The power of this is because it’s face-to-face,” says Bill Dobbs, one of the group’s unofficial media spokesmen in the park. The protests, he adds, “have allowed people to think, to start a discussion of class in this country.… This is not about politics or elected officials.” It’s about the “99 percent” of Americans who feel left behind and shouted down by the nation’s wealthiest.
The daily routine in Zuccotti is surprisingly upbeat, like a street fair where everything’s free (except the bathrooms, which don’t exist). The permanent class of protesters—a predominantly young, liberal, body-piercing-heavy group—nap on bedrolls or under tarps. They read political philosophy books borrowed from the camp library. They hand out blankets, staff information tables, ladle food for all comers. Some stand on the Broadway sidewalk waving signs and dancing. Others lounge and smoke cigarettes or weed.
If the vibes from the camp offer any guide, lawmakers shouldn’t expect these protesters to change federal politics in the same way the tea party has. There’s no sign that the Occupy movement is going to start sponsoring candidates, raise PAC money, or even release a set of principles for candidates to endorse and rally around. The protesters don’t believe in that system. They’re disenchanted with both parties, but especially with Obama, whom they blame for not delivering on his promise to change how Washington works. If you took a presidential straw poll in the park, Ron Paul might win.
It’s anybody’s guess how the protests will look next month or next year. But those who dismiss them as nothing more than quick-fizzling fireworks ought to remember their history. The most powerful message emanating from Zuccotti may be that the Washington power structure is irrelevant. That undercuts both parties, but it could pose a particular challenge to Obama and other Democrats. Think back to 1968 and the Democratic Convention in Chicago, when young antiwar protesters turned the place upside down, spurred a violent police crackdown, divided the Democrats, and fatally wounded Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign—which he lost to Republican Richard Nixon.
So far, this movement appears very different from the Vietnam protests. It isn’t united by an issue as personal as the military draft of ’68, and it has shown little thirst for violent confrontation. But the echo that carries through from the ’60s is the escalating call for Washington to heed the will of an outraged citizenry.
A drumbeat, you might say.
This article appears in the October 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.