This movement gives me hope
The Occupy movement is teaching a generation that the system is to blame for the conditions of their lives, not their own failures, says RJ from San Francisco.
DESPITE EVERYTHING I was told growing up in North America about how "working hard pays off," I have nothing to show for my 25 years of labor except for my class anger and $82,391 of debt.
This number--$82,391--is quite staggering to say out loud and even painful to write. But because of the growing Occupy Wall Street movement, I no longer feel alone. I no longer feel ashamed. I am part of the 99 percent.
My mother is on Medicare, which the 1 percent in this country wants to take away. She lives on a couple hundred dollars a month. My brother, despite being an engineer and part of the so-called middle class, could lose his family's home in the coming years unless the mortgage crisis is reversed.
For all my life, I was taught to blame myself for how hard I've had to work for everything. I felt ashamed of growing up poor. I was taught that if I got one job, maybe two jobs or even three, and got a degree, I could pull myself out of the economic misery and the daily struggle that my family faced.
Last Wednesday, I marched at 7 a.m. in San Francisco's financial district with a multiracial crowd of hundreds of people. Old and young, employed and not, union and nonunion workers protested against the banks that are destroying our lives. The demonstration was built in conjunction with Occupy SF. It was specifically organized to foreclose on the banks that pushed predatory loans on working-class people, loans which have disproportionately targeting poor people of color in the Bay Area.
Outside of Wells Fargo, I held back tears as I looked up at these soaring multimillion-dollar buildings and chanted with every fiber of my being, "We are! [pause] The 99 percent!" over and over until my voice cracked. It felt amazing!
Working people like me have given all we can--our blood, our sweat, our labor--to try to make our lives better, but instead of creating a safety net, our labor has created massive profits for the people at the top. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that my dreams are diametrically opposed to the dreams of the class of people who are running our country, the factories, the banks and the offices.
The unemployment rate for African Americans is more than 16 percent. Young people today don't even have the option of getting multiple low-wage jobs like I worked to make ends meet. Nor are they receiving the same scholarships and grant money I was able to use for college.
Our collective immiseration has come out of hiding for the whole world to see. We have started to reverse the one-sided class war that has been waged since my birth. For the first time in my life, I really feel inspired about the possibilities of winning victories that will make our lives--and the lives of future generations--better.
The 1 percent tries to dismiss the Occupy protesters as a small group of hippies, anarchists and leftists, and they ridicule the movement for having no goals. The truth is that we are the working class and working poor in this country.
This is my story of being part of the 99 percent. I hope the millions of people just like me in this country and around the world will continue to add our stories as we organize to take back what has been stolen from us.
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MY 37th birthday is fast approaching, and I have been working almost every day of my life since I was 12 years old. My skin is white to most people's eyes, although I am Native American on my father's side.
My father only obtained an eighth grade education. His parents died at the end of the Great Depression, and with no one to take care of him, he had to fend for himself. He started working for a coal company in Colorado at the age of 12.
When I was growing up, my father worked as a machinist at a chemical plant in a small town in California. I still remember him coming home covered in potash. His clothes could stand up by themselves because of the dried-on chemicals. This job took two decades of his life. At the age of 58, a year and a half away from retirement, he lost his job due to a work injury. His employer never gave us a penny of his hard-earned retirement money.
The truth about the layoff is that the company was in the process of mechanizing production. Things that were done by hand were now being done by computer. Instead of using new technology to make workers' lives better, management wanted to replace the old-timers like my father who made $25 an hour--not to mention time and a half for overtime and double time on holidays. It wasn't a unionized shop, but it was decent pay at the time. In the eyes of the plant owners, my father's work accident was a good excuse to get rid of him.
What did this mean for our family?
My father drifted into alcoholism, which took his life eight years later. My mother, who hadn't worked in more than 10 years because she had devoted herself to taking care of her kids, tried to find a job, despite my father's guilt and backward notion that "my wife shouldn't work."
My brother and I, due to the embarrassment of not wanting to be labeled "welfare kids" by our young peers, looked for jobs under the table to help pay for our school clothes and lunches and to save for college. I vividly remember a conversation with my family standing in the kitchen and defiantly refusing to allow us to go on welfare. I was 12 years old.
The summer after my eighth grade and my brother's ninth was spent working on a farm. Our family was promised thousands of dollars in payment, which we planned to deposit in a savings account for our college fund.
We spent more than a month sleeping on the living room floor of a farmhouse in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We ate little. We baled hay in the summer sun, and we worked in the middle of the night to change water lines. We never saw one cent of the money promised us by the farm owner, though I must add that the undocumented workers faced even worse conditions than we did (I remember them living in tents outside on the farmland).
