Over the course of 2011, as I followed events in the Arab Spring on twitter, facebook, YouTube, and, yes, even the good ol’ TV, I kept wondering whether the wave of upheaval would ever reach the shores of the United States. I recognized many of the complaints about lack of opportunity for the young that people in the Middle East were raising.
Undoubtedly, the pressure of an ever-growing, well-educated, young generation are stronger overseas, where some countries have more than half their population under the age of 30. And, for all its faults and issues, and the constant undermining of civil liberties brought on by the post 9/11 mindset, democracy in this country is still in somewhat better shape. Yet, I’ve watched young people in America struggle increasingly to get a foot on the ground once they’ve completed their education, as lower-level jobs wandered abroad or disappeared during the deepest recession since in almost a century. The jobs that were available were often held by older, more experienced workers who had to settle for lower pay or entry level jobs just to find paid work. The mortgage crisis, coupled with, at least in New York City, a concerted effort by local government to eliminate market controls and government subsidies on housing cost, created an ever-increasing part of society who was out of work, and out of a home. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the Bloomberg administration cut access to federal housing subsidies to families in 2005. In 2011 state funding was cut, and finally, in early 2012 city funding was eliminated, too. While 43,000 people currently live in shelters around New York City, countless more live on the streets. Nobody really knows how many, as the method the city government is using to estimate its unsheltered homeless population appears to be deeply flawed. Many shook their heads in disbelief as Mayor Bloomberg, in the midst of the country’s worst recession in decades, announced a decrease of 50% in the city’s homeless population between 2005 and 2010. Yet, without accurate data it was hard to argue against his claim.
In the ten years I’ve worked providing arts education services to underprivileged students in New York City public schools, I’ve encountered an education system I increasingly questioned. I saw students who were taught to learn facts by heart without being given the tools to make sense of them, to put them into context with other facts they knew, or how to analyze and interpret them, and ultimately put their knowledge to constructive use. I kept wondering how these children would compete in the fully globalized, interconnected workplace that emerged since I left school about 15 years earlier. Lack of opportunity, combined with a lack of hope is a powerful stimulator for the restive mind. Over the course of history, most revolutions started when enough people with nothing left to loose finally decided they wouldn’t take it any longer.
In early 2011 the state of Wisconsin showed early signs of public upheaval: As Governor Walker tried, and later succeeded, in eliminating collective bargaining rights for Union workers, enraged citizens occupied the state capitol and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. Activists from Tahrir Square ordered pizza online to keep them fed.
Then followed the political summer theater of the debt ceiling negotiation between President Obama and congressional Republicans, that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy before cooler heads finally prevailed over hard-lined idealogical differences. The country is still broke, but at least managed to keep its creditors at bay for now …
Then in mid-September a group of people converged on Zuccotti Park to start what we now all know as Occupy Wall Street. Intrigued by what I saw online, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown about one week later. Over the nine months that followed, I’ve been back countless times, documenting what I found: The broad variety of people, ideas, and explosively expanding set of expectations as people realized how many likeminded souls were out there, alongside the journalists who were trying to capture this story and the cops who were scratching their heads as to what the hell just happened. Along the way I’ve met wonderful people as I marched the length and breath of Manhattan, spent endless nights talking on sidewalks and park benches, endured many miscalculated tactics by the NYPD to grapple with this movement, and gained insight into parts and issues of American society I had not previously encountered so closely.
In honor of its nine months anniversary, I’ve assembled some of the photos I’ve taken into an illustrated video. Enjoy: