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Walking into an occupation

Voices from the front lines of the Occupy Wall Street movement

Protesters from and members of dozens of labor unions marched through Lower Manhattan from Zuccotti Park to Foley Square Oct. 5 in what media commentators called the biggest rally to date for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest that began last month.

An estimated 20,000 people, including a contingent from Windham County, streamed down the sidewalks past tourists, fellow New Yorkers, and police officers chanting, “We are the 99 percent, and so are you!”

The rallying cry for the nonviolent occupation of the privately owned Zuccotti Park in the city’s financial district distills the protesters’ frustrations with a political and economic system that allows unprecedented control of the country’s wealth to a disproportionately tiny sliver of the U.S. population.

Response to the protest has ranged from positive, to negative, to disbelief, to hope, to praise, to befuddlement at the protesters’ lack of a crystallized set of demands.

Two faculty members from Marlboro College Graduate Center, Ralph Meima and Caleb Clark, along with Brattleboro resident Shoshana Rihn and Meima’s daughter Kristina, drove to New York on Oct. 5 to observe the march.

Walking into an occupation

Cars, vans, delivery trucks, double-decker tour buses, and taxis crawl through the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Waves of pedestrians cross the street as the traffic signals change, hold, and release.

Around the corner from Ground Zero, a white passenger van from Marlboro College Graduate School stops for a red light. Clark and Rihn jump out.

Clark carries a cardboard box of food. He tells Meima to send a text once he’s found parking.

The light changes. Meima, with his 15-year-old daughter Kristina as co-pilot, drives away. Clark and Rihn stride in the opposite direction searching for Zuccotti Park.

Zuccotti Park, a stone postage stamp dotted with trees, served as a staging area for emergency crews after 9/11. Bordered by Church Street and Broadway, the privately owned park has flower beds and stone rectangles that serve as benches. Buildings tower above the area. Food trucks ring the park.

Clark and Rihn turn onto Church Street in search of the Occupy Wall Street protest, which started Sept. 17, when an estimated 2,000 people marched on the city’s financial sector. The protest has spread to more than 65 cities around the United States.

Seeing firsthand

The overflowing Zuccotti Park, which protesters have renamed “Liberty Park,” continued to fill with their numbers, as well as with curious onlookers, advocates, union members, and more media than one could shake a microphone at.

Alison, who did not wish to give her last name, calls herself one of “the timid ones.”

She divides her time between her “place” in New York and her home in Charlotte, Vt.

She says she has concerns about the power of the Tea Party movement and wanted to check out the OWS protest.

“[This protest] seems to mean something,” she says.

Alison had walked to Zuccotti Park that morning because she wanted to see OWS first hand. To her, the voices calling for change in the small park came from “regular people, not extreme voices.”

She also noted that the media has not covered the protest as much as she expected. Alison thinks the protest has been “ignored somewhat.”

Taking the long view

Danny Schechter promotes his new film Plunder: The Crime of Our Time as he walks through the park.

The longtime journalist started his career as the “News Dissector” at WBCN-FM in Boston. He later transitioned to television, working at WGBH (Channel 2) in Boston, and then as a producer for WLVI (Channel 56) and WCVB (Channel 5) and CNN.

Schechter has reported from 61 countries for mainstream and alternative newspapers, magazines, and websites. He has worked as an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and taught investigative reporting at The New School.

Schechter has participated in many protests over the years. He said that, compared to the 1960s marches, Occupy Wall Street is “an expression of another generation.”

He acknowledges that many activists in that era “were at odds” with labor unions. Schechter hoped that the Oct. 5 march represents an evolution in attitudes.

To Schechter, OWS appears less ideological, less top-down, and more interactive. He also describes the protest as “intergenerational, interracial, and international,” and believes that OWS represents the frustrations people have felt in the face of powerful forces in Washington and Wall Street.

“[We’re] finally coalescing a challenge to what’s going on,” Schehcter says, adding the people standing in Zuccotti Park are “not wackos.”

As a journalist specializing in economic issues, Schechter says he’s warned that Wall Street’s “financial crimes” would come to roost upon everyday people.

OWS has built a hopeful, if fragile, momentum, he says: “It’s something.”

