The bad news for the US Chamber of Commerce is that the world now knows that Chinese hackers broke into its computer system. The good news is that its membership has suddenly increased tenfold. This is according to the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Politico, which reported yesterday that the US Chamber of Commerce has 3 million members, 2,700,000 more than it has claimed as of late.
Did a few reporters accidentally misplace a decimal point? Not likely. Most media outlets used the "3 million members" line until 2009, when I discovered that the Chamber's true membership is no more than 300,000. After a bit of back and forth, the Chamber was forced to agree with me. Many reporters continued using the wrong number until I called them on it, at which point the 300,000 figure finally won out. Or so I'd thought.
The inflated reports of the Chamber's size have allowed it to claim to speak for a broad swath of American businesses, when in reality it's a dark money outfit controlled by a few ultra-wealthy special interests. In 2009, just 16 members accounted for 55 percent of its $200 million budget.
So here we go again. A math lesson for Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal, Tim Mak of Politico, and Gerry Smith of the Huffington Post (who should know better): 3,000,000 - 2,700,000 = the correct size of the US Chamber of Commerce.*
*If you count only dues-paying members, the true Chamber membership is probably closer to 100,000, but what's a couple hundred thousand here or there?
At a strip mall clogged with Ferraris and fashion boutiques, Beretta Gallery salesman Chris Cope shows me a framed photo of one of his best clients, an oilman posing next to a bounty of elephant tusks. In addition to selling massive safari rifles, this high-end Italian weapons emporium in the Dallas suburb of Highland Park supplies $130,000 Imperiale Montecarlo shotguns as well as petite .22s and chic, lockable handbags to conceal them. All told, it sells more firearms than any other Beretta outlet in the world. Last year, the store presented George W. Bush with a $250,000 shotgun engraved with the presidential seal, a picture of his Scotty dog, and "43" on the lever. The gun, which required more than a year to assemble, was a thank-you from Mr. Beretta for a military order of a half-million pistols.
It's fair to call 75205, the zip code for most of Highland Park, the most enthusiastically Republican enclave in the country. Among the two-dozen zip codes that donated the most money to candidates and political parties last year, 75205 gave the highest share—77 percent—to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also gave Republicans more hard cash, $2.4 million, than all but four other zips nationwide. Affluent, insular, and intensely sure of itself, Highland Park is the red-state counterpart of, say, Berkeley. It's a place where, one native son half-jokes, friends might ask one another, "Do you want to come over for barbecue after we go vote for Mitt Romney?" People in the surrounding city of Dallas, where I grew up, call it the Bubble.
"We don't need the government to do things for us—that's why the town is very, very independent," says Ray Washburne, a co-owner of the Highland Park Village mall and a native "Parkie." In 2004, Washburne and George Seay III (pronounced "see"), a grandson of Texas' first 20th-century Republican governor, cofounded Legacy, a group of 200 families that "have been successful in their careers and want to be involved in the political process." The group hosts aspiring GOP presidential candidates at a yearly summer retreat in Colorado, where they "network with other people who have been trying to push along the conservative, free-enterprise cause." Washburne befriended former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at an event in 2008 and later joined his short-lived presidential campaign.
It's no secret why Highland Park attracts so many rich conservatives. It has a prime location near Dallas' financial center and one of the lowest property tax rates in a state with no income tax. Yet it has one of the nation's best school systems and an average emergency response time of 2.5 minutes. "Highland Park is safe," says Mary Bosworth, a local GOP precinct chair. "You call the fire department and they'll be there in three minutes, versus 'Are you dead yet?' in Dallas."
Wilbur David Cook, the urban planner who designed Beverly Hills, drew up the plan for Highland Park a few years before it was incorporated in 1913. One of the community's first (if factually dubious) slogans, "It's 10 degrees cooler in Highland Park," reflected its attractiveness to the elite, as did its restrictions prohibiting property sales to minorities. A friend who is a descendant of one of Highland Park's founding families was discussing this history over lunch at Washburne's Mi Cocina restaurant when a black acquaintance, a successful loan broker, stopped by our table. Answering before I could ask, my friend said, "He does not live in Highland Park."
