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4B Wednesdy November 2 2011/ The Statenent
IS THIS WHAT DEMo ACY L
What I saw, heard and learned while occupying Wall'
By Timothy Rabb
Wednesday, November 2, 2011 /5/ The Statement 5
W Y O RK - Pangs of anxiety struck me as soon
as I stepped off the PATH train from
Newark and gaped at the bottom half of the incomplete Freedom Tower, a
huge edifice of brilliant glass. The sight of it was so humbling that I toyed
with the thought of booking it back to Jersey. Three blocks short of my first
glimpse of Zuccotti Park, the hotbed of the Occupy Wall Street protests,
I couldn't help but ask myself: What the heck am I going to say about the
movement that hasn't already been said?
In the past month there was a constant stream of news articles, blog
posts, photo reels and video clips about the Occupy Wall Street protests in
Lower Manhattan. Since the first tough-minded youth first carpeted the
park's granite sidewalks with their tarps on Sept. 17, anyone with half an
opinion tried to define the protests' origin, structure, and most of all, its
elusive "list of demands."
Dozens of ideas compete for the movement's attention, but they are not
easily categorized. So, the media's attempts to do so were not convincing to
me. I had to see it for myself.
The Occupy Wall Street protests are especially relevant to college stu-
dents, who face the increasingly difficult prospect of paying student loan
debt and finding jobs after graduation. The current economic situation has
furthered the steady privatization of education, causingthe economic bur-
den of college to be shifted more and more onto the backs of students.
Recent statistics show that the net costs of college are rising, the aver-
age student's credit card debt has hit record levels and asa result, students
are graduating with exorbitant amounts of debt that could take decades to
Students at the University are no exception. The University is known for
having one of the highest out-of-state tuition rates among public universi-
ties in the United States, which was increased by 4.9 percent this year, and
the price of student housing in Ann Arbor isn't cheap either.
A significant number of college students are participating in the Occupy
Wall Street protests, and they are pushing the government to forgive some
or all student loan debt and increase financial aid contributions to put the
responsibility for college fees back in the public sector.
President Barack Obama recently addressed this segment of OWS by
proposing legislation that would cap student loan payments at 10 percent
of a graduate's annual discretionary income. The effectiveness of such a
measure remains to be seen, but one thing remains certain: The financial
burden on students isn'tgoing away any time soon.
Closing in fast on Zuccotti, I mulled over the impossibility of a new angle.
But before long, my senses were on red alert, my train of thought derailed.
First, I caught a nasty whiff of raw sewage rising from the storm drains. It
mingled with the reek of cheap incense, traces of weed and tobacco smoke
and the acrid stench of unwashed bodies - all the smells of occupation.
Then as I passed the enormous Century 21 flagship store and rounded
the final corner, I could more clearly hear the racket: detuned drums -
I checked the time, certain I arrived in time for the 11 a.m. "March on
Chase Bank." But as I soon found out, the movement rarely sticks to the
agenda on its official webpage, and relies instead on spontaneity.
As I sprinted past the park to head off the march, I glanced at the peo-
ple lingering behind. The stone partition that guards the park's north face
was bordered by a long line of malcontents, each holding up an attempt at
a witty slogan.
A man with an uncanny resemblance to the Comic Book Guy from
"The Simpsons" held a scrap of cardboard with "Fuck Mayor Bloomberg,"
scribbled on it. The cheeky sign was a reminder of the tension between the
protest and the city of New York the previous week. That Wednesday, the
mayor ordered the protesters to leave by Friday morning for a temporary
park clean-up, citing a month of "unsanitary conditions and considerable
wear and tear on the park."
