The Face of Protest

“You don’t look like a protester.”

I’ve heard that a lot in Liberty Park, where I’ve joined the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in the marches to Foley Square, Washington Square Park and elsewhere. Calling this particular plaza a “park” is a stretch. It’s a cramped slab of marble patio and benches shaded by an occasional tree, but the harsh geometry is animated by the residents who’ve moved in. Sleeping bags, hand-lettered signs, guitars and drums, cafeteria tables, hot food, and a network of laptops pulsing at the center have grown grass-roots vitality on this barren afterthought in the well of skyscrapers. I used to eat lunch here on the punishing benches when I worked my first corporate job, just out of school. Standing at the Occupy Wall Street information area I can see my old office building, a lavish pagoda high in the western sky. I bought my first hand-tailored suit in the Brooks Brothers across the street where a dozen police are talking by the display windows. Pinstriped, with real buttonholes. The suit was a youthful extravagance, especially silly of me to dress like a banker since I wasn’t one and didn’t work for a bank.

The ‘you-don’t-look-like’ disbelief comes from a reporter who’s sizing me up for a story, curious about why I’m hanging around with college kids who are less than half my age.

“I look like the 26 million Americans who are out of work,” I say. “I’ve gone through three corporate layoffs since 2001 and have been unemployed since the last one five years ago. My wife, two kids, and I, we’ve all been living with it.”

“Oh?” The story surprises the reporter as much as my appearance. She’s barely older than the guy I just spoke to, a college senior from Vermont named Dan wearing a construction worker’s coat and a budding political scientist’s beard. His dad’s a mechanic who’s been laid off twice, and they’re both in shaky situations. My story’s familiar to him. The issues that brought Dan and me to Occupy Wall Street are cross-generational. The only difference in our outlook is that he’s worried about his future, while I’m worried about my present.

The reporter opens her spiral pad and writes fast as I go through the shorthand of my decimated career: “I worked in marketing and made enough for a modest middle-class life. My layoffs were decided by corporate directors responding to the charge of “undervalued stock” leveled by Wall Street analysts who also set absurd 20% annual growth targets. My wife’s job pays about half of our monthly bills, and we’ve been stretching dollars and drawing down the blood bank of our savings for the last five years; that bank is now dry. I’ve sent 2,000 résumés and not received an offer. There’s a stigma to being unemployed, but because of the length of my unemployment, the government no longer counts me in the statistics. They group me and 12 million others as having ‘given up.’ Nonsense. We haven’t given up; we can’t afford to. Employers have given up on us.”

The reporter nods demonstratively through my history. I’m a perfect storm of a story for her – a man in a family crisis connected to a country full of them. She looks up and asks “Why are you here?” I thought my saga made that self-evident, but it will take more time to make the point.

“I’ve been living this for a decade and no one was interested – not the media, of course not corporations, and certainly not the government. According to all of them, the recession ended years ago. I’ve been shouting into the wind. Finally, in this park, there are people who recognize what’s been happening for so long and want to change the situation. The least I could do is show up.”

An organizational meeting is starting near us. About forty people sit cross-legged in the crevice between the computers and the plaza’s perimeter wall. They’re discussing the essentials of survival – food donations coming in from around the country, sanitation, shelter from the elements – the kinds of things that all of us whose lives have been reduced to day-to-day think about. I’ve got expertise and can add something of value to the conversation. I should get to the meeting.

A half-smile splits the reporter’s smooth face, and she pulls another notebook from her messenger bag. She flips to the first blank page. “O.K., I see the people,” she says, “but what is this all about?”

She’s answered her own question. I wonder when she’ll know it.