But Schechter believes the future of the OWS protest and the community at Zuccotti Park looks uncertain with the oncoming winter.

“I’m inspired by it,” Schechter says. “I worry for it.”

The self-esteem generation

Tom Wahman points to his friend Alan Gilburg. “I’m here because of Alan,” he says.

In their blazers, dress pants and ties, the two gentlemen in their 70s could pass as two Liberty Plaza office workers out on their lunch break.

Gilburg, from Holyoke, Mass, represents the First Congressional District in western Massachusetts as a council organizer for, a left-leaning education and advocacy organization.

“I have got to be here,” Gilburg said. “This is the tip of the wedge that will break the corporations open.”

Gilburg said he loves the “young energy” of the protest — a protest that has “muted the influence of the Tea Party.”

He thinks most of the coverage in the media has erred on the side of lies, while the “Wall Street world” acts like nothing is happening.

Shaking his head, Gilburg describes the current political debate as an argument between “the ruthless and the clueless.”

He likens the choice between the two dominant political parties as a choice “between Stormtroopers or C-3PO.”

“The system is rigged and it’s always been rigged,” Gilburg says.

Wahman says that, in the 1950s and 1960s, unions pushed for better education and health care for their workers. They also pushed for civil rights, he adds. These rights expanded to all workers, but as labor’s power weakened, no one took its place to defend and preserve those worker benefits.

He calls Wall Street “parasites” who are perpetually sucking money from the economy through financial instruments like hedge funds, adding that 70 to 80 percent of hedge funds are unregulated and operate in secrecy.

A few months ago, adds Wahman, he attended another demonstration in New York City to protest against corporate taxes.

About 300 people showed up, and someone preformed a skit.

Wahman describes the tepid attendance as “symbolic of the powerlessness” people feel, he says. But the energy in Zuccotti Park feels different.

“God bless these kids,” says Gilburg.

Gilburg refers to the young twentysomething protesters as “the self-esteem generation.” Unlike Generation X, he said, these kids believe “we deserve a better, more just society.”

The closest thing to hope?

“I don’t know how to compare [OWS]” to earlier protests, says Rihn, one of the Windham County participants.

Rihn describes herself as a “red diaper baby” following in her parents’ activist footsteps.

Over the past 10 years, however, she says, she has felt discouraged at protests because the crowd looked “older and older.”

However, OWS “is clearly young-dominated,” she says, adding she feels “delighted and thrilled” to see a new generation spearheading a movement.

And the people participating in OWS belong to a different time, culture, and context from those who took to the streets in the 1960s.

Rihn has felt frustrated with the media’s coverage of OWS. She says that reporters have ignored the movement, or they have dismissed the protesters as villainous, stupid, or ineffectual.

With the march to Foley Square, the protesters have “forced the news to report” on it, says Rihn. And even if the media continues to heap contempt, OWS’s message has “hit a nerve.”

In Rihn’s opinion, so many people see themselves reflected in the OWS protesters that the movement won’t go away.

She says that she sees “all that energy and support and determination” and knows that “this is not a flash in the pan.”

“This could be the start of a significant movement for change in this country,” says Rihn.

Rihn says that from listening to the people gathered in New York, she heard big concerns about losing jobs, losing their homes, and crushing debt.

“I was struck by the specifics,” she says.

“We were activists in a time of abundance,” Rihn said of her time in the 1960s.

She says that, in her younger days, people could fight for ideals while still holding down jobs and having money to pay their bills.

But, she says, Americans are living tethered at the end of a long chain of broken promises.

“The American people were promised ‘If I work for a living, then I can earn a living,’” Rihn says.

But living paycheck to paycheck “is not living,” she said.

The energy at OWS feels like the “closest thing to hope as my personality and political outlook will allow,” Rihn says with a laugh.

“The American people are coming alive, coming awake, and they’re not going to take it lying down,” she says. “Things may not change, but we’re not going to be quiet.”

Rihn says that she can see the value in the protesters not stating any demands at this early stage. The country has so many issues to take on that getting people out and involved may be the best first step.

Participants can sort issues as they go along maybe eventually breaking into focus groups, she says.

