Why they choose to ‘occupy’


BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Protestors have a variety of reasons for ‘occupying’ and we spoke to a few of them.

NAME: Gerson Lesser
AGE: 90
OCCUPATION: Retired geriatrics physician
RESIDES: Riverdale, Bronx

At the ripe young age of 90, World War II veteran Gerson Lesser is still very active, teaching clinical geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and participating in the O.W.S. movement, which he believes could eventually effect change by helping the public take back the economy from large corporations.

“I came down [to Zuccotti Park and Times Square] because the country seems to be at an impasse, and money seems to be taking over the country rather than people,” said Lesser. “I’m not sure I know what to do, exactly — nor does anybody here — but something has to change.”

The country’s economic system has considerably worsened since the 1970s, according to Lesser. “It’s pretty obvious that incomes have stabilized except for the very rich, and they may be going down in the middle class,” he said.

Lesser is no stranger to activism. As a New York University undergraduate in the late 1930s, he demonstrated against the Spanish Civil War. In 1963, Lesser assembled a Connecticut-based group to attend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C. and journeyed back there a few years later to march around the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. He was also a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit public health organization that in 1985 won the Nobel Peace Prize for informing the public of the dangers of the nuclear arms race and lobbying for its termination.

During the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, Lesser nearly lost his lab research job at Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island when he refused to sign government-sponsored loyalty oaths proclaiming not to be a Communist. The act of defiance, he said, was a matter of principle.

“As long as I don’t throw bombs, I can believe anything I want — it’s part of the First Amendment,” said Lesser. “I think it’s a terrible thing to invade that.”

Lesser also sees a common denominator regarding the other protest movements and O.W.S. “The march against the Vietnam war involved many more people personally and immediately, in terms of the draft and so forth,” said Lesser. “But this seems to be a very individual, personal outpouring of people with real objections and frustration at how the government is moving.”

While his age prevents him from making daily visits to the encampment, Lesser checks the O.W.S. site daily to stay in the loop.

“I certainly can’t sleep there,” said Lesser, “but if they have another interesting march, I’ll be there.”

NAME: Karanja Gacuca
OCCUPATION: Former Wall St. risk and compliance analyst
AGE: 38
RESIDES: Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

After working on Wall Street on and off for a decade, Gacuca was laid off from his last job on Sept. 30 and has since fully devoted his energy to the O.W.S. encampment. He volunteers on different working groups and joins the masses decrying the very street he used to work on.

“I decided to join because they’re fighting for the values I believe in and agree with, including fighting for a more equitable society with a greater distribution of wealth and opportunity,” said Gacuca.

Specifically, Gacuca would like to see a repeal of the George W. Bush tax cuts; an enactment of the “Buffett rule,” referencing billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s wish for upping the tax rate on millionaires; and a repeal of the January 2011 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions to fund political campaigns.

As a former Wall Street employee, Gacuca feels no personal conflict in joining the O.W.S. movement. He said he performed an “honest” job and felt immune to attacks from his fellow demonstrators.

“Not everyone on Wall Street is a multimillionaire,” said Gacuca. “The industry depends just as much on the labor of everyday working folks. What we’re protesting is the system… that’s corrupting and that needs to be changed.”

While Gacuca said he never personally witnessed shady dealings on Wall Street, he gained first-hand insight into that side of the business, such as unfettered bonuses for executives and the endless push for tax cuts by wealthy corporations.

The corporations’ constant push for tax cuts is counterproductive because it taints Wall Street’s reputation, said Gacuca.

“This is an example of the industry failing hopelessly in that regard,” said Gacuca. “If I were still working on Wall Street and was in a position of making such decisions, I would have argued internally that it’s in fact against the interest of the industry.”

This is in part why the public holds a more antagonistic view of Wall Street today than in the late 1990s, when Gacuca moved to America from London. “Back then, people saw Wall Street as the protector of their money, I think,” he said. “It had greater trust from the public. Now, the public feels the industry has their [own] protectors among politicians.”

While Gacuca realizes his current activism could jeopardize his candidacy for a future job on Wall Street, Gacuca is sticking it out because, he said, “I’m doing something that I truly believe in.”

NAME: Tyler Lurie-Spicer
AGE: 18
OCCUPATION: College student
RESIDES:  Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Tyler Lurie-Spicer’s first foray into activism was in the 6th grade, when his mother, Rebecca Lurie, took Tyler and a friend to Washington, D.C. to protest the Iraq war.

Eight years later, Lurie-Spicer is part of one of the largest protest movements of his generation: Occupy Wall Street. Since the movement started, Lurie-Spicer has taken several days off from school to return home and volunteer in O.W.S.’s various working groups, hoping to spur change in government, the work force and society.

Lurie-Spicer joined the movement because he sees inherent flaws in the country’s democratic and capitalistic systems. “The government is not run by the people anymore. It’s run by money,” he said. “Rich people have monopolized the power, and the government is supporting the powers that be, so it isn’t a fair marketplace.”

Conveniently, O.W.S. is fitting neatly into Lurie-Spicer’s school curriculum. He is studying the encampment for his political theory and economics classes and is monitoring the demonstrations for a course on student activism. He also has plans to recommend a new course to his teachers that would focus exclusively on O.W.S.

“If we can get enough teachers to create a course around O.W.S., then we can use funding for the classes to get an apartment and actually come down for next semester… sort of like a study-abroad program,” said Lurie-Spicer.

In the last week, the student has fully immersed himself in the movement, assisting in the clean-up effort at Zuccotti Park.

Partaking in the clean-up was empowering to Lurie-Spicer. When Brookfield Properties, the owner of the park, early last Friday morning postponed a plan to clear the space so it could be cleaned, Lurie-Spicer said it signaled, “that [the protestors] have the power to control [Brookfield’s] decisions, no matter how much funding they have.”

While he hasn’t yet decided on a career, Lurie-Spicer is considering law, particularly after observing the National Lawyers Guild’s role in protecting the  rights of the O.W.S. demonstrators. He has worked summer shifts at the law firm, Virginia and Ambinder, whose offices face Zuccotti Park, and has also worked at Effective Alternative Reconciliation Services, a Bronx-based youth services organization.

Lurie-Spicer is most inspired by his fellow occupiers. He compared O.W.S.’s General Assembly meetings to the democratic nature of Twitter and Facebook; just as anybody can call a “mic check,” any Facebook user can post a status update.

“You sit in the General Assembly, and you see what consensus-building really looks like,” said Lurie-Spicer. “As a political theory student, it’s allowing me to envision a new way that the government and the world can work.”