Over the years, the Highland Park police has been repeatedly accused of racial profiling. A 2007 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (PDF) found that the town's officers searched black drivers four times more often than whites. The cops are also known for stopping people who, as a former officer testified in a civil rights suit against the town, "did not blend in." Daniel Kanter, a local Unitarian minister, believes he was pulled over because he drives a battered Toyota Corolla. "Beyond racial," he says, "it's profiling by the make and model of your car."
Defenders of the Bubble say it's unfair to brand it as exclusionary, self-absorbed, or materialistic. A friend cites the story of Charles E. Seay, a.k.a. "Big Charlie," a self-made insurance millionaire and George Seay III's great-uncle. On a 1989 trip to Acapulco, Seay's van tumbled off a cliff but was caught by a lone madrona tree. Seay concluded that God had put him on earth for a purpose. By the time he died in 2009, he'd given away tens of millions of dollars to local hospitals, museums, and the YMCA. "Because he did, other people did too," my friend said. Today, many big Highland Park social events are charity balls.
Of course, the Parkies would much rather comfort the afflicted than afflict the comfortable. In 2006, Garrison Keillor, host of the public radio program A Prairie Home Companion, visited the Highland Park United Methodist Church. "Within 10 minutes [I] was told by three people that this was the Bushes' church and that it would be better if I didn't talk about politics," Keillor later wrote in an indignant op-ed. "I was there on a book tour for Homegrown Democrat, but they thought it better if I didn't mention it."
As a senior at Highland Park High in the mid-'90s, Butler Looney hung out with the only black girl in class and grew his curly hair slightly longer than average. He thinks that's why his class voted him "Most Liberal." (He later designed the seal for the George W. Bush Presidential Library.) "People in Berkeley are kind of the same," says Looney, who, like me, eventually moved from Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area. "It's like, 'I can't believe that you would associate with those other kinds.'" Yet he's not offended by liberal friends who diss his hometown or Parkies who can't comprehend why he left. "It's not out of malice. They just have no concept of the other side."
For weeks, Occupy Wall Street has been talking about occupying a vacant lot next to Duarte Square in SoHo. On Saturday, it walked the talk. At about 3:30 p.m, several hundred marchers left the square along with two large wooden ladders concealed beneath banners. They circled the block and converged at the lot's northwest corner, where they hoisted one of the ladders up to a tall chain-link fence. The first person over was retired Bishop George Packard, who writes at Occupied Bishop. Here's a video of him entering the lot:
After Packard tumbled over the fence, he climbed onto a wooden bench and waved for the crowd to follow. Other priests mounted the ladder while the the crowd yanked up the base of the fence to make a large opening. Someone cut the lock on a gate, and dozens of people streamed inside, talking, dancing to rap music from a boom box, and urging the rest of the crowd to join them. But the party couldn't last. The police, taken off guard at first, came pouring through the gate with flex cuffs and arrested everyone who didn't flee, including Packard. The New York Daily Newsreported that about 30 occupiers were loaded into police vans. Here's my video of the first arrests:
Here's Packard discussing it all with fellow occupiers while riding to jail in a paddy wagon:
That morning, things had gotten off to an ominous start when police detained and arrested Zach, one of the organizers, while he was walking across a nearby public park. Witnesses said that Zach has just delivered some t-shirts to the park and wasn't doing anything illegal, or even protesting. Police told a Democracy Now reporter that Zach was arrested on a warrant, suggesting that they're targeting key organizers for their role in planning new occupations.
Occupy Wall Street had a variety of motivations for occupying the lot, which is owned by Trinity Church but not currently being used for anything. Many occupiers desperately want to establish another physical occupation, believing that it will give them a better platform for outreach and organizing. The Trinity lot is one of the few unused parcels remotely near Wall Street, and the occupiers hoped that letters of support from prominent clergymen such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu might sway the church to their side. They've also leaned on the church by highlighting its ties to Wall Street interests.
Organizers chose December 17th to move on the lot because it marks the one-year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi--the Tunisian fruit vendor who is credited with sparking the Arab Spring--and the three-month anniversary of OWS. Organizers told me that it's likely to be their last major occupation attempt until the spring, and the whole thing felt nostalgic even before it was over. "I left my heart in Zuccotti Park," one sign said. After marching through the streets to Times Square--and getting kettled along the way--some organizers gathered at a popular OWS meeting spot in TriBeCa to watch video clips from the movement's early days.
