I went to the Occupy Rockford protest yesterday. As much as I’ve talked about the Occupy movement the past couple days, I thought it was a little ridiculous that I hadn’t seen any of it first hand. At noon protesters stood outside of the Chase Bank building in downtown Rockford holding signs and chanting. The group started small, but steadily grew throughout the day.
For the most part, everyone was pretty jovial and upbeat. The weather was gorgeous, sunny with a slight breeze, and honks from passing cars every couple of minutes seemed to rejuvenate the crowd. If there’s one thing I learned out there, it’s that this movement is truly a popular one; bus drivers, ambulances, beat-up Toyotas and fancy BMWs alike all sounded off in support of the protesters. Plenty of people simply drove by, but others slowed down to read signs, or gave thumbs-up on their way to/from their destinations.
I talked to a couple protesters to get information about what they thought on the movement. Adria Rybarski, a woman in her mid-20s working a local bar to make ends meet, came out wearing a red “The Flash” hoodie and holding up a sign reading “End Corporate Greed.” “Lots of people are homeless and it’s not their fault,” she said as she looked out at the passing cars. “The banks are taking away their homes, and they’re losing their jobs because corporations are closing, and I just think it’s wrong.”
I asked if she had a couple ideas as to how to “end corporate greed,” pointing out that many critics of the Occupy movement cite its lack of direction or concrete demands. “The main thing is that money needs to be taken out of politics, plain and simple,” she responded. “If anything, big corporations should not be treated like people; they should be treated like the corporations they are and they should be taxed accordingly…everything needs to be more people-oriented; the government exists for the people and not the other way around.”
There are plenty of people out there who want government to change its focus a bit. Take Kelly McKee, a short five-foot something, 24-year old spitfire with a college degree and no job. I asked her what brought her out to the protest, and she said, “I’m just as pissed off as anybody else…I went to college and thought, ‘Oh, now I’ll be able to get a job,’ but that’s not the case… trillions of dollars have been lost to banks that are ‘too big to fail,’ but the people are too big to fail, the school systems are too important to fail. That’s why I’m out here today.”
I asked her what the goal of the movement was, and she said, “We have many, many demands, and our first one? Get the money out of politics…we get minimum wage that’s like, $8, $8.50 an hour? How much do they make? Like, $800 an hour…800 to our 8.50.” Now given, after a little bit of research, I found that Congressmen don’t make $800 an hour...your average congressional representative at the federal level makes $174,000 dollars a year, which metes out to around $83.65 an hour. This means they make at least 10 times more than your minimum wage worker in Illinois. With 22,000 people making $0 an hour in Rockford (which equates to an official statistic of 13.1 percent unemployment), $83.65 may as well be $800.
With that kind of disparity between Washington and the working-class, it’s pretty easy to understand why protesters like Kelly are “pissed off.” People want their “American dream:” better schools, more affordable health-care, higher wages, and they understand all those things take money, money held by the increasingly-reviled “1%.” On a personal level, I can agree that this disparity is terrible for our nation’s growth and prosperity, and something needs to change. But when it comes down to HOW to make those changes…well…
Some might see the sign and the flag in this picture in direct opposition, while others see them as complementary forces. Critics scream that the Occupy movement is socialistic, that the poor are trying to rob the rich of the money they have no claim to. Staunch conservatives like Shawn Hannity have called the movement “un-American.” When the divide between what people consider “American” is this broad, that’s a sure sign there’s a serious problem.
I won’t pretend that I have the answers. Yes, I believe that the system is broken; it’s ridiculous that there’s such a vast disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class, and I don’t think it’ll get any better unless we change our system of government as well as our definitions of success and societal responsibility. But does that mean I think my student loan debt should be forgiven like some have ventured? I entered into college knowing what the system was like and my responsibilities; how can I stand up against corporate bailouts if I’m asking for one myself? I feel the best way to fight is to lead by example, so I’ll make tough decisions and cut my spending to make ends meet like our government is supposed to. But I can make that statement because I have a family to stay with and a job to pay my end…what happens when you don’t have those resources?
I think that, for this movement to be truly successful, for this entire country to be successful we need to think about the future instead of the present. Most all of us are feeling the squeeze of the economy right now and desperately want relief. But we need to make decisions that will have long-term positive effects, not just bandage the problem and let politicians create good sound bytes for ad campaigns. As a nation, we need to pay our bills. We need to create jobs. We need to help our neighbors. We need to pay attention to government. We need to get involved. We need to make tomorrow better today. It’ll be the kids like this guy that suffer otherwise.