Last Friday, I joined my co-workers on a trip to the Occupy Wall Street protest in Manhattan. The plan: film interviews with protesters and hand out Boom and Bust by Alex Pollock—a little free market evangelism, if you will. On the drive up to Manhattan, I wondered how the “occupiers” of Wall Street would receive us. I imagined angry protesters dressed as zombies pegging tomatoes at me after introducing myself as an intern from the American Enterprise Institute. Will they be interested in reading our books or will they burn them at the General Assembly? Though I expected to politically disagree with nearly every single protester, I wasn’t on my way to New York to argue. My generation has witnessed the perpetual failure of abortion-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare conservatives to effectively communicate their values, and I was not willing to follow in their footsteps. I was on my way to New York to hear stories, pass out a few books and find common ground. Walking down Trinity Place, I turned the corner at Liberty Street to find an absolute carnival. There was a homeless man shouting about the war in Afghanistan to my right, three guys jamming out on guitars and bongo drums to my left, a Sarah Palin impersonator running around the crowd, a girl sleeping on a blow-up mattress, one woman wearing a cardboard sign for a shirt and a few protesters sitting Indian-style and meditating in the midst of all the commotion. Sign messages ranged from “Capitalism Breeds Greed” to “Anarchy is Order.” It would be easier to describe who or what wasn’t in Zuccotti Park. After walking around for a bit and chatting with protesters, I quickly realized the crowd had been severely over-generalized by the media. Yes, there were several Michael-Moore-worshiping, capitalist-hating, 20-somethings demanding the government to pay off their student loans and hoping to bring about a socialist revolution, but not all protesters were radical progressives. At the comfort station, I met a 23-year-old named David passing out blankets. He wore red suspenders, John Lennon-style sunglasses and sported a classy handlebar mustache. David spent the last six months as a farmhand traveling across the country before he decided to join Occupy Wall Street as a volunteer. I asked him what he was there to protest and he said, “The existence of the Federal Reserve.” I was surprised and equally pleased by his response. I continued to roam and noticed a man named Tom standing on the side of the road waving a huge flag that read, “Revolution Generation, Debt is Slavery.” I asked him to explain the meaning of his flag and his reply evolved into a 30-minute conversation about Thomas Jefferson, commodity speculation and monetary policy. Did I just have an intelligent conversation with a protester at Occupy Wall Street? I thought they were all supposed to be uneducated anti-capitalists, but Tom was well-informed and very much in favor of free markets. He eagerly accepted Boom and Bust and nearly bowed down at my feet after hearing I was with a group from the American Enterprise Institute. Shouldn’t Tom be at a Tea Party rally? I found that the views expressed on www.occupywallst.org were not representative of all protesters. Even the progressives I spoke with really weren’t that radical, but it seems as if the conservative media has labeled Occupy Wall Street as the Tea Party’s evil twin. Karl Rove recently compared Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party as “left wing nuttiness” to “constitution-loving, law abiding people.” I don’t blame political analysts or the media entirely—a quick skim of the unofficial list of demands is enough to give any liberty-lover grief. However, my experience in Zuccotti Park proved many media claims to be true only on the radical fringe. Jay Bookman, a columnist and blogger at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, argued in a recent post,
“…It’s easy to dismiss ‘Occupy Wall Street’ as the work of the radical fringe, because in some ways it is. But what makes it bigger than that is the fact that the misgivings and distrust it is expressing are felt much more broadly, not just in campus coffee houses but in small-town diners, and not just in liberal chat rooms but in Tea Party meetings as well.”Sure, many occupiers are misguided on policy solutions, but the two grassroots movements share the same concerns. Both hate the fact that the big banks benefited from taxpayer-funded bail outs, share distaste for crony capitalism and recognize the failure of Obama’s stimulus package. The political ideology of the Occupy Wall Street movement is so incredibly diverse it cannot be easily categorized, but their core beliefs are boldly defined. They hate corporate greed. They care for the poor. They love America and want their prospering economy back. A small, white sign on the ground caught my attention. It read, “Don’t Forget About Morality.” To me, this sign represented hope. These so-called “leftist nuts” see the need to bring economic discourse back to values and the human person just as we do at the Values and Capitalism project. As I stood there staring at the sign, I thought about how easy it is to forget about morality in economic policy discussions and wondered why the Tea Party rarely addressed concerns like corporate greed and poverty within the framework of a capitalistic society. Many of the protesters weren’t as nutty as I expected. They accepted us warmly and were open to discussion. Their eagerness to exchange stories and beliefs further emphasized the need to prioritize relationships over talking points in political dialogue. Before we left, a man approached me and pointed to the stack of books in my hand. Protester: “Hey, what are those books for?” Me: “It’s a book on the boom and bust cycle. It explains the cyclical nature of markets. We’re passing them out, do you want one?” Protester: “Yeah! How much does it cost?” Me: “It’s free.” I handed the book to him and he thanked me graciously. I guess the protesters decided not to throw tomatoes at me after all. Instead, they probably taught me much more than I taught them.