I've recently had several conversations regarding the Occupy Wall Street protests basically revolving around the question, "What are these things about?" Most people that are friends with me on Facebook or Google Plus, or who follow me on Twitter know that I've been following these goings on pretty closely (and have been plastering coverage all over all of my various social media personae.)
Full disclosure: I've never stayed overnight at the park, and I've never faced down police. I have marched with the movement several times, have brought food down to Zuccotti park on several occasions and have been an ardent supporter for quite some time. The vibe I've always gotten from marching with occupiers and hanging around the park during "off" times is very different than what gets out on a lot of broadcast news channels. There's a lot more age variation for one, and it's not just the stereotypical protester-type that shows up. Yes there are some overly idealistic college kids and there are some older lifetime protesters, but Occupy Wall Street is more complicated than these folks. Those are usually the people that give the most sensational soundbites, or tell the most familiar story which is why they tend to end up on the news. In truth, the vast majority of OWS supporters have jobs. Some have families. Some have never protested anything before. Some are even in the 1%. Their stories are varied and not easily related in a five minute montage on the evening news. If you really want to know the people in this movement just look around you. If the first person you see is not a supporter then chances are there's someone in the movement much like them.
Why do they occupy? Well, according to Twitter the reasons are more varied than their backgrounds. It's a common complaint that OWS has no singular purpose; no clear, concise list of demands. I respond by saying if the issues of the last couple decades had only resulted in a short, easy-to-read list of problems then Occupy Wall Street wouldn't have the support that it does, and wouldn't be as necessary as it is.
Even though the list of grievances seems legion, I personally believe that the lion's share of them share one philosophy: that in the United States of America when it comes to opportunity we should all be equal.
It's become increasingly true that opportunity depends more on how much money you already have than how hard you're willing to work. At the same time it seems like there's not the same degree of risk involved when comparing average folk to the high-powered and high-moneyed. When homeowners "bought more house than they could afford" due to predatory lending practices they lost their homes during the sub-prime mortgage crisis. When investment firms bought up those bad mortgages (and repackaged them as sound investments) and were threatened with collapse when their high-risk investments fell apart they were given government funds to stay afloat and their executives went to the Bahamas and received million dollar bonuses. People across the country, across varying age ranges, across different professions have gotten to a point where they don't see any opportunity to improve their lives. Unless you are in the top 1% of wage earners you are likely working harder now for a lower standard of living than you would have 15-20 years ago and it's increasingly difficult to find a different job or even go to school to retrain in a new skill.
For those saying that OWS is about anger or jealousy, I can only say that from my experience the occupy protests are the exact opposite. Sure, during standoffs with the police (generally over whether park rules supercede the first amendment) emotions run high and negative emotions can come out, but the beating heart of this nonviolent movement is not hate directed at those with plenty. It's realizing that after so many years of working and scraping for a better life there's a real chance now to make the system work for everybody, and not just the few with the deepest pockets and the best connections. It's love and camaraderie for those that are coming together to reshape the country to fit the ideal of their collective American Dream. It's re-igniting, finally, that one thing so many people across this country had lost after watching so many lose their jobs and so many struggle: hope.