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.
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.