For now, Rihn loves the “We are the 99 percent” call to action because it contains an education of how the economic system leaves many out.

“There will always be assholes trying to screw other people,” she says. “So we always need our dissenters.”

The center of it all

Clark and Meima plan to chronicle their trip through social media. Clark also filmed the march to post as an independent CNN iReport, the cable network’s program encouraging video contributions from viewers.

This was Day 18 of the protest, and the day that dozens of labor unions joined the leaderless movement in a march from Zuccotti Park to Foley Square.

A protester organizing a tarp and sleeping bags points Clark toward the open-air kitchen. The volunteers behind the kitchen’s counter say “thank you” as they accept Meima and Clark’s donation of cookies, apples, and peanut butter.

People stream through the park.

Some display “Hello my name is” tags. A man walks by wearing a coat with “INFO” Sharpie-d on the back. Another man in a three-piece beige suit, silver cufflinks, and loafers died oxblood sits on a stone bench eating a muffin. Protesters holding placards line the steps under Mark di Suvero’s red sculpture Joie de Vivre, which reaches toward a blue sky.

Members of the U.S. and international media stop the hundreds of people flowing past to ask questions.

Police stand on the sidewalk circling Zuccotti Park.

“You can’t block the sidewalk. Keep moving,” an officer says to the tourists stopping for photographs.

The protesters have organized the park into a community. In addition to the kitchen, they have established a medical area, a place for sleeping, a press area, and a library.

Volunteers can sign up to help with outreach, media, and Internet at folding tables throughout the park. Each station lists a daily meeting time.

According to Nathan Schneider, in his article “Occupation for Dummies: How it came about, what it means, how it works and everything,” although the occupation remains leaderless by choice, numerous organizations helped spark it.

Schneider’s article appeared in the The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a publication distributed in Zuccotti Park and online.

Schneider credits Adbusters, a Canadian magazine, with being the first to call for a protest in mid-July.

Other organizations joined the cause, including US Day of Rage, which calls for fair and free elections where only people make political campaign donations.

Anonymous, a group of clandestine computer hackers, joined in August, said Schneider. People involved with NYC General Assembly also helped with the planning in the city.

Decisions get made via consensus through a consortium of protestors, the NYC General Assembly, said Schneider.

“Get ready for some jargon,” Schneider warns. “The General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought.”

According to Schneider, the General Assembly is similar to the assemblies that drove the social movements in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.

“Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating, and slow,” Schneider writes. “But the occupiers are taking their time. When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible.”

The movement has not named its demands, because, writes Schneider, the political system “is so shot through with corporate money” that making demands would yield little until the protest grows its own political muscles.

Most of the people involved with the protest have no desire to get themselves arrested or instigate violence, writes Schneider.

Still, the protesters have clashed with police. On Sept. 24, the New York Police Department (NYPD) arrested 80 people,“mainly for disorderly conduct by individuals who blocked vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but also for resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and, in one instance, for assault on a police officer,” the police said in a statement.

According to Reuters, on Oct. 1 police arrested more than 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge during a march after some participants stepped off the sidewalk and onto the roadway.

As the protest moves forward, the participants have created some structure.

On Sept. 29, the General Assembly (GA) released a document called Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. It listed the 22 reasons that brought the protesters to Zuccotti Park.

“We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known,” writes the GA.

Most of the reasons center on economic injustices.

The list of grievances ranges from banks foreclosing on homeowners illegally, to executives receiving “exorbitant” bonuses, to energy companies covering up oil spills, to corporations perpetuating workplace inequality and discrimination, to companies determining economic policy, to agribusiness poisoning the food supply “through negligence, and [undermining] the farming system through monopolization.”

‘$900 I don’t have’

Cara Hartley moved from Indiana to New York City in July. She heard of the protest via an email list she belongs to, and she says she wanted to “check it out.”

“I’m fascinated with this new democratic process,” she says.

Hartley says she has $40,000 in student loans from earning her English degree. She works as a waitress and shares a room for $300 a month.

And every month, Sallie Mae, the agency that originates many federally insured student loans, calls to ask her for “$900 I don’t have,” she said.

Hartley says she bought into the “myth of college,” believing that she could better her life and income on “the merit of my degree.”

