I spend so much time online that the majority of my friendships are virtual, particularly friendships with other poets. We’ve taken to the quiet and ease of the electronic ether like the strange birds we’re often accused of being. And I like it that way. But over the last few weeks, as I read about the protests on Wall Street which have spread throughout the country, I’ve wanted to see for myself what these “occupations” were all about. Ignored at first by the mainstream media, the first coverage I’d read in the New York Times was so dismissive that my interest was piqued. I’m old enough to remember precisely the same turn from dismissive to disdainful to curious on the part of the media forty years ago. Those demonstrations were about civil rights and the Viet Nam war. I had begun to think that the days of American protest in the streets were over. After all, our economy had surged for decades toward the end of the twentieth century, bringing a cultural evolution that seemed to embrace many American ideals. I was wrong.
Last Friday, I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with two writers whose work I’ve long admired-- writers who were older and more conscious than I during that period: Alfred Corn and Doug Anderson. Both these men have written extensively about those earlier protests. Corn was a student at Columbia University and his book-length poem, Notes From a Child of Paradise, excerpted here, is among other things, an account of his participation in those movements. Anderson served as a medic during the Viet Nam war, which is the subject of his memoir, Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, The Sixties, And a Journey of Self-Discovery.
We spent a couple of hours in Burnside Park, where about fifty tents were set up in small encampments around a bronze statue of General Burnside, who was draped with a red banner which read Amor, Solidaridad, Libertad. The park is bordered by the Providence town hall, a federal building, and numerous office buildings, including the Bank of America. It was lunchtime and the outdoor kitchen served plates of green salad, bread, boiled potatoes and fruit salad to a steadily-moving line of people of various races and ages. I had the impression that Occupy Providence was serving not only the protestors who had committed themselves for the long term, but the unemployed, the homeless, and anyone who entered the park. We met a few people. Bill, one of the organizers, told us he’d been laid off from his job as an ironworker. Another man told us he was a naval architect whose work had dwindled significantly over the last few years. There were toothless elderly, young adults and a few children as well.
I felt overwhelmed at times that afternoon. It was moving to see how this group of citizens had established a well-functioning nonviolent protest. It was heartbreaking to see these protests in my country. Last Friday I lost the last bit of my sense of feeling protected, and yes, exceptional, as an American.
I asked Doug and Alfred (who has also spent time at the Occupy Wall Street protests) to write a bit about their impressions.
Alfred Corn: Occupy Providence (OP) was different from Occupy Wall Street (OWS), first, in that I saw many more tents in Burnside Park than were in Zuccotti Park. But, paradoxically, fewer people. The day we were there it was very quiet. No one was holding up signs or chanting. I heard only one drum played briefly and not very loud, whereas drums were uninterrupted at OWS. Burnside Park seemed very well organized, with even a sign-up for "Garden Detail." Food service was efficient and clean. The first-aid table seemed ready to help any person with minor injuries. There were fewer onlookers at Burnside, which was more a world unto itself. Sixties demos didn't provide as much for participants as OWS does. But then the duration of the event is now longer.
If I compare OWS to demonstrations of the Sixties, I would say there is less anger expressed now than then, more determination to make a peaceful statement. No one uses the word "revolution" now. The percentage of older participants is greater now than then. In fact, some of the older participants are former activists from the earlier decade. The focus of discussion in the Sixties was war and imperialism. OWS and its fellow demonstrations are focused on the financial plight of the "99%." The Sixties also had a cultural message, involving alternative ways of forming communities, a bias in favor of mind-altering substances, a different aesthetic proposed for music, visual art, and poetry, indeed, unconventional, perhaps "tribal" ideas about clothing and personal ornament. But OWS isn't much concerned with culture.
Demonstrations in the Sixties had a limited time frame: a given day for a limited number of hours. OWS is a sort of "live-in" for an unspecified duration. It reminds me of the "Hoovervilles" of the 1930s, semi-permanent housing thrown up by those made homeless by the Great Depression. Because there are no leaders as such, it seems provisional, ad hoc, fluid, and hard to define. Definition will probably come, and there is already a lot of education, via discussion and distribution of flyers, etc. I don't believe most Americans were aware, before OWS, that 1% of the population holds 40% of the wealth. But now they can't fail to know it. Knowing it, they may take steps to change this ratio. I hope they will.
Doug Anderson: Going to Occupy Providence filled me with hope. Watching the networks give their homogenized versions left me feeling lonely until I got to Burnside Park. There is nothing more powerful than bodies in the street working for change. There were all kinds of people: those my age who remember the 60's, middle class professionals, and very smart young people full of solutions for everything from alternative energy sources to reforming the electoral process. There were disabled people with signs pertinent to their fate if their various disability funds were cut. There were children and the very old. I felt like I'd come home after a long exile.
I left Providence late that fall afternoon feeling grateful to have taken it in with two writer friends. I don’t yet know how, or even if, what I saw that day will find a way into my poems. I’m not sure Alfred or Doug knows either. But it was important for each of us to be there—as writers, as citizens, as witnesses.