NEW YORK — Pangs of anxiety struck me as soon as I stepped off the PATH train from Newark and gaped at the bottom half of the incomplete 1 World Trade Center, a huge edifice of brilliant glass. The sight of it was so humbling that I toyed with the thought of booking it back to Jersey. Three blocks short of my first glimpse of Zuccotti Park, the hotbed of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What the heck am I going to say about the movement that hasn’t already been said?

In the past month there was a constant stream of news articles, blog posts, photo reels and video clips about the Occupy Wall Street protests in Lower Manhattan. Since the first tough-minded youth first carpeted the park’s granite sidewalks with their tarps on Sept. 17, anyone with half an opinion tried to define the protests’ origin, structure, and most of all, its elusive “list of demands.”

Dozens of ideas compete for the movement’s attention, but they are not easily categorized. So, the media’s attempts to do so were not convincing to me. I had to see it for myself.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are especially relevant to college students, who face the increasingly difficult prospect of paying student loan debt and finding jobs after graduation. The current economic situation has furthered the steady privatization of education, causing the economic burden of college to be shifted more and more onto the backs of students.

Recent statistics show that the net costs of college are rising, the average student’s credit card debt has hit record levels and as a result, students are graduating with exorbitant amounts of debt that could take decades to repay.

Students at the University are no exception. The University is known for having one of the highest out-of-state tuition rates among public universities in the United States, which was increased by 4.9 percent this year, and the price of student housing in Ann Arbor isn’t cheap either.

A significant number of college students are participating in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and they are pushing the government to forgive some or all student loan debt and increase financial aid contributions to put the responsibility for college fees back in the public sector.

President Barack Obama recently addressed this segment of OWS by proposing legislation that would cap student loan payments at 10 percent of a graduate’s annual discretionary income. The effectiveness of such a measure remains to be seen, but one thing remains certain: The financial burden on students isn’t going away any time soon.

Closing in fast on Zuccotti, I mulled over the impossibility of a new angle. But before long, my senses were on red alert, my train of thought derailed. First, I caught a nasty whiff of raw sewage rising from the storm drains. It mingled with the reek of cheap incense, traces of weed and tobacco smoke and the acrid stench of unwashed bodies — all the smells of occupation.

Then as I passed the enormous Century 21 flagship store and rounded the final corner, I could more clearly hear the racket: detuned drums — thundering and out-of-sync — the police bullhorn’s piercing treble, “Please continue marching in an orderly fashion;” the muffled chants of a crowd on the move, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”

I checked the time, certain I arrived in time for the 11 a.m. “March on Chase Bank.” But as I soon found out, the movement rarely sticks to the agenda on its official webpage, and relies instead on spontaneity.

As I sprinted past the park to head off the march, I glanced at the people lingering behind. The stone partition that guards the park’s north face was bordered by a long line of malcontents, each holding up an attempt at a witty slogan.

A man with an uncanny resemblance to the Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons” held a scrap of cardboard with “Fuck Mayor Bloomberg,” scribbled on it. The cheeky sign was a reminder of the tension between the protest and the city of New York the previous week. That Wednesday, the mayor ordered the protesters to leave by Friday morning for a temporary park clean-up, citing a month of “unsanitary conditions and considerable wear and tear on the park.”

The protesters saw the mayor’s order as a flimsy attempt to oust the movement from the park. Had Bloomberg been successful, I might have arrived to an empty square with nothing to report on but a leftover pile of joint roaches and crinkled communist literature. But the occupiers chose to risk arrest and stared down the NYPD until the clean-up was abruptly “postponed.”

Still, the protesters’ assertive attitudes didn’t make the park’s beefed-up police presence any less intimidating. A steel barricade ran the length of the road along the north side’s medley of poster board and blocks of concrete. Standing on the road behind the barricade, two dozen NYPD officers watched the commotion and traded furtive glances, unsettled by the threat of violence that rose with the crowd’s numbers.

As I reached the northeast corner of the park and prepared to flank the column of marchers, I turned back and viewed the same scene again from a new angle. Police were lined up single-file on the shoulder of the road, the protesters cluttered the adjacent sidewalk and the meager barricade sat between them, not much of a reassurance — it was a classic “us against them” faceoff.

The March

As I joined the marching protesters at the crossing of Liberty and Broadway, I had no trouble distinguishing between the diehards and the fly-by-nighters. The Zuccotti squatters looked grungy, disheveled and fatigued to the point of delirium.

Save for the incessant drumming, the crowd was docile for the first three blocks, more like Relay for Life than revolutionaries. But as the “Occupy” phalanx approached some of the banks on Broadway, a handful of instigators pointed at the glass windows of each branch they passed, screaming “shame on you!” at the tellers inside.

The volume rose with each step until the clamoring crowd drowned out the sounds of the city, the sergeant’s bullhorn and even the wailing sirens of a nearby fleet of police cruisers.

