It didn’t look like much on Nov. 25 — ten days since Mayor Bloomberg ordered the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment. After hearing the media hype about months of protests and police brutality, the Occupy movement at Zuccotti Park paled in comparison.
“It’s like a spectator sport,” my friend Shelby Mis said.
The protesters were like animals in a zoo, caged behind metal bars, the smell of pot clinging to their clothes. People carrying shopping bags and reveling from Black Friday sales were pointing and snapping photos of protesters’ signs: “We’re the 99 percent!” “Exercise your rights!” “Hey 1 percent, suck it!” “Democracy not plutocracy!” “You can’t pepper spray ideas!”
Despite these initial impressions, I soon learned that the Occupy Wall Street movement was about standing up for your beliefs and raising your voice.
“If you’re going to stay here, you’ll have to move,” said a NYPD officer, pushing the crowd to try to clear the sidewalks.
“How do you feel about all this?” a woman interrupted, gesturing at the motley crew assembled in Zuccotti Park.
“This is nonsense,” the officer said, shaking his head in disapproval.
Those who dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement have clearly not talked to the protesters.
“It’s a lot different than what I thought it would be,” said Henry Gong, a teacher at Penn State who was visiting family in New York City during Thanksgiving break. “I thought people were agitating for no reason, but they all seem to have different purposes — something like a clearing house of protestors.”
“I noticed that a lot of people here still work, but they’re here supporting a lot of other people,” said Henry’s wife, Pat.
This included Paul Armstrong, a 48-year-old white union ironworker from Los Angeles who has been involved in the movement.
“I’ve been upset with the direction America was going for about 10 to 15 years now, so I had to get involved,” he said. “This might be the most important thing I got involved with in my life.”
Armstrong had gotten involved in the Occupy movement purely by chance. He was stationed in New York City for a job since Sept. 17. While the project got postponed, Armstrong was admiring the architecture at the World Trade Center when he discovered the grassroots movement starting in Zuccotti Park. It was Sept. 20 — day three since the Occupy Wall Street movement started — and for some reason, the movement spoke to him, occupying his purpose and heart.
Since then, Armstrong has picked up a sign and hardhat to do battle in the front lines of Broadway Street in Zuccotti Park. In big, bold, black lettering, the sign reads, “I’m union, I vote, I work, I pay taxes, I’m pissed, so I’m here!”
“I make it a point to stand out there on the front line to show mainstream America that it’s not just a bunch of pot-smoking hippies out here,” Armstrong said. “It’s everyday Americans that are just disgusted out of where America is falling.”
Armstrong has two sons, and says it’s because of them and the younger generation that he stands in Zuccotti Park every day.
“I’m doing this for you,” he told me after I told him I was a college student.
Armstrong doesn’t think it’s fair that the younger generation will never see pensions, or that the new retirement age will be 70, so he stands in Zuccotti Park — his fingers frozen from holding up his sign — even after working 10 hours a day.
Imaraw Johnson, a black 17-year-old high school senior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., is also protesting for our generation. Her cause: to illustrate the disparity at her public high school.
For a school with about 4,000 students, Edward R. Murrow High School has a 42 to one student to teacher ratio, and most high school students stay in school for six to seven years. Johnson protests all day — staying up until 1 a.m. to finish her homework — because she thinks something is wrong with a system where school budget cuts have eliminated summer schooling — effectively reducing many students from graduating and pursuing their dreams.
“Instead of accepting things as they are, we can change things,” Johnson said.
As young as the Occupy movement is, social justice and a cry for social change is not new. Former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and the Tea Party evoked these sentiments with the slogan, “I’m mad as hell” — a catchphrase on every orange campaign sign on every Republican Tea Party supporter’s lawn last election season. Meanwhile, President Barrack Obama cried for change with his motto, “Change we can believe in.” Going further back into history, anti-Vietnam War protesters, suffragettes, abolitionists, and American founding fathers also practiced civil disobedience.
“If you look at the abolitionists,” said Kelly Dietz, a politics professor at Ithaca College, “if you look at the liberal revolutions that overthrew absolutists rule, that was by breaking the law and throwing old structures in their face and rejecting them.”
Like the Occupy movement, Dietz said the other movements also started small and incoherent.
“Given all the different folks and ideas that are bubbling up from the Occupy movement — there’s liberalism, there’s anarchism, there’s socialism — you’re not going to come out with a coherent strategy,” she said.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Occupy movement has garnered such widespread exposure has shown that change is already happening.
“We’ve never had big changes without people getting into the streets,” she said. “What’s really coming out of it is that people are feeling empowered to critique, feeling the power to challenge and even the mainstream media is feeling empowered to raise issues of inequality.”
That empowerment is the reason I am writing this article. Justice is found in the good Samaritans, the Mother Theresas, Ghandis and Martin Lurther King Jrs. of the world. More importantly, justice is found in everyday people, striving to achieve the impossible by holding up signs. Perhaps if I write, someone will see my billboard for justice and join the 99 percent. Perhaps, like the protesters, I, too, can inspire change.