By Sophia Kelley
While the rest of the country has been talking about it, we’ve been keeping silent about something for too long here at Greening the Apple. Our building is just blocks away from where the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began. EPA offices in New York are located in a federal building just across from Foley Square at 290 Broadway and a few blocks from Zuccotti Park. On warm days, the park is a place where neighborhood workers go to buy lunch from a variety of food carts and enjoy some sun before returning to the numerous office buildings in downtown Manhattan. For weeks many of us have been following the protests on the news, walking over on our breaks to check out the occupiers, rerouting our ways to work when the demonstrators start marching up Broadway, some of us disagreeing with the protesters and some of us participating and adding our voices to the demonstrations. Our work environment, though we’re located a stone’s throw from the nexus of activity, represents the typical range of responses that people have been expressing across America. As for me, I’ve been withholding judgment, feeling simultaneously sympathetic toward some of the OWS messages, but also skeptical. Until last week, that is.
Last week, OWS celebrated their two month anniversary on a frigid, damp day. A fellow blogger, Elizabeth Myer, and I decided to venture down Broadway and check out the protestors as their day of action began. I have never seen such an organized police presence or such a cheerful crowd of people who seemed completely content to be standing out in the bone-chilling drizzle. Though the fringes get a lot of attention, creating controversy, waving their inflammatory signs and shouting intentionally provocative slogans, what I witnessed was a peaceful, yet energetic, surge of people who care enough about this country to want to see it improve. I saw people helping each other, working together to organize the crowd, share messages with journalists, politely question police officers about logistics of subway stations and barricades, and generally participate in the democratic process of free speech. Overall things were peaceful despite what seem to be a few isolated incidents. I’ve never been much of a joiner, but I am glad that others are willing to stand together in support of something as ethereal as fairness. Because ultimately, that is what it seems to me the OWS protestors are about – justice. This is a loaded word, because it can mean diametrically opposite things to people, but it is an admirable value to stand up for.
Of course, the messages that the protestors spread are as diverse as the responses to the movement have been. I worry that some of the content serves to point fingers and assign blame, when to my mind, few people are blameless if we have all been choosing to participate in systems that are unjust. Fighting inequality means more than just advocating for abstract ‘change,’ it means being willing to personally help others by giving time, teaching skills, and taking responsibility, not just blaming the powers that be. The example that comes to mind was an image I saw on the New York Times City Room blog of a righteous-looking protestor holding an enormous banner stating, “The banks sold our forests and rivers.” The problem I have with such statements is that it obviates personal responsibility. Each and every one of us is responsible for the health and well-being of this earth. I think the protestors know that, but the danger of simplistic slogans is that they don’t allow for thoughtful dialogue. I hope the sideline supporters, the critics, and the protestors can use the energy apparent in this time to be brave enough to address the issues underneath the waving flags and banners.
Even though I may not support all the goals or statements of the OWS, I can’t help but feel optimistic that so many thousands of citizens of this country are passionate enough about something, anything, that they are willing to endure discomfort, antagonism, ridicule, and potential violence in order to express their beliefs. Readers, what are your thoughts?