Life Among the Occupiers

The Revolution Will Be Brought To You By McDonald’s

Photo Riley Sparks

NEW YORK CITY, NY—The murmur of political banter is heavy in the air, reflecting upon the day’s struggle at the stock market. Some put their feet up to take a load off, others laugh and enjoy a beverage in the lounge.

A pianist plays softly on a baby grand tucked away on a private balcony overlooking the patrons. A chandelier casts a comforting light on those looking to escape the cold confines of their Wall Street workplace.

But this New York City soiree is not your average cocktail affair— this event is being hosted in a McDonald’s across from the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

A franchise of the $31 billion corporation is certainly not the first location one would think of to have a discussion on the finer points of occupying Wall Street—especially with a well-spoken 20-year-old Moldovian girl with dirty-blond hair, and radical politics flowing through her blood.

“I think that [the movement] will come together when discontent goes up as things keep getting worse,” says Michelle Balon in her ever-confident yet mild-mannered voice. “What we’re doing here is going to have a much more important role than it has right now, once people begin to realize that their lives aren’t so great.”

This is just one of her telling views on the now-global Occupy Wall Street movement.

Other occupiers were not so well spoken. Few were able to elaborate on why they were there beyond using regurgitated talking points.

“Smash the system,” said a 20-something year-old man in a black jean-jacket with cutoff sleeves and a logo from some punk band emblazoned on his back.

“Down with capitalism,” said a middle-aged woman with wirey chestnut hair, also incapable of defending her position.

Other people in Zuccotti Park, renamed Liberty Plaza by its occupiers, were demanding many other things, like ending the Federal Reserve, jailing the bankers they blame for the economic crisis and eliminating the debt of the poor and middle-class, to name just a few.

But these people refuse, or are intellectually unable, to attach a definite list of demands to their cause.

And it’s because of this refusal to pin themselves down, coupled with their adherence to a non-hierarchical structure and a lack of an official spokesperson that makes this movement so easy to criticize.

While she admits there are a significant number of occupiers who are able to explain their presence, Balon says the people who don’t know why they’re occupying make her question if she’s part of a worthy cause. But she knows Wall Street is exactly the place for her, regardless of others who make it easy to be skeptical of the movement.

Though she would disagree with the idea, her ability to eloquently respond to criticism of the occupation is exactly why, if there were to be an official spokesperson for the group, she would be just right for the position.

“Do we really have a million different ideas?” she asks, responding to the oft-reported claim that there is no consensus among occupiers. “I don’t think so.”

She lists, as examples of common ideas, that all occupiers have a desire to have a participatory role in government, to not have to pay higher taxes than corporations and to be able to simply afford tuition, all of which, she says, are hindered by the way the economic system currently works.

“I personally don’t think we’re asking for much that we can directly get,” she said. “No one’s going to shut down the Fed next week. That’s ridiculous. What we’re asking for is for people to start thinking and questioning.”

This, she says, is more than what some occupiers are doing, referencing those trying to resuscitate an over-romanticized and long-dead idea of peace and love from the ‘60s.

“The hippies are here because they have the time, no money and there’s free food, and also because revolutions are a part of their culture.”

“Everyone is using them as a criticism of the movement,” says Balon, who wants the focus to be on the actual work being done.

“Get a hold of the Occupied Wall Street Journal—that’s organization and that’s productivity,” she said of the self-published newspaper released to help counter the poor coverage by the mainstream media. “Hippies—the people just out there smoking weed—aren’t the ones who can write something like this.”

It’s people like Balon and the organizers she spoke of that are the driving force of the Wall Street occupation. Though she is unsure of how long the encampment will last, she knows that they will have made a difference.

“This is really good practice for when we wake enough people up,” she said. “Our generation doesn’t have any experience with something like this. This is our time to learn.”

“If there is, in 10 or 20 years, a mainstream American revolution, we will have a strategy that is going to be awesome.”

Balon understands the issues at hand while refusing to bog herself down in divisive politics—it’s this that allows her to so eloquently express her ideas for an American revolution all the while sitting under the golden arches of capitalism.

Though the pianist eventually ended her set for the evening, the conversations at that most-unlikely of radical meeting places continued on—into their fourth week of occupation. It’s up to people like Michelle to determine how long they’ll continue—and where, exactly, they’ll go.

This article originally appeared in Volume 32, Issue 07, published October 11, 2011.