Yesterday morning before sunrise, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown to Wall Street. After hemming and hawing over how I might take part in the “Day of Action” marking Occupy Wall Street’s two-month anniversary, I decided that this moment—and this movement—were too pivotal for me to continue to observe via online portals. Like the rest of us, I had awoken Tuesday morning to news that OWS had been evicted from Zuccotti Park during the wee hours of the morning. As talk over what would happen next continued to buzz around campus, I wrestled with how to shape my personal involvement—or lack thereof—with Occupy Wall Street. Standing in front of the New York Stock Exchange and Deutsche Bank Thursday, I straddled the line between spectator and participant, journalist and activist. I left before the mass arrests started and made it back uptown in time for all of my classes, but I knew I had witnessed something important. And as I realized that few of us have actually participated in OWS, I wished more Columbia students (myself included) had taken the risk of translating their words into actions.
Since I first wrote about the movement in October, I’ve gone downtown to Zuccotti Park when OWS was still camped out there, heard a lecture about OWS from an art critic’s perspective, talked about the global protests with European friends, and debated the form and message of the movement with peers at Columbia. In my earlier column, I criticized the protest for lacking a coherent message and for failing to propose solutions. Over time, this personal engagement with the movement has prompted a shift in my thinking about it.
Navigating the tents, People’s Library, media center, and medical area of Liberty Square just one week before it was dismantled, I was impressed by the white board boasting the day’s agenda, the publication of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, and the willingness of the group’s organizers to involve those of us who were just passing through by asking us to help transport medical supplies. Reading about their “General Assembly” and their working groups, and watching YouTube videos of the “people’s mic,” I regretted the fact that I had not taken advantage of the opportunity to vocalize the inequalities and injustices around us and to organize with other young people at a monumental moment.
What stopped me? Well, I have a thesis draft to write on postcolonial Africa. And then there’s the reading for my Civil Rights and Liberties seminar. Not to mention the job applications I really should get moving on. And then there are the multiple jobs I work so that I can afford my unpaid corporate internship. But on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Am I a sell-out?” Is sitting in the library and studying or writing about injustices a feasible method of taking action? And what about the internships we feel obligated to secure by day, while by night we make proclamations against many of our employers’ actions?
Wednesday night, the journalistic curiosity in me was piqued. Thursday’s events could not be missed, and I left Wall Street that morning inspired by the rallying cries I’d witnessed and wanting to do more. But by last night, I had resettled into the comfort of Columbia’s libraries to resume work on this column and on my thesis, and none of my other politically attuned friends who agree with the protest’s messages had brought themselves to participate in the Day of Action. My compromising question has become: If we feel we can’t miss class or work to protest, what can we actually do?
I can’t give a definitive answer for myself, and I certainly can’t speak for other people, but two months after the start of Occupy Wall Street, here is one thought: If some good has come out of the eviction of protestors from Zuccotti Park, it’s the opportunity for the movement to prove that it transcends any single physical location. Occupy Wall Street exists as an entity beyond Zuccotti Park and beyond Wall Street. One way to extend the power of the protest and to galvanize new troops is to bring the movement to the local level. The two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street presents us with the opportunity to “occupy” our symbolic Wall Streets: the sites and sources of inequality in our own neighborhood. Physically blocking the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange may not be our style, but if writing and debating about the issues uptown plays to our strengths and our comfort levels, they, too, are important facets of a movement for change.
Jessica Hills is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone Studies. She is a former associate news editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator. Urban Dictionary runs alternate Fridays.