The beginning of the last few paragraphs at the end of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City reads: “To the people of the world, We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.” Even before Katherine Derby heard those words, it was what she was trying to do.
Derby is an information technologist with UNH IT. She’s been here 11 years. When I met her, she was wearing khaki pants and a dark sweater. At one point she used the word ‘soccer mom’ and talked of getting her step-son to school on time; of doing the laundry and deciding what to wear to work the next day.
Not exactly the image of a take-to-the streets protester. And yet, there she was last week, marching down Wall Street, sleeping on the cold marble flooring in Zuccotti Park, having her voice heard.
Because that’s what she thinks it’s going to take to change the direction our country has gone. And that’s what she thinks the message is of Occupy Wall Street. The leaderless movement began Sept. 17 when a small group set up in Zuccotti Park to speak out against corporate greed and to bring awareness to the belief that Wall Street shares the blame for the financial crisis that has gripped the nation for the last several years, seemingly without end.
“I heard about Occupy Wall Street from a friend and started following it on social media,” Derby, 47, says. “The first week, I watched the videos and followed what was happening online. I was reading more and more and something just happened—I said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ It is by far the most unique and interesting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Some of the demonstrators are there throughout the day and evening but leave to sleep elsewhere come nightfall. Derby was an occupier—the people who stay in the park 24 hours a day. They sleep outside on the ground. There’s no grass cushion; the private park has a marble floor. Tents aren’t allowed. Some people have air mattresses. Some have tarps and wrap up in them “like a burrito” to stay dry.
Derby drove to New York on Tuesday, Sept. 27. She found an affordable parking garage where she could leave her car for the week, grabbed her sleeping bag and backpack and headed over to Liberty Street where she found an information table set up at the mouth of the park.
“I walked up and said ‘I’m here to help out’ and they said, ‘Welcome,’” Derby says. “I didn’t know how I’d feel, being pretty far removed from the 20-year-old set, but it was fine.”
Another occupier ran her through orientation, pointing out the food station; the medical and comfort stations (“You could get dry socks at the comfort station”). She was told about general assembly, which takes place twice a day, and where in the park the events list is posted.
Then Derby walked around looking for a spot to settle. She came upon a student who asked where she was going to camp and when she said she didn’t know, the response was, “How about here?”
“Everyone was like that. You didn’t have time to know anyone’s name but there were nicknames. That first day, I was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat so they called me Boston,” Derby says. “The kids told me everything that was going on. We had wonderful conversations.”
The common denominator was that people asked why others were there. Derby met many who had lost their jobs; their homes. There were older people whose retirement accounts had been wiped out and didn’t know how they were going to live. A young actor wondered how he’d be able to follow his passion. A recent college graduate didn’t know how he’d pay off his student loans. But the most jolting account came from a young woman.
“She said she was there because her father, who had lost his job, had committed suicide so her mother could get the insurance money and she and her siblings could have a roof over their heads,” Derby says. “That was really sobering.”
When Derby first got to New York, the mainstream media wasn’t reporting on the demonstration. Police were trying to end the gathering quickly. But then things started to change. A media station in the park helped take the daily actions viral. News outlets began telling the story.
At some point it was decided there was a need for a declaration to state the intent of the protest. Derby was one of the hundreds who helped draft the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City.”
“It was a very interesting process because everyone had to agree on everything, not just the declaration,” Derby says.
Discussions are led by facilitators. Because they aren’t allowed to use bullhorns, messages are spread via “human mikes”—rows of people relaying the information to the person behind them who then pass it to the person behind them. Once it has spread to everyone, they vote. If someone disagrees, they raise their crossed forearms to block the passage and state why they are opposed. To address the general assembly, people raise one finger or approach the facilitator.
The method was used for every decision, she adds, citing as example how the group should be referred to on Twitter, and what their address should be. (Mail is sent to a nearby UPS store on Fulton Street.)
“It’s a very, very democratic way to do it,” Derby says, adding that sometimes this meant waiting for hundreds and hundreds of people to hear the message.
A daily agenda is posted on a piece of cardboard at the park entrance. There are working groups that people can attend. There is no list of demands; people are simply trying to raise awareness, Derby says.
“Things need to be fixed, and this is laying the groundwork to fix them,” she says. “In the park, people have signs supporting every possible thing but the common theme is, there’s a lot of trouble with the economy and we need to make it better.”
“It’s not about socialism. It’s not a bunch of college kids wanting to end the war and live in peace. It’s about having a voice. About working to build something new,” Derby says. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all these thousands and thousands of people bonded together and actually did something?”