For 11 days of the 14-day Occupy Wall Street march from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Washington last month, I joined dozens of protesters as they trekked through rainstorms and 30-degree chill. They slept in tents; ate handouts of Halloween candy and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches; and endured severe shinsplints, knee injuries and catcalls of “Get a job!” They argued among themselves as much as with others they met along the way.
As this odyssey ended, I thought about the public perception of the Occupy movement and about the Occupiers I’d met on the road. There is the Occupy shown by the news media, defined by police clashes and a lack of hygiene — images that tell non-Occupiers that the movement is leaderless, chaotic and on its way out. But as the marchers passed through towns large and small, and ordinary Americans came out of their homes and businesses to give food, money and words of support, it became clear that this movement isn’t going away.
Since its encampments are being shut down by local authorities across the country, the movement is now Occupying by walking rather than staying put. And another march, which departed Thursday from the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, plans to travel more than 600 miles to the civil rights leader’s grave site in Atlanta.
Certainly, Occupy Wall Street protesters have different ideas about the movement’s mission. Many of the marchers I met even disagreed on the purpose of their trek — some thought it was about getting to Washington to protest the “supercommittee”; others thought it was about visiting other Occupations.
But here are four who, in different ways, represent what the movement wants: direct democracy, accountable leadership, and a country that listens to everyone’s voice and believes in second chances.
Kelley Brannon, 27, an organizer of the march, says she intended for the journey to spread pure democracy, a form of decision-making in which every person votes on every decision, as widely as possible.
On Nov. 17, Day 9 of the march, Brannon calls for a general assembly to recruit new Occupiers along the highway near North East, Md.
“We need to have a general assembly now,” she says. “It’s our last chance in the light.”
Another marcher objects: “We said we’d do general assemblies when we are done for the day. We aren’t done.”
“I’m going to move to split the march into groups,” Brannon responds. “One group who came here for the original purpose and one who came here for something else!”
The group does not split up. But along the way, it loses a handful of marchers — and picks up many more.
Brannon had been camped in Zuccotti Park since Sept. 17, heeding Adbusters’call over the summer to Occupy Wall Street on that date. She’s a natural leader in a leaderless movement, and her attempts to be in control don’t sit well with a lot of the marchers, especially since she’s hardly the diplomatic sort. (At a Dunkin’ Donuts near Philadelphia, she tells someone holding a coffee: “I think the fact that we’re supporting giant corporations is pretty disgusting.”)
Before Brannon started Occupying, she spent her time in New York creating films and multimedia art — and, to pay her rent, making sandwiches at a cafe. “I’m making the same money I made in high school 10 years ago,” she says, laughing bitterly.
She later tells me that her art will be featured this month in a New York coffee shop, where she plans to charge less than $100 for each piece.
“I don’t make art for the 1 percent,” she says. “So I’m not going to charge 1 percent prices.”
That is, if she sells them at all.
“I’m a really bad artist because I don’t like selling my work. It feels like I’m selling myself,” she says.
After the march, Brannon returned to New York, where she is taking a break from Occupy to edit her footage of the journey.
Ephraim Cruz doesn’t say anything about the pot-smoking, the dozen homeless people stealing protesters’ food or the rape investigation that was announced just after we arrived at Occupy Philadelphia, one of the East Coast’s roughest encampments. But after night falls on Day 6 of the march, a young man at the site gets in another’s face, holds his collar and demands money. Cruz steps in.
“You take your thuggin’ and buggin’ somewhere else,” he says to the aggressor.
The kid backs off.
“And you,” Cruz says, turning to the other, “if you owe him money, pay up.”
Cruz, in his late 30s, says he got his sense of justice growing up in the Bronx as one of seven children raised by a single mother who eked by on social programs. Since age 18, he has been an auxiliary officer in the New York Police Department, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, a candidate for the Arizona state House of Representatives and a campaigner for Barack Obama.
But Cruz has always been an idealist, and in recent years he thought that the government just kept coming up short. In 2004, he became a whistleblower against the Border Patrol, alleging that the agency mistreated immigrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2009, he grew disenchanted with President Obama after the health-care fight. And on the morning after the NYPD’s Nov. 15 raid on Zuccotti Park, Cruz calls his other former employer a “legal gang.”
Cruz doesn’t finish the march, disappearing after Baltimore, two days before the group reaches Washington. Like the leaders who had disappointed him before, the march co-organizers didn’t hold themselves accountable, he thought, giving him no choice but to leave them behind, too.
Cruz has returned to New York, where he’s a major player with Occupy the Bronx.
Cologino Rivera, 21, gets a lot of laughs among his fellow marchers for his accent, which brings to mind the ersatz Kazakh star of the 2006 mockumentary “Borat.” Rivera laughs along with the jokes, quickly assuming the role of the group’s jester. When I ask him early on what he’ll do after the march, he quips that he’ll go to Miami to “occupy the beach.”
A few days later, Rivera gets more serious. He says he was inspired to join Occupy after months of working 60-hour weeks as a waiter in Owego, N.Y. “Sometimes when I look at my check, it makes me want to cry,” he says. At age 15, he left Mexico — a country “in a very depressed state, [where] jobs are scarce” — for the land of opportunity, but he quickly found that it didn’t always live up to its promise.
He says he left his country because his family members inexplicably kept getting shot. “I think it’s wonderful in America that people can’t just get away with anything,” he says. In Mexico, no one was charged with his uncle’s shooting. Here, maybe it would have been different.
On Day 4, at a rest stop somewhere past Trenton, N.J., Rivera addresses the full group for the first time. “I have an announcement,” he says.
The group giggles.
He tries again: “I’m trying to talk!”
“Listen, I understand I have an accent. This is not news to me! I immigrated here more than five years ago.”
His voice rises and quiet seeps in.
“You need to listen to my voice, not my accent! You need to have respect.”
Finally, a space for Rivera to get serious: “Now, I will start a list of necessary needs for the march. . .”
“This is good,” a marcher says to me, smiling. “He feels empowered.”
Rivera joined the marchers who left Washington for Atlanta on Thursday.
Melvin Hicks frequently gets impatient as personalities clash and tensions rise along the march.
“I don’t think this group is ready for a day of action!” Hicks says, his words slurring as he gets angry, speaking through missing teeth. “If we can’t come to one issue to agree upon, we are no better than the people in Washington.”
Hicks dislikes the journalists who show up along the way, the long discussions about changing the marchers’ route. He dislikes stopping for breaks at all. His only detour: On Day 11, en route to Baltimore, he scrawls “We are the 99 percent” in freshly poured sidewalk concrete.
But like many others who are frustrated, Hicks isn’t about to leave the march. Hicks, who is in his early 30s, says he was convicted more than a decade ago of drug trafficking, joining the 3 percent of Americans who have been convicted of a felony, and he’s had trouble finding a job because of his criminal past. He now works as an electrician.
When asked why he’s marching, he says, “I want America not to judge me for my past, but for my future.”
On a night when another marcher is smoking a joint, Hicks doesn’t partake. He doesn’t drink, either, even when the other marchers get beers in Maryland on a Friday night. Hicks — much like the Occupy movement — wants to do something more than just get arrested. “I got to rise for what I believe in,” he says. “Because I know we are doing the right thing.”
After the march, Hicks, who does not have a phone or an e-mail address, could not be found.