Some media outlets have characterized the movement as an activist pastime for elite college students. In fact, a recent visit to the tiny part found that the the self-proclaimed “99 percenters” who eat, sleep and breathe the protest everyday are a varied bunch, similar only in their commitment to the various causes that unite them.
Most are young, either in college or in their mid-twenties, that is true. David G., an unemployed graduate at the University of Florida volunteers at the supplies tent, busying himself everyday sorting donations and distributing blankets and tarps to the protesters. Many of the protesters, fearing retaliation from employers or family, asked that their last names remain anonymous.
“I came with a friend and decided to stay. We're just starting to build a movement, and I wanted to be part of it.” David said.
Sophie, a 23 year-old Brooklyn native volunteers with David and shared a similar story.
“My boss is abroad, and he said that I could come down here instead of work at his juice bar in Brooklyn”, she said. “I started volunteering after I saw that they were short on hands. I've been here for about two weeks now.”
Occupy Wall Street started on Sept. 17 with a march through New York’s Financial District. Since then, protesters have camped out in Zuccotti Park, a privately managed plot situated just a block away from the World Trade Center Memorial. The spot was chosen strategically; because it is privately owned, police cannot kick out sleeping protesters for violating city laws that prohibit loitering.
Many of the volunteers and protesters took advantage of this loophole and decided that the goals of “Occupy Wall Street” were important enough to put their current lives on hold. Unlike the students who only come down for the weekends, protesters like Rebecca Borrer, a freshman at the New College of Florida, made a commitment to stay, even if that meant taking a semester away from school.
“I grew up in Manhattan, so I felt like it was my duty, in a way, to mobilize support. My dad comes down every once and a while to join the protest too. I wouldn't say it's inconvenient. It's worth the sacrifice.”
But not everyone can commit to sleeping in the park indefinitely. Older protesters, like Gene Wagner, 45 year-old artist, stays with the protesters for the day, then returns to his New Jersey studio. After Gene lost his job, he decided to contribute to the movement with his art. Selling his paintings at Zuccotti, Gene donates all of his profits to the movement at large.
“I donate this money because I find the protests so important. We live in a society where we are told what we want. We are pushed into most jobs, and a lot of the time, they’re not even worth it,” he said. “ When you get to the end of the rainbow, somebody has stolen your pot of gold.”
Occupy Wall Street, however, is not just for students or the unemployed. Dustin, a 26-year old college grad, finds steady employment as a freelancer in marketing. Nonetheless, he comes to the park every evening after work to protest.
“Things need to change,” he said. “I'm here because I think our country is just going to get worse, if no one does anything. If corporations are people, they should be in prison,” he said.
Brian Gotteman, a 23 year-old student and intern also used to spend all his time at the protest, but now has to cut back since finding employment. He now comes out in the evenings to show his continued solidarity. As a political science major, he feels particularly close to the cause and thinks he could offer constructive solutions.
“I think that because companies now have so much power, they should be determined by election. America would also benefit from proportional representation, but I’m less optimistic that this could actually happen.”
After graduating from Bard College in 2002, Bridget, who did not wish to share her last name, expected a much more lucrative career, but after living in Manhattan for 8 years, she has only managed a series of low-paying jobs. While she felt lucky to have a job, she explained that it was not enough. She held a sign that read, “I can’t even afford bootstraps,” a refernce to the old taunt that the jobless should just stop complaining and help themselves out of distress. Bridget embodies the college-aged protesters who fear they have trained for an economic future that has disappeared.
“I’m not quite sure why I’m here,” she remarked, as if the question surprised her. “I’m here for the general support of the movement. I feel like I need to express myself. I really do feel a discomfort, a dissatisfaction with the lack of bootstraps.”
Protesters also claimed diverse ethnic backgrounds. Native Americans, one of the most marginalized groups in American society also showed support. Before a sign that read, “Are you sure you can trust the Government? Just ask an Indian,” a Seneca group sat in the middle of the crowd. Terry, an elder in the tribe, was much less political in his reasoning for attending the protest. He drove from the tribal lands near Lake Erie in Western New York for a more spiritual purpose.
“I felt I had no choice but to be here,” he says, “I felt a basic call to consciousness. I was led here by the Spirit. Mother Earth has been sick for a long time.”
On a more tangible level, Terry, also known as Gadagey, meaning “on top of the chimney,” explained that he was also there for his 14 and 17 year-old daughters.
“I want the future to be different for them.” he said.
Although Terry has been coming to the protests daily since the beginning of October, he is a union ironworker and expects to be back at work within the next week.
“I’ll still come whenever I can, though. After work and on weekends.”
Terry was surprised to find out that he seemed to be part of a minority that was there on a more spiritual rather than political mission, but explained how the protest fit with his tribe’s beliefs.
“My ancestor, Handsome Lake prophesized decades ago that this would happen, that the people would rise up, as a sign of things to come.”
In Terry’s opinion, “healthy minds want to live in harmony,” and while he was impressed by the peaceful atmosphere and cooperation at the protests, he has a bleak outlook for the future.
“I think the situation is only going to get worse. I am worried that the government wants one world order, one currency, but I’m more concerned about maintaining diversity,” he stated.
The diversity of the Occupy Wall Street protesters holds both benefits and risks. The general sentiments expressed by the protest has resonated with many people, prompting Occupy movements across not only America, but in Europe and Asia as well. It voices a basic concern about wealth inequality across the world, but it also lacks a solid agenda to address it. Critics argue that Occupy Wall Street, while an excellent tactic to garner attention, cannot hope to achieve real change without developing a cohesive plan of action.
The future of Occupy Wall Street remains unclear. It has certainly succeeded in mobilizing a generation whose apathy many critics thought unshakable. While the protest has unified a such a diverse group around Zuccotti Park, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, the fragmentation of their solutions threatens to render their efforts politically impotent.
By Danielle and Rachel