When I first meet Mike McCarthy of Occupy Providence in Burnside Park at Kennedy Plaza, he’s an epicenter of activity in a park already bustling with life. No matter where he moves, people follow or approach him: an enthusiastic activist wants to bend his ear about an idea he’s been kicking around for something called “Big Citizen” (as opposed to Big Business); organizers want to discuss the business of the day’s general assembly meetings with him; a Providence Journal reporter hovers near, trying to blend but looking somewhat conspicuous. Occupy is a movement that is staunchly leaderless and non-hierarchical, but McCarthy is undeniably one of its nerve centers and mouthpieces. He’s engaging with someone about something almost every second he’s in the park.
“This was about reclaiming public space. We’re affirming that right,” he explains of the movement’s most visible and talked about action – namely, the dozens of protesters camped out in tents in a public park. “But that’s not the point. The point is there are a great many things we have not been discussing as a society.”
Contrary to popular belief, the worldwide Occupy movement is not about the parks it has thus far called home – nor is it simply a bunch of scraggly rabble-rousers with a laundry list of inchoate, extreme left demands they believe they’ll achieve through the occupation of public spaces. In fact, McCarthy goes so far as to call the future of the park encampment “irrelevant.”
Furthermore, McCarthy himself is a living, breathing challenge to most people’s preconceptions of the Occupiers. He is not a socialist, anarchist, aging hippie or over-earnest college kid, but rather the working class son of a conservative Christian home in Newport, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His is a fierce intellect, able to extemporaneously spout off on the economy and politics in a way that is both informed and incisive, if a bit all over the map.
The experience in Afghanistan marked the first rumblings of his drive towards activism. A Navy medic who served what he calls “a really serious deployment,” McCarthy concedes, without elaboration, “a lot of bad things happened.” While on active duty, he read a lot, particularly about the financial crisis back home, trying to grasp a complex situation of which he had little, if any, understanding. Meanwhile, the horrors of war were taking an increasing toll on him. “This war kind of destroyed my patriotism,” he laments. “I didn’t have a full understanding of just how bad things were.”
Upon his return, McCarthy found many of his so-called “liberal friends” a little too satisfied with the election of Obama, deluding themselves that it was all going to be okay. Noting the lack of any substantive change from the Bush era economic policies, he thought, This wasn’t going to make any more of a difference than before.
“The vast majority of us don’t know how the system works at all,” he notes, adding