You know, when the news first came out about the Occupy Wall Street protests and demonstrations, my cynicism kicked in.
There were no clear demands. I didn’t know what they wanted. They had lots of complaints, but little to no information on “what should we do about it?”
In the 60’s, the protesters demanded peace. They wanted the soldiers to exit from Vietnam. The recent Arab Spring protests were pretty focused too: they wanted the dictators to step down or die. The Tiananmen Square protests were all about basic freedoms. The freedom to speak. Those protesters died for their efforts. Now there was a protest I could get behind.
So what the hell were these Occupy Wall Street protests about? My jaded perception painted the protesters as seasoned agitators, all talking about “The Man”. Unionists, and rebel groups with too much time on their hand.
Even now, there are lots of news commenters and bloggers, columnists and commenters saying pretty much the same thing.
These guys just want something for nothing. They don’t want to work for privileges. They think rich people are evil. They want a communist state. They want the government to come in like Robin Hood: take from the rich and give to the poor.
Still, I’m old enough to know the value of holding my breath until the information is clear. The only available information was conjecture. Opinion.
I’m of the firm belief that no PR firm will ever go broke underestimating the willingness of the masses to accept the simplest and most sensational opinion as fact. The temptation to put on the mantle of xenophobia is compelling for many of us. It comes from a distrust and fear of change. We are at our most comfortable when we can point to a group of people and describe them as “them” and us as “us”. We value clear distinctions. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
Lest you are left with the impression that I’m preaching here (making me “me” and you “you guys who are doing all this horrid stuff”) I’m not. I have my own prejudices, some of which are wrong, and a few that I’m working on.
Here’s the thing though.
Upon looking at some of these crowds, I was a little startled to see many middle-aged folk, and some grandparents – out there with signs. These weren’t hipsters or hippies (and someday, someone can tell me the difference between the two). They weren’t radicals, looking for a free ride.
I began listening to their stories. What they had to say made me uncomfortable. Mostly because I identified too strongly with them. I’ve been where some of them are right now. It’s not fun.
One time I found myself out of work, when I had a wife and kids to support. It was scary. I quickly found another place to work but for a while there it looked pretty dicey.
We were the recipients of charity. While we were grateful for the groceries that were brought to our door, I have to tell you: it was pretty humbling.
I grew up relatively poor, too. Food was scarce, often consisting of meal after meal of peanut butter sandwiches. We ate lots of macaroni and cheese too, because it was the cheapest item in the grocery store. The sheriff came close to kicking us out of our house because my dad missed so many mortgage payments. I remember staying up late nights, back when I was still a young teenager, because of the burden of that worry.
Many of the Wall Street protesters are in that boat right now. Many have lost their homes and their jobs. They don’t know what to do. Jobs aren’t plentiful. Some are living in cars. I heard some advice on a TV drama tonight: “if the time ever comes and you have enough money to either make a mortgage payment or make a car payment, make the car payment. Because you can live in a car, but you can’t drive a house.”
For many people, that’s exactly the point.
So we come full circle: what do the protesters want?
They want things to go back to normal. They want to work for a living. They want their dignity back. They don’t want handouts.
The problem is: they don’t know how that can happen. So they rage, helplessly. They know how things got to be bad. They know about the sub-prime mortgage nonsense – which really was an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Their bankers told them the mortgages they were signing for so little down was all legit. It never occurred to them to question it. I recall a conversation here in Canada where someone bragged about how good the States had it with housing, and how property could be obtained for almost a song. America was the land of golden streets and big luxury cars. I envied their standard of living.
I’m not envying them anymore. Not on your life.
I think we need to conclude that the Occupy Wall Street protests aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be. Participants reflect our own demographics. People for whom we can say “there but for the grace of God, go I.” The only separating “them” from “us” is the fact that our employer hasn’t yet decided to close up shop just yet. Some of us are hanging by a thread though.