By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
On Thursday, October 13, Over 50 and Out of Work went to Zuccotti Park to interview protestors at Occupy Wall Street and to shoot footage of the nascent movement.
Occupiers, activists, drop-in protestors, hippies, commuters, passersby, tourists, construction workers, financial district employees, media, the police and the curious crowd Zuccotti Park and its surrounding sidewalks to participate in or pass through Occupy Wall Street. The small park has become a gathering place for speechmakers, debaters, mobilizers, hangers-on, drifters, artists, opportunists, pushcart vendors and performers.
It’s a remarkable scene and an amazing thing to see Americans exercising their rights to assemble and speak freely.
Before we started filming, we stopped at a café one block north of the park. We sat in the back, near the restrooms, while we organized our video and sound equipment. I noticed two women drinking coffee at a table nearby because they were dressed like hikers - not a commonplace sight in lower Manhattan. They used the clean and tidy restroom before they exited the café, as did I. Later, I spotted the two women in the park, and they were occupiers. Contrary to what has been reported, at least in this one café near the park, protestors had not trashed the restrooms nor disrupted business, which was brisk.
Susan M. Sipprelle
In fact, the café’s patrons appeared oblivious to the protestors’ presence and perhaps to their cause as well, which brought to mind “Here is New York,” by E. B. White, written in 1949:
New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.
In contrast to the café’s normal workday aura, the atmosphere in the park was chaotic and agitated. New York City’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, had announced that the occupiers would have to vacate the park on Thursday so that it could be cleaned on Friday. In response, many members of the occupying community were sweeping and scrubbing the granite slabs that pave the park, tossing out trash and recycling cardboard. A scruffy group lounged on a soggy couch in the middle of the park, talking and passing a cigarette around, despite the ban on smoking in New York City parks. Protestors, holding signs, stood along the eastern border of the park on Broadway where they had the greatest visibility.
Their signs read: “Tax me like a hedge fund manager;” “The world should be owned by the people living in it;” and, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one!” A young man with a placard, “Finance job losses: 10K predicted,” provoked a debate among a small group of men, two dressed in suits and ties, who gathered around him. A woman, comfortably ensconced in a lawn chair, sat on the park’s northern rim and knitted. Next to her, there were two signs. One read: “Knitting for Occupy Wall Street.” The other: “As Seen on the Daily Show.” Not far from her, protestors had propped up two signs: “Ban ‘naked’ credit default swaps” and “Today we clean up our community, tomorrow we clean up Wall Street.”
New York City police, many talking in small groups, stood around the park on the bordering sidewalks.
Along the park’s western edge, drummers drummed and two dancers danced to their beat.
Near the performers, we conducted a video interview with Gerlyne Maitre, 29, who held a sign, “Where is my American Dream?” A graduate of Hunter College with a degree in sociology, Maitre has been unable to find full-time employment and works for temp agencies. As she quietly told us that she accepts every temporary job she is offered, someone, who presumably could not hear what she was saying, but saw that she was being filmed, shouted at her, “Get a job!” Maitre had traveled from her home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. to join Occupy Wall Street for the day.
A policeman wearing a NYPD Community Affairs windbreaker ducked under our camera, waited politely until Maitre had finished answering a question and informed us that we were blocking the sidewalk. We relocated to the southern side of the park, where construction workers sat on the wall, talking and eating their lunches.
We interviewed Richard DeVoe, 54, who lost his Las Vegas construction job in 2009 and has not been able to find full-time employment since then. He said that he is participating in Occupy Wall Street because he has been a lifelong political activist. He is advocating for an alternative currency that will bypass the current U.S. banking and financial system.
Rosina Grignetti, 52, works as a home healthcare aide on weekends, but she had traveled midweek from her home in Lexington, Mass. to join her voice to the protest. Although she had to get back to Massachusetts for her job, she plans to return to Occupy Wall Street. She believes that the regulations on political contributions made by corporations should be tightened and that more Americans should have the opportunity to earn a decent living wage.
Television coverage of Occupy Wall Street concentrates on skirmishes between the protestors and police, and emphasizes arrests. These reports miss the point that the occupiers are striving to create an orderly, self-governed community that conveys broad-based frustration and dissatisfaction with the U.S. economy and politics. Written coverage often focuses on the movement’s lack of leadership and clearly defined goals.
Americans have been losing their jobs and homes since 2007, while Occupy Wall Street is only a month old. It is difficult to predict if its mixture of idealism and pragmatic proposals will evolve into political clout that can effect change. But to ignore or dismiss the movement risks missing out on a potentially enormous and wonderful event - a renewal of American democracy - taking place this minute.
Susan M. Sipprelle is a multimedia documentary maker, a journalist and a photographer. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2008, and is the mother of five children.
OVER 50 AND OUT OF WORK is an ongoing multimedia project that documents the impact of the Great Recession on jobless Americans, 50 and older. Boomers, generally regarded as self-centered and indulgent, reveal unexpected depths of faith, perseverance and resilience through their life stories.