Nicholas Powers imagines a history of the past two years in which the people who worked for Obama’s election went on to build their own movement for change.“FOX News has blood on its hands.” The banner lifted in the breeze as red paint streamed down the building. An NBC reporter nodded to the cameraman, “We’re standing next to the FOX News building, doused in red paint. The second attack on the news organization, the first, a cyber-attack…”
Police cars drove up as the reporter held a finger to her ear. “We’re getting word a video has been released,” she hustled to the news van, the screen was black then Glenn Beck hollers, “Progressives are putting a gun to America’s head. Hold these people responsible!” On screen a bearded man wearing combat fatigues walked into a cluttered office. In the grainy footage he aimed two 9mm handguns, people fell, blood pooled the carpet like ink and a ghostly sentence appears, “We of the New Wave Movement mourn our lost friends. Please join us in protesting Right Wing violence.”
In Brooklyn, Lionel closed his laptop showing the New Wave video. Holding his cell phone, he opened the closet. “I’m trying to find what to wear to the rally. Che Guevara shirt? No too college. RCP shirt? No, the Trotskyites will lynch me. The Saudi Sheik costume from Halloween?”
A pale, knotted hair woman ambled to the bathroom, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, “Jesus you’re worse than me. Princess it’s a protest not Project Runway.”
He shot her a look and returned to his call. “No it’s Julie, my anarchist guest who has slept on the couch the past week!” She laughed from behind the bathroom door, “I nationalized your couch in the name of the people.”
Lionel shut the closet, “I’ll meet you at the bar. Yes, I’ll make sure no one’s following me.” He snapped his phone shut and looked around the apartment; protest signs stacked on the radiator, a gas mask on the table next to dumpster-dived bagels. For the past two weeks he let New Wave activists sleep on his floor, but the dumpster-diving was too much. He sniffed a bagel. “Stop being bourgie and eat it,” Julie left the bathroom, hair still knotted, but bright and awake. She munched it near his face, crumbs falling from her mouth and laughing he waved his hands, “I hope they arrest you tomorrow.”
“Who was that,” she asked. He sighed, “Remember Rachel?” Julie arched her mouth, “Haven’t heard from her in a year. Still the hush-hush underground revolutionary is she?” He shrugged his shoulders, “Every time she calls it’s from a different number.”
In the street Lionel walked fast and blind, thinking of the 700,000 people who came to rally against Wall Street. Not just activists and students feverish with vision but workers hungry for work, retirees angry at lost pensions. In everyone’s eyes he saw rage and hope and in that red-tint, Wall Street seemed a huge citadel of cracked glass that hundreds of thousands of people wanted to smash into shards.
Lionel slipped by men laughing on the corner, remembering the euphoria of Obama’s election. How it ebbed as the White House filled banks with money while sheriffs foreclosed homes and families wept on their front lawns. How the cyber-activist group Oz hacked the database of the Obama campaign and stole its 13 million email addresses. Instantly emails pulsed back and forth through the deflated movement, revitalizing it. On TV, Democrats threatened to prosecute. In retaliation, Oz took the scene from Fantasia where Mickey Mouse cast a spell on brooms but lost control as they dumped buckets of water into a well and superimposed Obama’s face on Mickey.
It went viral and millions of people saw it. Cable pundits ran with the analogy that Obama lost control of his voters. “When is he going to come in like the Wizard and stop them,” asked CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “It’s an unstoppable wave.” The name stuck and list members called themselves The New Wave.
In summer 2009, the Tea Party flashed signs of Obama as a bone-in-nose witch doctor and yelled his healthcare reform was a Nazi plan. Around then Lionel signed up for New Wave emails and went to a “Cell-Meeting.” Rum was poured sloppily into paper cups as they planned to invade a town-hall meeting. “Let’s get dressed as Holocaust survivors,” a tall bushy-bearded man said, “If they’re going to use this Nazi analogy let’s make it look dumb.” The glances around the room shot that idea down. “Does anyone know someone who’s sick.” Lionel asked into the sudden quiet. “My aunt has breast cancer.”