While the protesters walked past the banks, their improvised chants ebbed, flowed and evolved — from the generic “Bloomberg sold out!” to the vulgar “Bloomberg sucks cock!” and the trusty call-and-response.

Leader: “Tell me what democracy looks like!”

Crowd: “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

I sized up the crowd from my vantage point. Most protesters were in their early-to mid-20s, and aside from the weary overnighters, everyone looked a little too smiley and satisfied for comfort. Is this the next Arab Spring or more of a Spring Break?

I decided to skip most of the movement’s planned 5 p.m. convergence on Times Square. Instead, I spent a few hours at Father Demo Square, a tiny park lined with fancy Greenwich boutiques and restaurants. I later learned that 74 protesters were arrested by day’s end — some for clogging the lobby of a Citibank branch, some for charging the barricade in Times Square and still others for refusing to disperse after halting pedestrian traffic.

My first night of occupation

When I returned to Zuccotti at 10 p.m., the squatters were still celebrating their march on Times Square. A group of ecstatic dancers armed with glow-sticks rocked back and forth to the slow groove of steel drums and shakers — a rave with a tropical flavor.

After a quick listen, I began to look for occupants who stayed awake amid the sea of blue-green tarps and travel bags.

At the park’s southern fringe, I introduced myself to a group that looked welcoming. . The five of us sat together and chatted until Rick Hu, a 31-year-old parcel courier, rode up on his Razor scooter. He introduced himself with a question:
“Is it true Wall Street’s trying to take all our money? There aren’t many intellectuals here and I want to have an opinion on this.”

I told him what I knew: post-Reagan deregulation of the financial sector, the burst of the dot-com and housing bubbles, misused bank bailouts and rogue traders like Kweku Adoboli, who caused United Bank of Switzerland to lose $2 billion in a matter of days. At the mention of UBS, his face lit up.

“I deliver their packages! Thanks for the facts, man. I’ve been here for three days, and no one’s told me why we’re all here,” he said. “I think I’ve finally earned the right to put this on.”

I could tell by his grin that the last bit was facetious, but I didn’t know what he was referring to until he retrieved a pin from his pocket and pinned it to his hoodie. It read: “DANGER: EDUCATED BLACK MAN.”

Rick turned out to be a great addition to the group. He was humorous, outgoing, intense and full of great quotes, and he even offered to ride to a nearby corner store to get food and gave me a quick tour of the park when I asked him where to get water.

“There’s the medical tent, the pantry, buffet, water jugs, Wi-Fi antenna and the library,” he said.

Restrooms were a notable omission. Rick tells me Porta-Potties are prohibited in the park so people have to go to Burger King on the park’s west side, or McDonald’s to the east.

Crinkling my nose, I asked him about the smell of pot that was still lingering around the park.

“It usually makes its way around, man.”

On cue, Ralph, a 22 year-old in our circle with a black hoodie and a devil-may-care demeanor, thrust a lit spliff toward Rick.

Taking it, Rick smiled at me and, before a quick toke, added:

“Like I said, it gets around.”

In addition to Rick and Ralph, there was Will, a bearded college student who was always smiling, and Dillon, a stand-offish character who had a death grip on a bottle of cheap wine and was constantly monitoring his friend’s hyperactive pit bull (he was watching it for a friend) tethered to a nearby tree.

The Daylight

I got a taste of the “Occupy” movement’s daytime antics when I ran by Zuccotti on Saturday to join the march. But the stories Rick Hu shared with me later that night were rife with celebrity appearances, pedestrian hecklers and zealous speeches, which were way more exciting than what I gathered from first glance.

So when I returned to the park three days later at 1 p.m., my anticipation was tempered by the fear that I might have missed the best of the protests. How long can the show go on?

Luckily, if you occupy it, they will come.

Tourists had already filled the park from corner to corner, tripping over air mattresses and lunging over slumbering occupants to witness one of several “attractions.”

To the west, the arrhythmic, 24-hour drum line continued to play. To the north, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander advocating for Jewish welfare. To the east, Harry Braun, a human livewire with ghost-white hair who is apparently running for president, erected three easels with visual aids — reminiscent of a poorly-made science fair project — which he occasionally pointed to while yelling angrily at a crowd of onlookers. To the south, two topless women stood covered in body paint, a hybrid of Ozzfest’s boob art and Avatar’s Na’vi tribeswomen.

And standing somewhere in the middle was Reverend Jesse Jackson with his bodyguard in tow. The two men turned their figures for a panorama of the park, expecting a frenzy of reporters. Instead, they got a college kid with a cheap pocket recorder.

To take advantage of precious time, our interview was short and sweet. I told him where I’m from and asked him why he was there. He paused a moment to think, then gently rested a hand on my shoulder and guided me down a narrow path between two sleeping occupants.

“I’m here to talk about a lack of economic security — the kind that’s manifested in Michigan,” he said. “Some people there have no place to go. We’ve been a part of that fight in Michigan because the poorest people are going to take the biggest hit there.”

