If you ask any five of the many "Occupy Wall Street" camper-protesters why they've been sleeping, eating, partying and protesting in the Financial District day after day, braving rainstorms and increasingly chilly nights, you're likely to get five different answers.
Since I live near the encampment in the shadow of Ground Zero, I decided to visit Zuccotti Park early Monday morning to pose that question. Here's what I was told:
"I want to overthrow the U.S. government," said Brian Phillips, a 25 year-old former Marine who now heads the protesters' communications and security group.
"We want transparency, education and empowerment," said Will Roper, a disabled electrician who usually lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids.
"We're building an alternative community," said Amy, 29, a former substitute school teacher who came here on "day one" to see what was going on and now largely through donations helps feed 200 to 1,000 people a day.
"We want to end the war," said a woman who refused to tell me her give her name or age, but acknowledged being old enough to have been at Woodstock.
"We want to stop companies with government help from polluting our water and land," said Thomas, a 28-year-old self-described "jack of all trades" who came here from Tampa to protest.
There is a common theme to these answers: the mostly young people in the park are the 99% of the country that is suffering while 1% thrives.
Some are troubled by the demonstrators' lack of focus, by their absence of constructive policy prescriptions. This, writes my friend John Avlon, among the first to recognize the importance of the Tea Party, is a "lost opportunity."
I disagree. The refreshing thing about this modern-day "be-in" is its lack of predictable demands - its disdain for ostensible solutions to intractable problems. Their response is a primal scream against our high finance-bailout culture. It is not that dissimilar from the frustration that ignited the Tea Party in its early incarnation, before it got "organized," which is to say, hijacked by right-wing billionaires.
Every day provides reason for fresh outrage - be it the $20 million bonuses for men rewarded for driving their companies into near-bankruptcy and new taxpayer bailouts, our stubbornly high unemployment rate, the continuing expulsion of middle-class Americans from the homes that were supposed to be their castles, or health insurance premiums that have recently soared by 9%, only 1.5% of which is attributable to the 2,000-page mess of a bill that Obama promoted and Congress passed.
It's a scream about corruption between government and corporations. On Tuesday, Elisabeth Rosenthal at The New York Times obtained hundreds of emails showing how the State Department has cozied up to a Canadian pipeline company, TransCanada, becoming its facilitator at the potential expense of the nation's environmental laws. In the emails, environmentalists plead futilely for meetings while company reps waltz in and out of the State Department.
And who is TransCanada's lobbyist? Paul Elliott, a top official in now-Secretary of State Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.
Many of the protesters are among the younger Americans who turned out in flocks in 2008 to help a young, inexperienced black senator with a silver tongue astonish the world by becoming President. But after capturing their yearning for "hope and change," Obama has lost them. Ronald Suskind's disheartening new book, "Confidence Men," portrays a weak President who surrounds himself with officials whose "solutions" have helped perpetuate America's economic misery. A sample: Though Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ignores an Obama decision on Citibank, he retains his job as treasury secretary, thanks to a President too much in the thrall of Wall Street to fire him.
If the OWS protesters are mad as hell, who can blame them?
The protesters may not have the answers to America's economic decline and political malaise, but at least they are no longer ignoring the stench of political cronyism and corruption emanating from Wall Street and Washington. Like the early Tea Party activists, they have articulated the helplessness and fear of so many Americans. The question we should be asking is not what is their program, but what took them so long?