An American flag flies over the empty Occupy Wall Street Encampment at Zuccotti Park as dawn breaks, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
In late September 2001, I was living in a tent in Lower Manhattan with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve unit just outside the city. We were occupying Battery Park, which at the time served as the National Guard’s headquarters. “Guarding the guard,” we called it.
The two weeks I spent there were profoundly affecting. There I was, at the center of the world, watching America at its finest, showing at once nearly impossible perseverance and limitless compassion. Generosity sprouted everywhere throughout New York City; people gave out food, shoe inserts, massages, coffee, flowers, hugs, kind words and anything you needed. I told someone I liked Red Bull, and hours later he came to my tent, dragging a handcart with eight cases of the stuff. I would slip one under each of the other marines’ pillows while they slept, and when we woke up for guard duty I would say the Red Bull fairy had come.
Exploring the city on my one afternoon off, I stumbled upon the Wall Street Bull. The smooth metal sculpture is stunning, always on the verge of some wild movement—a lunge or a charge, at the least, a bellow with a head toss. Too tarnished to be gold, too big to be a calf, it’s revered nonetheless. I would come fairly close to worshiping it myself years later. But for now, I just had my picture taken on top of it. From where I stood, the whole world seemed to feel empathy. It was one of the only times in my life that I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be.
Another time was when I was living under a bridge along the Euphrates River. A nearly ceaseless convoy rolled overhead. I wasn’t particularly keen on the invasion of Iraq, but if we had to have one, I knew I needed to be there with my fellow marines. A Subaru filled with reporters pulled up and offered us cigarettes to hasten our search of their car. “They’re just outside Baghdad,” they told us. The whole world is watching, I thought.
But the last time I knew without a doubt that I was where I should be was on November 17, standing in the center of Zuccotti Park. We were corralled and outnumbered, with helicopters overhead and riot cops, tourists, media and disdainful bankers looking on. Yet for all the chaos, it felt like the whole world was suddenly awake—not just watching but thinking.
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In the decade between my occupation of Battery Park and Occupy Wall Street, I saw the country descend into fear and apathy. We became so afraid of Osama bin Laden and Muslims that we borrowed a trillion dollars to wage an unneeded war in Iraq (then forgot about it halfway through). I returned from Falluja in 2006 haunted by the sense that our country had made things worse, not better, for Iraqis. Meanwhile, at home, we’d let an invasive domestic intelligence apparatus go silently to work all around us. And as money dominated politics and bipartisanship degenerated into an impotent ruckus, we let our banks more or less start regulating themselves.
It was this last bit that brought me back to Lower Manhattan. After Iraq I’d gone to work at Merrill Lynch, then worked doing corporate security for a firm on Wall Street. I knew enough to be critical of the financial industry. Yet when the first Occupiers converged downtown, I was dismissive. I didn’t have anything in common with those people, I thought. Then I saw a newspaper photo of someone holding a sign that read, Reinstate Glass-Steagall. Thank you, I thought. I’d been saying that since taking my stockbroker’s certification exam in 2007. Nobody had ever listened. I went down to Zuccotti Park.
* * *
Wall Street denizens like to think they contribute more to society than those who earn less because they pay more dollars in taxes. But where do their earnings come from? Of the myriad ways they extract money from the rest of us, not all are underhanded—but none are noble. The industry that vehemently opposes a financial transactions tax charges exorbitant financial transaction fees. Its members cobble together structured products—ordinary investments cloaked in opaque complexity—and market them as new and valuable. They alchemize derivatives (investments on investments) and use supercomputers to run algorithms that give their proprietary trading desks an incremental advantage, compounded many times a second, over smaller investors (including their own clients). They collect large fees for taking concentrated risk, chopping it up and hiding the pieces in many different places, creating the illusion that it has disappeared (this is how toxic mortgage-based assets ended up in pension funds). They charge municipalities hefty fees to borrow money every time they need a new sewer, school or firehouse.
Of course, as those on Wall Street like to point out, in a hostage-taking fashion, they also keep financial markets running smoothly—a feat that could probably be accomplished by a few months’ worth of open-source software and a room full of servers. And then, of course, they give advice, which I like to say is fairly useful, because it’s what I did.
As a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch, I was proud to enter the elite realm of wealth management. We didn’t invent, produce or grow anything, but we helped people preserve and perpetuate their wealth. Oh, what a club.
In training, I was taught how to spot wealthy in a crowd, how to approach family and friends about their financial planning. I would listen to heroes of the business tell how they made it. They would boast that they didn’t take one day off the first four years, that they worked every weekend, never saw their families and made 500 cold calls a day. It inspired and motivated me. They became rich fast—what could be more American than that? I wanted the suits, the watches, the cars. I wanted to start collecting digits on my gross income, like someone might collect stamps or Hummel figurines.
I had a glass globe that would glow green when the Dow was up and red when it was down. It was also a good indicator of my mood, for a while. In the office we talked about golf or our pet charity or pet dog to show that there was substance to us, but really what we thought about most of the time was money.
