On the way to my first March on Wall Street in San Francisco, I ask a cop for directions. “Excuse me, do you know the way to the Federal Reserve?” With all the ruckus over Occupy Oakland across the bay, I wonder if he might arrest me preemptively. Instead, he gives me directions, although I end up not following them. Normally I’m color blind, but I take comfort in the fact that he’s Chinese American. And he’s just doing his job, as one of the 99%.
I find the marchers at the eastern end of Market Street, wondering why everyone is standing around quietly. Inside the circle, fliers circulate, friends and strangers talk among themselves. Something visceral takes over when you hitch onto a group for a common cause; it’s comforting to be in a crowd. There are folks of all ages, people of all hues in this grand old city, matched by signs of all stripes. Streaming banners, silvered hair veterans of protests, a young woman in dreadlocks who is one of the Occupy leaders. We’re all making a statement, but there’s a fellow in the nude who wants more attention than anyone else. He’s built like Michelangelo’s David, but the man must have a loose screw somewhere.
A surefooted guy buzzes through the crowd handing out protest signs. I grab the last one, and we’re off, a slow tidal wave of disaffection with the big boys on Wall Street who socked it to all of us. When we stop in front of Chase Bank I have a chance to read my sign. “End racism, war, and CAPITALISM!” it declares. Right…when the Pentagon has to hold bake sales. Still, it makes me feel purposeful holding that sign.
We stop at Chase Bank, the crowd settles like a swirling eddy rimmed by a flank of policemen. I scan their faces; they’re young and middle-aged, almost all men, faces I’ve seen at the community colleges where I’ve worked, faces you could superimpose on a poster of Iraq war veterans. Their expressions are coiled, their bodies ready to spring at a moment’s notice. One woman is introduced as a vet’s widow; she is HIV positive, and she has massive debt on her house which Chase is threatening to foreclose. As she tells her story, in punctuated phrases, we repeat it throughout the crowd. And then the lady with dreadlocks takes the megaphone, saying “Now take out your cell phones.” And she gives us a number, tells us to call an executive assistant at Chase Bank. I’m picturing her, and she looks like Mary the spinster librarian in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We keep the idea alive that one person can make it happen, that a great collective of individuals hollering at the system can make it upright again.
As many of the banners point out, something isn’t right in this country. A teacher of twenty-two years holds up this sign: “I’ll trade you my lifetime pension for your one-year corporate bonus.” On the back, “I’ll trade you my school budget” for those big Monopoly bucks. It’s kind of odd to realize that your entire year’s salary may be less than an hour’s worth of work for a hedge fund manager. Much, much less.
We continue down Market Street, then venture deep into the financial empire of the city with skyscrapers just as immodest as that nudist parading in our midst. I’m bathed in the surround sound of chanting, shuffling feet, gawking tourists. Before we approach Chinatown’s Grant Avenue, we stop off at the former world headquarters of the Bank of America. Community leaders rally us on, and an activist from the Chinese Progressive Association teaches us a few simple chants in Cantonese.
There’s something powerful about chanting in your native language. Especially when the right to assemble is a dangerous sport, as it is in China. A peasant protest in southern China recently met with violent suppression, and one of the village delegates had been tortured to death. But here in Chinatown, I have little to fear. I’m walking through kitsch and mass-market homage to Chinese traditions: embroidered coats, paper fans, health balls to strengthen your chi. I purchase an umbrella from a lady stationed outside her store as a gentle rain begins falling. “We are the 99%!” comes through the megaphone, followed by a hearty response from the crowd. “Ngo de hai gao-sup-gao!” Only a murmur bubbles up. And I raise my voice lustily to fill in the gap in understanding.
When we arrive at the Occupy San Francisco encampment, I’m struck by how young the campers seem. From a distance, the tent city looks like a collection of prayer flags. I’m heartened by their commitment, even if most are spared from the responsibilities of the middle-aged. It’s past six, and I’m due home to take care of my four-year-old and relieve my husband, who is partially disabled. Taking the time to protest feels like an indulgence, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a necessity in this democracy. The remaining marchers join the Occupiers in front of a makeshift stage. As I dash toward the bus, I hear their call and response, one more set of voices in the chorus for change.