I was born in the Soviet Union, one of the least democratic powers at the time. A few years into my childhood, the wave of attempted democratization led to the collapse of the USSR. I remember watching a live report on the 1991 coup d’etat (“August putsch”) by hard-line Communist Party members and trying to form an opinion on the situation. My parents explained it in a way a five-year-old would understand – if the coup succeeds, we would continue to have Russian television. If it fails then our programming will be in Ukrainian. Thanks in large part thanks to mass demonstrations; I was soon a citizen of Ukraine (not the USSR) and watching my favorite cartoons in Ukrainian. Fast-forward 20 years and I am in a Brooklyn jail cell, with four strangers and a dozen cockroaches, reflecting on another massive demonstration. The difference this time is that I could appreciate the motivation behind and potential impact of civil resistance, which is why I had to participate. So what can a Ukrainian, moreover an ex-Soviet, possibly know about democracy?
I became a U.S. citizen just before the start of this semester, elated by the opportunity to participate in the most prosperous democracy in the world. At the swearing-in ceremony, we were all encouraged to vote and get involved in our government, as we were now granted the same rights and privileges as natural-born Americans. I was excited to register to vote, but it is a bit misleading to say that voting would make me more “American.” In fact, voter turnout in the U.S. 2010 elections was 41 percent nationwide of the eligible voting population and 35 percent in New York State, respectively. In other words, the majority of eligible Americans did not vote in 2010. I was dismayed by the apathy of my friends and fellow citizens, but just looking at the make-up of the U.S. Senate is enough to understand their frustration. Out of 100 current senators, 96 are white, 83 are men, and most are millionaires. Large groups of people are being systematically disenfranchised, and while the low voter turnout may be understandable, it is not acceptable to maintain a healthy democracy.
My interest in OWS was immediate, but it was not until I attended the October 1st march that I was able to commit to the movement. This was the Brooklyn Bridge march that resulted in over 700 arrests. I was walking to Liberty Square to check out the encampment, when I was swept up by sea of people. The group was diverse in all respects (age, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, etc.), but what united them was the outrage at the status quo and the desire to speak up and make a difference. The atmosphere was electrifying and empowering—we weren’t mourning the corruption of our democracy but celebrating its rebirth, through this march and the many more that we knew would come. A protester in front of me described the feeling quite aptly with the sign that said “HOW COOL IS THIS?!” Invigorated by chants like “This is what democracy looks like!” we marched towards Brooklyn, when suddenly the march stopped.
The feeling of exhilaration turned to anxiety and fear as we began to speculate about what might be happening. Some people panicked and started climbing up the bridge structure toward the pedestrian walkway as police vehicles approached. My cellmate, an 18-year-old student from Long Island, attempted to climb his way to freedom, but had a change of heart when he saw the East River rushing beneath him.
In the midst of the hubbub, people on the walkway above us tried to use the “human mic” (a clever way to amplify sound wherein one person speaks in short sound bites and everyone within earshot repeats it) to communicate that the police started taking people away from the crowd and arresting them. Someone with a smart phone told us that JP Morgan Chase had just donated $4.6 million to the NYPD—unsettling news for a group of people protesting Wall Street’s role in our government. It was even more terrifying when another person informed us that we had no media coverage (“media blackout”)—this was around 5PM.
Imagine you’re barricaded on a bridge in a crowd of hundreds of people, with police on both sides, and you learn that they just received a hefty donation from a group you’re protesting to hold accountable. We refused to be demoralized, and in the spirit of democracy and perseverance we sang the Star-Spangled Banner as people were being hauled away. I had never been so proud to be an American.
To be clear, it is scary to be arrested for the first time, and the officers don’t make it any easier by treating you like a criminal. The filthy, cockroach-ridden cell, and lack of access to food or water, makes things even more stressful.
I was lucky, however, to share a cell with intelligent, caring, thoughtful and interesting people. They all had different reasons for being there; one lost his business following the financial crisis, another was a doorman who was frustrated that his benefits were cut despite increasing revenue for the building, and others were students like myself who wanted to see their government represent all of the people. For many of us, it was not only our first arrest, but also our first time at a protest. The success of Occupy Wall Street movement should not be counted in legislations passed, but in people inspired— It serves to remind us that when people participate in their democracy, amazing things can happen. Indeed OWS sentiment has spread all over the world, including to Stony Brook University. If you are interested in participating in your government (student, state or federal), find the SBU branch of the General Assembly—regardless of your political orientation.
The OWS is just the democratic jolt this country needed (and the perfect gift for a new citizen like myself). Unlike the U.S. Congress, the General Assembly is open, participatory, diverse and tends to come to a consensus – which may explain why American approval for OWS is far higher than that of Congress. Personally, it is the sense of camaraderie and unity that is most moving—the protesters made an implicit pact to be there for each other on the bridge, in jail and even afterwards as people resumed their regular lives.
Still, after 7 hours in captivity, our morale ran low. It was 3 a.m., and we were tired, hungry, thirsty and not entirely confident that we had made the right decision 12 hours prior. That all changed as soon as we walked out of our precinct in Crown Heights to find a group of supporters with banners, food, water, coffee and moral support. “Are we heroes?,” a fellow jail-mate asked me with a smile. It certainly felt like it.