The English poet Wilfred Owens went to WWI to find what had happened to his generation. Jack Kerouac went on the road to see his America. I went to New York City to see my generation and listen to their voices. I spent days and nights in what was to become our Berkley University of 1960s and the Tiananmen Square of 1989. I listened to speeches, collected pamphlets, bummed food and cigs, tried to keep clean, listened, talked and argued. I heard slogans "Direct Democracy" and words like "Anarchy", but when I asked exactly what all of it meant, there were no real answers. It was confusion and a bit of chaos. There was no "Gotchya" moment. Everyone was just angry.
But it seemed to me after a few days that if anyone in the protests needed a slogan or a motto, it had already been chiseled into the pillars holding up the entrance to the Supreme Court building only eight blocks from Zuccotti Park: "The True Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government." Those words cut into granite appeared to be what was really fueling the people in the park and in the other OWS encampments around the country even if they hadn't quite discovered it yet. What they wanted was justice. That was part of the confusion within the parks. Everyone had his and her own idea of Justice. But if the people at these protests were looking for anything, they were looking for that one pillar of government...that true administration of justice.
Despite what you might have heard on Fox News, there were adults protesting with these "dirty youngsters". There were union organizers, community activists, environmentalists, and of course there were parents. What struck me and should have struck others commenting on the Occupy Wall Street Movement was that the parents were standing around mute, apparently unable to say anything, clearly not even sure what their kids were doing there and maybe more to the point exactly what was going on. There were other adults (when Zuccotti was still occupied) who were just passing through to see what all the fuss was about, take some pictures of the guy with the tattoos on his face and then to leave to see the Statue of Liberty or some other tourist spot in the Big Apple. Like the parents, there was little or no comprehension of what these other adults were witnessing. There seemed to be no context to understand what they were seeing. Even the police officers were confused. I spoke with a number of the police officers keeping the "Occupation" under control. They all said more or less the same thing, that these protesters were, "a bunch of spoiled kids trying to get attention by dressing weird and being loud. What they needed to do is get a job." "Alright." I offered, "Where are the jobs?" They all continued to shake their heads but really said nothing. Even annoyed, it is hard even for the cops to ignore the truth.
So here was what really went on in the park. The vast majority of the so-called "bums" in the parks were college students or graduates. They understood what was happening even if their parents remained confused. The world had changed and nobody grown up; teachers, reporters, politicians, pundits, news anchors and the police are willing to admit it.
Those rallying in the parks and in the streets are acutely aware that 1/3 of all the college graduates in 2010 had to move back home. It is clear to them that a college diploma that was costing them and their parents between 50 and 70 thousand dollars was proving useless in order to get a job and earn a real living. A living that adults in America had been able to pursue for the last seven decades.
Those parents who were standing so silent out of reach of the TV cameras were clearly aware that their home values have dropped into the basement, their retirement funds were being depleted and those high paying "lifetime" jobs were all on their way to China; and yet they stood there surprised that their children were demonstrating for something, indeed anything, that would even the playing field and give them their chance at their own "American Dream".
Here is a typical story from the parks. A young woman goes to college for interior design. She graduates from college and moving out into the real world realizes that getting a job is not as easy as she had been lead to believe. She finally gets a job as a dental secretary to help with her hemorrhaging bank accounts until she can find a job in her field of study. The problem is she can't find a position to match her degree. Discouraged, she eventually stops even looking and accepts the inevitability that she will in all likelihood remain a secretary.
And there was Burndt, a 29-year-old German, who was my roommate in New York and recently arrived from Germany, had a wider more ecumenical view of what was going on at the protests. He was quick to comment that the middle class in America was no longer doing as well as the middle class in Germany. He was also aware that the upper inter-generational movement had for the most part ended in America while continuing in Germany and that those governmental regulations in Germany had kept the greatest imbalances of income from crippling the German economy. The German's had also maintained their safety nets for those less fortunate Germans.
Burndt had actually come to the New York to go to college, but instead took a laborer's job because he could not pay the tuition and realized that a degree would no longer guarantee him employment in the States.
But it wasn't only Burndt. I can guarantee that there are an astonishing large number of 20 to 30 year olds-a decidedly larger number than in the OWS movement itself - who worry that even if they finish college they will never be able to pay off their loans, never be able to buy a house, get married and raise a family of their own, and that there is nobody out there to help them.
The OWS movement is the tip of that concern and is at its heart about a lack of opportunity as much as it is about the rising injustices that have become clear as day, especially in the growing inequalities of wealth within the country. And that is not going to go away. It is the reason that even though the protestors are being kicked out of their parks, they will be going out into the streets to block the entrance to banks, to tear down Wall Street, and make injustice and inequality of the American Dream be part of the national dialogue and in the end, like all political and economic movements, find their own political candidates and even those willing to run for The Presidency. The protestors in the parks want government back in the game because they want to be successful.
President Lincoln said it best for them, "The function of government is to do for people what they can't do for themselves." The people in New York as well as those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston are simply demanding that somebody do something to make things better, but what they want more than anything is a future.
My generation clearly understands what we are facing. We know that our parents (perhaps out of their own hopefulness) have inadvertently misguided us, that the government (knowing full well what they are doing) has abused us, The Right Wing news media demeaned us while the banking industry (as well as Wall Street) has screwed us so completely that we have no one left to turn to but ourselves. My generation was in Zuccotti Park and those other parks around the country out of desperation. Being nice and quiet no longer works and never has worked when people know that things have to change immediately.
What is clear is that a supposedly self absorbed, isolated and unconcerned generation may yet not only be able to save themselves, but through their own efforts save their parents and maybe even the country. Nobody expected that from any of us....