When you’re bored, broke and mad at everybody, including Mom, throwing a tantrum is fun. Three-year-olds entertain their mommies with such noisy fits all the time. When regiments of tantrum-throwers get loose on Wall Street, they make the front page.
The Occupy Wall Street movement spilled a little blood Thursday in New York City - nearly all of it the demonstrators’ own, but for an occasional cop’s skinned knee or twisted thumb - “film” at 11. Or long before that, on an Internet blog.
Similar disruptions, some with a little violence and some without, marked the day Thursday across the country. Most of the disruptions were in smaller towns, since we don’t have enough big cities to go around, and consisted of parades struggling to make an impression. You might not need 76 trombones to get a real parade started, but you ought to have at least one and a couple of drums.
Several hundred soldiers of the ragtag Gotham army paraded through Lower Manhattan, provoking 60 arrests when they turned intersections around the New York Stock Exchange into chaos, and 500 demonstrators marched in downtown Los Angeles, and attempted rhyming chants. The most popular one went something like, “Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.” This was only a little better than the chant in Lower Manhattan: “All day, all week, shut down Wall Street.”
The problem bedeviling organizers is how to maintain momentum. The founding outrage must be big, specific and ongoing. A war helps. The ‘60s might have remained a nice little decade but for the war in Vietnam, and the military draft that kept the demonstrations going. Once the draft ended, the “kids” lost interest, but by then taking down institutions too timid, too cowardly and too weak to defend themselves was so much fun that nobody wanted to stop. Almost nobody did until the culture was wounded, maybe mortally.
Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley was ground zero of the original Free Speech Movement - sometimes called the Filthy Speech Movement - where a talented rabble-rouser named Mario Savo was the early inspiration for the cultural mayhem that followed. In an eerie reprise of great moments of the past, riot cops in full combat gear swooped down on Sproul Plaza in the early hours of Thursday to surround 40 campers of the Occupy Cal “movement” and gave them 10 minutes to collect their stuff and go home. All but two of them did. One who didn’t was a 24-year-old actual student, an English major, who confronted the cops with his cat on his shoulder and flashing the peace sign. The young man was stuffed in the paddy wagon, but the cops released the cat on good behavior.
In Little Rock, Ark., an Occupy demonstration has been evicted from its bivouac at Bill Clinton’s presidential library, where they once got a warm welcome, and exiled to a dreary neighborhood of warehouses and vacant lots. The welcome soured, turned into indifference and then impatience to get them gone. Only in big cities where the numbers were big enough to intimidate City Hall has the Occupy movement survived as something of lasting significance.
The outrages that set off the Occupy movement, like the tea party before it, remain. Only Thursday, it was revealed that General Electric, one of the largest corporations in the country, whose senior officers are extra tight with Barack Obama, filed a 57,000-page federal tax return, but didn’t pay a penny on profits of $14 billion (that’s a “b” and not even an “m”). The Weekly Standard, which discovered the electronic filing, estimates that if the return had been on paper, the forms would have made a stack 19 feet high. It’s all very legal, as most such outrages usually are, which is what so infuriates the rest of us.
But now, in growing numbers discovered by the pollsters, the outrage has become the Occupy movement itself. Early support by a majority of Americans has declined to only minority support of the movement as the demonstrations edge closer to violence. Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist from the ‘60s and an old Chicago ally of the president, has conducted teach-ins. Democrats who at first reckoned the Occupiers could ignite enthusiasm for the re-election of Barack Obama now keep their distance, if not yet holding their noses. The tantrums of three-year-olds get old. You could ask any American mom.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.