The Occupy Wall Street protest has been variously characterized by multiple media outlets as dirty, depraved, naïve, anti-Semitic, elitist, monolithically white, and comprised solely of drum circle-loving hippies from Bennington. It is none of those things, and so much more. (Photos by Cody Swanson)
“Outlaw Bobby Steele,” he calls himself, “the rebel of Wall Street.” He lives in Canarsie and had been making his way to demonstrate in Zuccotti for 16 days when we spoke. Sixty-four-year-old Steele worked on Wall Street for 35 years, but when the company he worked for was bought by ING, he found himself out of a job. “I’ve seen the amount of greed that goes on,” he said. “I’ve seen how they manipulate the credit score and get you to pay more interest. I’ve seen how they step on people and there’s no accountability.”
It might be some time from now, but Steele believes OWS has the power to push forth reforms, and would like to see some securing healthcare, jobs and social security. His look and his demeanor might be a reaction to the stuffy culture of office work: He believes people pass judgments based on tattoos, and presuppose criminality when they see them—hence, his moniker. “I always thought when I retired I’d get one or two tattoos on my face,” he said. “When I realized I wasn’t going back to Wall Street anymore, I decided to go all the way.”
Born and raised in Bay Ridge, and a baker by trade, Courtney’s been out of work for a year now—and he’s homeless. He’d been staying in Zuccotti Park for 15 days when we caught up to him.
“I’m down here because my dad actually worked on Wall Street,” Courtney said. His father was a broker for over 40 years but lost his last two clients in 2010. Since then, his family has been living paycheck to paycheck. “We had to keep up with the Joneses my whole life,” he said (he once attended private school). “Now I’m homeless as a result of it. We have no money, nothing in the bank, all the assets are gone.” “I’ve had people telling me, ‘You’re homeless, get the fuck out. This is about protestors and you’re panhandling’,” Courtney said. He sees a lot of people who are “trying to be sympathetic, but they can’t be empathetic,” because they might never have had to endure really serious financial struggles.
As far as the winter coming: “It’s going to be cold,” Courtney said, “but I think there’s enough money that people are going to troop it out. The diehards are going to be taken care of.”
High School student
“I would come here every day if I could,” said Sage Meade, who spoke to us during her second visit to Zuccotti. She made the distinction of being a visitor, not a demonstrator, but she supports the OWS movement and said, “I’m trying to come here more.” The protest is the subject of much discussion at her school, and many there support the movement; friends of hers have been eager to hear what it was like down on Wall Street.
“People need to spread the bread. Those one percent need to know that for people to realize their dreams they need resources,” said Brown, who’d been sleeping, at first in a makeshift tent, in Zuccotti Park for three weeks. The experience has been “grueling,” he said, and he’d often wake up in puddles of water—once, he had all his belongings stolen.
“But I still spread the message,” he said, “and I’m still a way station for people.” Brown continues to camp out in the park collecting donations to purchase things demonstrators need but can’t find at the comfort tent or from the food line. “I do my part.”
Cabrera lives in Sunset Park and has been coming to Zuccotti every day since September 17. He hasn’t slept in the park but he thinks the most important part is showing up and showing support.“We want to gain enough popularity, by means of you guys, the media, to send a message out there that we want to change the economic system,” Cabrera said, “before [it] collapses.”
“We are mainly focused on corporate greed and social inequality,” Cabrera said, “We are not economists, but we have ideas that might help the central government.” He would like to see changes in bank regulations, in how they “gamble with people’s money,” and changes in how corporations deal with minimum wages, how they “enslave people.”
Flores moved to Bushwick from Oklahoma about a year ago. He interns for a fashion designer and has been coming to Zuccotti for over a month. He doesn’t usually sleep in the park, but once, he told us, “I didn’t want to go home and I just stayed.” They didn’t have enough blankets for him that evening, but Flores said, “Somehow when I was laying on the ground somebody had put a blanket over me during the night.”
Flores had expressed surprise at how “very patient and very respectful,” demonstrators have been. “This is a mirror of the new society we want to create,” he said. “Awareness is the first step and people in government are noticing.”
He added: “Occupy Wall Street has nothing to do with judging people. It has nothing to do with hippies and crazies. It’s not about pride. It’s about right and wrong.”
Freelancer former Marine
“I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a very long time,” said Mediadilla. “When I came here on the first day, the 17th, I saw so many people here. It was crowded, I was here to stay.” Mediadilla, who served seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps, moved into the park “officially,” around October 24.
Many ask what the demands of the movement are. Mediadilla said, “We don’t have one demand. The goal is to wake people up as much as possible to see that things are upside down. This is America trying to give a sense of community back to the people.” They want corporate interests out of government he said, “because it’s currently being run like a corporation, for profit.”
“His nametag read “Senator DeMonet.” He had cash taped to his suit, on the back, a list of sponsors: Visa, Coca Cola, City Group, Texaco. Brant Thomas, a financial analyst from Down•town Brooklyn, came down to demonstrate in Zuccotti for the first time on October 31.
“I’m protesting for a better America,” Thomas said. “One not geared to the rich.” He believes politicians have been pandering at unprecedented levels to moneyed interests. “The Republicans right now have one goal, which is to put more of the wealth in this country in the hands of fewer and fewer people,” he said. “It benefits them totally, and we all suffer.” The movement “has raised awareness,” Thomas said, “I think the timing is very good.”
Sierra was helping out at the comfort station when we talked to her. She’s a student who grew up in Brownsville and had been staying in the park in a tent for three weeks. The experience has been good for her, and Sierra has been pleasantly surprised by the make-up of the protest: “There are people from other countries who’ve come here and donated clothes!” She’d originally come down because she had friends in Zuccotti and soon made more and thought, “’I really like this: I’m going to stay.’ So many different people care and everybody is so nice. It’s exciting, eye-opening.”
She had been in Zuccotti for five days when we spoke to her, on her first day sporting a picket sign. It was Halloween and the sign read, “Psychopaths are our real Monsters.”
“While there are compassionate people left on the planet,” she said, “it’s time to address those who have lost touch with humanity.” Someone doesn’t necessarily have to have gone through the same tribulations as others, she says, to be able to feel a connection. She calls the movement a “giant spotlight” on where we are as a species, “identifying the underlying reasons why things have become so out of touch and dehumanizing.”