Being an alumnus of the London School of Economics, I am no stranger to political protests. In a school known for its Fabian (socialist) roots and die-hard support for the Palestinian cause, political demonstrations were the favored pastime. We had our own version of an occupation, when students occupied the Old Theatre lecture hall in January 2009 to defend Gaza. But even LSE could not have quite prepared me for Occupy Wall Street. This is not just your average protest, nor is it just, as Meghan Barr mischaracterized it, just “a group of 20 something’s in flannel pajamas and tie-dyed T-shirts.” Despite what people like Michael Reagan might say, the Occupy Movement isn’t one of those things that can just be ignored until it goes away.
It all began when the Adbusters, known for its activist magazine challenging consumerism, proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to demand ‘Democracy, to replace Corporatocracy’. On September 17th, 2011, around 1000 protesters marched on Wall Street, with a several hundred spending the night in cardboard boxes in Zuccotti Park. Originally labeled a bust because turnout didn’t meet expectations, the movement has continued to grow over the last month and a half, spreading to over 100 major cities and communities across the country and many more cities abroad. Originally just a few hundred sleeping in boxes, the movement has now grown to acquire tents, bike-powered generators and even its own ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Library.
This last week I spoke with 10 protesters across the country to learn more about the occupiers.
From my first visit to Liberty Plaza when the movement was only 7 days old, one clear thing stands out: this is isn’t just a student protest. From dogs with cardboard signs strapped to their backs saying “Come on Wall Street, give me a bone” to Christians toting the words: “Jesus is Not For Corporate Greed” to matrons knitting hats with a sign “Grandmas for Occupy Wall Street”, this movement attracts all types. Strolling through the park, I not only saw signs protesting Wall Street, but also signs against the War, against the death penalty, against religion and against a lot more.
The Occupation is “collective hive… leaderless and faceless”, says Dr. Ryan Bartek of Occupy Portland & Bohemian Grove. He and others I spoke to, explain that its lack of leadership is its strength. Occupy Wall Street is a coalition in the truest sense.
Protesters have joined the movement for a variety of reasons, and while some, like Ilona Trogub, have been activists for years, others have recently joined, such as Craig Boehman (manager of the Occupy Wall Street page on Facebook) who joined when he was “politically awakened” after a cloud of tear gas blew over a nightclub he was leaving.
“We are the 99%” is the political slogan adopted by OWS to explain their coalition, referring to recent distribution of wealth in the US. According to Rana Foroohar’s article in this week’s Time magazine, the incomes of the top 1% of Americas accounts for 21% of the USA’s income and 35% of its wealth. Noreen Malone from New York Magazine pointed last month, only 55.3% of people ages 16-29 have jobs, the lowest percentage since World War Two.
What Do They Want?
Gina McGill, an IT Business Analyst/Programmer turned protester, explains, “99% of the people are affected… Everyone feels the pain [so] the Occupy Movement means standing up and saying to our political representatives: ‘You have not represented us but have allowed special interests, mainly Wall St. and corporations, to make the political decisions that you were entrusted to make on our behalf and this must stop now!”
Occupy Wall Street is not just a protest but an expression of emotion, as Ilona Trogub points out, “Most of the 99% are hurt and angry.”
Craig Boehman explains: “Big money from corporate interests has been substantial enough to subvert the people’s right to petition their governments effectively.”
Want to Get Involved?
Occupy Wall Street has vowed to stay at Liberty Plaza until change occurs. If you want to take part, head down to Liberty Plaza or check out the Welcome Table, run by the Outreach Working group and sign up to take part in a committee or subgroup. Of course, you can also simply access the many websites online.
Worried about your safety or getting arrested? Last Friday, in response to recent incidents, a military tent has been set up as a Women’s Safe Space for women to sleep in if worried about safety. As for being arrested, it is legal to march on a sidewalk if you do not excessively block pedestrian traffic and as of October 20th, is legal to sleep in Liberty Plaza. Check out www.nycga.com for further legal information.
You can also help out by donating money, ordering food or donating the use of your laundry and shower facilities. Check out www.nycga.net/how-to-help/ for further information.
Occupy Wall Street: Liberty Plaza, formerly Zuccotti Park, Broadway & Liberty Street (near Ground Zero)
Websites: www.occupywallst.org; www.occupytogether.org; www.adbusters.org/campaigns/occupywallstreet; www.nycga.net/resources/faq