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.
Why does she come everyday? “I am not an anarchist or protesting government,” she told me. “But I am protesting the corruption within government institutions.” Hansen said that the people who drive by are more supportive than negative, and that made her feel good. A fellow protestor named Hal chimed in: “They recognize us as people.”
Twenty-one-year-old Justin Bower, six foot one with a thick reddish beard, sleeps in a tent and described how layers of ten blankets on the ground and tarps wrapped around the tent keep him warm. He, too, had hoped of earning a college degree, and attended Manhattan Christian College in Manhattan, Kansas, for a year, but quit because “I didn’t want to be in debt the rest of my life.” He wanted to become a family therapist like his father, who had died a few years ago at age forty-two from lung cancer. “My family doesn’t have money,” he said. His mother worked as a family counselor at a childcare agency but was laid off last summer. A big chunk of the family income comes from Social Security survivor’s benefits for his younger brother and sister. He got similar benefits until he turned eighteen, which he said his mother used to pay the mortgage.
“I honestly want to see a revolution,” Bower explained. “Thomas Jefferson said for a government to stay on top of the people there needs to be a revolution every twenty years. The government has been corrupted, and we the people have to stand up to stop corruption. The country is becoming a hellhole. Government is not focused on what people need.” Bower told me he “studied up” on history and was attracted to the movement because of how “messed up” the world had become. He hoped the movement would spread worldwide.
I asked him to name five things that were wrong with the U.S. He listed government involvement in other countries, government censorship, the size of the federal government, government involvement in corporations, and the bank bailouts. Failing is what the free market is all about, he said. “There needs to be change, and I want to be part of the change.”
I asked Bower what he wants to do with his life. He replied he wanted to stay involved with the movement. Then he added: “I would love to go back to school and become a therapist, but I don’t see that happening. I would be in debt the rest of my life.”
Jo Tetherow is one of the camp’s leaders—a kind of mother hen. A fellow protestor says everyone respects and listens to her. At age sixty, she has had experience in the corporate world, and like all the protesters I chatted with, she is articulate and has been stung by the system. But Tetherow says the movement and the Lincoln protest have restored her faith in the political process. “Forty-seven days ago was the first day I wasn’t screaming to get back to New York. I now have a purpose,” which she described as telling people not to believe what the system is telling them. “Lost a Job, Found an Occupation,” reads the button pinned to her jacket. A protestor from Occupy Denver gave it to her.
Tetherow and her husband came to Lincoln three years ago when they lost their jobs as real estate appraisers in Rochester, New York, where she had appraised property for twenty-five years. “Our jobs fell apart because we were honest and ethical and had values. We got calls every single day to do things that were unethical or illegal—from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citibank, Countrywide, just about every bank,” she said. The banks, she said, wanted them to ignore safety and structural concerns in the buildings and dwellings they appraised—defects like holes in the roof and non-functional bathrooms. “They’d say we need $200,000 in the appraisal, and I’d come back at $125,000, which was the true value. They wanted me to lie.” After a while, the firm they worked for gave them no more work and forced them out. She said this pressure began in the mid-1990s. Many appraisers had been saying that the loans being processed were a “disaster in the making, which they turned out to be.”
We talked about her financial situation. She and her husband live on about $15,000 a year—income from his Social Security check. He took an early benefit. Besides the dishonesty she found in her profession, her other gripe centered on medicine for profit: “The medical system has you by the nose if you get sick.” Tetherow has no health insurance. Because she has pre-existing conditions, she could get coverage only through the state’s high-risk health insurance pool. But she would have to pay $776 a month for a policy with a $10,000 deductible. “It’s like ‘Oh, my God, I could go broke in a year.’”
Tetherow is disenchanted with both political parties. “The Democratic Party has abdicated the language of moral clarity,” she told me. And the Republicans? “Look at Newt Gingrich. He’s telling us to get a job and take a bath. Newt Gingrich doesn’t have to lecture us about morality.” She had slept in the tent for forty-seven nights when we met.
Twenty-three-year old Brandon Langlois approached me and said he wanted to talk about why he supported the movement, which he had been involved with for four weeks. He was on his way to a job at the state Department of Health and Human Services, where he inputs data all day. So we arranged a phone call after work. “The main idea of the protest is economic injustice and to look at wealth stratification in America,” he said. The fact that twenty percent of Americans control 86 percent of the wealth bothered him. So did the possibility he may never become the doctor he wants to be. He studied Spanish for two years at the University of Nebraska, but quit because he couldn’t afford to continue.
Langlois, who has been an EMT worker, says he loves medicine and loves helping people. But he knows his check from the state—$10.37 an hour for forty hours work—makes it hard to pay off $13,000 in student loan debt. Langlois had to move in with his girlfriend because he couldn’t afford an apartment of his own. “I do not have a car and can’t afford to get one,” he said.
Langlois said young people have given up on Obama. “The last few years we’ve become disillusioned with Obama in particular and our elected officials in general. It’s difficult to find a candidate that is reflective of their constituents, and that goes back to one of the main platforms of the movement,” he explained. “Politicians aren’t interested in serving their constituents. They are serving the interests of their constituents who paid for their campaigns.” Langlois talked of the sense of community the protest has fostered. “We’ve gotten people to talk about issues that matter to ordinary Americans. It’s encouraging to know that I’m not the only person who thinks these things.”
If politics have disillusioned Langlois, the people of Lincoln have not. The townspeople who drive by “appreciate that there are others saying what they have believed for years. It’s a reflection on people my age. We get portrayed as lazy and not caring, but we do.” He told me donors have dropped off propane tanks, cereal, Ramen noodles, bottles of water, blankets. One person had just brought four snow shovels. A cardboard sign outside the command tent noted that hand warmers were wanted.