When I approached Joshua, 20, he seemed reluctant for an interview, but was going to give me a chance anyway. I asked him his age. His occupation. “Homeless,” he replied. I scribbled down his answer, trying to hide the knot in my chest from such a succinct and gut-wrenching reply.
“So how long have you been a part of Occupy Wall Street?” I asked.
“Four days,” he answered. This being the third week of the occupation, he was a relative newcomer.
“And what made you decide to come here?”
“I’m mentally disabled and can’t have a job, and disability isn’t enough to live on.” He told me he was here to fight discrimination against the mentally disabled and become part of an activist movement. He said he had been in house-in-crisis since he was 18.“Usually I have a hard time finding people willing to listen to my cause,” he said. “But here, that’s different. Here there’s a bunch of people who really want to change things.”
I thought about writing this article about the political process of the movement, and the societal implications of its coming about. And all of this is of the utmost importance, especially at this point in what many hope to be a significant revolution of sorts. But those things are more easily found in news articles, or at the movement’s website. And hey, even Slavoj Zizek made a visit and offered his analysis. What struck me the most when I went down to Zuccotti Park (or, as the OWS crew calls it, Liberty Square) is the community that has gathered there. There are people from all different walks of life that have come together with a common goal of making their country a better place. So instead of just talking politics, I’m talking people. At the root of this movement, of that occupied square, are the individuals that have made it happen.
When I asked Joshua what change he hoped to see come out of the movement, his answer didn’t revolve around political reform. Instead, he told me that he would like to see a society where people feel more empowered to make changes, and more spaces like this park where people are willing to listen to others and learn from them despite their differences. He told me that he believes change can only come when people cooperate with those that are different from them.
Becky, 24, a massage therapist from Maine, has been at the occupation since the first day. She, along with many of the other original residents, are responsible for much of the initial logistical problem-solving of the camp as well as the foundational philosophical discussions from which the movement has grown. She told me that she originally came here to document the event, and ended up becoming a larger part of it instead.“There’s something about coming together [here],” she told me. “Your wall isn’t up, you’re instantly connecting with people. It’s like a square full of soul mates.”
I noticed it, too. Conversations flowed more easily between strangers, and meaningful connections were made far more quickly than I’d seen happen before. Soul mates? Maybe. But what was certain was that here people slowed down and actually valued what others had to say.“People are just willing to listen,” Becky said.
A girl who goes by Ketchup, 22, an artist and waitress from Chicago, also at the park since the first day, chimed in. “[The movement is] organization-based. It’s about how we organize ourselves, not about demands. It’s not message-based, and for that it’s so much stronger.” Much of the movement has been criticized for not having a list of objectives.
“We have accomplished so much already,” said Becky.Both Ketchup and Becky told me that they have learned so much about others, and themselves, since answering the AdBusters magazine’s announcement and arriving at Zuccotti Park the first day. Neither said that they had been involved in radical political movements before this, though both have been constantly concerned with the current events (and problems) in the United States. Ketchup told me that she never thought to get politically involved before because it seemed “pointless.” This general feeling of helplessness seems, to me, common among this generation; if the political system is controlled by the kinds of people they will never be, and the news they get is skewed information, how can they ever affect change?I thought about my own experience with the movement. Before going down to Zuccotti Park, I was skeptical of the whole thing. The last thing I thought to do was read the newspapers’ accounts of what was happening; I heard some snippets of information from others, but generally remained ignorant until I went down there myself to talk to people and figure it out. Without deliberately doing so, I had chosen to bypass the traditional information news sources of our society, not trusting them, and wanting to see things for myself without bias. And, when I think about it, maybe that is the reason why I’ve never been politically motivated before; I know the information I get is skewed, and instead of take that at face value, I ignore it entirely.But the conversations I’ve had at that park are different. They’re full of hope, and full of frustration for the same things that I, too, have been frustrated with for as long as I can remember. They’re angry, but they’re not self-pitying or defeated. They’re the people that have questioned the information they’ve been fed like I have, and have decided to talk, and listen, and build something new together.Jay, 36, a New York native and Production Manager of amNewYork Newspaper had just stopped by Zuccotti Park to donate some thumb-drives to volunteers who needed them when I stopped him to talk. These protests, and this movement, he said, were “way past due” at this point in time. He supported the cause but could not participate as actively as some of the other protestors who lived in the park, probably because of his children and wife at home. He offered a theory on why this “past due” movement had finally come to life. “There’s a sense of safety now,” he said. “Eight years ago there was no technology to give protection and courage.” But now, he explained, the protestors were comforted in knowing that any injustice done to them, by the police or otherwise, could, and would, be recorded and shared across the globe.
The smartphones, DSLRs, and social media sites that the protestors have been criticized for embracing (because of their anti-corporate-greed stance) are, in many ways, the most essential tools for their movement. Instead of relying on the news corporations to tell their story, they are able to tell it themselves. Every conversation at the park has the ability to echo throughout the country, and throughout the world. Maybe that’s where the movement’s hope and enthusiasm has come from: instead of waiting for the news to report on an event, the protestors are writing their own story, and telling it the way they believe it should be told. This story doesn’t have to stay stuck on the same prejudices that have cluttered the ones they’ve heard before on the news because it’s about more than just talking. It’s about listening. Listening to each other despite differences in backgrounds, and coming together for the betterment of society.Looking over the park at the hundreds of people gathered, Jay turned to me. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “About time.” –Megan McCormick