12 November 2011
Trying to nail down what the "Occupy" protests are about is a bit like nailing Jello to the wall. Fox News is fanatically negative, CNN seems to be more neutral, and Reddit is fanatically positive. To get a first-hand perspective, I went down to SF and spent three hours at Occupy SF, talking with the people.
My first stop was the small group of police outside the camp. They looked really bored. According to one of the constables the only issues they've seen in the camp is the occasional petty theft and the odd fight. There didn't appear to be any actual tension between the protestors and the police in San Francisco, despite inflammatory protest signs to the contrary.
Next I setup my telescope in the camp and pointed it alternately at the Moon (photographed on the left) and Jupiter. Sidewalk astronomy is a great form of social bait; for the next three hours there was a steady stream of people who came by. We talked about astronomy, politics, and the Occupy movement. I think I got a much more representative sample than had I been carrying a shoulder-mounted TV camera. A bimodal distribution soon emerged: there were two distinct groups of people.
One group was intelligent, articulate, and hopeful. They were well-informed and had facts and figures at their fingertips. They felt that this was a turning point in history, with comparisons made to the anti-war protests of the 1960s. They were the tourists like myself, just visiting the camp.
The other group was ... stoned. Extremely friendly, polite, filled with wonder. I lost track of how many times I was offered hallucinogenic substances. The smell of marijuana filled the camp. I met people who spoke English sentences, but whose content I could not parse. Many of them wouldn't pass a Turing test. Despite being the people who actually make up Occupy SF, they seemed to have little interest in politics.
The Occupy protests address some serious issues present in the United States. But I'm concerned that the people who are most actively involved in these protests are ineffectual and undercut the message. If they do have an effect, I feel that it will be an outside group with an agenda who uses this situation to their advantage. Such a group could come from either side of the political spectrum. Who is going to take advantage of Occupy first?
Huge disclaimer: These observations may be unique to San Francisco. Other Occupy protests may have a different demographic. I did note on a cursory walk-through of Occupy Boston that they had setup an onsite library, which hints at higher-functioning participants. An open question is how much diversity is there in the Occupy protests across the country?