The protesters saw the mayor's order as a flimsy attempt to oust the
movement from the park. Had Bloomberg been successful, I might have
arrived to an empty square with nothing to report on buta leftover pile of
joint roaches and crinkled communist literature. But the occupiers chose
to risk arrest and stared down the NYPD until the clean-up was abruptly
Still, the protesters' assertive attitudes didn't make the park's beefed-up
police presence any less intimidating. A steel barricade ran the length of
the road along the north side's medley of poster board and blocks of con-
crete. Standing on the road behind the barricade, two dozen NYPD officers
watched the commotion and traded furtive glances, unsettled by the threat
of violence that rose with the crowd's numbers.
As I reached the northeast corner of the park and prepared to flank the
column of marchers, I turned back and viewed the same scene again from
a new angle. Police were lined up single-file on the shoulder of the road,
the protesters cluttered the adjacent sidewalk and the meager barricade
sat between them, not much of a reassurance - it was a classic "us against
As I joined the marching protesters at the crossing of Liberty and
Broadway, I had no trouble distinguishing between the diehards
and the fly-by-nighters. The Zuccotti squatters looked grungy,
FRtANI KANKLIN l/AP
disheveled and fatigued to the point of delirium.
Save for the incessantdrumming, the crowd was docile forthe first three
blocks, more like Relay for Life than revolutionaries. But as the "Occupy"
phalanx approached some of the banks on Broadway, a handful of instiga-
tors pointed at the glass windows of each branch they passed, screaming
"shame on you!" at the tellers inside.
The volume rose with each step until the clamoring crowd drowned out
the sounds of the city, the sergeant's bullhorn and even the wailing sirens
of a nearby fleet of police cruisers.
While the protesters walked past the banks, their improvised chants
ebbed, flowed and evolved - from the generic "Bloombergsold out!" to the
vulgar "Bloombergsucks cock!" and the trusty call-and-response.
Leader: "Tell me what democracy looks like!"
Crowd: "THIS is what democracy looks like!"
I sized up the crowd from my vantage point. Most protesters were in
their early-to mid-20s, and aside from the weary overnighters, everyone
looked a little too smiley and satisfied for comfort. Is this the next Arab
Spring or more of a Spring Break?
I decided to skip most of the movement's planned 5 p.m. convergence on
Times Square. Instead, I spent a few hours at Father Demo Square, a tiny
park lined with fancy Greenwich boutiques and restaurants. I later learned
that 74 protesters were arrested by day's end - some for cloggingthe lobby
of a Citibank branch, some for charging the barricade in Times Square and
still others for refusingto disperse after halting pedestrian traffic.
MY FIRST NIGHT OF
When I returned to Zuccotti at 10 p.m., the squatters were still celebrat-
ing their march on Times Square. A group of ecstatic dancers armed with
glow-sticks rocked back and forth to the slow groove of steel drums and
shakers - a rave with a tropical flavor.
After a quick listen, I began to look for occupants who stayed awake
amid the sea of blue-green tarps and travel bags.
At the park's southern fringe, I introduced myself to a group that looked
welcoming.. The five of us sat together and chatted until Rick Hu, a 31-year-
old parcel courier, rode up on his Razor scooter. He introduced himself
with a question:
"Is it true Wall Street's trying to take all our money? There aren't many
intellectuals here and I want to have an opinion on this."
I told him what I knew: post-Reagan deregulation of the financial sector,
the burst of the dot-com and housing bubbles, misused bank bailouts and
rogue traders like Kweku Adoboli, who caused United Bank of Switzerland
to lose $2 billion in amatter of days. Atthe mention of UBS, his face lit up.
"I deliver their packages! Thanks for the facts, man. I've been here for
three days, and no one's told me why we're all here," he said. "I think I've
finallyearned the right to put this on."
I could tell by his grin that the last bit was facetious, but I didn't know
whathe was referringto until he retrieved apin from his pocket and pinned
See OCCUPY, Page 8B
thunderingand out-of-sync - the police bullhorn's piercing treble, "Please
continue marching in an orderly fashion;" the muffled chants of a crowd on
the move, "Banksgot bailed out, we got sold out!"