From One Inner-city Park, Voices of the Protest Movement

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The protests in Lower Manhattan have been going on for more than a month. Other protests have steadily built in recent weeks, with large numbers of people turning out in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

Though predominantly young, protesters include older and middle-aged people as well. Some have jobs, others are unemployed and they represent just about every race and ethnicity.

The messages and wants of the protesters are just as varied. Protesters speak of everything from the need to tax the very rich, to ending the Federal Reserve.

So what is it that this passionate, if slightly unfocused, youth-led movement is trying to achieve? Many, many things, is the short answer.

In an effort to get closer to understanding this burgeoning movement, JJIE visited with members of a growing crowd gathering in Woodruff Park in the heart of Atlanta.

The protests here have been going on for several days now. Tents are scattered across the small park bounded on all sides by the city’s downtown streets and high-rise office buildings. So far the crowd – anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on the time of day -- has been peaceful. Trouble, however, may be brewing. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has warned the occupiers of Woodruff Park to clear out by Monday afternoon or face the police.

In the meantime, they try, in their own way, to get their message and messages across to the nation.

Kristan Johnston is a 20-year-old, unemployed, part-time student. She is also part of the Woodruff Park occupiers logistics team.

She takes a break from organizing upcoming events for that evening, including an evening session of the “general assembly,” to talk to a visitor.

“There is no single plan, here or in New York or anywhere,” she said. “There are so many people involved, and so many reasons to be here, but we don’t have a single message.”

After taking a moment to field a question from a passerby, she added, “One thing I can tell you, though, is that we are mad, we’re mad about unemployment, mad about the recession, mad about the government’s inability to provide for the 99 percent of us.”

You’ll hear a lot about the 99 percent at these protests and if there is one message the protesters seem to be coalescing around, it is that 1 percent of the population has the power, the money and the ability to change the nation.

That, certainly, is the message being honed by Brittany Gondolfi, a protest organizer.

Clearly and concisely she explains why she has chosen to be a part of this movement.

“The well-being of the 99 percent has been put behind the well-being of the 1 percent of this nation,” said 23-year-old Gondolfi, a student at nearby Georgia State University. “We want to try to reverse that.”

Gondolfi went on to explain that the protests are still in their infancy and that many things are still being decided.

“People keep asking us, ‘what are your demands,’” she said. “We don’t have any yet, this is just getting started. Like every movement before us, those develop over time.”

Austin Gallagher, 18, has been at the park for the last four days. He came down from Maryland, on a freight train.

Austin Gallagher, 18

Austin Gallagher, 18

“Right now America is a gated community, like a frosted cup cake. The top one percent owns all the money and power,” he said.

Asked what he wanted to achieve by being part of the protests, he said, “awareness. I want the government to fear people, to respect the will of the people.”

Sitting at a nearby first-aid table, a youngish-looking Amber Hughes (she declined to state her age) shared her unhappy feelings about corporate America.

“I believe corp[oration]s are running everything and not in a fair way,” she said. “People have the right to rise up and say we’re not happy.”

Asked why she joined the movement, Hughes said, “I want us to take more interest in the country. We have to make a decision, are we gonna make changes for the future?”

Christine Vanscyoc and Beau Eassey, both of Atlanta, have been camping in Woodruff Park for four days now.

“I’m trying to make the world a better place,” said Vanscyoc, 21, “but there are so many reasons why I'm here. Unemployment is such a problem and why in a country like ours can’t people have the right to a free education?”

Standing beside her, Eassey simply said, “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. This is a time when all people can come together to make change.”

Across a muddy expanse of grass, beyond the reach of the light jazz pumped in by the city’s sound system, stood Phillip, a member of the protesters’ “security team.”

“Why am I here,” asked the 18-year-old who did not want to give his last name. “Because the system is unjust. Look, man, I’ve been working since I was 14. I’ve never been paid more than minimum wage. How about those corporate guys? How about bringing their pay grade down a notch? Think how much more others can be paid.”

With a trace of anger in his voice at times, Phillip went on to say he had lost his father when he was 12 and has, for four years, now been helping to provide for his family.

So what of the future, not only the distant one but also just beyond the weekend, when police may very well be decamping Woodruff Park whether the protesters want to or not?

Mayor Reed’s Monday deadline, after all, is looming for these occupiers. Midweek, he pointed out again that the protesters were violating a city ordinance by camping in the park and his usual go along attitude seems to have hardened.

A Wednesday statement from the mayor’s office read, "I am committed to protecting the public and ensuring that the laws of the city are respected. I will not allow public safety to be jeopardized in any way by the protesters…”

When Gondolfi was asked about leaving the park and what to expect from the police she simply reminded listeners that, “Atlanta is the birthplace of the civil rights movement. I believe the police have a quiet respect for us and what we’re doing.”

This story was reported by Noah Echols, Lindsay Oberst and John Fleming and written by Fleming.

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