"It was really incredibly optimistic of us to think that we were going to take that space and hold it," tactical team member George Machado told me afterwards. But for a moment it seemed possible: "We got the clergy in first, and we had that space, and I thought for a second that we might be able to do it."
At first glance, Occupy Wall Street's plan to take over a gravel lot in SoHo tomorrow seems a bit strange. After all, the property isn't all that close to Wall Street. It's owned by Trinity Church, which hardly seems like the kind of symbolic target that OWS found in Brookfield Office Properties, the politically connected owner of Zuccotti Park. And the occupiers have already gotten free food and meeting spaces from Trinity; they now risk the appearance of biting the hand that feeds them.
Of course, organizers behind #D17, as the occupation attempt is known on Twitter, see things differently. Trinity Church is one of the city's largest landowners and strongly tethered to the 1 percent: Five of the 20 members of its vestry, or church parliament, for example, hail from high-ranking roles at financial firms such as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, and others come from the insurance behemoth AIG, a market research firm for energy investors, and even Brookfield. The church's two wardens, the men directly below the rector who are responsible for its assets, run an investment bank and group of mutual funds.
"We are not against the church," says #D17 organizer Shawn Carrie. "We are against the church aligning itself with Wall Street."
The Trinity Church parcel, which sits along Canal Street next to the publicly owned Duarte Plaza, has been slated for occupation by OWS even before the eviction from Zuccotti Park. Though the parcel is several subway stops from Wall Street, OWS organizers now see it as their best shot for re-establishing the kind physical presence that many occupiers still consider vital to the movement. But with the church dug in against the idea, claiming that the site is reserved for a future school, organizers have been forced to get creative. In late November, they marched to the lot along with sympathetic clergy members and civil rights leaders to hold a candlelight vigil. They've also reached out to local politicians.
"Our community needs more people who volunteer in community service--and that is what Occupy Wall Street pledges to do," said Keen Berger, the area's Democratic District Leader, in a statement emailed to me by OWS. "Trinity and the Community Board 2 should welcome them at the Canal Street site with two provisos: That they help the local community, and that they leave when construction of the new school begins."
Still, it's far from clear how tomorrow's occupation will play with the public. "I think it's a good idea from OWS' point of view because it will continue the conversation," said Manhattan Community Board 2 member Robert Riccobono. Though he felt that the board was generally supportive of OWS' message, he would not go so far as to endorse the occupation: "You can see why Trinity is concerned. I would be too if I owned that space," he said. "So you have two opposing positions that are both understandable in many ways."
Cathy O'Neil, a participant in the Alternative Banking Group
High up in a Manhattan conference room on Sunday, a group of investment gurus discussed Occupy Wall Street. Should they support a set of tough-sounding financial reforms just proposed on the campaign trail by presidential candidate Jon Huntsman? Or was it reasonable to demand even deeper reforms? "This isn't enough," argued Cathy O'Neil, a former hedge fund quant who organizes the group, a branch of Occupy Wall Street known as the Alternative Banking Group. She proposed that the gathering of financial experts come up with improvements to Huntsman's plan and present them to Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly. Another OWS supporter, whose day job involves consulting for private equity firms, looked up from his laptop and smiled. "That's an excellent idea!"
As unlikely as it may have seemed when protesters first descended on New York's financial center this fall, an increasing number of Wall Street insiders are now returning the favor, you might say, by occupying Occupy Wall Street. Sympathetic to the movement's critiques of the banking system, they've been quietly lending their expertise to Occupy efforts to develop real ideas for revamping the industry.
"What I want is to influence the conversation," says O'Neil, who worked for two years with Lawrence Summers, the former US treasury secretary, at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw.* "It's about education and outreach and just the message that the financial system is too complicated—that you are not dreaming this."
Founded in early October by former British diplomat Carne Ross, the 60-person Alternative Banking Group has become a repository for OWS-friendly financial insiders. It includes current and former investment bankers, traders, and lawyers for the securities industry, but also many laymen—including housewives, people who used to sleep in Zuccotti Park, and guys with piercings who wear Che Guevara T-shirts. The group shares Occupy Wall Street's website, its nonhierarchical structure, and its distaste for partisan politics. "I'd say the one thing that everybody agrees on is that the system isn't working," O'Neil says. "And there is nothing about being a Republican or a Democrat in that statement."