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Occupy Wall Street: Who Are They And What Do They Want?

A mass movement is building across the U.S., joining its international counterparts in demanding economic and social fairness

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Oct 06, 2011 – 03:03 PM EST

Tags: occupy wall st, ows, wall street, activism, csr, economy, energy, sustainability


By Francesca Rheannon

They came by the thousands, and then the tens of thousands. As the crowd swelled in Foley Square massing for a march to Wall Street, I was most struck by its diversity. They were young, old and middle-aged; black, white, Hispanic and Asian; college kids, professionals, workers and the unemployed. They had come to march on Wall Street, called by 15 of New York’s largest unions in an act of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in Liberty Park.

They were rimmed by the massive, impersonal edifices of a government they felt no longer cared about them – and they were preparing to confront the banks and speculators further downtown who had hijacked the state for their own private interests. They spoke with a diversity of voices and held signs covering a spectrum of demands. But it could all be summed up in one word: fairness.

I talked with a bus driver, a nurse, a retired teacher, a salesman and an actor. (Check out my slideshow of the event to see photos.) Here is some of what they told me:

Dorothy Ahmahd, an RN sporting a T-shirt of the National Nurses Union, said, “Nurses are supporting this movement because we see a lot of our patients who once had jobs, but are no longer able to pay for health care. We know this country’s deficit is being balanced with cuts from poor people who can’t pay.” What does she want? “Taxation across the board so our patients can get good health care – no more loopholes for rich people or corporate America to slide through…” and Medicare for all.

Jesse Mendoza is a bus driver in the Bronx, who characterizes himself as “the upper poor,” struggling to make it even though he has a job. He wants an end to the
fight against workers. He said his union had seen more than 700 station agents laid off recently, as well as bus and train operators, and feared that give-backs extracted from other public sector unions, like the CSEA, were coming next for him.

Bill Buster is an actor and union member (AFTRA). He lives in the neighborhood of Liberty Park where the Occupy Wall Street protesters are encamped and started getting involved by bringing food to them. Then he was shocked into action when he witnessed the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge last Saturday. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was outraged at the media’s portrayal of the protesters: “It’s just been insulting and patronizing the way the mainstream media has singled out only the young who they can portray as hippies; they do not portray the senior citizens that are involved with us; they do not portray the professionals; they’re taking all the cheap shots they can.” Declaring the movement welcomes “Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, who are all impacted because they live in this country,” he added that he knew bankers and Wall Street lawyers who were active in the protests after having lost their jobs. 

But perhaps the retired teacher summed it up best. Telling me, “the system is broken and we are no longer providing the promise America always has,” she held up a hand-made sign saying, “Economic Justice 4 All.”

Many in the media carp that the OWS movement is disorganized, without a discernible command structure. Yet it has been able to feed, provide medical care and get sleeping bags for the participants (the authorities won’t let them put up tents). It has managed to get out its own newspaper and website, and organize teams, from media and public relations to a welcome committee, to list but a few. Decisions have been carried out by consensus – grueling and inefficient, perhaps, but perfectly suited to making the point the movement wants to exemplify: democracy is broken, on a bipartisan basis, and they want it fixed.

As the website states:

Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.

When this kind of movement filled Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the world, the U.S. media rushed to applaud it. But it’s not so comfortable when the same thing happens here at home.

This is how mass movements always start, messy, democratic, with a range of voices expressing different elements of the one underlying idea that got them moving (in this case, economic fairness). And it’s finally making it through the self-imposed deafness of the media—although the latter is trying to minimize and trivialize it. (I came back from the march in time to hear the reporter for the radio show Marketplace claim that “at least a thousand people” had marched from Foley Square. Check out this photo for a real sense of the numbers.)

That’s because it’s the real deal – and the beleaguered American labor movement (whose own massive protests last year were completely ignored) is smart enough to see it – and thrilled. One of the speakers at the rally expressed this sentiment when she said, “I am overjoyed that we have found each other. I want to thank the Wall Street movement for sparking the Labor movement and for showing us how to do it: take it to the streets.”

And the Labor movement has a lot the tattooed, skin-pierced, long-haired, scruffy white kids the media likes to train its cameras on lack: money, vote-getting organization and a way to reach millions of Americans who are just now waking up to the fact they are “the 99%.”

If the CSR community has any quibbles about OWS, we should be reassured that what we say we want – getting Wall Street to serve Main Street, reform executive compensation, rebuild America on an environmentally sustainable basis, get good green jobs, promote sustainable agriculture, improve justice for workers, etc. – is there to be seen on the signs being lofted by the marchers. We have been bemoaning forever that the “political will is lacking” to get it done. This is how the political will is created. This is what democracy looks like.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio’s series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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