As I sat at the corner of La Salle and Jackson in Chicago’s financial district with a small group of the Occupy Wall Street protestors Thursday night, I met a few youths whose stories serve to paint a partial picture of the composition of this movement. I spoke with one gentleman and his pregnant girlfriend, both 21 years old and homeless, who live in an abandoned house on Chicago’s west side. He told me of his struggles and mentioned that although he wasn’t an expert on the matter of economics he was just happy to be a part of a group of people willing to “do something” about an economic system that at face value, seemed unjust. After 30 minutes of conversation detailing their daily struggles to find food, a job, and adequate shelter, he pulled out a small, boxed salad. As he divided their dinner in half, his eyes embarrassingly lit up. He then suggested that we divide the salad into three parts. Astonished, I declined. Less than five minutes later he caught me using my breath to warm my hands. I stopped him as he began to remove his jacket. He was concerned that I was cold. This behavior struck me as symbolic, as these values are entirely absent from the system to which this gentleman was protesting. We departed ways when a stranger walked by and announced that one of the other protesters had found a place to stay for the night; it was now 11 PM.
This young couple epitomizes the inherent problems within our economic system, that is, its utter lack of compassion for those who fall victim to their mistakes. As he and his girlfriend recover from these mistakes and wait patiently for some of the wealth to trickle down, they will soon be casually swept aside as “lazy” freeloaders and will be the target of verbal assaults by a politicized media and a disgruntled working class. They will be disregarded as leeches on our society, and without any trace of compassion will be demoted to an invisible social status from which the upper classes dare not recognize, and from which few are able to recover.
This is simply a fragment of the people that have concluded there is something awry with our societal values and a few weeks ago it was these people who decided to stand up against the economic system that lies at the foundation. And while they do so some label them as young, unknowledgeable, and misguided. They are called lazy. In a country where 1% own approximately 40% of the wealth, our children, undereducated as they may be, are out on the streets speaking up because they simply feel something is wrong. They are standing up for us. Yet here we comfortably sit; our wealth is disproportionately divided among the few, and our anger is disproportionately aimed toward the underprivileged. Rather than criticizing the methods of this young movement we should be on the streets with them providing food, clothing, and most of all, guidance. Instead we, our country’s middle class, have pitted ourselves against the younger and poorer majority, rather than against the few who have literally stolen our money and foreclosed our homes.
It is understandable that we cannot live in a utopia where all of our citizens are privileged to a steady income, shelter, and healthcare, though be mindful that as distant as that utopia seems, it is absolutely within our power to strive for it.
A condensed editorial version of this essay was published in the Chicago Sun Times (10/28/2011).
By Brian T. Murphy
In October of 2011 a small group of protesters grabbed the world’s attention as they “occupied Wall Street” in New York City. In the weeks since, similar protests have emerged worldwide to stand up against financial inequality, however little is known about the face of these dissenters. This piece describes the personal stories of those who occupy the financial district of Chicago.
Photo by Paul Beaty, Associated Press