New York has changed since I left. Two things are different. First: white people feel completely comfortable walking around in Harlem at all times of the day and night. So much so that they carry golf club bags outside the 110th street train station at seven o’clock at night, run down Adam Clayton Powell in short shorts and trainers at six in the morning, skateboard past the projects at four, have boozy brunches in outdoor cafes on the sidewalks at eleven. Any combination of two of these things could get a white person beat up around here when I was coming up.
So that’s strange enough. But stranger still is fact number two: the city seems to be on fire. We’re in the grips of some sort of class revolt or revolution or war; New York is not Berkeley and we don’t usually get out of bed for that sort of thing. But I got back a little before the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement and here was my apathetic New York, at the epicenter of the biggest social movement in this country since, well, in a long time. I’m sure these two facts, the gentrifying of Harlem and the occupying of Wall Street, are intimately related. What I’m not so sure about is where I fit in between them.
Nearly as soon as I got off the plane ride from Dakar to NYC and got the data plan back up and running on my iPhone, I became addicted to this blog called White Whine. It is in the FML format, short overheard snippets in near-Twitter length about problems that are not really problems. Like, “I hate it when room service uses the same knife to cut the meat as the fruit and the fruit tastes all meaty.” And, “Why can’t Mercedes make a cup holder that is big enough for a Starbuck’s Venti?” Or, “Why can’t you just graduate from college and automatically have a job? I hate all this interviewing with multiple companies bullshit.” Ah, first world problems. The best new meme since Feminist Ryan Gosling.
I was hooked on it because it let me feel righteous. That would never be me! I learned and grown on my trip to some of the world’s poorest countries! I was happy to be able to drink water straight from the tap. I was happy to not have to step around horse and cow shit in the road. I was happy to ride in buses not packed as full as slaves ships and that looked like they had been serviced some time this century. I was happy to be breathing relatively clean air and eating relatively clean green vegetables. In sum, I was happy to no longer be dealing, however indirectly, with third world problems. I would never again be a member of the douche-eoise.
But after just a few weeks, something strange started happening to me. I was maybe enjoying my neighborhood too much. I was sweating it out in hot yoga, then walking the dog in a well-manicured park or two, then maybe running down to the local organic grocery store for some free range eggs. I was getting some work done in the local indie coffeeshop, then maybe picking up meat from the organic free range butcher for dinner, then maybe treating myself to a $3 chocolate chip cookie at the artisanal bakery. You know I worked hard that day. So I deserved it.
I deserved it, and in fact I was a little stressed even. Maybe even a little pissed off at times. Why was it taking so long for them to finish my pedicure? Why didn’t they post the calorie count in these cookies? Why weren’t there any more of the larger towels left at the yoga studio? And what was with these long ass lines in the middle of the day at Whole Foods?
Uh Oh. I was having first world problems again, even with all these yuppie delights at my fingertips that I would have killed for while sleeping in a hot dirty budget hotel in Dakar. It was the neighborhood that had done it to me. Lulled me into a Princess and the Pea style comfort coma where any little ripple in my featherbed existence was throwing my back out. And what neighborhood was I in, you might ask, that so competently supplied the comfortable targets of my burgeoning and misplaced douche-eoisie rage? Fort Greene with its charming brownstones and less charming hipsters? TriBeCa, with its soaring lofts and great Hudson River views? Chelsea with its well dressed Power Gays living the DINK dream and walking the Highline?
No, none of those. I am in Harlem. My home town of Harlem. In fact I’m on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which used to be lined with burnt out tenements and a crack house or two, and I’m not six blocks across town from where my India-dirty backpack and the rest of my stuff chills out in my parents’ apartment in the projects. The douche-eoisie was most of what was running around Harlem now, but I was right there running amongst them.
Yeesh. I did the only thing one can do when faced with an unexpected plot twist in the existential crisis that is otherwise known as adult life: I went down to the local wine bar for a drink and to practice my French. My bar mates that night were from Morocco, Belgium, Mali, Senegal, Algeria. I had been to some of their homelands so naturally they didn’t want to talk about any of that with me; they wanted to talk about The State of America. The topic quickly turned to the events happening down at Zuccotti Park. What did they think? I asked. Did it deserve its comparison to the Arab Spring? No, my Algerian bar mate quickly replied. Not in the slightest.
While I’m contemplating a response a Guy Fawkes masks pops up unbidden in to my consciousness. I can’t see the face of my barmates any more, only the mask. Soon it’s everywhere. Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. I might be a little drunk. I also might be, secretively & peevishly, obsessed with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, OWS started after a call from Adbusters to occupy the place where bankers and their interests had successfully cleaned out the pockets of American tax payers in 2009, and where they were now having a record profit year. It was a flash mob that had turned into a full time encampment that had turned into a movement, right down in the belly of the beast. At first the main stream media had nothing kind to say about the leaderless, spontaneous pack of ironic sign toting, drum circle having, college educated white Rastas doing their open democracy thing on Wall Street. But then it spread to more and more cities, got bigger and bigger, and people started to take it seriously. I watched this all amazed, from my laptop and while sipping my latte up at the Starbuck’s on 118th Street. A year later and back in NYC, uptown was yuppified, and downtown was radicalized. Didn’t I now have much more in common with those folks downtown than I did with my Harlem peeps? After all, I grew up poor in the projects and struggled up through the system myself. What was I doing chilling uptown in SoHa (ahem, South Harlem) instead of hanging downtown with the revolution?
After a month of lurking I finally went down to check it out, specifically the march in Times Square. I was immediately impressed by the sheer scale. There must have been ten thousand people there in a two block radius. It was so packed it was like New Year’s Eve. There were signs up for every liberal cause you can imagine. Women’s rights. The environment. Anti-Fracking. Unions. Immigrant rights. Overhead conversations were equal parts hilarious and poignant. A Berkeley educated economics professor was trying to explain to a young anarchist student why the study of economics in and of itself wasn’t tantamount to a vote for the current system. Salty old movement veterans trying to convert people over to the communist party. A few anti-federal reserve people who would have made Ron Paul proud. One girl teasing her friends who had just come off an NBC union picket line that they were nothing but professional chanters. Salty tourists damning the lot of them, just trying to get through to the subway station. And there were hundreds of camera phones up in the air filming it all.
Chants rang out from the crowd. “This is a peaceful protest.” “They got bailed out, we got sold out.” “This is what democracy looks like.” I couldn’t help but feel the thrill up my leg. When had liberals ever come together so spontaneously and in such masses and with such energy in my lifetime to demand a fairer society? This was the Big Tent; something the Democratic party had only tenuously achieved under Obama and that liberals were famous for failing at for the last eighty years or so. But here it was, the Big Tent; live, vibrant, working.
I stumbled upon a kind of a stage and heard someone on it yell out “Mic Check!” The crowd yelled back “Mic Check!” The young woman on stage went on to describe her plight. Line by line she shouted it out and the crowd amplified it back, like a wave it echoed throughout the masses. She’d come out of college. (She’d come out of college! the crowd roared back.) With fifty thousand in loans. (With fifty thousand in loans!) She could barely find a job. The job she finally got. After taxes paid two thousand a month. Her rent. Was fifteen hundred a month. Her credit card payment. Was two hundred a month. Her other expenses. Were three hundred a month. Her student loan payment. Was five hundred a month. She could barely make. (She could barely make!) Ends meet.
Then she had a health issue. And was stuck paying back the hospital. Five hundred a month. She missed her student loan payments. The student loan company would not negotiate. She went to the hospital. The hospital would not negotiate. She ended up in default on her student loan. She tried to declare bankruptcy. But you can’t charge off student loan debt in a bankruptcy. Now she had lost her job. What was she supposed to do? Meanwhile the Wall Street banks. Got a nearly interest free loan. Of Trillions of dollars. They got to charge off. Trillions of dollars. She couldn’t charge off. Fifty thousand dollars. They got to do it because they were. Too big to fail. But the rest of us. I guess we’re small enough to fail. But now that we’re all out here maybe the government will finally see. That indeed you and I are too big to fail. This movement is too big to fail. Occupy Wall Street is too big to fail! The people are too big to fail!
The crowd was whipped up into a frenzy and I was too. I couldn’t help but sympathize. That had been much my situation coming out of college as well. One major health crisis and I woulda been toast. But wait a minute. High debt, hard to find a good paying job, difficult to afford education and health care, no access to credit, can’t win for loosing – didn’t that just describe the African American situation in this country since, well, forever? It was like white college educated kids woke up black in 2009, as if in some sort of bad fish-out-of-water formula comedy. They were now experiencing life how black people had always experienced it, i.e. with a sneaking suspicion that the game was rigged against them. And they were angry. But why hadn’t they been this angry before 2009? This was starting to feel a little like that white whine meme. I could feel my sympathy sort of dying in my chest. Welcome to the club, kids. We have our meetings on Tuesdays.
I felt like Goldie Locks. Harlem was too cold. But Zuccotti was too hot. So where could I hang out and feel just right? I tried a third neighborhood – the Upper West Side. Move On was getting behind Occupy Wall Street hard and I had always respected their work, so I went to a Move On event organized in the living room of a nice middle aged Jewish lady with a half-black daughter. It was a flash-mob style late breaking book signing event for Michael Moore’s new autobiography. Already feeling like I was back in my element.
Michael Moore didn’t want to talk about his book, though. He only wanted to talk about OWS. He was on a rant. OWS works, he said, because young people know how to be kind to each other and use technology to facilitate participatory, decentralized democracy. And it’s catching on everywhere. A conservative town in Michigan with only an eleven hundred thousand population had fully one per cent of the town show up for their Occupy. A recent poll showed fifty nine of Americans agree with the core message of the OWS movement. The women’s movement, civil rights, gay rights, Suffragettes had to fight for decades to get those kinds of numbers. OWS was getting it in just a few weeks. This is our moment, Moore emphasized. This is the momentum as progressives that we have to get behind. Don’t worry if it doesn’t have a central unifying platform. First, it’s only a month old. Second, the big tent nature of it is what allows it to be inclusive and (my word, his sentiment) viral. It’s already changed the dialogue from deficit reduction to income inequality. That’s huge. Give it time.
Moore was soft spoken, passionate, funny and sweet – nothing like his public, media-fueled image. Then he got sentimental and started talking about some of the big moments in his life, pitching the book a little. Michael Moore was truly 99%. He grew up like me, working class and poor. He learned film-making from another documentarian. Never went to school for it. Started in his mid thirties after being a small town journalist. Learned from a mentor. He was three years into his mentorship when he found out that his benefactor was actually George Bush senior’s nephew (working out some family issues, I guess). The death threats and attacks against him. The personal and hurtful attacks from media personalities on the right, sometimes calling for physical violence against him. But he wasn’t closed minded. Earlier in the week I was at a New York Tech Meetup and Michael Bloomberg was a surprise guest. He was hysterically funny and charming. Moore was tolerant; he liked Bloomberg too and even said he was a man he respected. Bloomberg had once invited Moore as his date to the White House Press Correspondents’ dinner. They had a great time together laughing at the politicians being roasted. Moore felt as if Bloomberg was a conflicted man, but with his heart in the right place. Kind of like Obama. How excited Moore had been when Obama had won. Ecstatic, even. How saddened and utterly betrayed he felt now. Why wasn’t O out there with them? Why wasn’t he joining the angry masses? This was why OWS was so important.
I was with him the whole time but when Moore went after Obama, that’s when I started to see red. I reminded him that we all voted for Nader in 2000 and look how that turned out. That that we had to be reasonable and realistic, get behind Obama and give up our disappointment or risk getting shut out of the political process for another eight years; that progressives could not afford the luxury of disengagement. And coincidentally, Obama’s northeast region campaign director happened to be in the audience as well, another African American, and he also started going off. He argued with Moore that Barack could not have come out as angry, because he is a black man and most of America was not ready to see an Angry Black Man in the Oval Office. That instead Obama had to play the long game. That as progressives we needed to be patient and get behind it. This was great! I was hallucinating Amens! shouting out from the audience. And Moore was giving it right back. A real debate! Screw Harlem and Wall Street; the Upper West Side was freaking awesome!
Moore had tried to wean me off the Obama Kool-Aide but he didn’t succeed. However he did grudgingly build my support back up for OWS. Sure I had some differences of opinions. But he was right. It was new. It deserved nurturance and time to grow. Targeting the lack of accountability in our financial services industry was still a worthwhile flashpoint, and if it could become a source of energy to empower a new generation to embrace progressive causes, who was I to poo-poo it just because I didn’t like drumming circles and white Rastas? Truth be told, I did kinda like both of those things and was just too embarrassed to admit it.
On a similar note, who was I to poo-poo the new Harlem, either? Hadn’t I always complained about how black people never had nice things in their neighborhoods? Now here there were a lot of very nice things in Harlem, things I wanted and used, being enjoyed not just by middle class white people but also by middle class black people (and every other color). Things that also no doubt helped to create an overall safer, better policed and better serviced neighborhood for the working class denizens of Harlem as well. And I was hating. Why? I had always complained that Harlem was income-segregated and that stifled opportunities for black people, but now that this was softening I was having a hard time accepting it. I had to relax and let Harlem have this.
