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Occupy Wall Street and the Scent of Revolution

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by Nicholas Carroll

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Growing up in a diplomatic family you learn to keep your nose to the wind, and read the writing on the wall, in case political turmoil suggests a flight for the border. The skills were useful doing business in South America, helping me skip one step before revolutions started.

In South American countries, the primary danger was populist uprisings, since in a coup d'etat foreigners can generally catch an airplane out if they move fast enough. When I no longer had access to classified diplomatic warnings, I got my news from four sources:

1. Foreign newspapers
2. Protest demands spray-painted on the walls
3. The expressions on locals' faces
4. The attitudes of the middle class

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Foreign newspapers were of course reporting on OWS while the U.S. mainstream media was still in blackout mode. This was an interesting leading indicator in itself, since while most reporters are liberal, as a veteran reporter dryly told me years ago, "I've worked at a lot of liberal newspapers, but I never met a liberal publisher." Did publishers quash the story? I don't know. Most South American newspapers certainly would have.

On the ground, though, this is how I got my information from graffiti and placards, watching people's expressions, and observing the normally disengaged middle-class:

Specific protest demands are an early warning sign that a serious uprising may be on the way. Changing the name of the politician, so I don't end up on a persona non grata list in that country, I recall the progression of graffiti across from my local bus stop in one South American country.

When I arrived in the country, the graffiti read "Viva Gonzalez!" OK, whatever.... Then it was "Gonzalez para [for] Presidente!" But Gonzalez was legally ineligible to become president. Interesting -- I had heard no talk of changing the national constitution to allow him to run for president.

Then one morning the new bus stop graffiti read "Gonzalez al poder!", meaning "Gonzalez to the power!" Not just power -- the power. No mention of elections or constitutional amendments. I turned to my companion and asked, "Do you think it's a good time to visit Miami?" We were packed and gone in 48 hours, which was none too soon.

Mainstream media has made an effort to portray OWS protestors as lacking specific demands. This is laughable when a protestor is carrying a sign reading "Restore the Glass-Steagall Act." I have never seen a more specific demand at a protest. And "How about a Maximum wage?" might seem frivolous, but it's advocating legal caps on executive pay.

The protesters know quite well what they want. It just happens to be a long list, with the solutions not always immediately apparent.

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flickr image By DreadScott

Controlled anger is a sign that the people are serious. A street-smart cop can tell you that a pale angry face is potentially a lot more dangerous than a flushed angry face. The flushed face may be looking to lash out in some general violent way, but the pale face is edging towards intent -- focused intent.

Mainstream media has had fun photographing the dancing and music at the protests, but if you look over the sea of faces, relatively few are there for fun. They have fun to break the monotony, but it's not a party. Even the protesters' smiles tend to be ironic, as media try to get them to show excitement.

The temper of the times seems similar outside the protests themselves. I recently posted a Daily Kos article which mentioned "There is a huge sense across America that the rich are increasing their cruelty far beyond the point necessary to live lives of obscene privilege."

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