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Occupy Wall Street: They Are The 99 Percent (And So Are You)

   /   Oct 3rd, 2011New York City, News

Protesters reveling at Occupy Wall Street

Most media outlets have been and continue to be critical of the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City, now in its third week. The protesters’ message tries to speak against an unequal distribution of wealth wherein one percent of the American population benefits from the capitalism system, while the other ninety-nine percent is exploited. The protesters say that they are that ninety-nine percent and that, unless you are a millionaire, so are you.

On Sunday Nicholas Kristof suggested ways the protesters could turn their endless list of grievances into specific demands. Countless other articles have dismissed the protesters as a fringe group without goals or unity. But there’s another way of looking at the Occupy Wall Street movement — as a form of expression and relationship-forming. If you’re feeling despondent about the economic and political situation in the country, it helps to know that you’re not alone. If you or someone you know has lost your home, been laid-off, returned traumatized from tour in Afghanistan, or watched the numbers of homeless people increasing, it’s nice to find others who are also struggling and want to see a more equitable society.

In other words, to paraphrase a protester’s sign, if you’ve lost your job, you might as well find an occupation. Dowser spoke to the protesters reveling on Sunday, here is what we found:

One young woman named Katie Vitarella, a twenty-two-year-old who lives in Manhattan, sat with a hand-written sign that read, “We need sustainability. Don’t know what that is? Ask me.” So I did. While studying for a B.A. in philosophy at SUNY Purchase, where students had a community garden and practiced composting and recycling, Vitarella began thinking about society’s wastefulness. Vitarella joined the occupation on Tuesday and plans to sleep there every night until it is over. While it’s disappointing that the media has repeatedly looked for ways to depict the protesters negatively, she said, it is heartening to see other American cities forming occupations in solidarity.

New Yorker Lisa Elkind and her daughter watch protesters playing folk music

Many New Yorkers brought their children to see the protest. Lisa Elkind, a computer programmer who lives in Manhattan, was telling her daughter, who looked around eleven-years-old, about the good ol’ days of political protest. “I wanted to expose my daughter to this,” she explained. She said that there were fewer protests these days, compared to her generation. When asked why that might be, she said, after much thought, that people must be afraid of government’s power. Then Elkind added that there were so many ways people were drugged these days – by technology, by pharmaceuticals. “If you’re unhappy you just take a drug, even children,” she said. Elkind disagreed with portrayals of the occupation as an aimless movement, she said.

“It’s the cohesive Left’s point of view,” she explained. “I’m worried about our children. What kind of world are we giving them?”

Various progressive organizations came to the occupation on Sunday, including Code Pink, the International Socialist Review, and union members. Sixty-seven-year-old Jenny Heinz was one of the group visiting from the Granny Peace Brigade, a pacifist organization that formed in 2005. Heinz said she and her colleagues were thrilled to see this occupation taking place because it is so focused on process rather than goals. “Without a respect for process,” Heinz explained, “society continues as it is.”

Environmental sustainability is one of the movement's main issue

The process Heinz was referring to is the democratic consensus-building procedures the protesters are using to make decisions as they go along. There is no hierarchy within the occupation; rather anyone who sees a potential problem or idea can act on it simply by voicing it to the entire community during General Assembly meetings.

The official Occupy Wall Street manifesto that was released a few days ago outlines the main grievances held by the protesters: collusion between government and corporation, lack of protection of individuals’ rights, and much (much!) more.

Some of the protesters have more specific issues in mind. Kelly Wolcott, a thirty-one-year-old public school teacher based in Brooklyn and a chapter leader of the United Federation of Teachers, was part of a group known as the “Bloombergville” protesters that formed this summer to protest citywide budget cuts. “The city was slashing budgets in a time of surplus,” explained Wolcott. She had previously been involved with the UFT’s effort to lobby City Council members to vote down any budget cuts that would lead to layoffs or cuts in public schools. They had successfully convinced over half of the Council members when Bloomberg “cut a deal” with the UFT in which he promised that layoffs would not occur if the teachers made “certain concessions.” After that, said Wolcott, only one Council member supported their lobbying efforts. At the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, where Wolcott teaches eighth-grade English, she said that one guidance counselor and one secretary had been let go, and the school budget had been cut by $500,000. The average yearly salary for public school teachers in her building, said Wolcott, is about $60,000. “School is not a business opportunity,” she said. “Education is a right.”

Get updates from the Occupy Wall Street movement on Twitter with the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet.

11 Responses

  1. The movement is gaining momentum in its THIRD week now and Occupations are popping up all over the country! Stand up together and use your voice to give to those without through peace and solidarity. Tax the rich and feed the poor- you are the 99%! See my Occupy Wall Street painting and Anonymous homage on my artist’s blog at where you can also see videos of the protests and police brutality as well as get other sources for coverage of the movement.

