Blog Topic: Civil Disobedience
The populist Occupy Wall Street movement for economic equity brings back my own burgeoning activism in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when I protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Our campus sit-in helped to raise awareness of the war. Those had been exciting, heady times for me, and I could only imagine how the “occupiers” at Zuccotti Park, many new to protest, must be feeling. Quickly what at first seemed a peripheral protest began to gather considerable force, partly in response to police overreaction – demonstrators were pepper-sprayed, there were close to a thousand arrests. Now unions and activist and political groups had begun to join in, and other encampments started to spring up around the country and the world. I was impressed by the protesters’ persistence and their commitment to nonviolence. I was curious about the occupation, and I also wanted to show support.
This past summer I had given readings at libraries and bookstores for my novel, Layla, which tells the story of a young apolitical woman who comes to terms with her own values through confronting a crime stemming from her parents’ activist past. I found the discussions after my readings to be fascinating – after a few questions about the story or characters, everyone wanted to talk about activism, and mostly about why the young people of today weren’t politically involved. The audiences wanted to know – why did I think this was so? “Where’s the rage?” they asked. Well, suddenly, here it was. And these young people were not just taking to the streets but were staging long-term occupations, taking their cues from uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere. What was going on? I decided to go downtown.
I thought about bringing cookies or muffins to the park - but I don’t bake. As this is, after all, the Facebook generation, I discovered the twitter feed #needsofthedemonstrators: “Something besides pizza, please!” And “we need hand warmers.” Then I came across something that made me chuckle. A librarian, Betsy Fagin, had started a library at the site. Donations were welcome -- especially novels. Apparently people craved them for the long evenings, after politics were done for the day, and they snuggled in sleeping bags courting sleep. I grabbed a few copies of Layla and jumped on the subway.
Zuccotti Park was only a block long but crammed with people. Protesters lined the perimeter of the park holding signs, with more displayed on the ground so they could be read by passers by. “Wall Street Staffers: If You See Something, Say Something,” “Only Democracy Is Too Big To Fail,” “Regulation Is Not a Dirty Word.” Protesters spoke of crushing college debt and the lack of jobs, but more broadly, a demand for accountability from corporate America for the current economic crisis and the fast-growing income gap between the 1% richest Americans and the other 99% - hence the most popular slogan, “We Are the 99%.”
The encampment, though somewhat disheveled, was well organized, with a media section, where people were hunched over computers; a supply area with piles of tarps; and a food service area. Lunch was laid out along a long board, and people were filling up their plates with donated food – salad and hummus, fruit, and yes, pizza. Tightly tied sleeping bags dotted the spaces in between, where people were talking intensely in small groups, or attending a press conference (there must have been 30 reporters that day), or listening to musicians – a banjo player, a guitarist, a folk band. Most of the participants were young, but there were many middle-aged and older among the participants, who were multi-ethnic and multi-racial. The mood was friendly.
The library was impressively stocked with fiction, nonfiction, politics, poetry. I saw everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” to “The German Ideology” by Marx and Engels. I wrote a note in each of my books and left them in the fiction “shelf”:
“Dear Wall Street protester, thank you for your courage and commitment. This book was written for those like you.”
The next day, I joined the thousands who marched peacefully and with great energy from City Hall to Wall Street – activists old and young.
Causes Celine Keating Supports
Amnesty International, Natural Resources Defense League, Greenpeace, Rethinking Schools, PEN, Sierra Club