NEW YORK — The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City on Sept. 17 as an outpouring of frustration over the economy has captured the attention of the nation and spread to Washington and other cities.
Many protesters have decried government bailouts for financial institutions whose leaders escaped accountability for the recession. Others have focused on local issues and many LGBT advocates have joined the demonstrations. In New York, there is frustration among LGBT youth over cuts to programs like homeless youth shelters and HIV/AIDS care and prevention programs.
Jonathan “J.C.” Lopez of Brooklyn has, like many of these “campers,” been sleeping on the ground in Zuccotti Park in a sleeping bag with his boyfriend for nearly two weeks.
“I experienced a lot of messed up things, and a lot of good things that come along here, like how the cops were,” Lopez said about clashes with police that triggered widespread criticism. “They messed up and I’m glad that what they did is on camera.”
He hopes that the protests bring change to the New York Police Department.
“The good thing is that everybody works together for one thing and one thing only: Stand up,” Lopez said about the actions in New York’s financial district. “Everybody is tired of not speaking. The protest here is mainly for helping everybody. You know, the homeless, the justice, everything to make a change.”
Lopez sees unique economic challenges for LGBT youth and sees the protests as a catalyst to fix those problems.
“Certain people are just stranded in the street because of what they are,” he told the Blade as the sun was setting over his campsite. “Changing the whole economic system, changing people that are homeless, putting the programs back on, like the shelters and so on and so on, so people can get a job, people can get a home. I hope that will change.”
“Queer economic justice can mean several things,” Jake Goodman of New York activist group Queer Rising told the Blade. “On a very literal level, corporations — to my knowledge of which most have changed their employment policies to be favorable to at least gays and lesbian people — still donate a majority of their donations to candidates and to political parties that actively pursue policies that take away our rights or block us from our rights. So queer economic justice is to stop funding those people.”
“Also queer economic justice is to remember that gay people are not the only queer people — there are transgender people that need help with housing [and employment protections] and we need to remember our other brothers and sisters and ensure economic justice for them,” Goodman said, as a crowd gathered below the red “Joie de Vivre” statue towering over Zuccotti Park. “Economic justice for them is providing protection for [homeless queer youth] while they’re on the streets because families kick them out,” Goodman continued. “[Queer Rising is advocating] for additional $3 million per year in the budget every year, which would provide 100 additional beds per year until everybody has beds and protection.”
The Blade spent Monday and Tuesday in New York and LGBT protesters were found at every turn.
Diego Angarita of Massachusetts sees LGBT issues wrapped up with many of the other issues being addressed.
“As you saw in the declaration for Occupy Wall Street, there is still discrimination based on your sexual orientation and gender,” said Angarita, who was the sole marcher carrying a rainbow flag in a procession around the park. “Transgender people are discriminated against all the time. Imagine if there was a transgender stock trader. Are you kidding me that would never happen.”
“There are gay people who were immigrants, gay people who are undocumented, gay people who are on welfare, I mean gay people who are environmentalists, gay indigenous folks,” Angarita continued. “Being gay is so integrated into every form of identity that is out there and being the particular gay angle I guess is just discrimination for gender inequity and forms and in the sense of identity in general.”
Sunlight Foundation organizer Bridget Todd has been marching with the Occupy Washington protests in Lafayette Park since the start of the demonstrations and said the D.C. branch of the movement is only getting started.
“I don’t think that cops are going to force them to get out and they’re going to see if it peeters out on its own; but I actually don’t think it will, I think it’s only getting stronger,” Todd said of the D.C. demonstrations. “We were there just the other day on Sunday doing a teaching and trying to find ways to help them strengthen their movements and strengthen their ideas and really engage them.”
“I got laid off in April and we’re all suffering,” said Kristin Ridley, who traveled from Occupy L.A. to join the New York protest. “We’re all suffering and this is a basically becoming a plutocracy in this country, being ruled by the wealthy, and it hurts all of us.
