The Rails 2011 Player of the Yearby Theodore Hamm
*Note: runners-up are in bold below.
The Rail’s Player of the Year Award annually goes to the most surprisingly influential performer on the political stage. In recent years the winners have included senators who plied their trades in the bathroom and boardroom, a governor who never should have been allowed into the Lower 48, and a gaggle of CEO types whose claims on behalf of the 1% continue to be 100% nonsense. In case you think that last item is a clever set-up in order to name the 99% this year’s winner, you’re about half-right.
Just like 2010, the past year began with a conciliatory president reaching across the aisle to a party full of zealots. But by February, things got hot in the coldest of places, Wisconsin, where the Koch brothers’ sock puppet picked a fight with the unions and the legislature, causing protesters to occupy the capitol building in Madison. Amid the actual American spring, a local congressman with a perpetual fever saw his career unravel in a suitably ridiculous fashion, thus depriving the Democrats of their emissary to the left. By early summer, the mercury was even hotter than the disgraced congressman’s boxers, but the political landscape experienced a sudden deep freeze.
Indeed, throughout the dog days of summer, it appeared that the most influential political performers were the Beltway pundits who knew with absolute certainty that the debt ceiling was the most profound crisis facing our nation. Responding to the wisdom of David Brooks and his fellow mandarins, President Obama served up budget proposals aimed at winning over Swing State accountants and actuaries. Not even an Eastern Seaboard earthquake or a hurricane named Irene could awaken our political class from its deep slumber.
Unemployed, foreclosed upon, or simply living check to check, millions of Americans lived in a different world than the people who get to Meet the Press. But fear not, David Axelrod said, President Obama would “pivot” to discussing job creation in September—a move he had first promised to make in late 2009. Having gone to basketball camp as a teen, I understand how difficult it can be to make a good pivot move. And so in the spirit of the game, let me turn away from the national narrative and bring it back home for a moment.
It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and I was sitting on Rockaway Beach with the Rail’s fiction editor and surf instructor, Donald B. Between carefree splashes in the waves, the two of us fretted about the calcified condition of our republic. “What’s it going to take in order to shake things up?” I asked, more wistfully than hopefully. Neither of us had an answer, and so we returned to flopping about in an ocean of despair.
A mere two weekends later, I was chatting with filmmaker Astra Taylor at the Verso booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival. She said that the day before (September 17), she had gone to the Wall Street protests. In her eyes, the movement had plenty of potential. When I asked her if the crowd was full of familiar faces, Taylor said no, explaining that the participants were “so young,” which she saw as a good thing. Temporarily awakened, I returned to floating around in a sea of words.
End of interlude.
Other than NPR, nobody seemed to pay much attention to the president’s pivot move, perhaps because September is not a basketball month. And at first, nobody seemed to pay much attention to the goings-on at Zuccotti Park, in part because most people had never heard of the place. CNN Money, however, was there on day one, and as a young activist prophetically told the camera, creating “participatory democracy” was one of the movement’s primary goals. Doing so on the streets of Manhattan would prove to be no mean feat.
For on the sidewalks of today’s New York, petty authoritarianism is the governing ethos. Consider the range of Soviet-style charges today’s activists face: “parading without a permit”; “loitering while wearing a mask”; or simply “obstructing governmental administration,” which is not intended to be precise. We can only assume that the charge of “malicious hooliganism” is somewhere in the pipeline. And if one wonders about the toll that enforcing such an open-ended set of restrictions can take on members of Mike Bloomberg’s Army, recall the handiwork of one “Tony Baloney,” whose pepper-spraying of penned-in young female protesters triggered a national craze (or is it haze?). Officer Baloney also received the wrong punishment from General Kelly: rather than being docked 10 vacation days, he should have been given 10 more, in order to relax just a bit.
From Wall Street to Seattle, as well as from Oakland to Davis, the Occupy movement has obviously benefitted from egregious acts of authoritarian overreach; and we certainly can thank folks like 24-year-old Iraq vet Scott Olsen and 84-year-old Seattle grandmother Dorli Rainey for their bravery on the front lines. Having done my grad work at U. C. Davis, I also feel a particular affinity for those who withstood the pepper shower there; of course, one need not ever step foot on the university’s grounds to know that there’s absolutely no reason that the campus police should be so heavily fortified. But authoritarianism knows no bounds.
Neither does the desire for genuine democracy, as evidenced by the Occupy efforts across the land. Still, the salient question remains: among these many worthy candidates, who’s the Player of the Year? Let’s pivot back to the epicenter and focus on a fateful day.
It was late Tuesday afternoon, November 15, and for the first time in my 45 years on the planet, I was standing in front of the Men’s Wearhouse at Broadway and Cedar, at the SE corner of Liberty Square. As the crowd waited interminably for a judge’s utterly predictable ruling about whether the tents could return to the square, a “mic check” arose. The subject was the General Assembly scheduled for 7:00 that evening inside the square. It was about 4:45 or so, and Bloomberg’s Army—defying a court order—was denying people access to the plaza.
And so for the next half-hour or more, the discussion transmitted via the “people’s microphone” centered around what to do in the event that there was still no access to the square by 7:00. Despite hearing the news of the judge’s ruling regarding the encampment, the participants soldiered on, exchanging questions such as: Where was the alternate location? How do we coordinate with similar groups assembled at the other three corners of the plaza? Who would act as the go-between? On this momentous day, these mundane questions were debated with the passionate intensity formerly reserved for the big issues the movement confronted, such as what to do about global capitalism, or how to deal with the drum circle.
And so let us hope that on matters great and small, and in places far outside the confines of Zuccotti Park, the fires of participatory democracy keep us warm throughout the coming year. Yet it would be wrong to give all credit for these blazes to the folks at Liberty Square or their kindred spirits at Occupy sites across the land. There are, alas, good reasons why people avoid the front lines of protest, many of which involve not wanting to encounter the long arms of the law. At the same time, it would be inaccurate to say that all members of the 99% deserve equal credit for resisting the authoritarianism of the 1%. Somebody had to gather the kindling and light the matches.
Without further qualification, the 2011 Rail Player of the Year Award thus goes to the 37 -43% of Americans who support the goals of the Occupy movement, according to October polls. It is this groundswell of enthusiasm that provides the basis for a long-term democratic rival in our republic. Let’s also hope that the ranks of support for ending the reign of the 1% will grow in the coming year. In the meantime, this much is certain: On Rockaway Beach next summer, Donald and I will need to find something else to talk about.