Moral Low Ground


‘Occupy’ Movement: Teens Fighting Back, Peacefully

Observing the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that’s sweeping the nation, I was moved by how many teens I saw participating. Perhaps this should come as no surprise; after all, it’s their future that’s being most threatened by the corporate usurpation of our democracy. But in my lifetime, young people have mostly shown shameful apathy in the face of crimes against humanity committed by their own government and business institutions. The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, the torture and murder of innocent men and boys by U.S. troops in the War on Terror, the growing chasm between rich and poor here at home, the plundering of Main Street by Wall Street– all of these were answered with little more than a yawn by a generation seemingly more interested in voting for the next “American Idol” winner than in voting for the next President.

Until now.

Teens participate in 'Occupy Mc Allen' (Texas) (Photo: Alma E. Hernandez)

Among the countless thousands of fed-up Americans who’ve taken to the streets to take back their country from the Wall Street banksters and the corporate criminals are legions of teens for whom the golden age of American prosperity is something they know only from stories told by parents or history books. These young people know nothing but increasing economic inequality, decreasing employment opportunities and endless spending on wars of choice that rob society of desperately needed funding for education, housing, health care, infrastructure and poverty eradication. Armed only with information and a keen sense of justice, these kids are ready to peacefully do battle with the forces of greed that they rightfully recognize as standing between everyday citizens like themselves and the fast-receding American Dream.

For many of these teens, there are immediate and pressing reasons why they’ve joined the ‘Occupy’ movement.

Adeline Baker, a 17-year-old student at Marlboro College in Vermont, traveled all the way to Wall Street to rail against student debt. “GOT DEBT?,” her sign asked. “YOU ARE THE 99%.”

Indeed, for many of today’s youth, student debt is the issue that will affect them most profoundly. Even students who study what were once slam-dunk subjects that guaranteed them a lifetime of nice paychecks are feeling the heat. Take law, for example. While the cost of a legal education can easily exceed $150,000, thousands of law school grads have been shocked to discover that the market for new lawyers has all but vanished. There’s an oversupply of new lawyers and a glaring lack of demand. If even this, the most prestigious of fields, has dried up, what kind of future can grads in less illustrious majors expect? One of crushing debt. “I will be $100,000 in debt after I graduate from college, and I don’t think I should have the pay that for the rest of my life just to get an education in four years,” Adeline Baker told al-Jazeera.

I met Jamal Tidwell, a 16-year-old high school junior from Oakland, California, at the ‘Occupy San Francisco’ encampment in front of that city’s Federal Reserve building. “I’m not even sure if it’s worth it for me to go to college,” he said. “I mean, you hear all these stories of kids racking up crazy debt and then not being able to find decent jobs after they graduate. It’s like some kind of twisted trap they’re springing on us. Then again, you’re nothing without at least a college degree these days.”

Many of those for whom college is not even an option have far more pressing concerns. Among the protesters one encounters teens whose parents have lost their jobs, or worse, during the economic crisis. Some are homeless. Jesus Guadalupe is an 18-year-old New Yorker with phocomelia, a congenital birth defect that makes his hands appear attached to his shoulders. He’s was at the front of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ march on September 17, playing the drum he loves so dearly. Jesus, like other teens suffering hard times, maintains an upbeat attitude. “I came up with some solutions to my poverty – singing on the train, dancing, making a fool of myself,” he told the New York Daily News. “I used to get down on myself and say, ‘Everybody is against me. Everyone hates me,'” he added. But no more.

Matt Kitchens, a 20-year-old former shipyard welder from Alabama, is now homeless and occupying Liberty Plaza in New York. “I figured if I’m going to be homeless, I might as well be homeless for a good reason,” he told People’s World when asked why he joined the movement.

But it’s not just personal hardship, or the prospect of future suffering, that’s brought many young people out into the streets. Jelani Gibson, a 16-year-old, traveled from Pontiac, Michigan with his grandmother to camp out in Liberty Plaza. “I’m always hearing how banks are being bailed out, how companies are getting tax cuts, and how resources are being robbed from other countries,” he told Youth Radio. “But I don’t ever hear of people protesting about it in a large group. So when I heard about [Occupy Wall Street], I’m like ‘Oh wow. Grandma’s going so maybe I can just ask her to take me with her and she did.'”

Gibson, by the way, has a perfect 4.0 grade point average, belying the image of the protesters as lazy, unwashed losers that the right-wing media is trying so hard to paint.

Another false fact about the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ demonstrators that reactionaries are trying to sell is that they lack any coherent message or goals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sam Payne, age 15, traveled to Lower Manhattan from Boston, telling the Huffington Post that he was “unhappy with laws that grant corporations personhood and favor the corporations over the well-being of people.” An 18-year-old named Leilani– she only wanted to give me her first name– participating in an ‘Occupy’ march through downtown San Francisco told me: “First, we’ve gotta repeal Citizens United,” referring to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that ruled that corporations are people, money is free speech and that corporations could donate as much money as they wished to political campaigns. “Then, we’ve gotta get Glass-Steagall back in effect.” She was talking about the Glass-Steagall Act which, among other things, barred commercial banks from owning securities brokerages. The repeal of this important provision in 1999 opened the door for some of the most grievous excesses of Wall Street in the 2000s. “And it would be nice to see just one [Wall Street] executive behind bars,” Leilani added. “How many of us peaceful protesters have been arrested? Hundreds! How many of them? None!”

Another right-wing myth about the protesters is that they’re unpatriotic, even anti-American. Again, young people around the country will quickly dispel this nonsense. “I really care about our democracy,” 15-year-old Emily Coffee of Boulder, Colorado told at an ‘Occupy’ event in Longmont. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, or what your political beliefs are. We’re calling for a remembrance of America, of the ideals on which America was founded.” While conceding that there are some anarchist and other subversive elements among the protesters, 17-year-old Stuart Lee of San Francisco told me that “the media is just trying to portray us as anti-American because that’s what they do to drive a wedge between the people. They’re the ones who are acting anti-American.” “Nothing is more American than exercising your right to dissent,” added his father Raymond.

Indeed, as I watch the ‘Occupy’ movement growing and spreading not only across America but around the world, I cannot help but feel a sense of great pride. Just when you thought that today’s young people didn’t give a damn anymore and were content to sit idly by as their democracy was inexorably transformed into a corporatocracy by the power elite, along comes this glorious movement that they’ve enthusiastically embraced. Enough is enough, many teens are clearly saying. They’re fighting for the future of their country, and they’re doing it peacefully.

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