George Packer’s superb New Yorker article about the Wall Street Occupiers is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why Occupy Wall Street camps sprang up across the country. As a reader, I found the journey of main character Ray Kachel—from Seattle to Zuccotti Park to homeless man in New York City—a reflection of the loss of hope and opportunity once so abundant in America.
The day after I read Packer’s poignant narrative, I was on Centennial Mall in Lincoln, Nebraska, talking to a cluster of protestors who were sipping coffee amid the thirty or so tents that dotted the December grass. As a reporter, I picked up the same themes Packer had found. While it’s easy to generalize the protestors, what they have to say offers rich themes and unexplored story threads for the press to follow. At Centennial Mall, there was brave talk about Nebraska’s pioneering spirit, of the populist revolt led by Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, of the greed of Wall Street big boys. But deep down, there was a sense of loss. Many told of moms and dads who no longer worked, the lack of money for college, no health insurance, their own uncertain futures. A spark of solidarity flickered in the conversations, and, for some, the movement’s elusive goals offered a new purpose. It didn’t matter that the police drove out the big protests in big cities. They were there to stay, shivering in the Nebraska cold.
“We have no reason to leave,” said twenty-five-year-old Danielle Hergenrader. Hergenrader had come over after finishing her shift as a hotel banquet server. Still wearing her black uniform with its bright red tie, she said she could go on for hours about why she was here—corporate greed, job placement, the revolving door between corporations and the government. I asked for specifics. Hergenrader named one. “The people who own businesses dictate everything we do. Regular people don’t have the same standing. We don’t have power. We don’t have money to throw around. We are trying to make a statement that as many people see as possible.”
Hergenrader liked her job; she said she was good at it, and had been at it for four years. “It’s not what I want to do with my life,” she admitted. “A lot has changed because of the movement. I want to do something else.” She did not know what. Hergenrader said she wanted to be a teacher and had earned some credits at a community college. But she figured it would be years before she could become one, because she lacked the money to pursue a degree full-time. Her mom had been laid off from her job at a company that made electrical conduits and breaker boxes. Her dad worked for the railroad. They had a mortgage and were trying to start a new business. They couldn’t help much with tuition.
Elle Hansen, a large woman with her hair tied in a kerchief, talked of a “loss of decency. I’m tired of people not being treated like people,” she said. She is only twenty-seven, but her life has been tough—in and out of the foster-care system; diagnosed with MS and lupus when she was twenty-three. She came to Lincoln from the Kansas plains to attend Union College, but dropped out. “I’m in relatively good health right now but am not able to complete my education. I don’t have to have a degree to make a difference. It was such a liberating discovery,” she said.
Hansen doesn’t stay at the camp because of her fragile health. She has a small apartment not far away, and lives on about $650 a month in Social Security disability benefits and $200 worth of food stamps. “I am so grateful those safety nets are there,” she said. “It makes me humble. Because they are there, I know I can make a difference.” She didn’t explain how.