The Contrarian: I Had To Look It Up

Last week, I was driving on Route 27 into New Brunswick a hair after rush hour. Traffic lulled and I saw a group of people on the sidewalk ahead past the bridge. Something was going on. I realized as soon as I thought it that I was mostly concerned because I feared roadblock.

To my relief and interest, it moved. As I approached the not unusually numerous blur of people for the time and place, I caught on that it was an intentional gathering on the corner of George Street. What was surprisingly surprising to me is that I did not immediately commit to that nearly obvious assumption, and reacted with a strangely keen interest that bordered on resignation.

A potentially newsworthy protest, I thought. How exciting! But what for? Incidents of Occupy Wall Street-branded activity barely make our news anymore, domestically and internationally, and I don’t recognize any of the text or imagery on those hardback paper signs, yielding under the soak of city pour. Not that many younger Rutgers kids and older adults; there were younger children facing out into the street and turning cars, a little boy in a cap looking up for more rain.

It was rainier than it had been in many weeks. That and the traffic permitted a languid drive-by of the scene, which then gave way to a straight-up rubbernecking session from my dry car at a crowd of ponchos and umbrellas in bad weather. It was too wet to sneak research or snap a picture on my non-contract smartphone without feeling ridiculous. I choose to debate how much I’d genuinely care about it by the time I had the chance to look up the acronym.

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, lobbyist group and nonprofit organization, involved with a number of influential contributors including Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Monsanto, Bank Of America, BP, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. J&J’s international corporate headquarters is located in New Brunswick, and every protest is an #OWS baby. I thought I saw some sort of tape on the protesters’ mouths. Band-Aids. Perf.

When I was out of the rain and in the process of looking that up, I was at a sociology major’s house with a third party. The former’s coursework lead a discussion, in that Forest And The Trees language that sometimes eases the pain of my student loan debt, of the study of the American protest in the mid-to-late 20th Century, and how much more serious that was compared to the protest nowadays—more focused on the popular than on the politics.

Occupy New Brunswick joined over 70 cities in the #OWS #F29 National Day Of Action in protesting “the sale of government influence for corporate campaign contributions” to influential organizations, namely Johnson & Johnson, an important community asset. ALEC, a registered nonprofit comprised of state legislators, is a lobbyist organization which facilitates policymaking that often occurs without the direct consent of its constituents.

Because it is registered as a nonprofit, ALEC has been regarded as a particularly dangerous mode of influence for its imperceptibility. Hence, the protest and call to attention—admittedly (obviously, now), this was news.

If Johnson & Johnson isn’t under enough pressure, Occupy New Brunswick brought up their involvement in a scandal that might have been more quiet and much more sensitive than ALEC’s lobbyist operations. Contention with J&J’s recently resigned CEO Bill Welton remaining on its executive board in addition to the sale of defective hip replacement parts overseas and lawsuits (resulting in a recall of Children’s Tylenol and Motrin) make for loaded bases.

Going back to the collegiate analysis of how things used to be so real and serious and now things are not nearly so, the conversation turned to that it is not so much the lack of seriousness that plagues the contemporary protests as it is a lack of focus where protest has become about the protest rather than the protested, an exercise in belonging. “People are involved in the protests because it’s the cool thing to do.”

To which I clinched with new energy, “If you needed a bag of weed in the ‘60s, you called and made arrangements using a landline with a curly cord and people showed up to places without being able to text locations and rendezvous points and they had a better idea why they showed up. Now, the availability of information has devalued it to the people who need it just as much as they ever did. The people still show up.”

I wasn’t around for the ‘60s, so Wikipedia might inform me of that conclusion as well as ripened veteran testimony. But at that point, heady with the irony of responsible conversation, I was just glad to be able to spit that out.

Generation X entitlement and All-American sport.