Voices of the 99 Percent

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Posted Oct. 12, 2011

Interviews with protesters at a joint Occupy Wall Street/labor union rally in New York City, Oct. 5, 2011, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Less than a month old, the new Occupy Wall Street protests, spreading like wildfire across the U.S., have already had a profound effect on the national debate, which up until a few weeks ago centered in Washington around budget cuts and slashing social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. With its newfound power to influence, the direct action movement has attracted new allies in labor unions that have made common cause with the protesters’ grievances against Wall Street greed and political corruption. In New York City, labor unions joined Occupy activists for a march and rally on Oct. 5th.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus was there and interviewed people of all ages, from all walks of life and from three continents. Thousands of people rallied at Foley Square, then marched from City Hall past Zuccotti Park, renamed Liberty Park, where the Occupy movement encampment was born, onto Wall Street. There, two dozen protesters were beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested when they tried to cross police barricades preventing them from walking down the famous street that exemplifies the greed they were protesting against. Here Melinda Tuhus talks with a protester and recent college grad, Marty Peters; Ben Schreiber, a tax analyst with the environmental group Friends of the Earth; and Paul Armstrong, a union ironworker who sees his middle class lifestyle in danger of slipping away.

MARTY PETERS: I just graduated in May. I came home; there's not much work to find. I got a job luckily, through my mom. But for now I'm just living at home and trying to save money and pretty soon I have my debts to pay off, another 15 grand. And I'm one of the lucky ones. I know a friend who went to Boston University, and she's in debt, over $50,000 I've heard. And I don't know what she's going to do; she's in a really bad spot. A lot of us are, and it's frustrating.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tell me about the job you have now.

MARTY PETERS: MP: Right now I'm helping my mom out. She's doing a study in New Haven public schools on childhood obesity. I'm a data collector, sort of on the front lines of this study, and doing data collection, which is kinda nice, something to put on my resume, I guess. But it's not really in my field; it's not what I went to study for, and it's just something to make a little money now, you know.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it part-time or full-time?

MARTY PETERS: It's part-time.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are most of your friends that you graduated with in a similar situation?

MARTY PETERS: Yes, definitely, if employed at all. Most of my friends, we hung out last night and we were talking about how nobody has jobs, can't find anything, and all we do is just sit around. It's kind of a bummer. So I'm just happy to finally go out to this march and do something, say something. Finally, somebody's doing and saying something.

BETWEEN THE LINES: We've been in a recession for most of the time you were in college. Did you expect something like this when you graduated, or did you think it would be all over?

MARTY PETERS: I'll tell you, the whole time I was in college and this was all happening, I just kept wondering to myself, why aren't people more up in arms about what's going on? It seems like one thing after another really was hurting our country and our economy, our position, our states. Even this whole health care thing with Obama – I'm glad something got passed, but there are still so many people without medical insurance. Just looking at statistics, right, it's the number one cause of bankruptcies, I heard. I spent a semester in Amsterdam and it was shocking; the people there were laughing, like, why aren't people angry about this? And the top one percent pays a lower percentage of taxes than their secretaries? That's just backwards, and it's strange and the right keeps trying to twist it around and make it some other weird arguments...no, what happened to common sense? They should be paying more if they have more. There's people with a lot less who are working their butts off all week trying to make ends meet, and they can hardly feed their kids,you know? And then you have these guys who find a loophole not to pay taxes. Like GE didn't pay any taxes last year. What?!

BETWEEN THE LINES: Ben Schreiber is the tax analyst with the environmental group, Friends of the Earth.

BEN SCHREIBER: We're out here, first of all, in support of all the other progressive causes, but we're also out here because our spending has a massive impact on the environment. We are in this situation now where we're hearing we don't have enough money to regulate the environment, that we don't have enough money to afford environmental protections, that we're going broke. The truth is that the Bush tax cuts, the massive giveaways to some of the richest Americans, are the reason that we're broke, the reason we're having federal deficit and debt problems, and the reason that people are throwing up their hands and saying, We can't afford to regulate the environment.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, if you could make one demand here, what would it be?

BEN SCHREIBER: Friends of the Earth has supported a financial transaction tax. We think this is something we should be enacting right away. The other thing we'd like to see is a tax on carbon, on pollution, making polluting companies – some of the riches companies in the world – pay for the damage they're doing to American people.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see, with Republicans being in as much control as they are and needing 60 votes in the Senate to do anything – do you see any likelihood of anything helpful to the environment passing in the foreseeable future?

BEN SCHREIBER: The Republicans have made their job bill literally rolling back environmental protection and environmental regulations. They pressured President Obama into rolling back these smog regulations that were about to come out. They've made a big deal about putting out new regulations on concrete and other pollutants. It's very clear that Republicans have environment in the crosshairs, and they're attacking it. Unless we come out and organize and make this a top-tier issue then no, we don't see an opportunity, but that's why we think movements like this are so important.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Paul Armstrong is an ironworker who came out to New York from Los Angeles for a job and has been spending his free time at the encampment. I asked him what is the one demand he'd make of our political leaders. He had a ready answer.

PAUL ARMSTRONG: Corporate lobbyists out of Washington. I don't care if they're Republican or Democrat, it seems like all politicians are in somebody's pocket. and it's not right that working class Americans have no say anymore. It seems to be the leveling out or the eradication of the middle class began with Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics and it has just gotten worse and worse since then. For ten years we've had the Bush tax cuts that were supposed to help the job creators make jobs. Well, it did help them make jobs – in Indonesia, and China and India – everywhere but here. And we keep hearing stories from politicians about how we can't tax the rich because they need those tax cut to create jobs. Well, they haven't done it in ten years so far, so what makes us think it's gonna happen now?

: These interviews of protest participants were recorded by Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus at the joint Occupy Wall Street labor union march and rally in New York City on Oct. 5.

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