Occupy Wall Street: Free Ride for Homeless, Jobless, Penniless?
Protesters find companionship, solidarity -- if not purpose at Occupy Wall Street
Twenty-one year old Troy Gregory was making the rounds on a recent Friday afternoon at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan when a man approached him with a sales pitch for a prison justice newspaper. It ran the blank, spectacled glare of Troy Davis on page A1. He didn’t have 50 cents until a bystander stepped in.
“I thought this protest was about Troy at first,” Gregory said looking at the newspaper, raising his voice to be heard over a pulsating drum beat happening just feet away. “Just like with the all the last minute outrage over Troy Davis, my first reaction was, well, why wasn’t this being done sooner? It’s getting colder out here, not warmer.”
Gregory is a fixture at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Square, which are fast closing on its fourth week. After 700 protesters were arrested this weekend, many have questioned whether it will strengthen or weaken the protesters resolve. But stories like Gregory’s underline one of the realities of the protests here: Many of its participants have little -- if anything -- to lose.
Wearing a black v-neck t-shirt and a black fedora, Gregory says he was released from jail earlier this year where he served 30 days for theft. He said he stopped being homeless in July. And yet, Gregory makes easy conversation; he is the ultimate networker at the Mecca of Occupy Wall Street protests, a growing movement with people seemingly from all walks of life.
Gregory confesses to not having a grasp on all of the issues, including why Wall Street is being targeted by the financially oppressed, but is a tireless and effortless networker. He talks to people about why they are there, and has made friends, including a model periodically at the protests whom he boasts had just arrived from Paris.
He wears his presence at the protests as a badge of honor.
“For some people, ignorance is bliss,” he said. “This is not a rap battle. Some people are not willing to fight for what they believe in. But the people here are fighting for something that’s not just about us.’
The makeshift city that is the protester’s home has a media center, a working kitchen and even a library where protesters can borrow and donate books. Biola Jeje, a 20-year-old student at Brooklyn College, says that a box with money had even been set up on the grounds, which said if you have had money to spare, give it, and if you needed money, take it.
“FIghting for a world in which we can all live in and prosper in, I think, is difficult,” she said, adding that she attends the protests when she’s not working, in class or at one of her internships. “But what’s happening here is, we are creating a miniature world within the confines of the park that reflects the world that we want to see.”
Jeje said she’ll have a fraction of the student loans many of her friends and peers will have because of her school choice. But tuition at Brooklyn College is still rising, she said, with many services declining.
A man who only gave his name as Zain, said that he came from Middletown, N.Y., when he couldn’t watch the protests any longer without becoming a part of it. Zain, a father of two, said he was protesting in part, “to make sure that they have a better future.”
Shirtless, and with a shock of frayed hair and a sparse collection of random tattoos, Zain circled the perimeter of the park with a sign that read, “WAKE UP!”
“People need to go a little deeper,” he said. “It’s just not about corporate greed, it’s about making sure that everyone can live freely and openly.”
Zain said he’ll indefinitely be at the protests -- though sleeping on the ground, for him, was going to take some getting used to.
“My back is still kinda achy,” he said.
The overwhelming majority of Occupy Wall Street protesters are under 30. A group of friends with 17-year-old Reggy Elizer, of Long Island, N.Y., said they had brought their more dedicated friends blankets and food. Elizer himself says he’s -- at least for the time being -- forsaken school for the cause. He considers himself representative of the issues facing black people, even if they are not present en masse to make their voices heard.
“These issues would never come up in the hood,” he said. “Black people don’t care about Wall Street. Poor black people are too busy surviving to worry about Wall Street. If we make it about change then that could attract, more people that look like me."
And what about his parents?
“I’m a first-generation Haitian-American, so my parents know about living in an oppressive society. They think, “Everything we don’t know about is bad.” They don’t agree with me being down here, but they know this is the perfect place for me to be.
“I’ve been here for two weeks. And I don’t know ... when I got here, it just felt like home.”