After hearing verbal attacks on the protesters from right wing media talkers and GOP presidential candidates (Limbaugh called them parasites while Herman Cain referred to them as un-American) and support from left leaning MSNBC commentators Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow, I decided to see for myself what was going on.
I discovered it is a diverse group of many ages, races, and genders. Being a flower child of the 1960s, I did feel a nostalgic tug of the past. There were a lot of peace signs and one that said "Make Love, Not War" (where have I heard that before?)
But this new generation is facing even tougher times than we did. We protested the Vietnam war and fought for Civil Rights but I don't believe there was as much economic stress then as there is now. Growing up we had factories and products made in the USA. Now corporations are sending American jobs overseas and they are not coming back.
Now there is a great disparity between rich and poor and the middle class is shrinking every day. Yet, even with all of this bad news I felt an optimism with this Occupy Philadelphia group. There seemed to be a prevailing spirit of cooperation and working together. A feeling that if we stick together we can create change.
I interviewed a variety of people that were there. Some were camping out, others were volunteering for the day, some were just checking it out like me.
Theodore,33, is an African American Philadelphia import from Baltimore. He was President of the Student Council and studied radiology at the Community College of Baltimore County. He is now working part-time as a waiter and says that he cannot afford to pay rent so he is presently homeless. He says there are more homeless in this country than people realize and the number is growing because of the economic hardships so many are facing.
Chazz, 48, a Latino man, is currently unemployed because he suffered a collapsed lung in June. He had worked for Visa. He feels that Occupy Philadelphia is not a movement, but a social gathering with no one in charge and no clarity of purpose and no social agenda. Others there might say that is a good thing.
I was surprised to find out that Chazz's friend, Earl was from my home town of Ambler, PA and went to my high school (class of 1980). Small world. Earl worked for 27 years as Parts Manager at a Chrysler/Ford plant until it shut down in May of 2009. He has been unemployed and looking for work since. I liked Earl's sign which read "$100 A Week Feeds A Family, $100 A Day Feeds A Congressman." Not too many people at the rally are too fond of Washington DC, something they share in common with the Tea Party. Where they differ with the Tea Partiers is in how to fix our sorry state of affairs.
The Tea Party wants to cut back government and the Occupy folks want to make the government respond to the needs of the many instead of the wealthy few.
Chazz was one of the more politically partisian people I spoke to, blaming the GOP for the gridlock in Congress. Others like Alix, 18 and Taylor, 17, both Drexel University students and volunteers at the family space (where parents could bring their kids) shared with me that within the movement there are a lot of different viewpoints and issues discussed. When I asked Alix if this was the left's answer to the Tea Party, she denied it. Taylor chimed in that both sides of the political spectrum are represented as she overheard a mature, calm, conversation recently between a socialist and a libertarian.
Apparently, this occupation holds a very large tent. J, a 22 year old woman who was working the information table said the purpose of the movement is to give a voice to those who disagree with the way politics are being run in this country. She is a disillusioned Obama supporter from 2008 and she and others discredit the claim from right wing sources that this is a Obama-led revolt. She said she would consider voting for a third party candidate if the right person came along.
Some of the more seasoned protesters may disagree with J. on that and tend to support the president. Diane, 66, a retired school nurse campaigned for Obama and feels he has had it tougher than any of the previous occupants of the White House because of the economic mess he inherited and racism. She said she expected more from him, but will still vote for him in 2012 because "the GOP are repugnant."
Ben, 68, who volunteers for Jobs With Justice is a retired high school history teacher from West Philadelphia High who echoes Diane's sentiment while pointing out that what the Republican Governors did to collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio was horrible. He said he was glad to see the response of the teachers and unions to fight back in those states.
Diane shared that some GOP Governors are anti-people and pro-corporations. She feels Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett is taking a more stealth-like approach to the same issues by cutting education. Ben responded that some polls indicate that the American people get it (corporate greed) and rallies like this encourage them to come out and take political action.
One of the most interesting people I met was 83 year old Helen of Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia. She was carrying a sign that said "I Can't Afford A Lobbyist." She is an anti-war and anti-nuke protester from back in the day. She said she was very impressed with this Occupy group, having attended the most democratic meeting she ever went to. She said there was a diversity of views as well as straw polls conducted.
This is reflective of what Alix had told me when she was marching through the streets of Philadelphia while chanting "we are the 99%" and saying "and so are you" to those walking on the sidewalks. Many are sympathetic to the message of these occupiers.
This is a grassroots humanitarian movement that goes beyond politics. I was moved by all the honking horns and cheers of the people on the tour buses going by the protest site. I was glad to see the homemade signs saying keep the area clean and the co-operation the Mayor and the police are giving the occupiers. I was touched by the number of volunteers giving food and resources to those camping out.
I was heartened to feel the positive energy and willingness to work together to express awareness of what we as a people have been experiencing. I was uplifted by the indomitable spirit of those protesting to persevere any hardships to let the voices of the middle and lower classes be heard.
Although media types would have us believe the Occupy crowd is an angry, frustrated mob, that was not my experience at all -- at least not in Philadelphia. It was more of a celebratory atmosphere with everyone willing to listen and share their stories.
I came away with a feeling of hope that I hadn't felt since my Woodstock youth. Back then we really believed we could change the world for the better. We could end wars, poverty, and inequality. Somewhere along the way, my baby boomer generation got off the track. But maybe there is a silver lining to all of this economic turmoil.
Maybe this new generation will lead the way with its new technology (we didn't have that in the '60s.) Maybe we are realizing that we have to pull together as a people -- without the politicians, without the lobbyists, without Wall Street to make a grass roots positive change for the entire country. After all, we are the 99%.