By the time I arrived at the Wall Street Day of Rage around 2:00 PM, the NYPD had Wall Street on total lockdown, with barriers at both ends, uniformed NYPD officers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and plastic flexcuffs hanging in bundles from their belts. Clearly, the NYPD was not messing around. So the anti-capitalists and comrades and anarchists had to move their march south.
The leftist smorgasbord of a few hundred gathered on the nearby front steps of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It was here that the Day of Rage protest hit full swing.
While its "Occupy Wall Street" concept was thwarted by the fact that they couldn't even walk on Wall Street, the protestors remained enthusiastic about their plan to camp out for months, and their cause.
But what that cause is remains anyone's guess. The Days of Rage protest was sort of a leftist outcry a la carte, a mishmash of grievances vaguely anti-capitalist, and anti-government. The main rallying cry was anti-banker, and there was much talk of 'fat cats.' After that, the message was unified only in its hatred for our current government, and the promise that we would all be better off if the system collapsed.
I spoke with many of the Day of Rage protestors. They were clearly fired up, but there was widespread insistence that this event remain non-violent. Whenever a protestor took a bullhorn out and tried to get the crowd fired up, the speech tended to drift into shapeless platitudes about 'banksters,' corportate greed, and references to socialism. A few secondary characters yelled out about stopping the "Tea Party," but this passed without much noise from the crowd.
In the single most enthusiastic crowd moment, one of the organizers took the bullhorn and summarized the message of the whole event: "The system is going to collapse," he said, "we are here to make it collapse faster."
There were many Guy Fawkes masks in the crows, and some more bizarre, homemade costumes milling about. The anarchists were mingling freely with the socialists. The anti-war group "Code Pink" sent a small delegation (in pink, of course). They all agreed our government should crumble, but nobody seemed to wonder if that happened, who would take the reins? Doesn't somebody have to implement socialism?
There were a few Ron Paul fans in the crowd holding up signs that mostly supported the Congressman's 'end the wars' stance. A deceptively well-groomed Larouchite handed me a flyer with "Seven Necessary Steps" outlined for America that focused on economic reform and forcing Barack Obama to resign.
Around 3:00 PM, The protest moved north up Broadway to the Chase Manhattan Plaza, not far from the site of Ground Zero.
The same organizers took to the bullhorn and repeated their slogans for a while. People started to look tired, bored, and hungry.
Then, in perhaps the most surprising turn of events all day, a counter-protest erupted from the other side of the Plaza. A full brass band, Primetime Brass, bellowed out patriotic tunes, including "The Marine Corps Hymn." This clearly stole the protestors' thunder for a while. The best they could do in response was yell at the band "play the Internationale!"
A little after 4PM, the protestors broke up into discussion groups. They sat crossed-legged on the ground. A few turned into drum circles. In others, the more vocal members of the crowd lectured others on socialism, and Wall Street greed, and the need to 'do something,'
The few hundred participants in the protest already appeared to be losing steam at that point. As organizers began to bring in food, one of them asked me to help him distribute sandwiches. I had avoided shaving for the better part of a week, and felt my scruffy look was validated by this. I politely declined.
I concluded that the moment the Skippy peanut butter runs out, most of these self-styled radicals will hop a bus back to campus, or their parents' suburban basements.
But it is worth asking why. This was supposed to be a 20,00 person occupation to shut down Wall Street. They meant to show the world that the 'banksters' can be brought down, and with it the entire system of U.S. governance.
This crowd looked more like Ben and Jerry's hippies than communist storm troopers.
From what I saw, the NYPD played no small role in keeping things in check.
When it comes to crowd control, the NYPD is widely considered the most capable police force in the country. After the U.K riots burned down whole neighborhoods, it was a former NYPD Commissioner they brought over to consult on new tactics and procedures.
The NYPD may have been the main reason the 'Day of Rage' protest appeared much more like a college sit-in for Earth Day, or Free Palestine, or whatever the grievance du jour might be, than a surging Madrid or Cairo riot.
Every interaction with protestors was courteous but firm. The robust NYPD presence was essentially a promise to the protestors: as long as they obeyed the city's rules, they could yell and shout and rail against capitalism to their hearts' content. And they did.
With my experience in both the intelligence community and law enforcement, it was obvious to me that if someone had picked up a bottle or started a fight, they would have been flex-cuffed within seconds. It was clear at all times who was in charge. The NYPD made sure even anarchists played by the rules.
That in itself may provide a critical example to other cities. The Day of Rage protests are supposed to occur in across the country, and go on for months. Politicians and police forces in other cities would be well-served to take a look at how the NYPD handled the Day of Rage as a blueprint for their own law and order efforts.
And remember-- this was just a first 'Day of Rage,' as the protestors themselves said. "This is just a practice," they yelled from the steps, over and over. They plan to continue these 'direct action' events. Perhaps next time, more radical groups will join. All it takes is a city with less police resources that fails to pay attention, or overreacts. We already have seen, in Madrid, London, and Cairo, what is possible.
The protestors say they will sleep on the streets for months. Based on what I saw, I doubt it. Maybe a core group will make it a week.
But among the signs and chants, there was real anger. And as the United States and the global economy stare at the possibility of a second recession in the months ahead, these 'Day of Rage' protests will probably get bigger, and their participants more brazen.