Report From Zuccotti Park

October 20, 2011

This morning I received an email from a friend who’d just returned from a trip to Occupy Wall Street.  It’s certainly worth reading especially as regards some early (and continuing —especially from news sources such as Fox and talk radio) media hype characterizing Occupy Wall Street as a “dirty-hippy phenomena.” This is not a movement of radicals, this is a movement against radicalism —the radicalism of corporate government. As can be seen by my friend’s message this is a movement that has grown out of the frustrations of ordinary Americans of all walks of life who know they cannot get things done through our political process —who understand that process has been bought and sold and is broken; that it belongs to big money.

Read on and be heartened:

Hi all,

Thought you might appreciate hearing about our wonderful trip to Occupy Wall St yesterday. It was WAY too much fun…and, oh so,  important.

John, our friend, Diane Poland, and I went by 7:10 am train from Springfield (MA), arriving at 10:30 in NYC. Take the subway and walk two blocks to Liberty and Broadway and there you are. Easy trip. Zuccotti Park is smaller than we anticipated, about the size of a Little League ball field. It’s sunken, has trees and cement surface. Two sides are bordered by active city streets with constant car and pedestrian traffic. A third side is lined with stores or restaurants and a huge number of press, including many foreign correspondents. The 4th is a line of about 20 parked police cars, including a portable tower that surveys all the activity in the park. The uniform police stay to the outside, looked bored and are cordial to talk with.

At the two street sides are people holding signs and posters, exclaiming their passions for being there. At one end is a constant drum circle where street theater happens. The sidewalks can’t be blocked for the pedestrians, but gets plugged up as the park fills. The Occupiers are sitting or catnapping within the park, with walkways meandering among them. This makes for wonderful interaction and communication for both sides. Some people arrive to challenge the position and dialog, but most are there to show their support and ask questions. This feels different from most demonstrations/protests, where two sides are kept from one another. In this case, though you don’t know who is with you or not until they talk with you, it encourages an exchange of ideas.

There are many, many onlookers, some standing off and others wandering through to get a closer look. There are many more, like us, who come to show their support. They mostly carry signs (theirs or ones already there), or have come to bring food or other supplies. There is a strong sense of everyone eager to care for the Occupiers, making sure they are comfortable and well-fed. For example, we met a man from Burlington, VT who is a baker, who filled his van with freshly baked breads and homemade signs, and had driven down for the day.

The Occupiers are impressive. They are smart, highly organized serious, energized, idealistic, committed and resolved. They have found a way to have their basic physical needs met. There are mats, sleeping bags and tarps, racks of warm clothes to borrow, pans of hot water for washing up. I visited for awhile with an Occupier from Springfield, a former teacher, wh was holding clean, pure white washcloths to his face for soaping up and shaving, using a reflective mat as a mirror. Many do trade off at times, showering in local apartments of supporters. The only store that is committed to being open for toilets is McDonalds. (Let’s hear it for Ronald, and go buy a bag of fries to thank them!) The park is very neat, clean and organized. They are sweeping the paths constantly, recycling and disposing trash responsibly. There is a huge blackboard that schedules obligations throughout the day. They are allowed a medical tent, and have internet access through a free tower, and a generator for charging cellphones.

I asked about their plans to stay through winter, wondering if they could move to a southern location and just call it Occupy Wall Street South. But no, they plan to stay. One fellow told me that a group of architects has approached them and are researching the building of a type of structure that can be brought in each evening, then removed during the day. They would do all this for free.

For food, there is a constant flow coming in as donations. They have a kitchen area for preparing food, as bags of produce, bread, desserts are donated throughout the day. In a church nearby, hot food is being prepared by a caterer from a high-end restaurant. We saw him carting in hot meals throughout the day. Supporter from off-site, in other cities, states and countries(!!) can donate food by going to websites of area restaurants that prepare food and deliver it there. Before we left we checked them out. You can order a bucket of chicken wings or cole slaw, or the Occu-Pizza Pie from anywhere in the world. The on- going blog showed entries of support from Paris, Madrid and Mexico City, to name a few, donating $20-$2000’s worth of pizzas at a time.

The community of support around them is the most impressive. Tourists and locals walk by calling out support, giving thumbs up and applause. Double-decker tourist buses drove by regularly, with tourists waving eagerly and more thumbs up. As we walked to and from the subway and train, folks spotted our signs an often made supportive comments or thanked us for going down there. I have been in many large peace demonstrations in large cities, but I have never felt this level o support. When you are crying out to end a war, the quiet ones may not like war either but feel it unpatriotic or that it’s being unsupportive of the troops to join us or show support. There is no hesitancy this time. People are angry and frustrated and want real change. This feels very vibrant and very big.