So I went back to my artisanal cookie dealer uptown and I also went back to OWS. This time I went to the rally at Zuccotti Park the Thursday after billionaire banker mayor Bloomberg had conducted his midnight raid to end the occupation (Bloomberg you are on blast; Michael Moore and I no longer love you, you fallen RINO). Sometimes you don’t know how much you really love something until it’s gone. So I got to Zuccotti Park a little sad. But I needn’t have been. This time there must have been thirty thousand people out there, maybe more. To paraphrase Obi-Wan, they had struck us down and we had become more powerful than they could possibly imagine. Hundreds of cops were lined up against the barricades but they looked almost rueful. I think they were thinking about their underwater mortgages out on Long Island and their shrinking hours and benefits. I felt happy the movement was throwing them some overtime! Megaphones blared messages of support out from the surrounding office buildings. A brass band played. Children were out with parents. There were tons of black people there this time, and every other color. NYC was well represented. And yes, there was a drumming circle. I smiled at it. I felt content to feel that thrill up my leg. I was going to let them, let myself, have this.
I’ve resolved my differences with the gentrifyers and the occupiers; I will proudly waive both flags. Still, I reserve the right to hold on to my philosophical differences with both camps. To the folks that say OWS peeps should just get jobs I say this: the free market is an agreement between us all about the present and the future, a social contract. Social contracts are based on the consent of the governed. Prices in the market are nothing but the outward shorthand for that ongoing social negotiation, that agreement, that consent. As the crisis showed, we can’t function as a society in a breakdown of prices, with a breakdown in agreement, consent. But that consent is predicated on fairness. We, the people, can take back that consent at any time if we feel the game is rigged. As goes our consent, so goes your market, and then so goes your wealth and our agreement to let you have it. So in that sense if you want to keep your wealth, you gotta negotiate with the people who define the social agreements that let you enjoy it in safety. You gotta play fair. Or we will shut it all down.
To the twenty-somethings down at Zuccotti Park complaining about what they don’t have I say this: we are *not* the 99%. In fact in this country we are all the 1%. Americans gobble up a grossly disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources and wealth. Are you just arguing to get a bigger chunk of the Ponzi scheme that is bringing down the whole planet? Or equally retarded, do you just want to take down the whole market and let tyrants mediate the social contract negotiation instead of citizens? Didn’t work too well in Russia. History has shown that although markets can exist without democracy, democracy cannot exist without free markets. So don’t tear down the market; fix it. And join the Green Party, for Pete’s sake.
And finally, to the white woman the other day who kinda jumped back in surprise as I was coming out of the elevator and she was going in, with her Marc Jacobs shopping bags and her pure bred poodle: we’ve got a statue of Frederick Douglass in the park down the block for a reason. We’re still three blocks from the mosque where Malcolm X preached. This is still a neighborhood rich with black history. We’re happy to share it with you, but this is still the spiritual capital of black America. If you don’t want to see black people after yoga, move back downtown. We’re going to participate in this new Harlem renaissance, without apology.
But in the end, these are all still first world problems. Can’t get too grumpy about any of it. I’m back at the wine bar because I’m working on getting my Foursquare mayor-ship. I chat with my bartender, who is from Mali, about my trip there. He has never been to the amazing parts of Mali that I have seen. The part where the central plateau breaks off and falls down hundreds of feet into the huge sky-ed savannah that seems to extend out to forever. The mud mosques in the holy city on the edge of the desert that get made again anew every year, by hand. The twisted baobab tree highway, the nation’s only, cutting flat through endless brown and green shrub punctuated by twisted baobab trees. He hadn’t seen any of the Mali I have seen. He couldn’t have afforded to. It is a long, expensive, way from Bamako. However, he is happy to be in New York City, healthy & making money and sending some home to his family. One day he too will go on the road trip out to the desert.
There is a lot that’s wrong in America, don’t get me wrong. But there is so much that is right. I’m happy to be back here, back in NYC, and back in Harlem. My barista is still dealing with third world problems; but for this evening here in New York, he and I and all of us from the hippies down on Wall Street to the yuppies up in Harlem are having a drink (or a soymilk, or a Pepsi, or even a glass of the best municipal water in America, straight from the tap) and mostly just dealing with first world problems. I’ll drink to that.