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John Petro

The 99 Percent

I was among the thousands of people cramming into Foley Square Wednesday evening, observing those who had come down to show their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. I arrived at 4:30, and for the next hour roamed around the park. It had the energy of a festival, a celebration. The air was permeated by the sound of drums. Placards waved about in the air, many of them hastily written with marker on brown corrugated cardboard. And though the rally was organized by labor unions, those with union t-shirts were vastly outnumbered by those with no obvious union affiliation.
I could find no central focal point. If amplified speeches were going on, I could not hear them. Nearer to the drummers people were dancing. Standing on top of the fountain, I found it impossible to get a true sense of the size of the crowd. It was difficult to get it all within view.

This was symbolic, perhaps. The most frequent criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that there is no central organized message. However, looking out over the amorphous crowd that evening, it was very simple to identify what the movement was all about. That is, thousands were gathering here to speak out about economic injustice—injustices dealt to them, their families, and to the entire nation. There was a palpable sense that our democracy is in danger, that the voices of the many are being drowned out by the few: those with vast fortunes and a certain political agenda.

“We are the 99 percent,” the protesters chanted. In contrast, those that make the decisions that affect our lives are the other one percent. They’re the ones telling us that we’re better off if we allow corporations to pollute our air, to ship our jobs overseas, to cut corporate taxes and those on the wealthy. They tell us that we’re better off if we cut health benefits for workers, if we get rid of pensions, if we do away with the social safety net. We’re better off without high-speed rail or universal health care. These things are unattainable, we’re told, because government is out of money. If we raise taxes on the wealthiest to help pay for these things then the whole economy will fail, we’re told.

The crowd at Foley Square wasn’t falling for it.

Student loan debt was a common cause. After all, we were all told that we must go to college to get a good job. For some this is no problem; their parents can simply write a check. For others, loans are the only practical solution. Now many are out of college and are tens of thousands of dollars in debt. There are few jobs to be had and those who haven’t found one are wondering just how they’re supposed to pay all this debt off.

“The banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” the crowd chanted.

These are big, institutional problems that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. The seductive power of the Tea Party is that it offers simple, easy answers. Cut government and cut taxes. Get government out of your life and maybe someday you will be rich. The real answers aren’t going to be that easy.

Earlier that morning a Republican presidential candidate told the protesters that they ought not to blame Wall Street for the fact that they’re not rich. But no one at Foley Square said anything about wanting to become rich. For the former CEO of a fast-food pizza chain this may be a difficult idea to understand. It’s also difficult for New York City’s billionaire mayor to understand. He called the protesters “ridiculous.” This is the same mayor who expresses no concern over the growing gap between the rich and poor in his city.

The crowd at Foley Square wasn’t concerned about amassing riches. They wanted economic security and a say in their political process. They wanted to end the injustice that they see all about them, to eliminate want in the face of greed.

An hour later, looking south on Centre Street, the setting sun reflected off of the silver façade of a new luxury apartment building. A two-bedroom apartment in this building rents for $72,000 a year, a sum greater than many of the attendees’ salaries. And then the crowd began to move forward for the march down to Zuccotti Park. I walked with the chanting crowd in silence. When the march met with those encamped at Zuccotti Park there were cheers. There was dancing. Later a small group tried to storm some barricades. A white shirt officer swung his nightstick at the group. Thousands of cameras captured the moment.

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Posted at 3:34 PM, Oct 07, 2011 in
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