“We need to go out and show support for a populist movement,” she continued. “And wrapped up into that are also a lot of the individual things that help people, for example, advancing equal rights based on things like sexual orientation, it just fits right into it.”
Though many members of the swelling group repeated that all were welcome, and that LGBT issues were not specifically being singled out because the economic policies being advocated would help all, some gay participants said they saw opportunities to educate passersby and others on unique LGBT economic issues. Paula Cambronero had an exchange with a man who approached her near the food trucks where interviews with protesters were being conducted.
“He was interested in what was going on … and he didn’t feel he understood what people were here for, so he started asking me a few questions,” Cambronero said. “He asked me what ‘real’ democracy meant, whether we thought we had a fake democracy now, where we were going, and he also asked me what we thought social justice meant. I said I thought it meant that everyone should have the same opportunities and the same rights, and he said that everybody already did.”
Cambronero used the inability of same-sex couples to marry as an example of inequality, which led him to proclaim all gay people can marry, as long as they marry the opposite sex.
“We had an interesting discussion where he shared his viewpoints of why he thought the law should not change, and I shared my opinion of why it should,” she told the Blade. “I hope I got him thinking.”
Rev. Magora Kennedy — whose hat was decorated with a rainbow flag — was in the Stonewall Inn the night that the police raid on the gay bar sparked three nights of unrest in New York City, leading to the dawn of the modern LGBT rights struggle.
“We were in the streets from that Friday until that Monday,” Kennedy said. “That weekend, there was very little ‘salt in the pepper.’ Most of us that were out there were people of color. The thing that happened with Stonewall, as the movement went on, it got whiter and whiter. Most of us that were involved with Stonewall, there’s not many of us that are alive today.”
Kennedy, a lesbian, was married to a gay man in the military. The two married to prevent Kennedy’s husband from being kicked out of the military. They had four sons. Kennedy now has 14 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren and calls herself the “gayest great-grandmother out of the closet.”
“I’m so sorry that he’s not alive today to know that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was repealed and that gay people can openly join the services now.”
Kennedy sees the LGBT rights movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests as extensions of the civil rights movement.
“This whole thing is something that we’ve all been going through from the time of the civil rights movement,” she said above a chorus of protesters and drums rising from the center of Zuccotti Park, just steps from the site of the World Trade Center. “When they were putting together Wall Street … it was very, very white; no women and no people of color.”
She continued, “today … the people of color — the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, and just people of color in general — they gave them good salaries so they’d shut up. These people are making millions of dollars and as long as they stay quiet it’s a brand of new slavery and it’s economic slavery.”
“The state is a central organized power of violence, and that’s what forces violence against queers and everything else,” Vita told the Blade. “Queers in particular face violence and pressure from the state. For example, the issue of marriage. I’m not necessarily pro-marriage, I’m for getting the government out of marriage so there’s no bias either way for straight, gay or anybody.”
A local nanny who wished to remain anonymous came to the rally on Sept. 18, initially to support “the vague sentiments being expressed at the beginning, the sense of dissatisfaction with injustice.”
She decided to stay and has taken on the role of medic for the community of occupiers because she enjoys the community developing at Zuccotti Park.
“I think that what’s being built here is a revitalization of progressive politics and the labor movement and a lot of other things that I feel really needed some new energy.”
“The energy’s definitely gone up,” she said among the clamour of a call-and answer chant making its way across the park. “When it started it was maybe a couple hundred people, and it was a pretty consistent group of people, so we all knew each other. That’s changed.”
“One of the best things about this community is that everybody here is listening all the time,” the New York nanny-turned medic said. “so when we do things like, for example, saying ‘let’s go around the circle and say our names and our preferred gender pronoun,’ and somebody says ‘why should I need to say my preferred gender pronoun,’ we can explain, ‘not everybody here is going to prefer the pronoun that you may assume based on their body.’ And they sort of listen and go ‘oh, OK. I didn’t know that, and now I do, and now I have a new way to think about gender, and a new way to think about how people present themselves,’ that they can not only take into their interactions with people here, but hopefully take back home with them into their communities.”
