If there weren’t signs expounding on the evils of capitalism everywhere, you might have thought that the gathering in Zuccotti Park on Sunday, a day after seven hundred protesters were arrested while blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, was simply an outdoor dance party with a free buffet.
But apart from such merriment, most of the people there to support the Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its third week, believe strongly that the occupation make a serious political statement with a clear message. In a nutshell, that message claims to speak against an unequal distribution of wealth wherein one percent of the American population benefits from the capitalism system, while the other ninety-nine percent is exploited. The protesters say that they are that ninety-nine percent and that, unless you are a millionaire, so are you.
One protester named Katie Vitarella, a twenty-two-year-old who lives in
Manhattan, sat with a hand-written sign that read, “We need sustainability. Don’t know what that is? Ask me.” So I did. While studying for a B.A. in philosophy at SUNY Purchase, where students had a community garden and practiced composting and recycling, Vitarella began thinking about society’s wastefulness. Vitarella joined the occupation on Tuesday and plans to sleep there every night until it is over. While it’s disappointing that the media has repeatedly looked for ways to depict the protesters negatively, she said, it is heartening to see other American cities forming occupations in solidarity.
Many New Yorkers brought their children to see the protest. Lisa Elkind, a computer programmer who live s in Manhattan, was telling her daughter, who looked around eleven-years-old, about the good ol’ days of political protest. “I wanted to expose my daughter to this,” she explained. She said that there were fewer protests these days, compared to her generation. When asked why that might be, she said after much thought that people must be afraid of government’s power. Then Elkind added that there were so many ways people were drugged these days – by technology, by pharmaceuticals. “If you’re unhappy you just take a drug, even children,” she said. Elkind disagreed with portrayals of the occupation as an aimless movement, she said. “It’s the cohesive Left’s point of view,” she explained. “I’m worried about our children. What kind of world are we giving them?”
Various progressive organizations came to the occupation on Sunday, including Code Pink, the International Socialist Review, and union members. Sixty-seven-year-old Jenny Heinz was one of the group visiting from the Granny Peace Brigade, a pacifist organization that formed in 2005. Heinz said she and her colleagues were thrilled to see this occupation taking place because it is so focused on process rather than goals. “Without a respect for process,” Heinz explained, “society continues as it is.”
The process Heinz was referring to is the combination of democratic consensus-building procedures the protesters are using to make decisions as they go along. There is no hierarchy within the occupation; rather anyone who sees a potential problem or idea can act on it simply by voicing it to the entire community during General Assembly meetings.
The official Occupy Wall Street manifesto that was released a few days ago outlines the main grievances held by the protesters: collusion between government and corporation, lack of protection of individuals’ rights, and much (much!) more.
Some of the protesters have more specific issues in mind. Kelly Wolcott, a thirty-one-year-old public school teacher based in Brooklyn and a chapter leader of the United Federation of Teachers, was part of a group known as the “Bloombergville” protesters that formed this summer to protest citywide budget cuts. “The city was slashing budgets in a time of surplus,” explained Wolcott. She had previously been involved with the UFT’s effort to lobby City Council members to vote down any budget cuts that would lead to layoffs or cuts in public schools. They had successfully convinced over half of the Council members when Bloomberg “cut a deal” with the UFT in which he promised that layoffs would not occur if the teachers made “certain concessions.” After that, said Wolcott, only one Council member supported their lobbying efforts. At the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, where Wolcott teaches eighth-grade English, she said that one guidance counselor and one secretary had been let go, and the school budget had been cut by $500,000. The average yearly salary for public school teachers in her building, said Wolcott, is about $60,000. “School is not a business opportunity,” she said. “Education is a right.”
Most media outlets have been and continue to be critical of the protests. On Sunday Nicholas Kristof suggested ways the protesters could turn their endless list of grievances into specific demands. But there’s another way of looking at the Occupy Wall Street movement that isn’t so instrumentalist, instead seeing it as a form of expression and relationship-forming. If you’re feeling despondent about the economic and political situation in the country, it helps to know that you’re not alone. If you or someone you know has lost your home, been laid-off, returned traumatized from tour in Afghanistan, or watched the numbers of homeless people increasing, it’s nice to find others who are also struggling and want to see a more equitable society.
In other words, to paraphrase a protester’s sign, if you’ve lost your job, you might as well find an occupation.