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Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Reflecting on Two Months of Occupy Wall Street

2011 November 21

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.

NYPD forces lined up at Zuccotti Park

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.

Demonstrators and NYPD gather at Foley Square

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?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011

    My friend and I took our boys to the check out the Occupy Dallas effort on the same day. After talking to several folks, I took away the same sense of needing to take personal responsibility to make any difference. Still working on a way to do so.

  2. Teagirl permalink
    November 21, 2011

    The protestors are anoying and that is exactly what they want to be. Duriung the anti war demonstrations of the late 60’s and early 70’s the public knew exactly what the demonstrators wanted. But this is different. What really annoys me is OWS’s lack of clarity of message and what can be done to resolve it. They have HUGE press coverage and we are all still wondering what exactly they want or what can be done about…what…the 1% who are rich???

    I was swept aside the other evening as I tried to get on a train by camera wielding, chanting, pushy protestors whose occupation of the subway car was ending as they, in a rather frolicking mood, were off to their next site. Having one day walked downtown to see the occupation site, these were my only 2 encounters. Neither enabled me to either identify with some aspect of a solution to whatever it is they want so that I might either get on board or ignore them. So I ignore them as much as possible until I hvae an idea of what exactly it is I can do if I want to assist with whatever their cause is.

    • skelley1 permalink*
      November 22, 2011

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that all the activity around our building has been a hassle, but perhaps less so than the Yankees parade or any other sports celebration that takes over the streets. For me, the lack of a single message seems appropriate for where our society is today. Change is uncomfortable, but if each person gets to choose which things they want to focus on changing first, then it allows an opportunity to generate a sense of responsibility for what happens next.

  3. Liz permalink
    November 21, 2011

    I feel like problems this big need a multi-faceted and sustained approach. You’re (blogger) right on about the need to pinpoint and act to work out all the ways we are personally responsible or passively accepting and reaping benefits of a 99%/1% system. In some ways this country has spent a good number of years playing the 1% to much of the globe’s 99%. Now the funds are distributing a bit more, away from the US and out into other countries while US consumers reap the rewards of (one example: cheaper goods). I admire the OWS movement for being strong enough, staying out long enough, casting its net wide enough, working web 2.0-enough, and for the most part, being peaceable enough about an issue that seems diffuse given how deeply and broadly it permeates the fabric of our US lives. I think that’s what makes it hard for me to criticize the movement for feeling kitchen sinky. That’s how wide and tightly connected the web of issues is, I think. If we follow the money and big corporate control, it impacts everything from the textbooks kids read, to the food we eat, the water we drink, the bills that get passed, the jobs that get killed, the medical conditions we develop, the insurance we can’t afford, the union-busting because states are bankrupt and have to cut somewhere, the list can go on and on because it does and that’s what makes this a tough movement to make and a tough movement to criticize. Problems in the 60s and 70s were big, but the place to lay the blame and the solutions were a bit more obvious. There are so many culpable, hence the personal responsibility dimension of this that the blogger points out, that a “leaderless” sweeping set of issues is likely the only way the public will start to get a handle on how big the injustice really is and how much work we really have to do to turn things in another direction.

  4. Peggy permalink
    November 22, 2011

    Good job, Sophie. I recommend reading “Justice: What’s the Right thing to do?” by Michael Sandel as a start on getting a handle on what justice might be and how we might go about defining and living it as a community of caring people. It seems that the protesters on college campuses in California have an agenda: protest tuition hikes. That seems reasonable. All of us might stand up and protest the privatization of wealth to the richest few percent and the socialization of loss to the great masses of us in the recent bailout of banks and financial institutions “too big to fail.” I did visit Occupy Austin a couple of weeks ago and was also impressed by some speakers there talking sense to the gathered faithful about how to prepare for potential violence (rubber bullets and tear gas) and how to take care of each other (massage tables and sharing food and drink). This old lawyer is still pondering her next step–protest the xl pipeline and support responsible candidates in the next election if any can be found, most likely.

  5. Forex Training permalink
    November 30, 2011

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