To say I`ve been totally preoccupied by the Occupy movement sweeping across the US is putting it mildly. In the past month, I`ve been to several Occupy protests in Oakland and Berkeley, two adjacent California cities where the movement has had the largest followings outside of New York.
On November 2, I jostled with at least 20,000 people - teachers, students, union guys, moms with their kids in strollers, grandparents, hip hop singers, immigrants - as they marched to the Port of Oakland in response to a general strike call.Eight days later, as police and TV helicopters whirred overhead, I rushed over to Sproul Plaza in the University of California, Berkeley, at close to midnight, when it seemed the students were headed for another showdown with cops. (Earlier in the day police used unnecessary force to break up a students` camp at the plaza - the very site where the Free Speech Movement was born 47 years ago.) I lent my voice to a "people`s mike" and sat in on a long-winded "general assembly" to get a sense of the protester`s decision-making process.
And I was back at Sproul Plaza again on November 15 to hear Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley public policy professor and former US Secretary of Labor, deliver a charged 15th annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture - normally held at an indoor auditorium, but moved outdoors in solidarity with the students` protests - to a crowd of thousands.
The rest of the time, even when I`m at work, I regularly monitor Twitter updates, read various media reports and follow live video feeds of protest sites across the country.
Yet all this while I`ve been struggling, and failing, to write about this uprising that has in the past two months moved from the margins of American politics to front and center.
Why? Perhaps because I have been standing too close.
In my 10 years of being associated with the US - living and working here part of the time and being married to an American - I`ve been witness to, and have experienced myself, how increasingly hard it has become for the middle and working classes to maintain a decent quality of life. And this despite the fact that the American workforce works longer hours, and gets less paid leave than in any other developed world nation. (According to the International Labor Organization, "Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.")
Many Americans live, as the commonly used phrase here goes, "two paychecks from disaster." Meaning if they don`t get paid for a month (salary checks are disbursed every two weeks here), their precariously built life, with small bank balances and mountains of debt - home loans, car loans, student loans, credit card payments - will fall apart.
Over the past decade I`ve interviewed decent people so desperate that they write checks that they know will bounce in order to buy food for their children; I`ve talked to workers who`ve lost their homes and jobs and are living out of their car in a supermarket parking lot; I`ve met with women working two jobs and elderly retirees living on fixed incomes who are finding it so hard to make ends meet that they rely on food pantries and soup kitchens so that they can save money to buy medicines or pay for gasoline. And these days, I`m meeting more and more recent college graduates and people my age without jobs, who have been forced to move back into their parents` home - a "loser" option in Western culture.
Right now, some 25 million people in the US are unemployed, underemployed or have simply given up looking for work.
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