I miss Occupy Wall Street. Even though it only lasted a few months, I have stories from there that I will remember forever.
My favorite thing to do was to head to Liberty Square after work, make a quick cardboard sign and stand on Broadway holding it. Making signs was a skill. The lettering had to be large enough for people to read but small enough to fit the point you were trying to make. I would always choose a smallish piece of cardboard in order to not block out anyone else’s sign. I got good enough where I could make a good point in a short sentence, sometimes even using statistics. I would never use slogans or clichés. The point being made had to be authentic and original.
I would head to Broadway with my sign and find a nice spot in the line of sign-holders. There was a healthy amount of foot and car traffic on Broadway that increased as the Occupy movement gained steam. It was a great feeling when a passer-by would lock eyeballs on my sign, read it and shake their heads in agreement. Sometimes they would come talk to me, either to ask a question or give me a compliment. All types of reporters threw me questions and there are still Youtube videos up made by independent journalists that contain interviews with me. Occasionally, students of mine would pass by and it became known around my school that I was going to the Occupy protests. The students were all very supportive, making it one of the best teachable moments of my career.
Of course, not everybody came to Occupy in support. There would be the occasional Wall Street guy or random angry person that would pass by and call us “communists” or “losers”. There were people who fancied themselves little Glenn Becks or Sean Hannitys who would walk down the line of sign holders trying to start debates. I would crave their attention. It did not take much. I would just stand there, staring straight in front of me and, boom, I was face to face with a street pundit who was going to put me in my place.
One of these guys was a self-professed libertarian, as most of these smart-alecks were. His debating style was not so much a give-and-take discussion as it was a yelling of libertarian clichés ad nauseam. He thought he had disposed of all the people in the line pretty easily, so he was real confident by the time he got to me. Unfortunately for him, I was all-too-familiar with libertarian talking points and knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. He did not dispose of me quite as easily as he expected. Instead, he stayed there next to me yelling his point, the same sentences, over and over. A crowd started to gather, mostly passers-by who thought there was a fist fight brewing. I was completely calm knowing I would never get into a fist fight over a silly political debate. The circle grew with every moment. They were in rapt attention of the discussion going on. His point, as is the point of most libertarians, is that the government does not do anything right. For good measure, he called me a “union bum” because I was a teacher. For every one of his clichés, I calmly retorted a counterpoint. I asked him why he was so quick to yield power to his corporate masters, why he believed everything should be commodified and asked him if there would ever be a Hoover Dam, a subway system, public education or a highway system if the forces of profit were given the reigns of society. My point to him was that there were things that are necessary for the greater good, and just happen not to be profitable, so the government has a duty to step in and provide them. I ended by saying, “this sidewalk you’re standing on, you’re using it to voice your free speech and it was built and maintained by government. Why are you using this government sidewalk if you hate government so much?”
He walked away. He did not even go to the next protestor, he just left the vicinity. Many in the crowd of onlookers shook my hand and others offered their opinion on why the other guy was an idiot. One guy came up to me, well dressed with a foreign accent, and he said “you know, I agree with you. I have been out of a job for over a year and that guy just thinks it is so easy to find work.” He was really unsure of himself. I realized then that, although many in the crowd were relatively informed, there were others like him who were on the fence. For some of them, this might have been one of the only real political debates they have seen. I felt as if I had swayed a few minds to my way of thinking in that moment.
Those were my greatest moments at Occupy. Sure, connecting with people who shared my concerns on the dark path our nation treads is great. But being able to get those people who have never really thought about the way our country is headed over to my side was so much better. What happened in those little moments at Occupy mirrored what was happening around the country. The movement was making people face the stark reality that our system needs change. People are suffering because the system is rigged to favor the well-to-do. A new vigor and honesty was injected into the public debate, one the media could not even ignore despite their best efforts to do so. This was Occupy’s greatest accomplishment.
Ever since the evictions, Occupy has never been able to regain the influence it had in those heady days of autumn 2011. Occupy’s one-year anniversary is coming up and events at Liberty Square are being planned. As we look upon the nation today, there is one glimmer of hope that Occupy’s spirit is still alive.
You have guessed it, it is in Chicago. The marches filling the streets of the Windy City are reminiscent of when Broadway was stacked for a mile with protestors. In both cases, the media totally underreport the numbers to portray it as some sort of fringe movement. The fight for better education in Chicago reminds me of the high and honest ideals people supported at Occupy. The exasperation over corporatism, privatization, commodification and political corruption define both movements. More importantly, they have forced the corporate media to discuss issues they would rather ignore. They have forced the media to do the job they are supposed to do, which is to inform and educate.
For example. the mainstream media usually portrays teacher evaluations based on test scores as a sensible measure. They merely parrot the billionaire privatizers. When they mention the concerns of teachers over these measures at all, they portray it as teachers resisting “accountability” and reinforce the notion that teachers oppose “improvements” to the education system. However, as the strike drags on, more and more op-ed pieces and media reports are forced to present more thoughtful analysis of the testing issue. Pieces are being written now that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. As time goes on, hopefully the issues of class size, teacher experience and childhood poverty will also be examined in greater detail.
And just like at Occupy, the media has done their best to not discuss these issues. With the Occupiers, it was all about how they did not know what they wanted, had no demands and were looking for handouts. As time went on, that myth was being exploded and the media had no choice but to mention the words “poverty” and “corporatism”. With the CTU, it is about how the teachers are striking for “more money” and “better benefits”. Yet, according to even Rahmbo himself, those issues are pretty much settled. The media has had no choice but to start to mention the impacts of testing and class size. I read a few editorials today that even mention how Rahm’s own children attend classes of 18 students, leading to the notion of how the privatization movement is creating a two-tiered education system: one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.
The CTU us shining a light on issues that the media has traditionally ignored. Just like with Occupy, these are issues that make the corporate masters who control the media uncomfortable. Just like with Occupy, the movement has gathered so much momentum that the media now has no choice but to grudgingly mention these issues. That in and of itself is a victory.
What I think of is all the people who have never thought of education before, or who have allowed the media to frame the education debate for them, having that moment of clarity where the truth finally clicks.. I saw it so many times at Liberty Square and I am excited to think that it is starting to happen now in the crusade to save public education.