Occupy Wall Street: Hope, Hippies, and Tuna Sandwiches

March 22, 2012
On November 11, in the center of Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street protesters pushed three folding tables together into a makeshift buffet. A short woman with frizzy hair and a bandana stood behind it, handing out tuna sandwiches. Occasionally, some of the others put down their picket signs and joined her, laughing as they sliced white bread into neat little squares.

The Occupiers had transformed Zuccotti Park into a jungle of blue tarps. Ramshackle tents created passage ways in a city-within-a-city, where denizens' shouting and occasional singing almost drowned out the usual cacophony of buses and jackhammers. Chilled after hours of protest, demonstrators also huddle under tarps to drink hot coffee and rub their mittens together.

The Occupy movement began on September 17, when a group of protesters gathered in Liberty Park. Organizers had expected around 20,000 participants, but just over a thousand showed up. It seemed like the movement would collapse in a few days. Instead, it spread to 1,500 cities nationwide.

The protesters describe themselves as the "99 percent," a reference to the unequal distribution of wealth among the fortunate few. They seek to end what they see as the greed and corruption of the wealthiest one percent of America. Angered that these top Wall Street executives continue to profit while millions have lost their jobs, the Occupiers demand reform of “a deeply flawed and inherently unfair” political and economic system.

Brad Thomas, a protester satirically dressed in a fancy business suit, summarized the Occupy protesters’ goals: "We want polices in the interest of all Americans. We need laws that level the playing field, that make it fair."

The Occupiers also object to the role that wealth plays in politics, notably the vast campaign contributions given by both individuals and large corporations. They cite donations given by hedge funds and private equity managers to both the President and Republican nominees as evidence of political corruption. In the protesters' opinion, anyone running for office must cater to the 1 percent.

Thomas explained, "Our politicians receive much or all of their finances from corporations and rich people, and in return, they end up doing their bidding."

Though 99-percenters dominated the park, not all protesters had come to attack corporate greed and social inequality, or even to criticize Wall Street. While a group of middle-aged men marching in a circle demanded better veterans' healthcare, a Native American man passed out reservation rights fliers, and a college student protested against fracking (a process of mineral extraction which poses environmental and health concerns). All types of people had made their way to Zuccotti Park, even a man dressed completely in tie-dyed hippie regalia topped off with a motorcycle helmet, and a woman whose sign simply read "mean people suck."

Perhaps the diversity of the movement accounts for its spread to so many other countries. In mid-October, about 100 anti-corporate activists gathered in Germany to protest the Central Bank , while an economic protest in Rome escalated into a car-torching and bank window-breaking riot. In the same week, protesters in Tokyo and the Philippines launched more peaceful demonstrations, focusing on social inequality and unemployment.

Jean, a French musician, had come to Zuccotti Park to make a video about the protest, hoping to inspire his countrymen. "I left Paris a month ago, and [the movement] was just starting then," he said. "I want to see it grow."

At the far end of the park, a bearded Indian guru dressed in long white robes and a matching turban sat cross-legged on the ground, chanting a hymn. About a dozen of the protesters, of all races and religions, sat around him, closing their eyes and swaying in time to the music. As the chanting grew louder, more and more people crossed the park to listen, as if pulled in by some invisible force. No one spoke -- even passing dogs seemed to quiet their barking, as if in respect. The guru’s voice was eerily calming, like the feeling of waves lapping against your feet or the taste of green tea. Like the Occupy movement itself, the guru had a unique, almost magical way of drawing people together.

On November 15, Mayor Bloomberg sent police to clear out overnight camps in Zuccotti Park. But this certainly did not mean Occupy Wall Street had ended. Occupiers, who continue to protest during the day, celebrated the 100 day anniversary of the movement on Christmas. Though the city of tents and folding tables may have been torn down, the 99-percent's spirit of unity shows no apparent signs of disappearing. Protesters across the country and around the world will continue to call for change -- and maybe someone will still bring tuna sandwiches.

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