Occupy Wall Street

The American dream is turning into a nightmare, with disheartening levels of inequality, unemployment and homelessness.

In this eyewitness report, CommonWealth Magazine visits the US, in what may be its final days at the top. Capitalism is facing unprecedented challenges. Nowhere is this truer than in the United States, where unemployment has reached huge proportions, and across the country some 3 million people — the equivalent of 90 percent of Taipei City residents — are without a home. Support for the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is growing rapidly, as protesters across the United States and around the world make a ruckus about the uneven distribution of wealth and the way the rich use their money to make more money. 

Target No. 1 in the protests is the epitome of capitalism: the banking industry, and the governments that bailed out the banks with taxpayers' money during the last financial crisis. The protesters began to occupy Zuccotti Park at the end of Wall Street in mid-September. When we visited in October the number of blue tents pitched in the park was still growing. To me the scene looked like a disaster zone. Sitting in front of a glitzy investment bank, a shabbily dressed homeless man held out his hand for a cigarette, while warning with a threatening look in his eyes that he does not want to be photographed. But just around the corner white-collar workers sporting fashionable neckties pay the equivalent of NT$ 1,500 for a sandwich lunch at Trinity Place bar and restaurant. Housed in a remodeled old bank building, the restaurant is famous for its 70-centimeter thick, 35-ton bank vault doors that deliberately create the impression of a bastion of iron. Which impression is the true America? And why do people harbor such deep-seated anger? Civil rights activist Martin Luther King moved the entire world with his "I have a dream" speech. But now the American dream has been shattered. 

As part of CommonWealth Magazine's ongoing series examining countries around the world and the paths they have chosen to follow, we visited locales across the United States to report in-depth on the reality of the broken American dream. We were eager to find out when, during the past thirty years, the world's only superpower made the crucial decisions that allowed a "winner takes all" mentality to take hold, so that today much of the nation's wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent. We were also asking ourselves which scenes and scenarios in this 30-year-long drama of Americans resisting Americans leave us with a strange feeling of deja vu. Haven't we already experienced similar situations in Taiwan?

Scene 1: Zuccotti Park, Downtown New York. It is Oct. 30, Sunday, at 6 a. m., and the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is entering its 44th day. When it began to snow suddenly during the previous night, the New York City government seized the opportunity to confiscate generators and gas containers that had been used to warm up the protest camp. But as they had proclaimed earlier, the protesters did not leave. Instead, they defied the bitter cold. They began to pitch tents and tarps and brought in large cardboard boxes. Using jackets and blankets donated by supporters, they held out in the snowstorm as temperatures fell to five degrees Celsius below zero. Surrounded on all sides by towering skyscrapers, Zuccotti Park, the heart of the "Occupy" movement, all of a sudden looks bleak and desolate. Located in the midst of New York's bustling financial district in central Manhattan, the park is actually a stone-paved plaza with plenty of benches and trees. Usually, it is a popular oasis where Wall Street employees relax during a quick lunch break. Now, however, a tent city has sprung up populated by jobless people and other protesters. 

Official figures put the U. S. unemployment rate at 9 percent, which is already a 30-year high. This means that 14 million people in the U. S. are out of work, about 60 percent of Taiwan's entire population. Real unemployment, however, is much worse than the official figures suggest. If the numbers also account for those who work part-time because they can't find full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work altogether, the unemployment rate soars to 15 percent. Running out of options, millions of Americans who have lost their homes and jobs are shouldering their few remaining belongings and camping out in parking lots, under bridges and highway overpasses. "Tent cities" keep mushrooming across the country from California to Florida and glamorous New York in what could be called one of the biggest "new town movements" in American history.

As we travel across the country talking to ordinary people and witnessing their plight, we can scarcely believe that this is America the "superpower. " "Health Care for All, Jobs with Dignity, Quality Public Education, A Healthy Environment," reads the placard in the hands of 56-year-old "Occupier" Carol Brown. Wearing a friendly expression on her face, Carol looks like a benevolent auntie. As she tells her story, her breath creates a white cloud in the cold air. Carol used to be a civil servant with the New York State government, but was laid off last year. Since she was no longer able to pay the mortgage for her detached house in neighboring Connecticut, she moved in with her younger sister, sharing a small apartment of 40 square meters. Then the "Occupy" rallies began on Sept. 17. Carol has not missed a single day of the movement since, always coming to Zuccotti Park in the mornings. In the afternoon she rushes across the bridge to Brooklyn, where for the next 10 hours she works two part-time jobs: as a waitress in a fast food restaurant and a bookkeeper in a rental car company. "They say the American economy is improving, that the unemployment rate is going down and GDP is growing. But I know they're all lying," Carol says matter-of-factly, leaving a deeper impression than if she was shouting. "Too many people like me have suddenly fallen from an ordinary, stable life into an abyss, with no work, no health insurance and no tomorrow. It's been a year, and I still can't see any hope. "Friends have asked her why she takes the trouble to protest given that she works late into the night and does not even have enough time to relax at home. But Carol is convinced that people have to stand up for themselves now to demand what they deserve. "We were silent for too long,— she says. "Now the time has come to stand up and fight.

We meet, another victim of the economic downturn at the Star- bucks next to Trinity Church just around the corner of Zuccotti Park. Thomas Ball, 60, is a former Wall Street executive. Ball sports well groomed grey hair and a dark business suit. With his tall stature and an intelligent look on his face, he fits the stereotype of the high-flying executive from Wall Street or powerbroker from Washington. For a short period, Ball worked as a taxi driver, but before that he was a supervisor at global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company. 

A graduate of New York University's Stern School of Business, Ball held high-level management positions at Citibank and American Express before joining McKinsey. Around 2007 Ball decided to leave the consultancy after more than 10 years on the job to found a hedge fund with friends. Backed by decades of experience in the financial industry, the future seemed bright for Ball's business venture. But then, out of the blue, the financial crisis hit, turning the tables on him. Like tens of thousands of other Americans, Ball has gone through dramatic changes in his professional career and personal life during the past three years. After the subprime mortgage crisis hit, his fund not only failed to raise any money, but actually lost almost a million dollars on its initial investment positions, thanks to leveraged speculation, Ball recalls painfully. So Ball was forced to look for a job on Wall Street again. Hit by the financial crisis, Wall Street was, however, firing rather than hiring. As a specialist in quantitative analysis, Ball was still able to land jobs with Merrill Lynch and otherinvestment banks, but only for less 10 than half of his old salary. n( Half a year into his new job, Ball was let go without prior warning. "All of a sudden the world as I knew it no longer existed," Ball recalls. His th career and his plans for retirement ri, had completely gone awry. As his life and finances hit rock bottom, Ball hung up his business of suit and began to drive a cab, leaving his familiar social circle behind. He needed the money to pay the mortgage for his luxury apartment in central Manhattan and tuition for his daughter who attends a special education school. All he could think of was how to pay the bills and make ends meet each month. But in the end Ball was still not able to keep his downtown apartment and moved to Queens instead.

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Danny Ding

Attribution for this article go to Hsiang-Yi Chang, and Ting-Feng Wu