“Are we supposed to choose between feeding our children or paying our rent?" asked Yvette Vigo on a recent afternoon, from a lawn chair where she had been occupying Wall Street for nine straight days. "In my case, I had to choose to feed my children instead of paying my rent. I have six kids and I was lucky if I made $15,000 a year. If anyone comes here and talks to us, they will know that we aren’t here for handouts. We want somebody to hear us.” Vigo, 45, says she was a teacher in the Bronx until she was laid off last year. She has no intention of leaving Wall Street any time soon. Her story was of many I heard, as I pushed through hundreds of protesters at Zuccotti Park carrying signs like "Arrest the Bankers," and a flag that said "Debt Is Slavery." These Occupy Wall Street protestors are tired, broke, and mad that corporate America has robbed them of the American dream.
Depending on your perspective, Occupy Wall Street is either indicative of the future—how a group of people can practice activism through social media—or a leaderless (and therefore hopeless) endeavor. It’s the left’s populist movement. The anti-Tea Party party, if you will, that’s shining the spotlight on the evils of corporate greed and the kind of behavior that served as the catalyst for our economic downfall. Or, you could also argue, it’s just a hippiefest, a Woodstock for 2011, packed with freeloaders who just want to lament about the success of the upper class.
Much like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street’s message has gotten wrapped up in stereotypes. The Tea Party was weighed down by the birther movement, and Occupy Wall Street has gotten looped in with hippie culture. Before I visited Zuccotti Park, many of my friends and I talked about why we were on the fence about the movement. On one hand, all Americans should be furious at the disconnect between the rich and poor in this country, and that so much of taxpayer dollars from the bailout went straight into Wall Street’s wealthy pockets. On the other hand, this protest has no clear message or sense of direction. Even President Clinton said Occupy Wall Street needs a leader.
When I arrived downtown, I was surprised to see Occupy Wall Street wasn’t as occupied as I expected it to be. Zuccotti Park is relatively small, and there were nowhere near the thousands of protesters that seem to appear on the news. The air smelled distinctively like marijuana. The first man I tried to talk to couldn’t remember his last name and he looked like he was under the influence of something. I asked him why he was there. This is what he said: “I was chilling in, f---ing, where the f--- was I—I was somewhere in Manhattan, Starbucks, a motherf---er comes up and says let’s drink beer.” The second man I tried to talk to identified himself as DeLaVega, a well-known NYC sidewalk artist. He handed me one of his fliers meant to “inspire hope” complete with his Twitter handle @DeLaVegaProphet. “Today, we’ll be here for a couple of hours,” he said, adding that he’ll keep coming back “until this is over.”
But most of the people who I spoke to had real stories of hardship and despair. Tom Quigley, a 23-year-old college graduate from Buffalo, N.Y., said he couldn’t find a full-time job after graduating from college. He’s taking a cross-country bike trip, and he plans on stopping at all the various Occupy Wall Street gatherings across the nation. “For me, this is a movement that keeps growing and changing, and as part of the 99 percent of the country we have to find the solution,” he said. “This is just about the people of the country saying they lost their voices. It’s time to get it back, because our generation is being robbed of our voice.”
Tom was standing next to a man that he had befriended that day named Bob Heck, 29. Bob told me he had his own cleaning service for eight years, but once the recession hit, he went out of business. “I am here for an overall change in the government that is being controlled by big business and they are not giving us the opportunities we are entitled to have,” he said. “This here, it isn’t a social thing, I am here because everything that has been going on has hit everyone in the heart.”
I’m the daughter of one of the most long-standing senators in politics and I have been given every opportunity that anyone could possibly dream of. I was given those opportunities as a result of the hard work from both sides of my family. What struck me more than anything is that for the first time possibly in history, people aren’t being given the same opportunities that my parents and grandparents had.
The anger from Occupy Wall Street is coming from this simple fact: America no longer seems to be a place where you can work your way up, from rags to riches, from lower class to middle class to upper class. If people aren’t given a fair shot, how can they work to achieve their dreams? This should be the message of Occupy Wall Street: We just want a chance; our government needs to give us a chance. But through all the pot smoke and distracting costumes, I’m not sure if that message is getting out.
As I was leaving Occupy Wall Street, I spotted a man who was attending the festivities wearing a giant cape made of tin foil. He was pretending that he could fly, but the tin foil just kept blowing around him, making an empty crinkling sound. He isn’t the kind of superhero that these people need.