Published November 07, 2012
Joshua Ehrenberg was lying on the sidewalk, across the street from the $26 million apartment of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, when I roused him from his orange sleeping bag.
He is not just against Wall Street. He is against money.
"I spent the past year trying to not use any money at all," he said. "Dumpster-dive, hitchhike, train-hop."
It was a chilly Friday morning in Hurricane Sandy's wake. Somehow, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had yet to cancel the New York City Marathon, so neon Spandex flashed along sidewalks. Runners from around the world were warming up for a race that just would not be run.
Mr. Ehrenberg, 21 years old, said he was concerned about what he called the "digitalization of value."
"Because we spend so much time with money, we start to really love countable things," he explained. "We start trying to count everything...just to get to a number. And then we start making all these human decisions based on a number."
Class warfare, I've often observed, really comes down to the people who know how to count money versus the people who were, say, liberal arts majors.
"Money and things being countable is almost the opposite of things being human," Mr. Ehrenberg continued. "It's part of this religion of consumerism and this religion of money. We need to stop worshiping money."
As I chatted with Mr. Ehrenberg, a New York City police officer approached me, of all people, and ordered me to get "my buddies" off the sidewalk. It was time to hose it down, he said. In other parts of New York, authorities were still fishing bodies out of the water, but here, on the Upper West Side, the NYPD was making sure the sidewalks were properly rinsed.
Police officers, I noticed, vastly outnumbered the handful of camped-out protesters. When Mayor Bloomberg boasted of running the world's seventh-largest military, he was not joking.
"I've been arrested nine times" for protest-related offenses, Mr. Ehrenberg said.
Mr. Ehrenberg grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where his parents are both doctors. He said he studied for a year at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. Then, last fall, he moved into Zuccotti Park as Occupy Wall Street turned it into a tent city.
When Mayor Bloomberg finally shut it down last year, one of the reasons he cited was a "mentally ill man who was menacing others." That would have been Mr. Ehrenberg. According to varying media reports, he got into a fight with his girlfriend, which somehow escalated into an emergency medical technician being injured, and then he was charged with "felony assault."
Mr. Ehrenberg said these reports were largely false or exaggerated, beginning with the part about him having a girlfriend.
"I was one of the fake justifications for closing down Zuccotti Park by the Mayor," he said. "The mob itself developed a story, and they delivered that story to the media. Mob rule is bad."
Mr. Ehrenberg has never tried to set the record straight. "I don't think I'm ever going to run for office," he explained.
He pleaded guilty to a violation, which is not even a crime, according to Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. This is in fact how most of these protester arrests go.
Since the Occupy movement started in September of last year, there have been more than 2,250 arrests in Manhattan, and two-thirds of them have been resolved through "non-criminal dispositions...which leave the defendants with no criminal record or fine," according to a news release the Manhattan DA issued in June.
That's good news for the 185 people arrested in September for obstructing access to the New York Stock Exchange, commemorating the Occupy movement's first anniversary. And it's good news for Mr. Ehrenberg, who still has a couple of protest-related cases pending and accepts that arrests go hand-in-hand with his cause.
"We're building a culture of resistance," he explained.
And, for him, one of the things that must be resisted is money: "Money rules government. Everybody is in debt. Wealth disparity is the highest it's been since the Great Depression...We have $16 trillion in debt, from money, but money is already debt.
"If you get a job, a job makes itself necessary," he continued. "If you don't have a job, and you don't have a house, and if you don't have debt, you don't need any of that."
It appears we are slowly becoming a nation of Dumpster-diving, hitchhiking train hoppers, whether your agree with Mr. Ehrenberg or not. And these activities are some of the finest examples of trickle-down economics at work in the marketplace today. Someone has to pay for the car to hitch or the train to hop. Someone has to chuck a stale sandwich to make a successful Dumpster dive possible.
Mr. Ehrenberg concedes no one can really live without money entirely, but they don't have to measure their lives by it, either.
"I have so much trouble imaging how these CEOs could want more," he said. "It's crazy. But it's money. You can always have one more number...and that's success."
He will need money because he plans on going back to school soon. He said he wants to study historical movements and one day change the way protests are organized. For now, he's on the street getting some real-world experience first.
"I have a little bit of capital," he confesses. "I have a sleeping bag. I have a backpack. I have shoes and a shirt. And I've got parents to bail me out."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)