Until September 2011, 99% of New Yorkers had never heard of Zuccotti Park far less cared about it. A couple months ago the privately owned public plaza, nestled between the Federal Reserve Bank and the World Trade Center site was as unassuming as it was minuscule. But on the last Saturday of summer 2011 a couple thousand people showed up, some slept overnight, and the winds of change began.
The first time Denise Romero, a Junior at Baruch College, heard about Occupy Wall Street she was unfazed, expecting the movement to last only a few weeks. However as the movement built steam – drawing more and more participants, spreading to other cities and resulting in clashes with the police — she found herself becoming more intrigued.
“It made me think, maybe I could finally have a voice and we needed to be heard,” she said.
Romero, from Astoria Queens, is a prominent member of “Students for a Free CUNY,” a group whose primary mission is to combat the rising tuition costs of students in the City University of New York system. Eventually hoping to return the system to the days when it was free.
On November 21st, spurred on by Occupy Wall Street and in response to the CUNY Board of Trustees’ public hearing to decide whether or not to enact tuition hikes across the board at their public Universities, students took to the streets. “Students for a free CUNY” in conjunction with “Stand Up Baruch” organized boisterous protests outside the Baruch College Campus, eventually culminating in 25 arrests.
Romero expressed concern over the way things progressed.
“We made our way into the building because we had signed up to speak at the public hearing,” she said.
She also denied that the protesters were there to riot.
“This is something we definitely did not plan. We did not come with the intentions of having a violent protest,” said Romero.
Romero is part of a new generation – not Generation X, not Generation Y, but perhaps best described as, “Generation Why.” They are asking questions of authority and staking their claims, They want a new system, it’s not just to stop corporate greed, or golden parachutes but they want to alter a society they believe is riddled with faults, and 2011 has been the year for their voices to be heard.
After the 1960s and 70s, where protests burgeoned with the baby boomer generation, there was a periodic lapse. The two decades beginning in the late 80s witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Money was everywhere, getting credit was easy, complacency was ubiquitous. Street protests, on the other hand were reduced to the realm of pointless emotional sideshows, subordinate incidents of little importance. They were regarded as obsolete, mundane and filled with the dregs of society.
However the failure of the economy in 2008 coupled with the 8.6% unemployment rate today has seemingly struck a chord with the public. Eventually this generation, once lambasted for their lack of activism has gotten off the couch and onto the streets as the young hands appear ready to take over the fight. Stacey Mazurek a 29-year-old, executive assistant from Queens, remembers what first spurred her on to joining the occupation
“I heard about these protestors getting pepper sprayed and I was like “Wow” thats messed up. I had to go down there I had to see what was going on.”
The burgeoning movement was halted by the raiding of the park on November 15th by the New York Police Department, who completely cleared out the park of its residents and their belongings. Now, huddled by the benches at a now almost vacant Zucotti Park, Mazurek lights an oddly poetic, American Spirit cigarette, representing the pseudo-patriotism running through her veins, while recounting the memories garnered over the past couple months.
“I heard so many different stories over the pass couple months, it was crazy. From former bankers revealing what they were forced to do, to a homeless mother of three” Mazurek said.
She also remained confident that this was only the beginning.
“That was stage one, we are now beyond the occupation of a physical space, its alive and it is spreading.”
The growing protest movement comes at a time when young people around the world are taking to the streets to demand change. One only has to look the the Arab Spring earlier this year which commenced with the protest in Cairo, Egypt. The uprising was mainly a campaign of non-violent civil resistance, which featured a series of marches, demonstrations and labour strikes. Millions of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds demanded the overthrow of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This, along with the other protests which span the globe ultimately show how the disenfranchised youth are reacting. In 2011 Protestors all over the world share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — lambasting the sham democracies rigged to favor the affluent.
At Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, protesters put forth a litany of complaints that run the gamut. Their complaints range from police frisking to the veracity of the alphabet, even “Occupy Paw Street” an advocate group for animals has been born.
Kristin Sommer, a social psychology professor at Baruch College chalks this phenomenon up to a combination of closely connected psychological theories. According to Sommer, people want to feel like their lives have meaning and purpose which can be achieved in part by defending and bolstering cultural world views.
“Occupy Wall Street is in a sense a cultural phenomenon or movement that may imbue people with the sense that they are contributing meaningfully to society.” Sommer said.
The “true partner effect” a psychological theory which refers to the idea that people are more likely to stand up for what they believe if they have at least one other person who is willing to do so as well is also applicable here. Sommers was quite candid in her explanation.
“People look to others to gauge the veracity of their beliefs ,disillusionment with economic conditions gains momentum when people see that others feel the same way they do.”
While inspiring the younger generation to speak out, the Occupy Wall Street movement covers a wide range of demographics. A survey of participants rebutted image of the movement being made up of uncleanly, hippie, unemployed protesters as some have complained they have been portrayed in the news media.
According to a survey of Zuccotti Park protesters by the Baruch College School of Public Affairs published on October 19, of 1,619 web respondents, 1/3 were older than 35, half were employed full-time, 13% were unemployed and 13% earned over $75,000. Democrats represented 27.3 percent 2.4% called themselves Republicans, while the rest, 70%, called themselves independents.
“I have a job, I make over 45,000 a year I’m not homeless, but I’m here” Mazurek stated in a defiant tone.
As the wave of activism takes place moving from strength to strength, more people, especially the youth are becoming involved. Gone are the days of being labeled as the lazy, couch ridden generation. In 2011 they are shunning ‘Call of Duty’ and in turn responding to their own. While the scenes at Baruch College and Occupy Wall Street will not soon be forgotten these peaceful protesters believe they will eventually make a change. The have brought issue out of the vague foggy realm of think tanks and placed them right into the middle of society.
Mazurek, currently mired in the process of creating ‘Occupy Astoria,’ in her Queens neighborhood summed up the importance of the movement to her.
“It’s just the idea of more of a presence in society, in these ways, providing alternatives but also bringing awareness to the trials and tribulations these people are experiencing in their daily lives, thats what we need.”
Multimedia: Audio Slideshow, raw audio from CUNY protests.