Unlike in the military, there’s no loyalty in finance. People left the firm suddenly if they were offered a better deal and thought their clients were loyal enough to stay with them. In emergency meetings, those clients’ names were divided up, and we scrambled to persuade them to stay. When I got laid off, two years after I started, my box was already packed under my desk. (You are expected to leave the building immediately.) I had no plans to take files. I had no plans to work in finance again.
* * *
Between work and school I didn’t have much time for Occupy, but when I could I marched, and when something was on my mind I made a sign. I was late to the protest on November 17, a “day of action,” arriving shortly after the opening bell. I was immediately underwhelmed. A few signs were held aloft and what looked like thousands of police officers milled about smartly; I squinted to make sure the ones in the distance weren’t just blue streaks painted on backdrops like the buffalo herds in old westerns. Toward Wall Street a line of people waited to get past some barriers, where police were checking people’s identification. I ducked into the subway, whose network of tunnels was familiar from my corporate security days, and emerged inside what I’d dubbed the Green Zone. (The Green Zone in Baghdad is a large, heavily secured area, too.)
At the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway were two young women holding signs above their heads, mostly topless, totally harmless, obstructing neither sidewalk nor street. Yet they were forcibly removed by a swarm of police officers. A melee broke out; people shoved and hollered, the media tried to get pictures, passers-by were caught in the middle, protesters ended up cuffed on the ground and a policeman had an unknown substance thrown at his face. No one asked why the women should be denied the right to free speech.
Further down the street, a line of cops fidgeted in riot gear. They looked uncomfortable, tugging at straps and twisting about. I knew how they felt. I was trained in nonlethal riot control. It’s dreadful. Hours of choreography, getting the steps right—you have to move as one to keep gaps from opening. I learned to throw stun grenades, how to restrain and zip-tie troublemakers. I practiced using fire extinguisher–sized canisters of pepper spray—and was pepper-sprayed myself. (It’s important to appreciate the effects of such weapons, lest one be tempted to deploy them casually. I ran a good way through an obstacle course thinking pepper spray isn’t so bad, then pow!: a dozen elves were ripping the freckles off my face with belt sanders.)
I remembered trying to control a mob in Nasiriya, Iraq. After the invasion, the United States had foolishly dismantled the Iraqi army, promising to pay soldiers a severance if they brought their papers to designated locations. For days, hundreds of former military lined up at the local bank, waited all day and eventually left, with just a dozen or so people getting paid. A rumor spread that the bankers were keeping the money for themselves, and the crowd surged forth to take their payments. I might have done the same.
But when you’re part of a unit sent to “restore order,” whether you’re facing former soldiers throwing bricks or university students publicly expressing an opinion, you go in with one mentality: crush the other side. At no point are you considering whether you are on the right side. Empathy has no place. If your boss ordered you to clear pregnant diabetic women from outside the grand opening of a new InsulinMart, for reasons that are hard to explain, you go in angry. That’s why putting people in riot gear where there is no riot is reckless and provocative.
Of course, if my goal was to crush free speech, I might use a little misdirection too. As in any war, I would dehumanize the enemy: make sure the protesters aren’t perceived as ordinary people with legitimate concerns but rather as hippies and anarchists who force police to work overtime on the taxpayer dime. Then I would send far more police than necessary, pre-emptively ordering some troops into riot gear, to stir tension and make escalation inevitable. The singular focus thus becomes the “clashes”: police and protesters absorb one another’s frustrations, and I’ve successfully contained the problem by pitting the 99 percent against itself, while eclipsing the issues that led to the protests in the first place.
Leaving behind the tackled women and the giddy police, I headed down Broadway, passing the bull, which was now in a pickle similar to the one confronting folks up at Zuccotti Park: penned in with those ubiquitous cattle barriers. Around the bull was a ring of police; they seemed to have the situation contained. I caught a glimpse of Battery Park.
How did I get here? Ten years ago I was standing in military fatigues checking IDs, and now I was walking around with a legion of malcontents carrying signs with messages like Police—I Forgive You. I had gone down to Zuccotti to call for Wall Street to be reformed and held accountable, but the more I listened to protesters discussing other issues, the more my skepticism gave way to an impulse to go home and do my own research. I realized that much of what they said was true. Corporations are legally people? Does anybody know about this? I thought naïvely. We imprison people at twelve times the rate of Japan? And none of the people who defrauded the country and caused this crisis are in prison? Why isn’t anybody saying anything?
Everyone in the Occupy movement has a different set of grievances. I personally believe that we must spend less on offensive wars and more on education—I’m going back to school on the GI Bill, and its value is immeasurable.
But more fundamentally, if Occupy has taught me anything it is that we must live up to our own values. There is nothing you could write on a sign that could offend me more than seeing police take away someone’s right to free speech. What we do as soldiers is meaningless if our government takes away those freedoms while we are sent to supposedly defend them. Americans applaud protest throughout the world as a legitimate way for people to express their thirst for democracy. Is it really possible that everyone has a point except those who protest here?
Derek McGee: Derek McGee served two tours in Iraq. He is the author of When I Wished I Was Here: Dispatches From Fallujah (The…