I asked again, more directly, “What do you hope to accomplish by coming?”

He gave me a very brief list of what he deems America’s toughest issues — “malnutrition” and “economic restructuring,” in that order — I tried to ask him once more what he would do to restructure. His expression stiffened.

He mentioned the “bank’s bailouts” and emphasized their responsibility to “reinvest” in American companies, but my time was up before he could finish. A bevy of anxious arms holding recorders from reporters were soon held to his face.

Hoping for more concrete answers, I avoided celebrity interviews the rest of the day and sidled over to the “People’s Library” that Rick pointed out. After politely declining a copy of the “Bhagavad Gita” from a man soliciting donations, I approached a small table manned by Bob Broadhurst, a union electrician in the IBEW Local 103.

Broadhurst was a busy man: When I interviewed him, he had just returned from a weeklong trip to Occupy Boston. He paused to rest his voice frequently — it was hoarse from two weeks of chanting. He told me he has been at the park periodically for the past few weeks, and that he was among the 700 protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

He talked at length about possible solutions to the Wall Street issue including the restoration of the Glass-Steagal Act, which was first instated in 1933 as a response to the stock market Crash of 1929, only to be repealed in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

“I just want us to end the flow of Wall Street’s money into Washington,” he said.

I felt overwhelmed by the protesters’ diverse backgrounds and shared frustrations. I spoke with breast cancer survivors, World War II veterans, burnouts, homeless people, artists, communists and people of numerous races, religions and political factions. I heard opinion after opinion, and I finally located the source of the uneasiness I had been feeling since Saturday’s march.

I noticed that the Occupy Wall Street movement has two common patterns: for one, the movement’s older members have a far better handle on our country’s political and financial problems than its younger members, likely because these problems directly affected their job security.

Second, in spite of the older generation’s awareness of the corrupt banks, lobbyists and politicians, no one I spoke to conceded any personal responsibility for the recession.

Wasn’t the average Joe complicit in any of this?

In the early 2000s, low-to-middle income mortgage applicants with bad credit forged income documents and defrauded lenders so they could borrow more money for bigger houses. Bank reports of suspected mortgage fraud rose 1,411 percent between 1997 and 2005. Predatory lenders and investment banks didn’t cause the credit crunch alone; in fact, they had plenty of help from average Americans.

And we still didn’t learn our lesson. Americans owed nearly $1 trillion in revolving debt only two years ago, a symptom of the “spend now, worry later” approach we’ve come to know and love.

Occupy protesters demand tax reform and claimed to represent the average taxpayer, but they don’t think about the $5 million the protest has cost city taxpayers in police overtime pay. They claim “solidarity,” yet can’t agree on how to spend their money, rally around a few common demands or even settle on how a general assembly should be run and who should run it.

Troubled by an odd mixture of anger at the protests and guilt with myself, I sat down to unwind a bit before I leave. That’s when Patrick Creasey, a stocky 20-something with a close crew cut, saw part of my voice recorder jutting from my shoulder bag and spoke up in his thick Jersey accent.

“Hey, you should interview me for your article, man.”

He laughed at the stark contrast between the spiffy tourists and the haggard sleepers they step over.

“Look at this girl, walking around like she’s in some tourist attraction,” he said, pointing out a pre-teen, walking alongside her parents. They shot him a dirty look while they passed by.

“Walking through here like it’s the goddamn Empire State Building,” he yelled after them.

He turned back to me and launched into a convincing impression of a tourist family.

“Come on now Jimmy and Sally, let’s go have a look at the bums.”

I asked him why he came to Zuccotti Park.

“Why else? To look at the bums!”

Rick’s view of the protests was almost idealistic. He saw them as a reflection of New York, “a city so big and so great it brings the best people together with the worst people,” he said.

But Patrick soon took back his “bum” comment, let his guard down a little and hung his head, ashamed at his own lack of candor. He chose his next words carefully, the weight of his disappointment now made obvious.

“I came because I really thought there was something, but there’s nothing.”

Departure

I thanked Patrick for his time and left Zuccotti, stopping short to look the park over once more. When I descended the park steps to the sidewalk, I saw an important work of street art that I missed my last night here, a bronze statue cast by John Seward Johnson II in 1982.

“Double Check” depicts a middle-aged businessman peering into his open briefcase, sitting on one of Zuccotti’s granite benches next to the capitalists who eat lunch there. Ten years ago, famous photos showed his head and torso poking through the ash and rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers. For weeks after Sept. 11, mourners laid flowers at his feet to honor the businessmen who walked to work on an ordinary morning and never returned.

Now, trash is scattered on the sidewalk all around him and stuffed in his briefcase. A small, stained American flag is roped around his head like the trademark bandanna of a cranky Vietnam vet. There’s a piece of paper taped to his briefcase quoting SoHo street artist James De La Vega: “The game of capitalism breeds dishonest men.”

Turning to leave, I found that I could no longer distinguish between the drums, whistles, speeches and chants. All I heard was dissonance.

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