Protesters want world to know they're just like us

By Jocelyn Noveck

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 photo, Cherie Walters, 58, from Mount Clemens, Mich., poses for a photograph, in New York. Walters, who has participated in Occupy Wall Street protests, is wearing the shirt she wore to two of the protests.

Tina Fineberg, Associated Press

NEW YORK — As other protesters chanted vigorously around her, Nancy Pi-Sunyer stood off to the side at the Occupy Wall Street rally, clutching her sign, looking a little like a new teacher on the first day of school.

In a way, she was: At 66, this retired teacher was joining a protest for the first time in her life.

"I was too young for the civil rights movement," Pi-Sunyer said earlier this week as she joined thousands of protesters marching in lower Manhattan. "And during the Vietnam War, I was too serious a student. Now, I just want to stand up and have my voice be heard."

As the protests have expanded and gained support from new sources, what began three weeks ago as a group of mostly young people camping out on the streets has morphed into something different: an umbrella movement for people of varying ages, life situations and grievances, some of them first-time protesters.

There are a few common denominators among the protesters: their position on the left of the political spectrum, and the view that the majority in America — the "99 percent," in their words — isn't getting a fair shake.

Beyond that, though, there's a diversity of age, gender and race — in part due to the recent injection of labor union support, and fueled by social networks — that is striking to some who study social protests.

"Most people think this is a bunch of idealistic young kids," said Heather Gautney, a sociology professor at Fordham University and an analyst of social protests. "But the wider movement is remarkably more diverse than it's been portrayed. I've seen a lot of first-time protesters, nurses, librarians. At one protest, the younger element seemed actually to be in the minority."

Pi-Sunyer, who lives in Montclair, N.J., was drawn into the fray on Wednesday the same way many were — via social networks. She saw a post from a friend on Facebook and realized it was time to join.

"I just decided to get off the couch and be in control," she said, holding a hand-lettered sign that read: "Wise OWLS Seek Economic Justice 4 All." (OWLS was a play on the initials for Occupy Wall Street — with an "l'' for little people.) "I was oblivious before. I can't be oblivious now."

Nearby, a speaker in lower Manhattan's Foley Square yelled into a microphone: "I'm tired of sticking my hand in my pocket, and only getting my leg!" The so-called "Granny Brigade" pulled out guitars and played a song. The crowd milled, bearing an endless variety of signs:

"Make Banks Pay!" ''Corporate Greed is Not Patriotic!" ''Give My Professor Health Insurance, Please!" ''Food is A Basic Human Right!" ''Bernanke Burnout!" An optimistic one: "This Is The First Time I've Felt Hopeful In a Long Time!" And a pessimistic one: "Even My Union is Corrupt!"

Cherie Walters wasn't carrying a sign — she WAS a sign. Both the front and back of her shirt were covered in scrawled slogans.

"I came here from MICHIGAN because the top 2 percent are waging class warfare against the rest of the U.S.," it read in part. Walters, 58, also a former teacher, had driven all the way from Michigan with her husband, Rich.

Her biggest gripe: credit card swipe fees, which she said were killing smaller businesses. She also was concerned about unemployment in her home state. "I'm very angry at how poverty is degrading our people," she said. As she spoke, a much younger protester interrupted her to hand her a leaflet on health care reform.

The couple, who'd been following the protests all week, getting updates via Facebook and Twitter (and posting their own video on YouTube), complained that protesters had been described by others as unruly mobs or young troublemakers. Did she look like a young troublemaker, Walters asked? (At least there was a silver lining, she quipped: It was flattering to be described as young.)

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