Instead of using police officers to oust protesters from Woodruff Park, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has wisely decided to wait and see, hoping that the passage of time and the threat of sub-freezing temperatures will clear the park for him.
Maybe it will, but I’m doubtful. Critics of the Occupy movement claim that those involved are not representative of the American mainstream, and they’re right. People who camp for weeks on end as a form of political protest, and who risk or even force their own arrest by acts of civil disobedience, are by definition not mainstream. They are more extreme than the rest of us.
However, that doesn’t mean that they are divorced from mainstream thoughts or concerns. To the contrary, they’re a lot closer to tapping into what’s really happening in America than are the targets of their protests on Wall Street.
On a visit to the scene Tuesday afternoon, I saw a lot of signs quoting well-known outrageous radicals such as Sam Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. One woman with an audience of one was reading aloud from a piece of subversive literature, something about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Near the center of the encampment of some 70 tents, somebody had erected a section of unpainted wooden fence, with a sign asking “What’s your story?” The fence is full of authentic American stories scrawled on the wood with Magic Markers and Sharpies.
“I am 24 years old,” one person wrote. “I go to school and work full-time and get an average of four hours of sleep a night. I am hoping the degree I earn will help me pay off my $80,000 student loan. The outlook of this is dim. With every day that goes by more and more jobs in this country are lost. It seems most are going to other countries so corporations can make more money …. My mother’s house in Michigan was foreclosed on and she now lives with her mother in Tennessee. A 46-year old woman who has to live with her mom and has done nothing but work hard all her life.”
“All my life I’ve seen ‘immigrants’ being denied the right to receive scholarships to go to school and I’ve seen citizens being drowned in debt due to going to school,” another writes. “And once they finish, NO JOBS. So what’s the point anymore?”
“My son and granddaughter are unemployed,” someone else wrote, explaining that the bank stock that the family had owned was now worthless. “I am 70 and have no job or money. The banks *&#$ed everyone.”
As in other Occupy sites around the country, the vast majority of the participants are young people, and a recurring theme is anguish at the prospect of graduating from college with a heavy debt load and no jobs. The American Dream no longer seems realistic to many of them. In the Vietnam era, protests were dominated by young people who felt the threat of the draft most directly, and if that pattern is repeating itself, it’s for similar reasons. Among men ages 20-25, for example, the September unemployment rate was 15.8 percent, a number that badly underestimates the true scale of the problem, since many in that age group never had a chance to officially join the full-time workforce in the first place.
So yes, we can run off those protesters and take down that fence. But the problem is, it won’t make those stories go away. The people who are living those stories aren’t going away either. The sense of inequity in an economy in which millions are jobless and have lost their homes to foreclosure, while corporate profits are at record high, is not going to change unless the situation changes. Because for every story written on a wooden fence, there are several hundred thousand others in which the principal characters have so far suffered in silence.
The protesters are not the people we should turn to for answers or solutions, but that’s not their role. Their role is to give voice to a problem, and you have to believe that voice will get louder and louder.
– Jay Bookman