New York — Although working, ironically enough, for a bankruptcy specialist in Troy, Justin Lecea still couldn't manage to afford his car and rent payments.
Then the tough times got worse six months ago, when the 26-year-old Flint native lost his job at a law firm. With no prospects in sight after months of looking, he trekked to New York City's financial district for the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration.
He entered the OWS home base at Zuccotti Park — now referred as Liberty Park — on Oct. 4, and immediately said to volunteers there, "I want to help."
The offer landed him a position manning the "info center," which sits on the north side of the park facing Broadway Avenue in lower Manhattan. He's put in 12 hours a day since then, pointing people with questions in the right direction around the now fully functional community situated in lower Manhattan.
"We've reached critical mass at the park," he said.
Lecea's story of low-wage struggle and joblessness were repeated, in one form or another, time and again during the weekend I just spent at Liberty Park. Whether it was suffocating student debt or an impossible job market to crack, the issue here is money. Or, more specifically, the way money in America keeps moving toward the top of the economic ladder, putting a squeeze on those not fortunate enough to be on the upper rungs.
"I went from having a savings to having to tap into my savings," he said. "There are a lot of people here who just don't have a voice. That's what this is about." Columnists and pundits have written off OWS participants as people who are "jobless because they don't want to work" and if they took "a shower they can get a job if they went to college," as Bill O'Reilly described the movement on his show The O'Reilly Factor.
Harry Bowman, a Michigan State University grad who had just spent his first night at Liberty Park, told me just how wrong O'Reilly and others in the right-wing chattering class are.
"There are no jobs," he said. As for placing the blame for that situation, Bowman believes that the place to start is obvious. "If people can't agree that Wall Street sucks, then something is seriously wrong with the American people."
It's absurd to label the movement as unfocused considering the overwhelming number of constructive conversations I heard while meandering through the park. Where critics see mostly unfocused anger and resentment of the rich, I saw a movement blossoming into one of the most beautiful moments of my generation.
The financial meltdown of 2008, the ensuing bailout of Wall Street, the ongoing foreclosure crisis, continued economic upheaval and the ever-expanding gulf between this country's richest people and the rest of us have combined to unite these people in a common feeling of betrayal. This is my generation, and this is something I needed to see firsthand. What I saw at OWS was an extremely diverse and educated conglomerate of people who have found solidarity in their quest for a government run the way it should be: by the people, for the people.
If someone were to throw a stone in Liberty Park, it could hit doctors, the "Granny Peace Brigade," anarchists, communists, libertarians, socialists, teachers, security officers, students, the young, the old, the homeless, poets, artists, Asians, Europeans, blacks, former police officers, former firefighters. You name it and they're probably represented.
Because of the far-reaching diversity found here, there's also a collective flip-of-the-bird to everyone who's looking to slap a label on the community. Suggestions that OWS is the liberal response to the Tea Party are repeatedly shot down. Instead, what you hear are references to this being a much bigger movement than the one being mounted by the malcontents on the far right.
But what are the actual demands? Why doesn't the movement have an identifiable leadership?
Those asking such questions miss the point. The movement is the message. People are being pushed to the breaking point, and are rising up to say the status quo is unacceptable.
Within the past decade unemployment has doubled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maybe the only really surprising thing is that it has taken this long for all those being downsized and marginalized to rise up in widespread protest.
In one month, the city-within-a-city at Liberty Park has become a center for inspiration. For once, instead of dwelling on the negative, people who are broken-spirited or just plain worried about the future have found hope by discussing solutions.
One of the remarkable things about the leaderless protest is how organized the community has become in such a short amount of time.
According to OWS media assistant and University of Michigan alum Bill Dobbs, the entire staff consists of volunteer workers. It's not a part-time schedule either; Occupy Wall Street is a full-time endeavor.
A general assembly is held twice each day on the north side of the park, where at times nearly a thousand people congregate to hear the day's announcements and subcommittee reports.
With an almost eerie effect, the assembly is conducted (as is every announcement throughout the day) using a system referred to as the "people's microphone" — a snail-paced, call-and-response tactic (generally receiving two responses) — used to share thoughts and information without the benefit of loudspeakers. New York City requires an "amplified sound" permit, which OWS doesn't have, so they've found a way to communicate to the crowds without breaking the law.
The charming and endearing technique starts off with a verbal exchange where one individual shouts:
The crowd then immediately delivers an overwhelming response in unison: "MIC CHECK!"
The poetry assembly held at night illustrates the emotional power the people's microphone actually holds.
With 30 or so people huddled around next to the library, a poet will get up on the stage (four or so steps up the staircase), check the mic, and then command the full attention of the audience members who shout back every line of every piece producing a majestic result. Some poets come with previously written work, while others deliver interpretations of their time spent in the Liberty Park Community. As one poet said (through the "people's microphone"):
"We will/WE WILL!"
"A new/A NEW!"
"Language together/LANGUAGE TOGETHER!"
Concerns about the park being maintained have been a focal point of OWS discussion, and a point of concern for the owners of Zuccotti Park — Brookfield Office Properties. But the sanitation committee does daily sweeps of the park, scrubbing away graffiti and feverishly working to prevent people from trampling flowerbeds.
The "comfort center" allows those willing to brave the elements to spend a night here.
Quiet time begins at 10 p.m., and a sea of cocoons — constructed from donated pillows, blankets, tarps, sleeping bags and even tinfoil — begins to form in the center and slowly creeps toward the outskirts of the park. At sunrise hundreds begin to wake up red-eyed but ready for the coming day.
The kitchen is stocked with donuts, apples, bagels, watermelon, pasta, bread, peanut butter, pizza — all donated from various supporters. The perishables get delegated to certain sections of the kitchen while hot, prepared food immediately gets set out on the buffet-style line to eat.
In the center of the park, a photographer shoots portraits against a white-curtained backdrop to document the experiences of those occupying Liberty Park.
After their Friday classes let out, Andrew Rodgers and Ann Crowley, who have 11 and 25 years respectively on the job at Detroit Public Schools, hopped in the car and drove overnight to New York City, arriving here the following morning. They brought sleeping bags in case they felt inspired to stay the night.
When I ran across them, before a march that was set to move uptown into Washington Square Park for a general assembly meeting, they stood among the group of protesters along Broadway Avenue, holding signs of support.
"It's an important movement, to be a part of the political conversation," Rodgers said. "I think we all need to start taking part in the conversation. The rich people aren't suffering; we're suffering."
Both were in awe of the level of organization at Liberty Park.
"They have to inhabit this place. It can't stop," Crowley said. "It needs to be an ongoing endeavor. [The media] are criticizing the narrative, but where do you start? This is taking it back and it's about time."
With other "Occupy" movements stating to crop up across the country (Detroit's group is set to kick off later this month), I found it hard to deny that this isn't the beginning of something huge. OWS has improvised a community on the doorstep of Wall Street and sent a message to the corporations inside: Just play by the rules the way they were made.
At the very least, OWS will be remembered as the crack in the mold of disparity that finally got people talking. A decentralized group has created a centralized hub of hope, with the rallying cry of "We are the 99 percent!" How that has been disregarded by media is a story in and of itself.
Lecea, who plans on staying at Liberty Park through November, will go back on the job hunt outside of Michigan when he leaves. With New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg now saying demonstrators can stay as long as they want, but winter weather is approaching fast, and Lecea believes some people will come prepared to beat the frigid cold regardless of leniency on adequate equipment to sleep comfortably.
"If they allow tents, then some people will definitely try to stay through the New Year," he said.
The end doesn't appear to be anywhere near.