Occupy Wall Street comes to Pennsylvania Ave.
By John F. Kirch
Julia Rankin is spitting mad — in a good kind of way.
The 67-year-old resident of Ashville, N.C., says it upsets her when “moneyed interests” continue to reap billions of dollars in profits while ordinary people suffer. Corporate America has rigged the system in its favor, she says, all with the help of Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
“My faith has been hijacked, my world has been hijacked and my country has been hijacked,” Rankin said. “I’m tired of it.”
So tired, in fact, that she joined about 200 others at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, Friday to protest everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to corporate greed. Although the rally was planned well before the Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York three weeks ago, the DC demonstration has melded into the national discontent that has spread from lower Manhattan to cities across the nation.
The message in Washington, summed up in the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” was crystal clear: American democracy cannot survive if the richest 1 percent of the population controls a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth.
Whether it was the speakers and entertainers who addressed the audience from the large stage on the east end of the square or the diverse array of demonstrators milling about in the crowd, protesters said they have grown increasingly frustrated over the past two years as the country’s unemployment rate has settled in at just over 9 percent while the federal government squanders billions on war overseas and tax cuts for the wealthy at home.
“My generation was told to go to college, get a degree and then you would get a job,” said a Howard University student who gave her name only as Lydia C. “We did that, but the world was not ready for us.”
Gan Golan is a prime example of what she is talking about.
Dressed as an unemployed superhero saddled with college debt, Golan said he has had trouble finding steady work despite having a Master’s Degree in urban planning and international development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He hesitated at first when asked if he was confident the Occupy movement would continue to gain steam and make a difference in the future, but Golan concluded that the rallies have grown too rapidly to just fizzle overnight.
“What we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I don’t see this dying out any time soon.”
Rossana Canbron, whose son is on his third tour to Iraq, agreed. She said it is imperative that the masses continue to take to the streets so that they can educate an American public that often votes against its economic interests.
“Any uprising is a step forward,” she said, recalling the changes brought by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “How long will it last? I don’t have a time capsule to see. But I have hope.”
Along with Canbron, there about seven other members of Military Families Speak Out who wanted to make their voices heard on the 10th anniversary of the Afghan War.
President Obama did not escape the ire expressed by so many at the rally, many of whom voted for the Democrat in 2008 but say they would consider another left-wing alternative in 2012.
“I worked really hard for Obama … because I really believed in him,” said Connie Moss, who turned her Virginia home into the official Obama campaign headquarters for Lunenburg County. “I really believed he would bring change. I’m really disappointed in him. He’s such a Republican. I don’t know what I’ll do in 2012. [Ralph] Nader, maybe? He usually runs.”
The square was a diverse mix of people from different generations, socioeconomic classes and life styles. Men and women from Middle America talked with “hippie types,” who played with hula hoops and banjos while other life-long activists held home-made signs excoriating the lack of universal health care or U.S.-sponsored torture.
Part of the square was also filled with sleeping bags and tents, a reminder that about a dozen protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement have spent the past few days occupying and sleeping in and around McPherson Square, just up the road from Freedom Plaza.
The event, which is scheduled to continue until at least Sunday, concluded yesterday with a march to the White House, an hour-long demonstration in front of the Chamber of Commerce building, and then a walk down K Street, the center of the capital’s lobbying industry.
“It’s fascinating because there’s a lot of different reasons why people are here,” said Daniel Ryntjeb, a reporter for Future Story News, which is seen mostly overseas. “People around the world are very interested in American politics from the perspective of the grassroots.”
Which brings us back to Julia Rankin, the 67-year-old North Carolina activist who says she has the passion of a teenager.
“I just love progressives,” she said. “It’s just such a diverse group.”
Then she added: “You have to choose in this life. You can choose to be self-centered, or you can be for the common welfare. I made my choice. I know who I am.”