It’s still a little surprising to me how close Yale is to New York City. I’m from Pittsburgh, which — while not on the other side of the country or anything — is prohibitively far from the Big Apple. On Saturday, I took advantage of New York’s proximity for the first time. For one glorious afternoon, I occupied Wall Street.
This wasn’t how I had expected to spend my Saturday. My decision to go was made in about 10 seconds — I was eating lunch when a friend sat down with a giant poster that said something about greed and bankers. Twenty minutes later, four other freshmen and I were sprinting to catch a train. Two hours later, we entered Zuccotti Park.
The protest itself is something to see — legions of unkempt, sign-holding hippies, hipsters and college kids, coexisting together in drab tents. Food was doled out in an Oliver Twist-like queue, and makeshift kiosks were set up distributing Marxist literature or copies of the Occupy Wall Street Journal.
Above all, there were people everywhere — talking, chanting, singing, smoking. They held signs that said, “We are the 99 percent” or “Read Your Zinn,” while others were too profane to discuss here. (Let’s just say that bankers aren’t that popular.) A man in some sort of rodent costume was sermonizing loudly, while a few yards away drums beat to the rhythm of an impassioned chant. In a word, being one of the occupiers was awesome.
I held a sign and chanted with the best of them. I was interviewed by several New York University students making documentaries about the protest. The remarkable thing about the Occupy Wall Street protest is that it is completely leaderless. My friends and I lined up and began chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” Within a minute, there were about 50 people chanting and following behind us. Like I said, awesome.
But I wondered: Were we hypocrites for being there? As one of my friends said, “Yale is sort of like the fast track to become the 1 percent.” Obviously not everyone becomes an investment banker or high-powered lawyer, but our chances are pretty good should we want to. Does attending a top-tier university mean we are not part of the 99 percent?
Furthermore, was it voyeurism or protest-tourism for us to spend an afternoon at Occupy? There are people there living outdoors in the cold, neither washing nor eating well, just to keep the protest going. Many of their signs detail how they lost their jobs or homes and how they are at Zuccotti Park because there is nowhere left for them to go.
And, above all, is there a point to Occupy Wall Street? You can say what you want — I said a lot while chanting on Saturday — but the demands of the protesters are not exactly uniform or crystal clear.
It doesn’t matter that we were entitled college kids there just for an afternoon. It doesn’t matter that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have a definitive list of demands. The protests are lawful, and they are calling attention to serious problems in this country — and every extra person there helps. Occupy Wall Street represents the vast majority of Americans — those who think realizing the American dream is getting harder and harder. It shows that it’s increasingly mainstream to want progressive taxation or financial regulation.
Our presence at Occupy Wall Street helped in some immeasurably small way to swell the ranks of the self-proclaimed 99 percent. Every extra person chanting and cheering, marching and sitting gives the protests more power. If Occupy Wall Street can survive the winter, and if it can get progressive candidates elected to office — as the Tea Party has conservative candidates — then it can accomplish some of its goals. The Tea Party has proven that protests don’t need clear goals to realize some change — as long as enough people are protesting.
For the record, I don’t want to end capitalism or oust every single Wall Street banker. But there is something wrong with our country when the wealthiest 400 people are worth more than the poorest 150 million people. There is something wrong with our country when the top 1 percent pays a lower percentage in taxes than the rest of us. There is something wrong with this country when the bottom 80 percent owns 7 percent of the wealth. This needs to change.
In 1968, protesters swarmed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, demanding progressive change and chanting, “The whole world is watching.” Now, the whole world is watching Occupy Wall Street. New York isn’t that far away. Let’s show them what we the people can do.