  2. Steve says:

    Unclear how linking to the same hippie-punching article in the NYT means that “most media outlets have been and continue to be critical of” occupy Wall Street. That article is pretty much a Mad Libs of lazy MSM reporting.

    I think a more nuanced read of the coverage is that while there are a few classic hippie-punching articles that are out there, that most articles are detached and bemused.

    Don’t really understand why there’s all this hate for Occupy Wall Street. It would appear that spontaneous gatherings of citizens talking in General Assemblies about their problems would be a cause for celebration. It might lead to conventional social entrepreneurship opportunities.

    Everything looks messy in its early stages. Give it time.

  3. Rachel Signer says:

    Steve: there have been various criticisms coming from mainstream media, although some commentators are perhaps “detached and bemused,” as you say. Ginia Bellafonte and Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times are two examples. Here at Dowser our interest in how social change happens and what are effective means to creating it led us to report on this story. As to why there is “hate” (I assume you mean disdain or scorn) for the movement, my reading is that people see it as lacking a concrete objective the way, for example, professional issue-based nonprofit work and organized activism usually are. Others simply dislike the appearance of the protesters, who dress in “alternative” style clothing that reflects their anti-capitalist beliefs. Others still call the movement’s instigators “trust-fund babies” and describe them as hypocrites.

  4. Steve says:

    Disdain would be a better word. Right.

    Still, for me the most important part of this protest–the part that is not getting enough attention–is the fact that the protests are based around the concept of the General Assembly where the protesters are organizing demands, support, etc. There is a lot of attention being focused on the lack of demand/appearance of the protesters/fact that there was a zombie flash mob and, as a result, there is not enough attention focused on how the General Assemblies are giving a way for alienated folks to organize. Is the most effective way to use the GA process through a “pseudo-occupation?” Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think that the most important part of this is that people are getting together, meeting each other and talking.

    In Gladwell’s piece on social media and activism that made a splash a few months back he noted that the Greensboro sit-ins were born out of late-night dorm room conversations. Through those conversations the students were able to build relationships, formalize tactics and ultimately changed the course of history.

    Now, I’m not trying to say that these actions will have the same result as Greensboro…but that the act of meeting, building social capital and a shared concept of problems can bring about powerful change.

    Ultimately, for me, a lack of concrete objectives at this stage (it’s only been 3 weeks) shouldn’t be a worry. How much time do professional issue-based non-profit workers have to spend thinking about mission and vision? In fact, given that these are people who have known of each other for all of 3 weeks, it’s actually quite impressive.

    Finally, instead of Kristof’s $20 bill protester and Bellafonte’s really really lazy reporting, it would be nice if someone like Jesse LaGreca could be quoted.

  5. Foolishinjustice says:

    We like to think that the forms of government in countries such as U.S.A, Canada, Australia, Uk and various other European nations are democratic. They are not. This is best demonstrated by today’s Australian minority government. How many times do governments make improper decisions and the people pay. Greece is a current example. If the people have to pay for bad decisions then they should be the ones who make the decisions. Governments too often treat the public as children who are not able to make their own decisions.

    Democracy needs to be relevant to the new era in which we live. Current forms of so called democracy were designed for an era dependent on primitive technology and communications. Today the voting public can have a direct say in every major decision of government.

    I propose a form of real democracy:

    When political parties run for election they would be required by law to:

    Publish an executive summary of each portfolio (government ministry) identifying goals, strategies, key performance indicators (KPIs) with time lines and Budgets.

    The Treasury provides equal funding for the campaigns of each party. All parties cannot exceed the same set spending level.

    A contract is established between the voting public and the winning party. The party then forms government.

    Should the government not meet its KPIs within predetermined time frames and budgets then an online referendum is called to decide if the voting public will continue to allow the governing party to continue. The party has the ability to present it’s case prior to the vote being taken. Alternative parties also have the opportunity to present their viewpoint before a vote is taken.

    Each voter is given a secure pin number, all voting takes place online. For those without computers they attend upgraded Centrelink facilities (We move millions of dollars each day via pin numbers- certainly secure online voting could be achieved if the will was there to refine the technology). Online voting would provide for comparatively cheap, easy and instant results.

    All key policy issues such as immigration, foreign ownership, carbon tax, defence, education, health, government spending and so on would all be put before the voting public as a matter of course rather than be decided upon by government. Each major decision for the country would be truly made by the people and not by the government of the day. Surely this is a greatly superior form of democracy than what we have today.

    Thank you for considering my concept.


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  7. Manuel R says:

    Great article! I thought you all might enjoy this video which demystifies how the consensus process works. I wish everyone who thinks Occupy Wall Street is unorganized and aimless just because it’s non-hierarchical would watch this:

    • Rachel Signer says:

      Thank you; that really is an excellent video! So great to see the protest represented in light of its innovations in collaboration and democratic decision-making.

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