I got into a little skirmish with a member of the Occupy Wall Street clan yesterday.
The group decided to migrate from their make-shift campground in the Financial District up into my neighborhood to protest…rich people I think? (I’m never really sure of what exactly they’re protesting.) Almost home from work, I spied one of the young girls in the group verbally traumatize an elderly woman who was cleaning up after her dog on the corner of 82nd Street, screaming slurs and sneering.
I was mortified. This twenty-something activist didn’t look radical or like some Brooklynite hipster. She looked like me, sounded like me and was probably my age. And somehow she was convinced she was owed something from this poor woman. Instead of hurling her into rush hour traffic, which was my gut instinct, I decided I needed to know more. I needed to know her story. How had she been so wronged by Wall Street…or whomever she was upset with.
I walked over and calmly said, “I’m a writer. I write a blog and I want to know your story.”
She enthusiastically strayed from the herd and sat with me on the edge of a planter bed, tearing up as she regaled the horrors of her life story. The short version: she graduated a year ago from a major university on the West coast with a very high GPA and a degree in art history and she hasn’t been able to find a job anywhere that is even remotely related to her degree.
And barking at a toy poodle and senior citizen is going to do what…make her feel better. Because it certainly won’t change anything.
I realize that this specific person isn’t a great representation of the millions of hardworking Americans who are facing real financial hardships. And I got angry. First because her behavior, along with that of the rest of those howling hyenas, is absurd and makes the rest of my generation look naive and delusional. Secondly, because her I found her pithy little problems to be belittling to the people who have trouble feeding their children, the people losing their homes unable to pay their medical bills.
This activist, and her ridiculously lame excuse for a hardship, made me question the entire purpose of Occupy Wall Street. Is it really to instigate change? Or is it just banging pots and pans in front of a news camera? If this group is really looking for change, they’re looking in the wrong place—go protest in front of city hall or in Albany. If this is simple a venue for self-expression, please do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with my daily commute, harasses my neighbors and trash my city. Our right to self-expression isn’t a free pass to be an idiot.
But let’s just pretend for a moment that Occupy Wall Street is somewhat purposeful, that they are really trying to do something…anything. Let’s talk about protests; moments where the masses converge to initiate social justice and inspire political change.The civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, even the recent and continuing protests in Libya had a tangible cause. Their actions were motivated and measurable. These movements were not only organized, garnered mass followings and were newsworthy—they had purpose. They had leaders and real ideas and, most importantly, actions plans. In addition to hooting and hollering and marching in the street, they were creating legislation and working with supporters, politicians and influential leaders.
Clearly the participants of Occupy Wall Street are bright, outspoken, creative individuals. They obviously possess a wealth of endurance and determination and have the capacity to attract followers across the globe. Although, for some perspective, they’re boasting 447,000 supporters worldwide. Justin Timberlake has 6,500,000 followers on Twitter. More people would rather listen to “Sexyback” than stand as part of the “99%.”
Irregardless, they’re obviously passionate.
So why is that not being channeled into an actual mechanism for change? Pick a cause, any cause and CHAMPION it. Contact and network with lobbyists and politicians, create petitions, volunteer, conduct research…DO SOMETHING. I can’t call Occupy Wall Street a ‘movement’ because they’re not. They’re not moving. Not moving forward with any articulate message. Not doing anything of REAL value that will ignite this change they so desperately claim they want.
I shared a small portion of this with my new young activist friend who looked at me wide-eyed before shoving her finger in my face and declaring, “You! You’re the 1%!”
And again, I fought the urge to toss her into the busy intersection.
I don’t know what percent I am and I really don’t care what percent Occupy Wall Street is. I also don’t care if this group is comprised of hippies or purple kangaroos. I am a 25-year-old young adult living in New York and I am smart enough to know that roasting marshmallows over a trash can fire and howling slurs at podiatrists living on Park Avenue is the LEAST effective way to bring about change. But I, like so many, have plenty to be angry about.
I know that I am part of the dying middle class. My father, incredibly well-spoken, Master’s degree and three decades of experience in his field, has been unemployed for three of the past seven years. My mother never earned a college degree and knows her salary will never grow beyond what it is now. She’ll continue to work 80-hour work weeks on a 40-hour salary for as long as she’s physically able. Why? Because she has nothing saved up for her retirement. In 2007, my parents lost the house they spent every last cent to build. This makes me angry.
My 17-year-old brother has changed schools four times and is constantly ridiculed for always being the new kid. He is smack dab in the middle of this bullying epidemic. Because he knows my parents won’t be able to pay for college and he worries that he’ll find himself unable to pay back student loans, he plans to enlist in the military. This makes me angry. My 21-year-old brother struggles to find even a part-time job as he works his way through college. He’s studying to be a high school math teacher even though he knows the pay will be terrible and finding stability will always be a challenge. This makes me angry.
As for me, I somehow manage to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, though it will be, for the foreseeable future, living paycheck-to-paycheck. And I am just me. I do not have a husband, a boyfriend, parents, a rich aunt or a sugar daddy to bail me out when times get tough. I can’t qualify for loans because I don’t make enough money, and I can’t qualify for government assistance because I make too much. I am a college graduate fighting to use my degree every single day. This makes me angry.
I’ve gotten jobs and lost jobs. I’ve worked behind a counter, at a desk, serving popcorn at a movie theatre and selling landscaping services from the cab of an F150. I’ve pulled weeds and worked at the mall. I’ve worn high heels and work boots. And I’ve been unemployed, too. I’ve had my fair share of conversations with collection agencies and credit card companies. And this makes me angry.
But being angry doesn’t change my situation and neither will joining Occupy Wall Street.
The bottom line is that we can sit and share sob stories all day long. (I can write mine on a piece of cardboard and hold it over half of my face if it would make it easier to digest.) I’m sure there are some far worse than my own. We can all find where our leaders on every level have failed us. My feelings about the upcoming presidential bid aside, Newt Gingrich articulated my point of view perfectly during last night’s Republican GOP debate:
“Virtually every American has a reason to be angry. I think virtually very American has a reason to be worried. I think the people who are protesting in Wall Street break into two groups: one is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people. And actually…you can tell which are which. The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it, so let’s draw that distinction.”
“…And I think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be angry. But let’s be clear who put the fix in: the fix was put in by the federal government. …Let’s look at the politicians who profited from the environment and the politicians who put this country in trouble.”
Feeling cheated, feeling betrayed…I think we all feel a sense of that, but let’s channel it in the right direction. Financial executives are in the business of making money, no matter who it hurts. I expect that. Politicians, however, should be held to a higher standard.
The fact is that, for the time being, Wall Street fat cats will keep get fatter. Politicians from both sides will continue to make promises they can’t keep. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. And the world will keep spinning.
Life isn’t fair. Get over it.
All I can do is keep working. And if I can’t find work I’ll keep trying to find it. I’ll keep making every penny I have stretch as far as it can possibly go. But I’ll keep moving forward.
And if I want to enact change, I’ll get my facts straight and develop a viable strategy before I don my face paint and join a picket line.