There is a good demographic mix among the Occupiers. There are students, retirees, unemployed and union tradespeople. Our favorite Occupier is Anna Armstrong, Bob and Judy’s daughter, who we met there. Anna flew from Grinnell College in Iowa, during her semester break to spend the week, sleeping there (i the rain tonight!), organizing and learning. She is accompanied by her boyfriend, who designed, set up and manages the free internet tower. Anna and we are fascinated by the structure for decision-making. There is no hierarchy and issues are discussed at evening General Assemblies. Simple hand signals are used to communicate choice. When announcements are made they create a human megaphone, which we had a chance to participate in.. There are no PA systems. A person speaks out one phrase or sentence, and those 25 around or so around them, then echo them. The next sentence is spoken and more then echo, until the whole group is included, and all can hear equally. Fascinating and effective.

The GA is heading towards a big decision soon. We had hoped to see it in action that evening, but had to catch our train. They are on the verge of deciding what to focus on next. They want to start defining their issues more succinctly, and are considering what demands they are requesting in the future. And when do you do that to be the most effective? Now, before energy fades or wait for the energy to grow?

We arrived with two large signs saying JOBS FOR TEACHERS NOW! and FUNDS FOR EDUCATION NOT CORPORATIONS. I was able to affix several eye-catching SOS (Save Our Schools) logos to the posters. Those really drew people to us. On the back of each sign I wrote “from Western Massachusetts”, which engaged lots of people and press. I wanted people to understand how far away people were coming and had hoped to encourage others to do the same. Many people left their signs for others to hold up…including ones like PERU SUPPORTS OCCUPY WALL STREET. Being from western MA didn’t seem that special…

As we entered the perimeter of the park, we were very quickly surrounded by cameras and microphones. We were all taken aback, stunned to be getting tha amount of attention. It turned out that it was the identification of being teachers. I think the press was waiting for a new angle on the Occupation, and today it was teachers.

We were pelted with questions, and throughout the day, I gave 5 or 6 interviews to television, radio and print media. Diane spoke to AP and Newsday.  She was great at asking them their feelings and what brought them there. It was wonderful. There’s nothing I like more than to talk about public schools, politics and big ideas. I went almost non-stop, answering questions about merit pay, charter schools and school choice.

Some were supportive and some were confrontational. It was grand. Those in opposition to our stand were often poorly informed and the three of us worked hard at calm, confident rebuttal and information. I truly believe there were some attitudes changed.

We had to find ways to interweave our pro-public schools stance into the issues of the Occupation, talking, for instance, about corporations that benefit from the standardized testing program (robbing us of money that would pay for more teachers), textbook turnover for the sake of profit, corporations that donate money for their agenda and not consulting those in the field, teachers. Or that our nation’s priorities need changing, with our children’s education taking precedence over profit. That corporations have a right to exist but they have a mandate to pay back those that helped them get there.

That our schools have always been a reflection of the whole society. As in our country now, there is a huge divide between the haves and the have-nots, it is the same in our schools. It’s inequitable. Funding formulas are wrong, benefitting the wealthy and hurting the poor. When our country is in crisis, our students’ reflect that crisis. Mom and Dad are scared and anxious. They lost their jobs. They may lose their home. They are depressed and domestic violence increases. Our children are coming to school scared, sad, distracted and angry. And we have less and less staff to respond to their needs. We need more teachers as class sizes grow. (Okay, make me stop…)

If you teachers on this list want to get a morale boost, head on down and carry your sign. The cries of “We love teachers!” and “Thank you, teachers!” were grand. We got high-fives and hugs from so many, including a teacher who came from Brazil to be there. For about an hour and half we stood at the top of a staircase, near the drum circle (with an opera singer and jazz saxophone joining in!) and we held our signs. There must have been close to 1000 photos taken of us. They often zoomed in on us taking photos and videos on everything from iPhones to professional large lens cameras. Quite fun, indeed.

A highlight was around 1:00 when we knew we needed some lunch. Still holding our signs, we discussed where to eat…from a local panini place supporting local business or Diane’s choice of eating at the “People’s Table”, joining the Occupiers. We decided to wait another 20 minutes, eager to stay there for the huge Wall Street lunch crowd who came to see the park activity. A few minutes later a well-dressed, young man and woman (high, high heels and stunning black suit) started up the stairs to the park, carrying their pizza from across the street. We stepped aside in order for them to pass. But the young woman broke into a big smile, looked at me and said, “No, this is for you! My parents are both teachers!” She threw her arms around me and gave me a big hug! Oh my. We then felt so part of something so good and so right.

When reporters spoke to me, several asked, “What do you expect to get from all this?” I replied, “I don’t know. It’s very big and very complicated and requires huge shift in thinking about who we are as a country. I just know I can’t stand this anymore and I have to try to make change. I can’t vote it away. I can’t buy it or boycott it. All I can do is make a sign and stand in the street, so here I am.” I sat next to a non-profit lawyer heading home to Hartford from a Washington business trip. He asked me the same thing. I told him we needed to have these dialogs before real change can happen. That if we had sat next to each other last month, we woul never had had this conversation. Hurray for Occupy Wall Street!

We highly recommend that you try to take a trip down there. From our area, it’s a pleasant 3 hour train trip. They are asking that supporters come for as little as 2 hours. On so many levels, you’ll be glad you did.

Please feel free to pass this along. We want to spread the word, dispel untruths, and encourage others to participate in any way possible.

P. Holbrook


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