About a year later, when I was of legal age to work, I cleaned bathrooms and stocked the walk-in refrigerator at a truck stop gas station in my neighborhood. I soon went on to work at the town restaurant and hotel. I cleaned rooms for a year, washed dishes in the restaurant and then moved up to a lunch cook position. I received a whopping 50-cent raise at this new position. My hourly pay was $4.75.
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I DECIDED the only way I was going to find a better life than the one my family had been dealt was to move away and put myself through college. There were two career options for working-class people where I grew up: you worked in the factory or you joined the military. I choose neither.
I dreamed of living in a city and being more connected to the world and other cultures. The thought of participating in a potential war wasn't my thing, so I decided to skip this option for the time being. My brother, on the other hand, had to enlist in the Navy after his attempt to pay for college didn't go so well.
At the age of 17, the summer before I moved away, I worked three jobs: my job as a lunch cook, a night shift as a hotel clerk in a town 20 miles away and babysitting during the day for the family I lived with. I had moved out of my parents' house because of my father's alcoholism, and I provided day care in exchange for rent for my new self-adopted family.
After three years, I earned an associates degree at a community college in Southern California. I earned an A average despite working a service job at Sears and holding down a catering job on weekends. The good grades meant I qualified for much-needed scholarships to continue my education.
Making my way up the ladder, I was accepted to one of the top five private art schools in the United States. I received scholarships and Pell Grants that covered half of my tuition and books. The remaining $40,000 involved taking out students loans.
It wasn't hard to justify the debt to myself. I believed what I had heard in the mainstream media and from society as a whole: I was 100 percent guaranteed a decent job after college, and that's how I would pay off the loans. I assumed I'd be able to live a healthy and happy life, buy a house and maybe even raise a family.
I worked three jobs while I was an undergraduate and still managed to graduate with high distinction at the top of my class. I was offered a job during my final year with an accomplished professor in a small design firm. I accepted the offer and was paid $25 an hour as a contractor. This was the highest wage I'd ever been paid, and now I only needed to hold down one job to support myself. My quality of life drastically changed. The world was looking good, and I thought I was sure to have a better life than my parents.
Then in 2000, the same year I graduated from art school, the dot-com bubble burst. The economy was in the midst of a freefall. All around me, friends who had graduated with me were losing their jobs, and moving to other cities and countries to find work. I finally got pushed out of my job when the design business I worked for went under in 2003.
For the last eight years, I've pieced together my work as a freelance contractor. Full-time design jobs are few and far between, and often pay less than I'm making now.
Since the economy crashed again in 2008, I've had to pay rent, buy food and pay medical bills and other expenses with my credit cards to make ends meet--like the majority of people in the U.S. who are underpaid or underemployed.
Up until this point I've managed to pay all my bills on time, but even still, I regularly receive credit card statements that proclaim how the banks are quadrupling my interest rates. Over the last month, I have spent hours on the phone fighting credit card companies for unjustly and illegally jacking up my bills. Capital One, which bought out my Chase credit card account, just tried to raise my interest rate from 7.9 percent to 19.99 percent.
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I NO longer see a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel buried under bills, despite the fact I've worked harder than any CEO since I was 12.
This is one of the many reasons I am part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. To me, the idea that we should fight to have our demands met is not an abstract argument.
I believe we need to build a movement that demands relief for poor, unemployed and working people by taxing the 1 percent. We need to march on unemployment offices and demand bigger checks and stipends for increased living expenses.
We need to force the banks and the government to stop foreclosures on people's homes. We need to move the furniture back into our homes and the homes of our neighbors as the mortgage companies and landlords try to evict us.
We need to tell the credit card companies that they don't deserve to be paid back. They've been paid back more than enough already. Debt for working people and students should be forgiven.
Ultimately, we need to learn from the great labor battles of the 1930's. We need to build on and support the struggles of workers who are starting to take on the bosses in their workplaces.
Relief from the Great Depression of the 1930s came about when unemployed and working people realized that they were not to blame for how shitty their lives had become. Instead, poor people, working-class people and the unemployed decided that those at the top were the ones who messed up society in the first place and that they should pay. When people realized they deserved better, they began to organize to demand it. I believe we are seeing the beginning of this happening today.
A new chapter is emerging in the history of ordinary people in the United States as the old, fake "American Dream" crumples. Our struggle is connected to those fighting around the world--in Egypt, Syria, Chile, Spain, Greece, England and so many other countries. We are fighting for real human dignity against austerity and human immiseration.
It will be hard, and it will be filled with victories as well as difficult defeats. But this beginning, embodied in the Occupy Wall Street movement, gives me so much hope.