Their eyes seemed to stare inward to a father, a sibling, a mom or aunt who was hurt and alone and forgotten. It was as if that person found their way into that room and stood with them, waiting to be called. The idea spread, in a week New Wave activists were wheeling in their wounded relatives to the debates and demanding a single-payer system. In one debate, Lionel’s friend brought his elderly grandfather who was a Holocaust survivor and, hobbling on a cane, went up to a Tea Partier with an Obama as Hitler poster, tore it out of his hands and ripped it in half. “I fought against Nazis,” he shouted. “And I know a Nazi when I see one.” He pointed his finger at the man’s heart as if to show the hate seeping up from it like a geyser.
The New Wave Movement wore zombie make-up and filled health-insurance offices, they mocked CEOs by throwing Monopoly money on their lawns; they marched, debated, made art, music, posters and the idea of a single-payer system rose in the polls like a hot thermometer. They pushed a healthcare bill with a public option, cheap imported drugs, lower threshold for Medicare and a six-month start date through the Senate on a reconciliation vote. Obama appeared on TV, flashing that saber-like smile that was always too tense to be sincere. The Democrats were nervous because a tidal wave of public passion was looming over their heads. Lionel remembered getting drunk that night and play-fighting with his friends, pretending to break each other’s bones and cough Ebola virus on each other. “It’s all good man,” he slurred, “I got the Public Option. You can’t kill me.”
On talk-shows, pundits worried the Democrats were being pulled Left. “It’s an illegal movement of digital bandits hijacking politics,” Charles Krauthammer said on FOX. The evening news showed New Wave activists hauling an evicted family’s furniture through the front door to the rooms inside. “The police just left,” a woman said, “and these kind young people moved me back in.” She hoisted her baby on her shoulder, wiping tears and in a wobbly voice said, “I would have no wheres to sleep, no wheres to be safe.” In the last shot, a young woman with a bandanna sat with her friends on the lawn as they warmed their hands over a fire. The flames leapt and twisted in her eyes, “Every human being has a right to a home,” she said. “No amount of math tricks by bankers will take that away from us.”
New Wave offices opened in cities and towns. Organizers jokingly called it Extreme Make Over: Nation Edition and organized Detroit, Pittsburgh and Oakland to socialize abandoned houses. Families wept as activists reopened locked doors. A tall woman with an Afro glistening like a halo, sweaty from hauling furniture back into a home said, “Conservatives define freedom as the ability to choose in the free market, but how can you choose if you’re too poor to afford housing or food or medicine? People must be free of poverty first.” She forearmed her brow and went back to lifting a sofa. As news cameras rolled, police cruisers pulled up, cops hand cuffed them and Aifa was pushed into the backseat.
The White House was flooded with calls, letters, emails and petitions. A vigil was held in front, candles flickering light on Aifa’s face. New Wave activists cajoled President Obama to visit the tent cities built by the homeless and unemployed. They demanded he pardon Aifa and to sign a law that stopped foreclosures. They demanded a Green Deal, a tax on the banks to fund a work program for the people.
Afraid, isolated and losing credibility the White House scheduled a media blitz of a tent city. Obama waded through the shivering poor, who stared at the Secret Service that circled him like silent shadows. He shook hands, leaned into crinkly tents but his eyes were like calculators measuring the effect on his image.
Network cameras followed him, magnifying every touch into an iconic image of healing or betrayal. “Can America afford to care about the poor,” asked Wolf Blitzer. “Communists are taking over the country! The final war has begun,” shouted Glenn Beck. But the New Wave movement delivered its message directly by filming itself as it stopped foreclosures and directed massive sit-ins at banks. They demanded breaking up Wall Street firms. They called for workers’ councils to re-place investors at companies that received public money. Youth around the world mirrored them, and TVs showed students in banks, singing as police hauled them away. In Italy, spirals of tear gas clouded the street as two students were shot, bodies like bloody dolls carried by friends.
