Occupy Wall Street Protesters Don't Quit Their Day Jobs
They have the noble goal of making a better world, and they're still paying the bills in the interim.
When the Canadian anti-consumerist group Adbusters put out a call for the Occupy Wall Street resistance movement to commence in New York on Sept. 17, it seemed to be the launch of yet another anti-establishment movement destined to remain on the fringe. Rallies across the country on May 12 aligned with many of the same causes being voiced at the Occupy Wall Street rallies -- an end to tax loopholes, a boost for the unemployed and relief for toxic mortgages. Thousands showed from New York to Moscow, and nary a dent was made in newspaper front pages and on major television news broadcasts.
The Occupy Together movement has been of a different order. The model of single-day activism has been cast aside, as protesters have made open-ended commitments to occupy urban spaces indefinitely in the name of increased democratic participation, among other disparate demands. The protesters represent professions as varied as doctors, lawyers and accountants. But the core of 5,000 full-time participants are more of the freelance variety, and are only able to fully commit to the movement because of freedom in their day-to-day schedule, according to numbers provided by the central organizing committees and more than 30 interviews with AOL Jobs.
"If you're going to be out there every day, you're not going to be someone who's got a 9 to 5 schedule," says Mark Bray, a 26-year-old member of the public and press relations committee, in an interview with AOL Jobs. Bray, who is studying 19th century European social movements in his third year at Rutgers University as a Ph.D. candidate in history, says he heard about the protests through social media websites including Facebook over the summer.
He says that the timing of the protests with the beginning of school year has actually made his commitment possible. He schedules his reading load around his attendance at the rallies in Lower Manhattan. And so he has been able to work around-the-clock on the protests since the first day, on Sept. 17.
He is one of a few hundred who are working on the central planning committees, of which there are roughly 12. In addition to the press committee, there are also ones devoted to food and the protest library.
These committees, which have attracted the support of many new to political organizing, are also counting on the support of protesters who prioritize activism over professional obligations. Indeed, many of the protesters point to the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent as a motivation for their commitment. But they also say that their unemployment enables them to take part. After working for 10 years helping sell books for Avery Publishing on topics related to holistic health, 48-year Richard Degen was laid off during the Great Recession. He now lives off disability in a low-rent building on Pitt Street in Manhattan.
"Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do this," he says. "But I am out here because I want the young people to realize revolution and freedom is not just a march but a struggle."
As an educational professional in training, Bray, of Rutgers and the press committee, also hopes the protests result in a teachable moment for the country. Given the large scale inequality of the country, citizens need to change their relationship with politicians and economics and not just wait and hope for help from politicians, he says. In rallying for a transformational change in American political participation, he doesn't see the demands of the full-time working world getting in the way of the movement.
"The fact that people are camping out and living there is really the symbolic part of it," he says. "What's important is that we can get people out to big events along the way and encourage people to generally become more participatory. We're not asking everyone to sleep in the park."
He points to the weekend occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge, during which 700 people were arrested on Oct. 1, as an example to get the wider audience involved in the movement. Indeed, the strategy seems to be working. The Occupy movement has formally spread to 148 cities at last count, according to the organizing committees, and meetups are planned for a total of 851 cities, according to the central planning website, OccupyTogether.org. Even President Obama has acknowledged the protests, saying at a Thursday press conference that they express "the frustrations that the American people feel" about the economic climate he says he hopes to reform.
"It's just shocking to leave at night, come back in the morning, and already see more people out there," says Tyler Combelic, a 27-year-old also affiliated with the press committee, during an interview with AOL Jobs. Combelic's only experience in political activism before the Occupy Wall Street movement was as a campaign worker in Gen. Wesley Clark's 2004 run for the presidency. He now works as a Brooklyn-based freelance web designer, and says that he has turned his schedule upside down to take part in the protests. He shows up in Zuccotti Park, the heart of the protests, at roughly 10 a.m. and stays until 8 in the evening. Then he goes home to work through the night.
"This is not going to be a schedule that can continue nonstop," he says. "Thankfully, we've finally grown to a size where we can accommodate commitments of a few weeks at a time. People can take breaks and the movement can keep on chugging."
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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