From online videos and the evening news, you’d think that “Occupy Wall Street”—now in its second month in Lower Manhattan and rapidly spreading elsewhere—was a strictly 30-and-under phenomenon. But in a recent visit, WVFC’s Diane Vacca found people of all ages and backgrounds—including contingent after contingent of energetic, outspoken women in their 60s and 70s. Here’s her report.
To enter the encampment it’s necessary to circumvent three lines of police barricades across the street, plus another two surrounding the park. Tourists, curious New Yorkers and well-wishers weave through the occupiers’ belongings that all but cover the ground. Journalists swarm everywhere with mikes, cameras and notebooks. Earnest young men and women push brooms, pick up and tote away garbage. Hand-lettered signs and displays are on the ground and attached to poles. Orderly chaos reigns.
At 11 in the morning a few of the blankets, air mattresses and tarps are still occupied with bodies. Sleepyheads begin to wake and stretch out from their blankets, sitting dazed on the ground. It’s hard to sleep during the night, one of them said, because it’s very noisy. Three weeks after the protest began, a construction crew with bright lights and a very loud jackhammer arrived after dark and worked through the night. Their work will take several weeks. Given the protesters’ determination to occupy the park indefinitely, various means to discourage the campers are being deployed.
Although they’re less likely to spend their nights at the park in sleeping bags, older women are also at the park, helping out wherever they are needed. (Below, author Naomi Klein, 41, joins the crew as they began a march to City Hall on October 5.) Often it’s the makeshift kitchen. Behind a seemingly endless supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sarah, 65, was doling out ice cream from a donated commercial-sized barrel. She came from Ithaca, NY, to support the protesters. “They’re putting their bodies where their beliefs are,” she says. Sarah also wants to call attention to a local upstate issue, the hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Corporate profits, she believes, determine national energy policy. Like most OWS protesters, she finds that untenable.
Issues of anti-consumerism and sustainability motivate many who Occupy Wall Street, but a concern shared by all is income inequality. A growing number of Americans are realizing that while they are losing jobs and their incomes continue to decline, a much smaller number of Americans is reaping unprecedented profits. One percent of the population took in almost a quarter of the nation’s total income in 2007, an increase of more than 2.5 times the almost 9 percent of total income the same group earned in 1976. Yet during those same 30 years, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage decreased by over 7 percent. To put it another way, the C.E.O.s of the largest corporations took home 42 times the earnings of the average worker in 1980. Twenty years later, those corporate titans took home 531 times as much. Between 1980 and 2005, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans accounted for more than 80 percent of the total increase in American incomes.
Back at the kitchen, another over-60 volunteer, Elspeth MacDonald, was cutting up scraps for the compost pile in her cooperative city garden. She shares in OWS’s prevailing anti-war sentiment. She would like to “stop the war immediately” and “put the savings into infrastructure.” Phyllis Coelho, 70, and Jane Sanford, 79, belong to a group called “Bring our War Dollars Home.” They came from Maine to participate. Why? Coelho replied, “I’m an activist, and I believe in the OWS idea.” She and her group “have been helping with the dishes. We’ve gotten them food, we’ve helped serve food. We do whatever we can to keep the process going.”
Many of these women began their political activism in the 1960s. Ann Marie Karl (right), an attorney who works in human rights at the United Nations, spoke for most of them as she proudly declared, “I was there for Vietnam, I was there for civil rights. I’ve lived through it, been part of it, been to the colored restrooms and the white, helped with integration, the women’s movement. I can see the threads, and the harvesting of seeds that we planted.”
Susan Kirsch, 68, was happy to see young people reacting to and doing something about the inequity, picking up the banners and slogans from their mothers and grandmothers. “More power to them,” she said. Kirsch has been marching since high school. She stopped by Zuccotti Park her way to sing protest songs with the New York chapter of the Raging Grannies.
Occupy Wall Street has fired up supporters all over the land, including women in their 60s and 70s who participated in the countercultural revolutions of 40 and 50 years ago. Half a century later, they’re just as outspoken and committed, adding their voices to the generations after theirs. After all, what else would you expect? “I’m a ’60s person,” says Ann Marie Karl. “I raise holy hell.”
And so the occupation of Zuccotti Park continues.
All photos by Diane Vacca.