The jailed organizer Aifa was released and reporters asked her if the New Wave Movement was responsible for the violence. She said, “The ruling elite attacked the people; starving them, abandoning them in poverty. We can stop the violence with a simple solution: Build the future now!” Those four words were multiplied by a million mouths into a global chant, “Build the Future Now!”
Obama replaced his top economic adviser Larry Summers with Paul Krugman. In a speech from the Oval Office, he called for banks to be taxed billions to fund a massive work program for the people. It would be a Green Deal, money to build recycling plants, money to build new energy grids. “We’ve reached a turning point were the discontent of the young and unemployed can no longer be ignored and neither can the justice of their claims.”
The stock market plunged a thousand points and the next day, another thousand. Pensions evaporated. Panicked crowds banged on bank doors. Savings vanished. Terror descended like blindness into the world. Cable pundits blamed the New Wave Movement and Obama appeared on TV, “We are on the edge of a cliff and must pull back. We cannot afford chaos in our banks or in the streets. The movement must be put on hold.”
The next day a Glenn Beck fan, wearing combat fatigues walked into a New Wave office and opened fire. He killed seven people before police shot him. At the office, thousands held candles near photos of those killed. Aifa held one of a young man with corn rowed hair and a wide smile, “He was my brother.” She breathed slow, “He joined because he saw his big sister in it. When the death threats began, I told him to leave,” She looked into the camera, into the eyes of the world. “He said, ‘I can’t abandon the people. I’m everyone’s brother.’”
Weeks later, WikiLeaks published private emails of bankers joking about the shooting. “Why did he have to be such a poor shot,” read one. “This crash just ended that Green Deal Communist shit.” Another one read, “The peasants can kiss their pensions goodbye.” The emails were a spark sizzling into public grief and the streets exploded. Lionel remembered throwing his first brick, how the rage churning inside him flowed into its weight and how it flew like a comet. The glass shattered in a web, then broke into a dark jagged hole, and his face slid across the shards that fell in slow motion. It was as if he lived outside time and then the roar in his head focused into sharp yells and he was running again.
A call to mobilize against Wall Street went out and barricades were set up in dozens of capitals around the world, but the nation’s collective eye turned to Manhattan as hundreds of thousands of people poured in to protest. Obama was on TV, “We will have law and order by any means necessary.”
Lionel snapped out of his day dream when two police walked by. Hands sweaty, he rubbed them on his pants and saw Rachel inside the bar. Her face was a blazing smile, they hugged.
“Jesus you’re sweaty,” she pinched him.
“I got something for you,” Lionel said and pulled out a bagel. “Dumpster-dived.” She shook her head, “You are so nasty.” He mimed biting it and they laughed. As they ordered beers, Lionel studied the care-lines deepening her eyes, her lip chewed from worry.
“Tomorrow is the big day,” she said and put a digital camera on the table. “Tea Party types are going to cause trouble.” On its mini screen was a recent protest where a man swung a pipe, rocking the head of a demonstrator who blinked at each strike as if his thoughts were broken by the pounding. “Jesus…” Lionel whispered.
“You think tomorrow is a big symbolic march like 1963,” she looked at the door. “But it’s not symbolic. We want to stop Wall Street from crashing America.”
“So do I Rachel,” he said loudly. “Really,” she smirked. “What are you wearing tomorrow, the Che shirt?” A momentary pause and they laughed knowingly, “Just be our eyes.” She pinned a button on his collar and gave him the cam-era. Lionel could see her through the button, it was a secret lens. “They bring weapons and we bring Hollywood?”
“We have to shame them,” she said.
“And get killed like those kids in Italy,” he was angry at her, at himself, but she took the bagel. He wanted to say something ironic like, “Is this our Last Sup-per?” but she fed him bits of dumpster-dived bagel and tilted beer to his mouth. Through the camera, Lionel saw in her face the long highways and nighttime fires, the hopeless loving and bread broken with strangers. He saw everything good in his life, everything holy and pressed Record.
Get weekly digest delivered to your inbox
Please Give Today!
Please give today to the Indypendent. It’s the generosity of readers like you who make all our work possible.