The beginning for me was back in the late 60s when I was a student at UC Berkeley. The array of opportunities before me was staggering, all of them out of the classroom. I could become an activist, a protester, an anti-war demonstrator; I could become proactive in the political system and work towards change in society. I could support the Black Panthers. My husband and I lived a block from People’s Park. So what did I do with this panoply of possibility? Not a thing.
I was young, naive and I didn’t understand what was happening. I missed the civil rights movement because I was in high school in California and we couldn’t imagine what it was like in the south. I hadn’t followed the Vietnam War, so I sat that out. By the time I realized it was something to pay attention to, I was too far behind. I was newly married and all I really wanted to do was have a baby.
As the years progressed I understood, so when protesters took a stand at Zuccotti Park in New York and became known as Occupy Wall Street, I paid attention. I wanted to see for myself. I knew I couldn’t spend more than a couple of days, but they were important days for a couple of reasons. One, I felt history was unfolding that could turn into one of the seminal moments of our century, like Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, or all the events of 1968 were in the last century. I was not going to miss this one.
Second, I wanted to see for myself so when I read the press accounts, listened to the commentators and reporters, and read what citizens had to say, I would know how to judge it for myself. Recently TIME Magazine named the protester as their Person of the Year, and I feel better for having caught on to this movement early.
I made a sign that I rolled up in a tube and took with me. It said “Remember the Constitution? We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…promote the general welfare…” And then, “WE are the people, not Wall Street and not corporations.” And I got flak.
People stopped. Why do you hate us? They asked. Why do you hate everyone who works on Wall Street? Why do you hate corporations? I tried to explain that Wall Street, the 99%, the 1%, the word “corporations” are symbols because my sign could not say “We are the people, not Wall Street except of course for people who are employees or middle managers and not robbing us all by creating things like hedge funds that produce nothing of value, just money for the already wealthy and I don’t hate corporations but am bothered by the Supreme Court ruling that says corporations in essence are people too, and have rights under the first amendment and can spend as much money as they want on campaigns, so now corporations will be able to buy power and elections more than ever as if they haven’t already held power through their lobbyists,” and so on.
I can’t say all that on a sign. So the words are symbolic.
Then people would dismissively say, well, what are the demands? What do you want? And I would answer that I didn’t think it was important in the beginning to have well articulated goals because what was happening was a groundswell of discontent with the status quo. THAT was the message. There was massive discontent throughout society all over the world. Here, we were upset that corporations were raking in record profits while the rest of us were hurting; executives were making billions of dollars while their companies paid well less than the 35% corporate tax rate; big banks got bailouts and quickly recouped their losses, paid the government back, and made more money than ever. But people were still losing homes. People were losing homes while big banks subverted plans to help stave off foreclosure.
The concept of general welfare was lost. Lobbyists were buying Congress and Congress was selling, operating on some fuzzy principle that made self-preservation and enrichment more important than governing. Our elected representatives were not for The People, they were for themselves.
For years, while teaching a leadership class in eighth grade, I told my students that the gap was widening between the poor and the upper class, and the middle class was in danger of disappearing. I told them that that was a factor in fomenting revolution. Revolution doesn’t mean guns and fighting all the time; some of the most successful revolutions are non-violent. Revolution means taking a stand and sticking to your ground until real change occurs. I was told I was exaggerating and nothing like that would happen. But here we are all around the world – revolting.
So the groundswell of discontent was enough for now. Let the people regain some power. It doesn’t matter that occupiers have different interests – political, financial, environmental, and so on – it’s the sense of fairness in all endeavors that is paramount, having a voice that is listened to and acted upon.
Then people referenced Democrats and anarchists and the homeless and the kitchen sink. No, I said, this isn’t about Democrats and Republicans. The Tea Party movement arose from a groundswell of discontent also. Take the most extreme Democrats and Republicans and they will intersect on the other side of the circle. We are not all that different. Maybe Republicans gravitate to the Tea Party and Democrats to Occupy Wall Street, but it’s all a reaction to discontent with the status quo. The Republican primary is also indicative of a groundswell of discontent. It’s, as my friend Pat Johnson said, like the game Whack a Mole – one candidate is smacked down while another bounces up. People can’t decide who they want because no one is measuring up. Discontent.
So, I went to New York and spent some days at Zuccotti Park and this is what I saw.
I saw people waking up in the morning.
I saw people at the encampment being fed. No one was turned away.
Although organization was loose, I saw that everyone agreed on the need to adhere to some basic rules and standards.
Lots had been said about how dirty everything was, but it didn’t look that way to me. There was a concerted effort to keep litter at bay and keep the park cleaned up.
People were prepared for basic first-aid needs.
A big library sprung up and I must admit I wasn’t sure why; but at least reading and learning was felt to be important and that is something in short supply in today’s society, where ignorance is often celebrated.
There was inclusion, not exclusion.
There were workshops and meetings and assemblies so people could understand and discuss what was happening. Much fun has been made of the general assemblies and how impossible it is to get consensus, on why a leader is needed, but our country wasn’t founded with the snap of a finger. It took a long time to sort out leadership and issues and words. It’s not easy work. It will take time and hard work and courage on the part of whichever members of Congress can summon some to get this worked out too.
AND there were the people.
There were Asians and blacks and Hispanics and whites.
There were students.
There were veterans.
Sirius radio was broadcasting.
There were drummers and I confess to not quite understanding why drumming was necessary and it did become annoying – but it also added to the urgency and the atmosphere.
There were LOTS of people – full-time occupiers and working folk who came on the weekends to lend support.
There were retired people too – because I was one of them.
There were tourists going by in buses. Zuccotti Park, previously unknown by everyone including most New Yorkers, was now a destination.
There were people giving haircuts and giving out clothing for those who needed a change. Other people helped with laundry. It was an instant community.
There was a makeshift altar for those of all faiths to have a moment of peace.
There were families. Young and old.
Pretty much normal people. Not a bunch of weirdos. Of course there was the occasional weirdo or extremist, but that happens anywhere you go. That was the exception.
There were also passers-by who were not just gawkers, but talked to people to understand and learn.
There were supplies and places to make posters.
There were union members.
There were incongruities, like this fellow whose guitar case and songs spoke of old-fashioned protest while the person he was with filmed with an iPad.
There was organized entertainment.
And there was humor.
And of course, there was law enforcement. From what I observed, much of the cost incurred by law enforcement agencies was self-inflicted. This was clearly a peaceful, non-violent occupation by intent and self-policing. Law enforcement was way out of proportion to what was happening.
I was there three days in late October. I was lucky I was able to go and could afford it. I didn’t make a big difference; me being there was just one more body in the crowd those three days, one more protester holding a sign. But I did something at least. I tried to understand if nothing else. I took a stand. I’m proud of being there and holding a sign, which is way out of my comfort zone.
I wish everyone would take notice and think about it, not jump to conclusions and be judgmental. We have a rare opportunity right now to take back the country. And I think that’s exactly what this is about – taking back the country from the lobbyists, the big corporations whose tax breaks never gave anyone a job (in my opinion), and our own congress who for the most part are not working for the interests of the people. They’re working for the interests of the rich, and they get rich while doing it.