Feast: Week 1 | New York City Documentary Photography

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a list of extremely ambitious topics I would have liked to tackle for this Feast project. I wanted to work on something deep and dark, but the access necessary for projects like that doesn’t come about in a matter of a few days. Those sorts of things require time spent and trust built, and I just didn’t have that luxury this go round. As the deadline for my written synopsis loomed (okay, so maybe it was Tuesday and the synopsis wasn’t due until Thursday), I realized I really needed to start looking more closely at my immediate surroundings.

I have a couple of friends who are actively involved in the protest down at Liberty Square, and other friends who are involved in the occupations in Norfolk and Minneapolis. I was hesitant at first, as I’m often slow to warm to things that seem like trends. I worried that the message was unclear, and I wasn’t sure how this protest fit in with my worldview, how the things being protested applied to my own life. Then I saw a post on We Are the 99 Percent that really resonated with me, and I decided to go down to Liberty Square to see what this protest was all about with my own eyes. You saw the results of that visit here and here.

It’s true: I still don’t quite feel like this protest is my protest. It could be because I’m trying to remain objective. It could be because my reserves are low.

The thing is, my grandparents lost their home in Florida in 2007 due to the real estate crash. They had to walk away from everything they had ever built for themselves and move in with one of their children. They seem happier these days, but the fact remains that they lost their home and they’re still being hounded by creditors. It’s a blow too huge for me to really wrap my head around, especially because I know that, at some point in my childhood, we stopped being financially comfortable. We bought used cars instead of new ones. We sold our boat. Frugality became the name of the game, and that showed in the meals we ate and the clothes we wore. We went without. That house was the only thing left, and even it was a downgrade from the one I grew up in.

The other thing is that I’m the first in my family to graduate high school and go to college. I’m the first college graduate. I remember how anticlimactic it felt when I finished my final college exam (trigonometry, and I aced it). I remember thinking, this is it? Then, when I applied to grad school, I remember my mom asking me why. Wasn’t I done yet? I wanted to build a better life for myself, and American society cons kids–especially the poor ones–into thinking that college is the only way. I fell for that trick, and I took out loan upon loan to finance that dream of not having to survive from paycheck to paycheck for the rest of my life.

Nearly six years have passed since I graduated with that psychology degree. Grad school ended up being a bust. I’m not built to put up with the bureaucratic bullshit and political game playing that go hand in hand with actually studying, actually writing theses and dissertations, that eventually gain you entry into academia. I’ve since waited tables, worked on both the creative and business sides of the music industry, and perfected my administrative skills. I discovered that photography was both a passion and a way to pay the bills. My psychology education has little relevance to my day to day, except that I deal well with people and that I’ve taught myself the coping skills required to manage a mood disorder that typically requires medication for the duration of one’s life.

What I’m left with is the terror I feel every month when I can’t even afford to keep up with the 30 days worth of interest accrued on my $32,000 student loan debt, let alone pay the balance down. What I’m left with is the bitterness I feel toward a system that creates indentured servitude out of an education. What I’m left with is this feeling that the entire university system is a scam, a way for the government to make money off of kids who don’t know any better. There is no forgiveness, even if you file for bankruptcy, unless you end up a civil servant or a small handful of other “lucky” individuals (who often have loan debt in the hundreds of thousands, who are saving lives and doing other big things, and thus deserve that forgiveness). There’s just this crippling weight.

All of that to say that this is my protest, even if I feel otherwise, and I’m drawn to it. I’m drawn to this mass of people fighting for what they believe in, gathering to redress their issues with our society, both socially and economically. These people have given up their beds, they’ve left their homes, they’re using their bodies as symbols of their disillusionment. They’re taking in everyone who shows up (even the homeless, even the addicts who fight against their cause and make them look bad, even the media who portray them in an equally negative light). They’re absorbing all of this energy, and yet they still work all hours of the day to feed everyone, keep the park clean, and express exactly why they’re there and how they would like to see things change.

So, when I heard that there were instances of sexual abuse against women and harassment of LGBTQ individuals involved with the protest, I felt shameful. Liberty Square is supposed to be a bubble of idealism in the midst of a shitty world, and yet, they still have to deal with rape and homophobia. Of course, the protestors sprang to action, as they do. Working groups have been created, safety patrols initiated, safe spaces carved out. There are crisis teams at the ready. I think, if anyone can find a way to combat these very serious, very universal problems, it is these people, and that’s why I’ve chosen to document this story within a story for Feast.

My synopsis is below. If you go to my student page on the Feast website, you can see Mario Tama’s response and suggestions for the coming week.

Liberty Square, also known as Zuccotti Park, is a 33,000 square foot public space in Manhattan’s financial district that has served as the flagship home to the Occupy Movement since its inception on September 17, 2011. Now, in the middle of the second month of protest and a drastic change in season, the park has truly become a self-sustaining tent city. All is not well, however.

There have been reports of intimidation, harassment, racism, sexism, and sexual assault – not from without, but from within. Just yesterday (11/2/11), an Occupy Wall Street kitchen worker was arrested in conjunction with two sexual assaults that occurred in the park in past weeks. There are also a number of other complications.

Sylvia’s Place, the city’s only youth shelter catering to the LGBTQ community, was forced to shut down last week, sending several homeless teenagers to the park for shelter. Surprisingly, many of them were driven out by inhabitants of the park who also identify as LGBTQ. In addition, the park has taken on a number of the city’s transients who are not active within the protest and who, in some cases, do not comply with the Good Neighbor Policy that is actively enforced on-site. It is also rumored that the NYPD is encouraging the more difficult characters they encounter, as well as inmates recently released from Riker’s Island, to “take it to Zuccotti.”

In an effort to address these issues, a working group called the Safer Spaces Committee was created. They are working in conjunction with other groups, such as Security, Women Occupying Wall Street (WOW) and Queering OWS, to create safe spaces and an anti-oppressive environment “for everyone including, but not limited to: women, people of color, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, differently-abled, immigrants and undocumented, elderly, houseless, and those with less institutional power and privilege.”

I plan on documenting this element of the protest in Liberty Square, especially as experienced by women and the LGBTQ contingent living in the designated safe spaces. I find this story compelling simply because all humans should have the right NOT to experience harm, in word or in deed, by others. The Occupy Movement is a social movement (and, indeed, experiment) where the goal is to reclaim and restructure society based on qualms with our current social and economic ills to create and sustain a new, fully-functional, fully-free society. If safety for these groups cannot be achieved within the idealistic bubble of Liberty Square, what does that imply about the future of the movement, and the future of American society on the whole?

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