One of the novels I’m working on, Blood and Loam, is set in 1970, and my main character, Stella, has come home in a daze from Kent State, trying to escape the violence. Of course, she will face her own war when she returns to her hometown, so there’s no running away from turmoil.
I was a kid when students marched and occupied school administration buildings to protest the Vietnam War. My only official protest occurred in high school a few years later when our teachers threatened to strike. A lot of us kids, in sympathy for our teachers, showed up at a school board meeting and disrupted it with our questions. We were angry, but nonviolent and asking sincere questions. The superintendent closed the board meeting to the public and called the state police, and we were ushered out. Some of us vowed to meet at the park on Saturday to discuss next steps, but I chickened out. I didn’t want to rock the boat.
In Zucotti Park, a group of people, many (though not all) of them young, have taken a strong stand — and I’m not just talking about the fact that many haven’t showered in days. They are willing to demonstrate for their future, to draw attention to corporate greed and government corruption. While hubby and I have talked privately about these matters, and occasionally slipped some money toward a political campaign, we did not take the added step of publicly declaring our concerns and organizing others who felt the same way.
As I visited with some of the young people, I saw that they are intelligent, thoughtful, and caring. We arrived early in the day, and some of the protesters were still sleeping, lined up in rows in the park. Others were walking around, chatting and making signs. A little while later, a row of drummers started playing.
There was an unexpected order to the park. One section was a designated library. In others, we saw a press room, complete with power; a kitchen area with a sign requesting vegetables and vegan food; an area where people could get socks and gloves for keeping warm during the night; and a medical area. It looked like a microcosm of a town.
The group acknowledges that they attract a wide range of people. Though the majority are young, and hence far more willing to spend days or weeks living outside, not all are. They even have their own newspaper, and one of the protesters gave me a copy of one. I read nothing “crazy” or even unrealistic in the paper, just newsy articles about the events going on.
Some thanked us for our support and asked us to go back to our homes to share the reality of what we saw. I thanked THEM for having the courage to take a stand. Americans are angry about corporate greed an corruption within our government. We have discussed these same issues privately in our own homes, but it never occurred to us that we could do something about it. Yes, we grew passive as we grew older, bemoaning the status quo but not having the courage to take a public stand.
Yes, these protesters have long hair, piercings, and tattoos, but they are exposing concerns that many of us have. It’s easy to “shoot the messenger,” but the message they are conveying is a valid one. I am reminded that back in the late 60s and early 70s, students were mocked for their appearance, but their protests made the war so unpopular that it did, I believe, make a difference. We can look back now and know that the hippies were right.
We were present to hear the “mic check” communications that go on — where one person yells “Mic check!” to get attention, and his or her words are shouted down the line to the group. During our stay there, they were looking for legal aid representatives. One of the women was being arrested for writing “Good morning, NYPD” on the sidewalk with chalk. Seriously?
That was the most disturbing part. The protesters were quietly talking and going about their business, not causing trouble. The police, on the other hand, seemed wired up and ready to confront. In fact, during one hubbub when we worked our way toward the action to see what was going on, Henry and I were briefly separated from each other. Worried that I was getting swept up into a mass arrest, I pulled back and turned around to look for him. A police officer brushed against me not once, but twice — and not because we were getting sandwiched together. I felt as though he was trying to either intimidate or provoke me. I pulled back to another area, getting as far away from him as I could, so I could call Henry. Fortunately, he found me at that moment, and we moved away from the action.
The protesters responded by inviting others to write on the sidewalk with chalk, a deliberate act of civil disobedience in solidarity with the woman who was arrested. We decided not to try our luck.
A few other observations:
“Spread the word,” one of them told me. “Go back to your city and tell everyone you know what you saw here.” I am doing that because I know that we are getting untruthful reporting in the mainstream media. It’s one thing to know that intellectually. It’s quite another to see it for myself, and I am sickened and disheartened at how sanitized the news has become. What else is going on that we haven’t learned about?
I am a fortunate woman. I live in an affluent area of Houston and visited Occupy Wall Street after leaving the safety and comfort of a hotel room. In a few days I will go back to a life that is largely insulated from many of the problems our country faces. I no longer have to work at a job where annual pressure was brought to bear on employees to financially support the company’s PAC — and, of course, its Republican candidates.
Still, we cannot sit idly by while our fellow Americans keep losing jobs, while our government gets increasingly bought and sold by corporate interests, and while those who brought the economy down receive special favors and corporate welfare. I am passing along what I have seen in hopes that these young people will, with enough voices raised in chorus, get the respect they are due for forcing attention to the many problems we as Americans all share.
Will marching on Wall Street solve our problems? Of course not. But if the attention called to our problems helps us shake off our apathy and vote, or to help grass roots service organizations keep going in a tough economy, or to defend our food supply by buying local and organic foods — in these ways and more, we are reminded by Occupy Wall Street that we can make a difference. We can make our country great again. We just have to fight a little harder.