As I drove to the Occupy Phoenix protest on Saturday, I started to wonder if anyone was going to show up. Not that there aren’t enough people in Arizona who want a better direction for our country, but because I know that 7 out of 10 people don’t vote in our country, so I tend to sometimes question how much anyone really cares.
I was a little more hopeful when I saw that someone had hung posters around my town the days before, letting people know why this was important and asking for their involvement. I’d also heard that the gathering in Tucson has been drawing hundreds for the last week and the Flagstaff gatherings were also in full swing. Someone had hung OCCUPY signs on the overpass and NPR said almost 1,000 people attended the rally the night before, I was hopeful.
I arrived early. The gathering was at Cesar Chavez Plaza, in front of City Hall. The three blocks before the plaza were completely filled with police cars. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or an ominous one. There were about a thousand people milling around, talking and making signs.
There was a medic station, a water station and ‘peacekeepers’ were wandering around, offering advice, making sure this was to remain a peaceful gathering. By noon the numbers had doubled, still not the crowd I was expecting, but a good-size crowd in this 100-degree heat. I found a shady spot and sat my sign down (it read: Corporate Greed? Is that how your momma raised you?).
Next to me were Bebe and her husband John, from Peoria. She started telling me why they were there. John had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, when he was sixty. The doctors told him he would probably die within 4 months. John decided to fight it. It was not an easy battle. He quit his job, did extensive chemotherapy and thought he was going to die more than once. Seven months later he went into remission. It’s been over a year and he’s been cancer-free.
The problem is that he’s also been unable to find a job. John looks good. He’s a bit pudgy, in his white shorts and Hawaiian shirt. He also looks happy. “I’ve been to over a hundred interviews.” He tells me. “Things always sound great on the phone, but as soon as I walk in the room, you see their faces drop. No one wants to hire an old guy who has been out of work for two years.” He shakes his head and shrugs.
His wife tells me that he’s had to take his social security early, much less then if he had waited, but they really have no choice. She doesn’t make much at her job, neither of them can afford health insurance and they’ve already sold everything they own and moved to a small apartment. Bebe says, “We have been able to pay our bills and survive for the past year, but we’ve pretty much hit a wall right now. Neither of us can find jobs and god-forbid we get sick or his cancer comes back, I don’t know what we’ll do.” John tells me they are making plans to file for bankruptcy. He shrugs again. I suppose after beating cancer you learn not to get too mad over material things, but then again, it can’t be too easy being unemployed and doing bankruptcy in your sixties, what are supposed to be your Golden Years.
On the other side of them is Connie. As I was talking to Bebe she was talking to John, telling him her story. I catch the end of it. Apparently she worked for Bank of America for the last 16 years. When they did their early round of firings a couple of years ago–to help keep their stock prices up and their shareholders happy–she was one of the first casualties. They gave her a severance package. She used it to pay her rent for an entire year because she wanted to be sure she didn’t end up homeless while trying to find another job.
She said even with her experience in the banking industry, no one is interested in hiring a 58 year old woman. She starts crying as she talks. She can’t find a job, she’s even tried at fast food places, but those jobs are being filled with recent college graduates who also can’t find jobs.
Six months after she was let go her sister got sick, and without health insurance, she had spent all her savings on medical treatment. Her sister eventually moved in with her. She is still sick and they are both trying to survive off a combined $850 a month. They just got on food stamps and the money she paid in rent will run out at the end of the year. She has already declared bankruptcy and sold everything she has, she still job hunts and has no idea what she will do in January.
“$850 isn’t enough for us to pay rent and survive!” she starts crying again. John puts his arm around her and says, “That’s why we’re here.”
This made me mad. Just the day before, one of my friends had said she didn’t understand why all these people were gathering and complaining, they just needed to be responsible for the choices they made. I wished she was with me now, to tell John he made a bad ‘choice’ to get cancer, or tell Connie she was ‘irresponsible’ for staying with a company 16 years and expecting anything more than what she got. To tell them their ‘bad choices’ of losing their jobs and being old during a recession was their fault, and they needed to stop whining about it. It angers me when I talk to the ‘I’ve got mine, who cares about yours’ type of people in this country. Is that how your momma raised you?
By 2:30 the crowd had grown, we must have been around 3,000 strong as the sun beat down on us. Speeches were still being made, sometimes a roar from the crowd, drums off to the side, funny signs, sad signs and angry signs floated above our heads.
I left as the sun went down. A group of gatherers decided they were going to ‘occupy’ the plaza into the night; the police had made it very clear they were going to enforce the 11pm curfew. (40 of them ended up being arrested later that night). Before I left, an older gentleman saw my sign and came over to talk to me. He was wearing a fishing hat and a plaid shirt. His sign read: I can’t afford to buy my own politician, so instead I made this sign.
He leaned over and said, “Let me tell you a story.” He talked about when he was a kid, in Kansas, in the 1950’s. He said his family had moved to a more affluent neighborhood and their new neighbor was the local bank owner. “One day I was playing with the banker’s son, he was my same age, we were both nine. We were in his living room and his mother walked in with a plate full of fudge, a huge mound of fudge, more than we could ever eat.” He started chuckling. “I’d never seen that much fudge and I knew we couldn’t eat it, so I told the banker’s kid, let’s go grab our friends (who were playing outside) and share this with them?”
He laughed again and shook his head. “As I went to the door to yell for the other kids to come grab some fudge, I looked back, and I was shocked to see the plate was almost completely empty. That banker’s kid, in whatever panic he had about sharing his fudge, had managed to shove almost every piece in his mouth. His cheeks were puffed out like a chipmunk, he couldn’t even move his mouth to chew any of it, but I’ll be damned, he was still trying to shove more in.” He laughed again and tapped me on the shoulder to make sure I was paying attention to his final point. “And you know the funniest part? That kid, that banker’s son who refused to share his fudge with any of the kids in the neighborhood, he became a banker and then later a Senator for Kansas.”
Still laughing, he stood up straight, shook his head, tipped his hat at me and wandered into the crowd. I’m sure he told that story a hundred times that day. I hope he did. Because if you think about it (and the reason over 1,000 cities in over 82 countries are filled with millions of people who are protesting the direction this country and world are going), it’s all about the fudge.
It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and how that gap is growing wider everyday. It’s about who has the fudge, and what they are willing to do to make sure they keep it, while trying to figure out how to get more. And it’s about the rest of us, who aren’t looking to stockpile it or fill our cheeks with more than we could ever possibly eat in our lifetime. What’s the point in that? We just want enough to be able to survive, and if we’re lucky, be able to hold on to a little bit of our self-respect.