Occupy Poses a Dilemma for New York's Rich and Liberal

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It's an awkward time to be a rich liberal in New York: Even though many of the city's well-heeled elite sympathize with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, they're part of the 1 percent those folks are protesting. Alec Baldwin got reminded of this when he visited the park back in October. And on Wednesday, many of the wealthy patrons of a Sotheby's art auction shielded their faces as they walked past a gauntlet of screaming protesters. Despite the discomfort of its customers, the auction ended up making about $316 million, the third-highest gross ever for that arm of the auction house.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Sanford I. Weill, the former Citigroup chairman, had put his $88 million Manhattan penthouse on the market in an effort to "downsize" his lifestyle, "saying that at a difficult period in the country's history, it is 'a pretty good time' for wealthy Americans 'to be quiet.' " It speaks to a division among what's come to be known as the 1 percent about how to regard the Occupy Wall Street protests: Some make efforts to mollify the movement, others raise a staunch middle finger toward the likes of those in Zuccotti Park. But most try hard to stay out of it.

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While the wealthy reportedly talk behind closed doors about how the "unsophisticated" protesters, most have been careful to keep their disdain for the movement private. When bankers balked at restaurateur Mario Batali's comparison of them to Hitler and Stalin, they did so behind a very high paywall: Bloomberg's DINE GO, which Bloomberg restaurant critic Ryan Sutton described as "sort of like Yelp for Bloomberg clients." The actual Yelp pages for Batali's Babbo and Del Posto carry no complaints about his unwelcome remarks (though Del Posto has gotten a couple flame reviews in the last few days).

Danny Meyer, a Sotheby's board member, was extremely guarded after protesters dropped by his Union Square Cafe and Grammercy Tavern to make a ruckus about the Sotheby's union conflict. He declined to comment at the time, and when Grub Street asked him about it in person later, he was coy. "Anybody who comes into the restaurant is entitled to the extraordinary hospitality that our team gives, and they paid their own way, so they’re guests as far as I’m concerned," he said of the protesters. Similarly, The French Laundry owner Thomas Keller has declined any comment about protesters who stopped by his Yountville restaurant last week.

The New York Observer was on the scene at Sotheby's on Wednesday night, reporting that "of all the Occupy Wall Street stunts–even the march to the homes of millionaires–this protest was the only one that felt like it had the real rumblings of class war." Some patrons shielded their faces or averted their eyes as they hustled past protesters, eight of whom got arrested before the event was over. But not all:

“Shame on you!” the protesters shouted at the one percent. “Go home!” An older gentleman standing near The Observer gave an enthusiastic thumbs down accompanied by a resounding “booooo!” One man on the other side of The Observer gave the Sotheby’s clients the finger, only to have a curly, gray-haired buyer with a checkered scarf rise to the occasion with a French-accented, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”

Once inside, the gray-haired man stood behind the glass like a kid at the zoo, sticking out his tongue, mouthing obscenities, then zealously grasping an imaginary phallus, pumping it a few times into his mouth before he grew bored or realized there were cameras, at which point he walked toward the escalator that lead into the auction. “He’s in Sotheby’s a lot,” said one of the Teamsters who used to be art handlers at Sotheby’s before the auction house locked out its workers in August.

The behavior mirrors in real life what The Onion reported earlier this week in its story about bankers taking bets on which protester would be arrested first. Early on in the movement, some on Wall Street made a point of drinking champagne on their balcony as protesters marched by. They probably wouldn't do that anymore.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.