She wants to see the current economic system — the system that “benefits a few” — change.

The 27-year-old believes that officials don’t hear people.

“Let’s make our representatives represent us,” she says.

Hartley disagrees with some news outlets that have criticized the movement for not releasing any concrete demands.

No demands is a good thing at this stage, she says.

The weeks-old movement has launched conversations and ideas, she says. Right now, there is no one solution and it’s important to focus on “all that is wrong,” Hartley asserts.

“We just need huge change,” she says, adding that “solutions are important.”

The first step, she says, involves organizing and involving people. The ideas will come about, and awareness will rise.

She points to the tables ringing the park labelled “newspaper,” “security,” “internet and open source,” and “outreach.”

“[We’re] being a part of history,” she said. “Occupy everywhere.”

Not your ‘hippie dance party’

Tom Maxwell drove 11 hours from North Carolina on Sunday, Oct. 2. He plans to drive back home after the march.

He had followed OWS since it started, but decided to drive to New York City after a friend of a friend became one of more than 700 arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge Oct. 1.

Sitting in the middle of the park, Maxwell, 46, calls the protest “extraordinary.”

“This isn’t a hippie dance party,” he says.

At first, he thought the movement was disorganized. Instead, he found a protest that is “decentralized.”

The community existing on a small bit of granite in Lower Manhattan appears flexible to Maxwell.

“It’s a new way of organizing [a protest],” he says. I’m amazed at the “media savvy and marvelous diversity of my fellow citizens.”

Maxwell believes the protest will evolve, “seeding itself” and eventually feeding the national conversation. For example, he says, Occupy North Carolina’s participation has tripled in a week.

“The name of the game is perseverance,” Maxwell says, adding that he will stay involved as he can.

In his opinion, people “don’t want to admit the [current financial system] is broken,” that people don’t possess the same level of wealth as their parents, and the middle class has evaporated.

He says that people need to “meaningfully address” the current corporate structure and remedy the imbalances — like “monstrous” for-profit health insurance corporations.

Maxwell’s son, now 8, survived leukemia many years ago. Maxwell says that he had health insurance through work at the time, but the premiums went sky-high in response to his son’s cancer treatment.

Maxwell said he lost his job in the recession and now is trying to support himself as an artist.

He says that some of the country’s current problems have been “carefully crafted” by people who prefer a population “dog-paddling and paying bills” over an “informed electorate.”

“It’s every man for himself, and we have to be self-reliant,” he says.

For three years, Maxwell says, the country has felt a dangerous combination of “dispossessed and hopeless.”

The people participating in OWS are peaceful, wanting to avoid arrests, he points out. But if politicians in Washington don’t address the protesters’ grievances in a meaningful way, he fears things could eventually turn ugly.

“I don’t want that,” Maxwell says.

The ratio of the 99 percent to the 1 percent may “not be the America we want,” but we can change this, he says.

Maxwell believes in acting beyond the “old dichotomy of left or right,” and instead acting through collaborative “targeted participation by people of different political stripes.”

More than ‘lucky’

Senia Barragan, a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University, checks the time.

Originally from New Jersey, she has helped organize the student walkout orchestrated to coincide with OWS’s afternoon march with New York Students Rising (NYSR).

According to its website, NYSR is a statewide network of students and campus organizations. The network aims to defend public higher education and empower students, who, they say, are often underrepresented in the campus administrations and state government. Students, NYSR points out, face higher public education tuition and more student loan debt.

Barragan, who has considered herself an activist since high school, hopes that 1,500 to 2,000 students will walk out of their classes and down to Foley Square.

She said she was participating in OWS on behalf of her working family members.

Her family almost lost their home to foreclosure because of a predatory loan. These loan companies make a habit of preying on poor whites, hispanics, and blacks, Barragan says.

In her opinion, Barragan finds it interesting that often corporations blame the working class for not having the money to provide for daily needs like food, clothing, and housing.

But the inequity exists in society with a playing field tilted against people without the financial resources or connections to avoid “horrific” situations like foreclosure.

Barragan says that, without her family, she would be homeless.

Although her family saved their home, Barragan says, “I don’t want anyone to feel that way.”