“One of the reason that I’ve always opposed people like the Log Cabin Republicans, its not just that I’m a progressive, but I don’t believe that a conservative outlook — even a conservative economic outlook — can be consistent with gay rights,” the anonymous medic said. “I believe that the conservative political mindset is founded on elitism, its founded on special privileges, so it will never create a society in which LGBT people can live as equals to straight people and cisgender people. So if LGBT people want a society where they can be treated as the legal and cultural equal of the majority, they need to be part of a community that is working toward change and working toward more a equal rather than less equal community.”
Kat Adams, a queer minimum wage worker from Staten Island works with the medics at Zuccotti Park. He is eager to have a family some day, but as his salary barely pays his rent, he is reticent to start his family.
“Not by a long shot,” he said about whether or not minimum wage is a living wage. “I will not bring a child into a situation where I can’t even provide shoes.”
“Most of us have full time jobs,” he said of criticism of the protesters.
“What brought me here was just medical. I came down here with no interest in the politics, very little knowledge of what was going on, and honestly I didn’t think it would work, I didn’t think it mattered, and thought it would all fall apart within a couple weeks.”
“After seeing what happened Wednesday with the police confrontations and all the chaos, I consider myself part of it now,” Adams said, recalling an ugly injury he helped treat, of a camper who was hit so hard by a police baton he required EMT attention.
“You’ll see the rainbow flag out, you’ll see a lot of people, but its such a diverse group, but everyone looks so ‘weird,’ that you’re not going to find us.”
Many protesters believe that mainstream media outlets have been resistant to fairly portraying the actions in New York’s financial district.
“You haven’t seen nearly as much coverage [of the protests] as you would think there would be of something like this big and loud and widespread, say, compared to the Tea Party where fifty people show up and it’s and it’s backed by a political party and they get a lot of attention,” said Kristin Ridley. “But when its this big, widespread, truly grassroots movement it doesn’t get nearly the same amount of attention.”
Though their goals are intentionally abstract, according to the back page of the protester’s daily newspaper, ‘The Occupied Wall Street Journal,’ many of those that spoke with the Blade feel that progress will spark from the colorful demonstrations.
Kat Adams notes that many groups from across the political and economic spectrum, from libertarian Ron Paul supporters to communists to anarchists have assembled at the park to exchange ideas and express frustration with a political process that has made them feel left behind.
“You see arguments that spring up, but I think that’s good,” Adams continued. “A lot of people talk about how aimless this is, but that really is expressive of the idea here. Its all these different groups who would never talk to each other, let alone hang out like this, have come together because they all see the same problem.”
“I think they’re actually constructive arguments, people are trying to understand one another, and help others understand them.”
“What we want to happen here is a change to the way the process works, is a change to the way society is ordered,” The anonymous medic summarized the goals of the occupation. “So that it is not the richest part of society that has all the political power, so its not the richest part of society that has all of the economic power, so that wealth is more fairly distributed, and so that things like education, food, health care, housing are recognized as basic human rights are treated as basic human rights by the government and by society.”
Ethan Lee Vita agrees that the Occupy Wall Street protests and the dozens more that have began to appear all over the nation, are a good opportunity for a wide-range of like-minded individuals to network and exchange ideas.
“I’m not entirely sure if the occupation itself will forge anything, but the bonds that are built within it, and the ideas exchanged will be very helpful down the line,” Vita concluded.
Bridget Todd supports the Wall Street group, but thinks that the Washington contingency will be even more successful at initiating change.
“I think Wall Street is important but I think K Street is arguably more important; that’s where a lot of the money goes and that’s where a lot of it happens so I think it’s very important and I’m glad to see that this is a sort of countrywide movement but especially DC and New York.”
Stonewall veteran Reverend Magora Kennedy believes uniting different movements against injustice is vital.
“We’re all in this together. Whether you’re gay or straight, white, black, blue, green, whatever; we’re all in this together because if we don’t come together and unite and do something about this we will perish.”