I wasn’t sure what to expect on the sunny and gusty afternoon of Wednesday, Oct.er 5, 2011, when I left a lunch meeting in the Wall Street area of Lower Manhattan, New York City.
I purposely scheduled the get-together there so I could easily move from the restaurant to Zuccotti Park, on Broadway between Liberty and Cedar near Ground Zero, where protesters have been camped out for three weeks. No, they are not actually occupying Wall Street (the city and the police are making sure of that), but they are close enough, right smack in the middle of America’s largest and most powerful financial district.
This began this past summer when the anti-capitalist magazine AdBusters put out a call for Americans to occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17. With people’s rebellions in places like Egypt, Spain, and the American state of Wisconsin still fresh in some folks’ minds, seems it was only a matter of time that protests would begin to spread, like wildfire, throughout America, regardless of who is in the White House at this very moment.
I came because I am in support of the protesters, of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and elsewhere, for two basic reasons. One, I too have been profoundly affected, financially, by The Great Recession, and I grew up in poverty, my single mother and I, so it troubles me to the highest degree to see anyone in America suffering hardships, economic or otherwise.
Secondly, I have been a political and community activist and organizer for 27 long years, since I was a teenage student and youth leader, and I’ve worked in all sorts of movements and mini-movements. I’ve organized or participated in more building takeovers, sit-ins, marches, rallies, conferences, benefits, disaster relief efforts, concerts, and political and community interventions and negotiations than I can even recall at this point. This is my life work: to help people to help themselves. Thus any time I see or hear of a critical social cause, if I am able to do so, I am going to jump right in.
It is this spirit I carried into Zuccotti Park. And what an amazing spiritual and political vibe there: People on laptops and hand-held devices typing or texting nonstop. People napping on blankets, sleeping bags, or the grass. People plucking guitar strings, blowing horns, and banging on drums and garbage cans. People having random but passionate conversations here and there about “capitalism,” “democracy,” “President Obama,” or “the police.” People sitting peacefully, in a circle, as they meditate amidst all the compelling, organic, and chaotic magic around them. People serving food to the regular protesters in the community kitchen, while other people are painting demonstration signs on strips of cardboard with captions like “Poor people did not crash the economy” or “Give me back my future.” People borrowing, returning, or thumbing through books from the makeshift lending library. Everyday people, mostly younger, but certainly a number of elders, some of whom, I am sure, have in their activist resumes Civil Rights or anti-Vietnam work, or a fond memory of Woodstock. Most of the people here are White, although there is some people of color present, too. Also very clear that there are straight folks and gay folks, persons with disabilities, and persons who are war veterans, with a few wearing their camouflage-green uniforms.
As I walked slowly through Zuccotti, from the Broadway entrance to the Trinity Place side, I thought it strangely ironic that the park’s northwest corner is across the street from the old World Trade Center site. In fact Zuccotti Park was covered in debris immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and subsequently was used as a staging area for recovery efforts. Kissing the sky high above Zuccotti now is the Freedom Tower, the 105-story edifice with a price tag of about $3 billion and counting, which will finally be opened some time in 2013.
I also thought of the fact that Lower Manhattan had once been the staging area for significant parts of the American slave trade, the importation of Africans, my people, literally creating the concept of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange because, well, the first stocks ever exchanged and the first global economy were enslaved Black people. As proof, not far from the Occupy Wall Street protest is the African Burial Ground, where bones of some of these Africans were discovered several years back. And before the Africans, and the European settlers, slaveholders, and colonizers, were the original owners of this land, the Native Americans. Manhattan as a word is of the Lenape language, and it means “island of many hills.”
Not that any of the above would be known to the average person, or perhaps even the average protester here, but I think it important for those of us who call ourselves Americans, or human beings, or both, to be clear that nothing we do, with a structure or not, is without a context, or is ever disconnected from the history of who we are. We literally walk atop the spirits and the graves of the good and the bad that has led us to these days of protest and occupation.
We the people, that is. Therefore, this infant movement is absolutely correct in stating, loudly, “We are the 99 percent.” We the American people, of diverse backgrounds, while the wealthiest 1 percent in America owns and controls 42 percent of America’s wealth.
CONTINUED NEXT ISSUE.
Kevin Powell is a nationally acclaimed political activist, public speaker, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. The author or editor of 10 books, Kevin’s 11th, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published January 2012 by lulu.com. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell