Liberty Plaza, NY — It might be too easy to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement as a first-world problem.
I listen to a man complain about the challenges of getting a job in the maritime industry. He is skilled. He is jobless. He is pessimistic.
Then he whips out his iPhone.
Just because you have a liberal arts degree doesn’t entitle you to a job, some people grumble. Why are you protesting? Why aren’t you job-hunting? What are you doing here? Next you’ll surge into the streets to complain about the decline in the quality of organic kale!
But that would be unfair.
I’ve seen some of these people before – at Jon Stewart’s Rally for Sanity, or the vast upswelling of Hope after the election of ’08, when we poured into the streets and cheered.
Now the stakes are higher.
“I did everything i was supposed to do: went to college, got good grades, participated in sports and clubs, graduated on time. 3 years later I have nothing to show for it,” complains one person on the movement’s Tumblr – WeAreThe99Percent — referring to the 1 percent who get everything.”.
“Everyone said when I was growing up that if I worked hard + was a good person that I could be anything I wanted to be…. Well I’ve worked hard + I think I’ve been a good person and I didn’t want to be… the 99 percent,” writes another.
This is not our fault.
Growing up, we were told: you are unique. You are special. You are brilliant. You must follow your dreams. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love.
Four years later, look at us. Mired in debt. Jobless – with no prospects. This is not what it said on the motivational poster.
Is it our generation’s fault that sixty-three percent of employers say recent college graduates don’t have the skills we need to succeed in the workforce? Is it our fault that study after study suggests that it’s not the fact that you attended college but the fact that you were accepted in the first place that is most predictive of your future success? Is it our fault that college is a bankrupting credential that imparts little additional value?
We did what we were told to do.
Now we need someone to tell us what to do next.
The occupants of Liberty Plaza are overwhelmingly young. Some border on hipsters. An impromptu band – three guitars, a violin, an accordion, a banjo – is singing covers of popular music.
They are twenty-somethings. Some are students. Most of those I spoke to were employed. Some were “aspirationally employed.” They aren’t rebels without a cause. They’re rebels with a surplus of causes.
“Give me back my future,” reads one sign, “End the Fed.”
“Publicly funded elections,” reads another.
“Stop Feeding The Pigs And Let The Grass Grow.”
If you’re looking for a coherent message, you’re like many of the people standing in Liberty Plaza on Thursday as night falls. They aren’t there to take a stand. They are there to see if people are planning to take a stand later. They wouldn’t want to miss that.
“I came down to see if they’re serious. I don’t get that vibe yet,” Brandon Coward, a twenty-something who recently moved to New York tells me. “It hasn’t found its base. I don’t know if it ever will.”
It’s a large tent. To call it Babel might be charitable. Instead of elections, a man is saying, Congress ought to be like jury duty. “I think there should be elections,” says his interlocutor. When I walk away from the group, one is arguing in favor of “capitalist socialism,” another suggesting that there should be no income tax.
Larry Lux, a self-described businessman, one of the older Visitors to Liberty Plaza I’ve met, is delighted that the protest is happening. “When I was your age I was totally into capitalism,” he says. “There used to be a more evened out playing field. It’s a shame for young people – terrible for everybody, but for the young people I feel so bad. It’s going to be unrecoverable.”
“What this is likely to become is nothing,” Lux says. “But if enough people sign on, it really can make a difference.”
I talk to a recent college graduate, Walter, dressed in 1940s garb. He isn’t into non-violent protests, he says. But this one seems to be making headway. That’s the point, says Walter. “Getting the word out.”
“That this is happening.”
“This whole park is just a big discussion basically,” Andon Zebao, the dreadlocked director of operations for the nonprofit New Forest Earth, tells me. “It’s about getting together a bunch of people who realize that there’s a problem and trying to figure out what the solution is.”
Easier said than done. The protesters I talk to agree on three things. They are not sure what the point is yet, but would like to find out. The system is broken. And the media, they feel, are ignoring them. It’s pretty big for a molehill. But is it a mountain yet?
There's a saying: "I was angry that I had no shoes. Then I met a man who had no feet." We aren't there yet. We are angry that we have no socks. But we see what might be next. A homeless man walks around the square demanding change and handing out flyers for a constitutional housing amendment. This is not the 99 percent. This is what the 99 percent fear becoming. And the protesters acknowledge as much. They hand him their quarters.
After all, this is about fixing the system, “building a society that takes care of one another. Not about extracting wealth out of people,” another protester, Chuck Martin, tells me. Or something like that. We'll discuss.