I figured before heading out I would wait for the fog to lift to shine some light on the Occupy San Francisco annex of Occupy Wall Street. I'm not sure it ever did. What many refer to as the People's Republic of San Francisco is socially liberal and economically neutered. The heaviest traffic is leaving the city in the morning and coming back in the evening. It's a bedroom community that has effectively banned both McDonald's Happy Meals and foie gras and has sadly turned into the pretty but growth-deprived stepsister of San Jose.
Still, who doesn't love a movement? Needing something to wear to an occupation and in bigger need of some protest mojo, my first stop was the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the mecca of movements, the center of the '60s hippie habitat. The streets were pretty empty—usually this area is filled with homeless, stumbling along the block lined with body piercing shops, vintage clothing stores and "smoke" shops.
I found the Jimi Hendrix shirt I was looking for, but no signs of any protests, although I was accosted by four aggressive pink-T-shirt-wearing folks from Planned Parenthood and a Hasidic Rabbi with a lulav and etrog. I dove into the only sign of civilization, the Ben & Jerry's ice cream on the corner, and ordered a small Stephen Colbert Americone Dream, which cost a small fortune.
OccupySF has taken up at Justin Herman Plaza, at the bottom of Market Street, an irony probably lost on most. It's nestled between the Financial District and the recently renovated Ferry Building by the bay. It's also a block away from the Federal Reserve of San Francisco. Both are filled with sleeping bags and dreadlocks and body piercings and the pungent odor that often accompanies this scene. And signs. And more signs. Like most, I'm confused by what Occupy Wall Street is all about. Some of it is a place to hang out for the unemployed and homeless. Some of it is a party. The Haight-Ashbury crowd moved 40 years into the heart of San Francisco.
But I've now become an aficionado of Occupy Wall Street signs, which I enjoyed in the flesh but also found all over Facebook and the Internet. They provide the missing narrative, the hard to discern story that was obvious at antiwar or civil rights or gay rights protests.
Despite the self-labeling as 99%ers, I don't think this is really about class warfare. Income inequality always pokes its head up during recessions. Still, it's a powerful message. One sign read, "You'd think a Police State would pay their police better." Another quoted Black Panther and Marxist George L. Jackson: "If the 1% who presently control the wealth of the society maintain their control after any reordering of the state, the changes cannot be said to be revolutionary." Of course, the composition of the 1% has changed drastically in the 40 years since 1971, through capitalism, not a reordering of the state. The sign "Delete the Elite" says it all.
Some of the message is certainly about anger. One aggressive sign warned, "Be Afraid Banks—99% to 1% is very bad odds." No wonder Warren Buffett is volunteering to pay higher taxes. Another prominent sign: "End Predatory Capitalism." Like Ben & Jerry's prices?
Maybe this is all really about disappointment. I spoke to a young woman who had clearly bathed more recently than most. I asked her why she was at OccupySF. She told me she'd done all the right things. Studied hard. Graduated college. (She was an art major.) And now she can't get a job. It didn't matter. It's all messed up. She was lied to.
Of course she was. She's a member of the Trophy Generation. Win or lose, you get a trophy. We embraced mediocrity to an entire generation of kids during good times who are now finding themselves mediocre in bad times. There still is that American dream: Go to college, get a job, buy a Prius. But like it or not, studying art or humanities or gender studies won't get you there. Marissa Mayer at Google complains she can't find enough computer-science majors. Civil engineers are getting hired sight unseen.
Educating the whole child was bad advice. So was follow your passion. California spends months teaching ninth-graders how to build a waste-treatment plant with only a day or two on natural selection. I think Occupy Wall Streeters are as much disappointed with the route they all took as they are with "fat cat" bankers.
An older gentleman grabs my elbow and launches. "There is a different set of rules," he tells me, "for the 1%, the thieves on Wall Street, than the rest of us 99%ers." I must have looked confused. "We need to end the reign of Wall Street. The status quo is over. Stick around until six and we've got a General Assembly meeting and . . ."
I couldn't stay. I had a meeting I was late for.
I drove out to the Mission, found a spot on Valencia, and raced into the Summit, a coffee shop/startup incubator/entrepreneur hangout. Oddly, there sat a similar collection of folks with shabby clothes and body piercings and dreadlocks, but to a person, they all were hunched over MacBook computers. My friend Aaron was showing off his new location-aware social app when I heard someone at the next table talking about the thieves on Wall Street and how he's found a way to end their reign. Can't get away, it seems.
I must have rolled my eyes because Aaron introduced me to the guy. He had long hair, a scruffy beard and was holding an iPhone in one hand and a 5-hour ENERGY drink in the other. All entrepreneurs are trained for the elevator pitch, the 30-second description of what they do in case they are ever on a short elevator ride with a venture capitalist.
"I've taken the best of social networking and high-frequency trading and built a system that beats those Wall Street thieves at their own game. Users input their portfolio, it could be stocks or bonds or even derivatives and then we log each trade and anonymously share the spreads so everyone is on an even keel. First it's just about information, but then we can start matching trades away from Wall Street. Its over for those guys, the status quo is toast."
Apparently there's more than one way to Occupy Wall Street.