I decided to attend Occupy Wall Street, the social justice campout that began in the financial district over three weeks ago, mostly out of curiosity. I first read about OWS in August when the Facebook event was sent around. The cynic in me didn’t take it seriously, this overly self-aware attempt to ride the wave of a more genuine Arab revolutionary spirit. Sure, I’m against our country’s taxation policies that benefit the rich, and I’m against Wall Street’s excess and unaccountability, but who isn’t? What good will this protest do?
The media has the same perception that I did. The protestors are banjo-strumming hippies; they are against “the Man” without any real sense of who or what the man is, and their causes range from animal cruelty to global warming. They are jobless potheads looking for something to do. Pundits seem eager for reasons to discount the protestors.
After seeing some of the “occupiers” I can see why. One naked woman was being painted hot pink; another young man held up a mouse with a sign: “If this is what I have to do for money, so be it.” Kanye West and Russell Simmons stopped by on Monday. Tourists and supporters wander through the protestors, taking pictures and getting “Occupy Wall Street” spray-painted on “I <3 NY” t-shirts. “Things move more slowly here,” Ophelia said. The occupation is a performance art piece — open to the public, 24/7, donation optional.
But that’s not to say that OWS lacks depth. The occupation switches between revelry and religiosity; the delirium is purpose-driven. At 3:30, the interfaith service begins. A group of spiritual leaders congregate at one end of Zuccotti Park and take turns sermonizing. “Jesus is with the 99%,” read most of the signs; “Finally an occupation radical Jews can get behind,” said another. A statue of a golden bull was carried behind them.
The religious service works well with OWS’ set-up; the occupiers have created a system called "mic check" to maintain the anarchic structure: Whenever someone wants to speak, the entire group repeats every sentence he says, sounding just like the call and response prayers in church. There are definitely a few rebels without a cause in Zuccotti Park, but there are also people who have dedicated their careers to understanding and fighting for justice, as well are ordinary Americans who are simply fed up.
Katherine Collins fits both descriptions. Collins, the daughter of a single mother in rural Kentucky, made the trip to Wall Street with 42 classmates from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Berea offers a fully subsidized four-year degree; its student body is made up of entirely low-income students who often choose to stay in Appalachia and help out their communities. Collins comes from an area where families have to choose between selling off land they’ve had for generations, or allowing their families to starve. “I protested because I am part of the 99%,” Collins said. This movement has been derided as class warfare, but there really are different classes in this country with divergent objectives; I wonder how anyone can seriously begrudge someone like Collins for standing up for her opinions.
The objectives of that “other” class — the 99% — are just as diverse as the media shows, possibly even more so. “Socialism” is not a dirty word here, and neither is “feminist” nor “queer.” Supporters of Mexican Zapatistas, Ron Paul acolytes and everyone in between have managed to create a community founded on respect and equality, where all ideas are valued and shared. The “We are the 99%” slogan is not only about our country’s wealth inequality, though that is the principal concern; it is also about the inability of 99% of Americans to influence policy in any meaningful way, no matter who we elect to Congress or how many letters we write. People are struggling in this country, but our government will not listen to them.
Occupy Wall Street is messy and chaotic. It lacks clear objectives, and some of the protesters seem naive and self-important. But it reminds our politicians that this country belongs to all of us and not to corporate interests. It unites all Americans who have ever felt disempowered, helpless or frustrated in the face of a so-called democracy that actually serves whoever foots the bills. That, to me, is a cause worth painting your body for.
Brandon Davis is a Near Eastern studies major from Westport, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.