His name, I think, is Paul, and he doesn’t plan on blowing up any Houses of Parliament. “Not today,” he says.
We’re in Times Square, in a crush of people like nothing I’ve ever seen outside the subway. It’s October 15. “Is it me or is this the first global protest day in history?” some girl tweeted. It was. The news ticker on the ABC building above the crowd has “Occupy Wall Street Protests Go Global,” on its headline scroll; people cheer every time it scrolls by.
Paul, like many in the movement, has a mask. He’s not wearing it: people only sneak in a few moments of mask-wearing at a time, when the cops aren’t looking, because early on protestors were arrested for wearing them. Now people generally wear their masks slung around to the back of their heads: a disconcerting effect.
The masks are of the character V, the anti-hero of the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta. V is a theatrical and violent anarchist who, in a dystopian near-future version of Britain, commits acts of terrorism in order to overturn a neo-Nazi government. To preserve his own anonymity, he dresses as Guy Fawkes, the real-life perpetrator of the Gunpowder Plot, who was foiled in an attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. This character—V, dressed as Guy Fawkes—is a hero of the newborn OWS movement. Anonymous, the hacker collective which is—in some sense at least—behind the protests, has used the mask as its symbol for years.
Paul, my interlocutor, is not what you’d think of as a terrorist. He’s my parents’ age, maybe, mid-sixties, and looks like a moderately successful architect or a CUNY professor, something like that. He has a Malcolm X quote on the screen of his iPhone; he has a quick smile and is wearing a black helmet, the kind you wear on a Vespa. “The cops brought their riot gear,” he says, “so I brought this…. Would I blow up something?” He pauses. “I hope that, if it were time for that, I would have the courage.”
“Don’t,” I said. “Please don’t blow anything up.”
“I don’t have the means,” he said. “That’s a big deal. And I’m too old…” He gave me what I think he thought was a rakish smile. “But as the Spanish say, sometimes you just have to be a man.” He remembered his liberal training, and the present company. “Or a woman.”
“I don’t think,” I told him, “that that’s what being a man looks like.”
Blowing things up is on peoples’ minds, lately. Recently I overheard a businessman walking along Wall Street point out to his friend the scars on the facade of the old Morgan Guaranty Trust building at the corner of Wall and Broad. The biggest pits are about shoulder height; you can reach up and touch them. But a spray of smaller scars are scattered up the wall. “That’s where the old anarchist terrorists exploded a bomb back in 1919,” he said. I looked this up: turns out it was 1920. The bombing he was talking about killed 38 people, and was the most destructive terrorist act that had ever, at that point, taken place on U.S. soil. It was linked to a group of Italian anarchists, called Galleanists, who were part of the fad for anarchist terrorism which Chesterton used so effectively as a plot device in The Man Who Was Thursday.
Just before the bombing, the Galleanists put out a flier explaining themselves. This act was “war, class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions.”
That’s not the kind of rhetoric you get if you hang out down at Zuccotti Park, as I have been doing on and off since the Occupation started, because I love it there; I love the political discussions and the bicycle-powered generator and the fact that little kids hang out and make signs with the free and plentiful art materials. You are much more likely, there, to hear calls for student loan forgiveness programs. The times that I’ve been down there to pass out The Distributist Review flier, I’ve had only positive responses to the ideas that we advocate.
Nevertheless … there are the masks, and the valorization of the character they’re based on, and there are the people like Paul. And the website that I found the full text of the Galleanist pamphlet on has a recently added sidebar: “Occupy Wall Street. Occupy your town. The time to resist is now.”
November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, is coming up. And people are, all over Twitter and in the various Occupied locations around the world, making plans. They are not, for the most part, plans to blow anything up. Rather, people on Twitter who are in one way or another connected with Anonymous or with the Occupations are calling for everyone, on November 5th, to move their money from traditional banks to credit unions. This is one of the most wholesome things I can imagine a vaguely sinister anarchist group calling for anyone to do: the problem is that to call for the move may in fact be illegal. One of the major OWS tweeters got cautioned by his followers for his advocacy of the move: it amounts to trying to organize a run on the banks, which is illegal. One tweeter sent out a link—“for informational purposes only,” she assured us—to a document describing how to use social networks to organize a bank run.
I’m going to move my accounts to a credit union—no, I haven’t yet; I am a bad Distributist—but I won’t do it on November 5th. And I won’t go down to Wall Street on that day, either, because if anyone does try anything that involves explosives, that will probably be when it happens.
And, yes, there are other Occupy supporters who are calling for actual violence on the 5th. One from up north tried, on October 30th, to rally his countrymen and women. “C’mon Canada … let’s really *celebrate* Guy Fawkes day this year. I talkin’ reenactment,” he tweeted. His twitter mini-bio says that he’s into peace, socialism, the environment, cats, and trainspotting, among other things. I can’t think that those who are calling for actual violence on Guy Fawkes Day are serious about it: these are civilized people, people who are getting caught up in the excitement of a major social movement protesting against genuine injustice. Another man I spoke with at Zuccotti, who’s been involved with Anonymous for some years and started Occupying through his affiliation with them, is not in favor of taking Guy Fawkes’ putative patronage of the movement too literally. “Is anyone planning to blow up anything?” I asked him. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I hope not.”
At the moment, Occupy Wall Street and all the other Occupations have support from people across a really astonishingly broad swath of the American political spectrum. This is partly because, although you could say that they’re broadly leftist, they’ve left the traditional lefty causes almost entirely alone. There have been no signs in Zuccotti about abortion (except for one that I made where I tried to draw a link between the denial of personhood to unborn babies, and the conferring of personhood on corporations; it was kind of difficult argument to make with a Sharpie on a piece of cardboard), and very few signs about gay rights. The Occupiers have concentrated almost entirely on economics. Because of this, Zuccotti Square has attracted, right from the beginning, both soft-shell and hard-shell libertarians (the soft-shells are Ron Paul people; the hard-shells are people like the three Misesian hipsters from Brooklyn I ran into at the park within the first week.) I would say that even at the park itself, there’s a good twenty percent who would not be completely averse to a Tea Party rally. And if you divorce the slogans from the fact that they are painted on cardboard with poster paint near a drum circle, the potential for right-libertarian support would go up considerably.
Anonymous’ involvement with the protests, in a sense, muddies the waters: it’s a genuinely creepy group, committed to genuine anarchy; one of its slogans is “We are Legion,” a reference to what the demons said when Christ was casting them out. I would not want to live in a world where Anonymous had sway. But the reason that they were able to gain a hearing—the reason the Occupations are going forward—is that many non-creepy people are genuinely troubled at the injustice of the current economic system. As is often the case, one evil—economic injustice—has opened the door to another—anarchy.
The moment that one of the Occupiers decides to spice up his revolutionary rhetoric with some actual explosives will be the moment that this movement dies, and he will be the one to have killed it. Of course, an agent-provocateur could easily decide the same thing, and set off a bomb for just that reason. In the Twitterverse, however, nothing (or very little) is hidden that will not be revealed: such a person’s true sympathies would be found out within days, and his attempt would backfire.
I don’t actually think that anything will happen on November 5th. But if it does—if someone tries something that he’ll think of as “the propaganda of the deed”—all the romance of this movement will be ripped away and nothing but sordid violence will be left. It will be the end. If nothing happens—or if the worst that happens is a smallish bank run—then perhaps the conversations about other ways of organizing our political and economic lives will be able to continue, and will be able to move away from the anarchism that has, parasite-like, been feeding on the injustice in our country.