“We’re the lucky ones,” she says.

But, Barragan adds, she doesn’t want luck. She wants “all to have what they need.”


Giovanni Almonte, a certified life coach located in New York City and credited through the International Coaching Federation, volunteers because he sees a number of people looking to make a positive change but feeling unsure how to engage with the OWS movement.

“[OWS] has no identity,” Almonte said, adding people should know “that this is inclusive.”

He says that the movement stands wide open. Almonte says that he listens to people and helps them get “in touch with their own values” and reasons for joining the movement.

“Intelligent people” — from professors, authors, economists, philosophers, and artists — have stopped at Almonte’s table to talk.

People, he says, have expressed to him values of quality, compassion, love, community, and putting humans before the almighty dollar.

They’re interested in becoming “involved intelligently,” he said. “People just want to make a better world.”

Engaging through ideas

Meima says that one of the ways he is participating in the protest is by starting a OWS-inspired discussion from his laptop.

In addition to providing support for the protestors, Meima also wanted to present a document, The American People’s New Economic Charter (APNEC).

Meima says he created the “crowdsourced” document — one to which anyone can contribute ideas — based on Occupy Wall Street’s Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, released Sept. 29.

The declaration’s list of 22 reasons for the occupation mostly centered on economic concerns, says Meima. He hopes the APNEC, publicly available as a Google Doc, will help contribute to a new economic structure in America.

On the APNEC’s cover page, Meima calls the charter a “a crowdsourced expression of popular will — created by and for the 99 percent.”

As Meima moves through New York City, he notes that 80 people contributed to the charter. For three days, the document had remained completely open, he says. But repeated sabotage has forced Meima to limit participation to individuals who identified themselves.

Chanting in the streets

“Mic check! Mic check!” calls one of the march supporters to the increasing crowd.

“Mic check!” the crowd calls back.

To comply with city rules, the protesters don’t use megaphones. They are using a call-and-response system of shouted messages that relay through the crowd from messenger to listeners.

The supporter goes over guidelines for the march: “The walk back from Foley Square is permitted. The walk there is not. Stay on the sidewalk.

“We ask.... No one break the rules. “We ask... that no one start to riot.

“Stay together, keep moving, we’re peacekeepers. Here are your rights if you’re arrested.... You don’t have to consent to a search.... You don’t have to give your immigration status.... Here’s the number for the National Lawyers Guild, New York, write it on your arm.

A volunteer hands out a pamphlet by the Guild: “Know Your Rights.”

“We just want you to be safe,” he says.

The crowd moves up the steps past the red Joie di Vivre sculpture and onto Broadway.

The sideway barely holds the bumpy mass of people trying to squeeze past media with long-lensed cameras and tourists snapping photos with iPhones and disposable cameras. The police line the sidewalk telling people to stay off the roadway.

The marchers raise signs above their heads.

Chants rise over the city’s drumbeat of engines, construction sites, and pedestrians watching from across the road.

“Occupy Wall Street: All day — all week!”

“We are the 99 percent, and so are you.”

“The banks got bailed out. We got sold out.”

“NYPD, you’re the 99 percent just like me. You’ll join us, wait and see.”

“This is what democracy looks like.”

The marchers find their rhythm and fall into step. The sea of people winds its way for at least an hour down Broadway to Worth Street and empties into the green grass and streets around Foley Square.

A woman in the crowd says she decided to march for her son and 9-year-old grandson.

She says her parents raised five children. They had a “good life,” she recalls: not a fancy life — everyone had hand-me-down clothes — but her parents put food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads, her mother put two children through college, and the family could afford vacations.

All on factory wages, she says. But her son and grandson can’t have a good life with the current economy.

Home base

Night falls as the protesters return to home base in the park. Some staying the night crawl into sleeping bags under heavy blue tarps.

Meanwhile, a woman shyly watches the people in Zuccotti Park.

She says she works in Liberty Plaza.

The bosses look out their windows and say “Oh, those protesters,” she says. But some of the younger people in the office agree with the protesters.

She said someday, maybe, she will come to a OWS rally if she ever feels braver.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #122 (Wednesday, October 12, 2011).

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