My roommate Stelline, back from Zuccotti Park to pick up some of her things, convinced me to go.
“Get off your lazy ass, Elizabeth, and do something.”
But I had done something that day. I had gone to brunch. I spent $22 on eggs benedict and coffee and, yes, I was $52,000 in debt and overwhelmed by this fact. I had graduated from college three years ago, had a degree in English. I was deeply embarrassed by my existence. I was terrible at being poor, hated the apartment in Queens that I shared with two other women. I was in between temp jobs and I hated temp jobs. I only wanted to read books, and one day to write one, but I didn’t believe that I actually could. I felt spectacularly unsuited for this world.
Whereas Stelline was radiant. Her hair was blue. Her nose was pierced. The earring in her nose was sparkly and blue. She was a lesbian. She was a social activist. She was fearless. Most of the time, she ignored me.
“What? Where are we going?” I said. “What are we going to do? I drank too much coffee. I don’t want to get arrested.”
“Shut up,” she said. “Come on.”
“I don’t want to get arrested,” I repeated.
“Of course you don’t.”
Stelline was the lesbian, but I was the one in love. I let her pull me from my futon, and I let her lace my Converse sneakers, and we walked to the subway and waited for the N train and I was happy. On the train ride into Manhattan, Stelline talked and talked about how Occupy Wall Street was going to revolutionize the country. Stelline had not gone to college and she did not have student loans and she was a killer waitress. Unlike me, she always had money, and she was always giving it away. She gave $20 bills to homeless people and she sent checks to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, and to a woman in Ecuador with three children who wanted to go to college. She supported another woman in Tanzania who had opened a bakery.
“You have been fucked by the political system,” she told me.
I didn’t see that, not entirely. I had voted for Barack Obama. He was an African-American, and he had been elected president. Plus, he was still cleaning up Bush’s bullshit. Yes, he was making too many compromises and spending too much on the military. But the student debt was my own damn fault. I was supposed to have started in on a career by now. My other friends from college had real jobs. Or they were in graduate school. Or they had rich parents. The ones with rich parents had internships. The bad economy, I thought, was because of the Bush administration. It would get better.
“You got a liberal arts education and now you are screwed by a debt that will hobble you for the rest of your adult life. Everything you make, you will be spending on finance fees.”
“Oh, Stelline,” I said. “Don’t. Please. I don’t want to think about it.”
“Then you are an idiot,” Stelline said.
“I know that,” I said.
“No, you are not. Jesus.” Stelline shook her head.
“You are so irritating. When the march is over, I’ll buy you a slice of artichoke pizza.”
There was a place I liked on 14th Street. I had told Stelline about it once and she made fun of me. “Artichoke pizza," she said. "You are such a yuppie.” But clearly she had paid attention. She did like me. Of course I would protest with her.
Once we got off the subway, it didn’t take long to find the protesters. YOU GREEDY RAT BASTARDS YOU SOLD THE COUNTRY DOWN THE RIVER. WE ARE THE 99%. GREED SUCKS. I wanted to stay where we were, read the signs, watch the people march, show my support from the sidelines, but Stelline pulled on my arm and I followed her.
There were police everywhere. There were police on horses and police standing on street corners. There were police in vans and police bellowing instructions from bullhorns, and at every corner, there were barricades. I had thought we would march on the street, but instead Stelline and I were corralled into a narrow penned area on the sidewalk. Before we had even begun to march, we were squashed into the crowd. I could not walk. I could not move. I could not get out of this corralled space if I wanted to -- and I wanted to.
“Stelline,” I said.
It was pitiful, but I was afraid. I noticed a black female police officer right outside the pen in which I was trapped and I smiled at her, as if that would make me safe.
“I want to go home,” I told Stelline.
But Stelline was talking to a girl with waist-length hair. She was wearing a cut-off T-shirt that that showed her belly. I was embarrassed for this girl, whose stomach was not flat, and I was embarrassed for myself, judging the protesters for their clothes.
After a while, the black female cop opened our pen, ushering us into the pen across the street, because that was how the march was going to go. Like a prison procession. I was done, I was going to go home.
And then I heard someone scream. An amplified voice said to stay where we were. Everyone began to run, in all directions, into the street, away from the police-sanctioned space. The hippie girl wearing only half a T-shirt was screaming at a police officer who was arresting a cute guy wearing khaki pants, and for a second I thought I knew him, that he was my philosophy T.A. during freshman year.
I watched as the police officer threw him to the ground, and then as two more police officers pulled his arms behind his back, snapping on plastic handcuffs, while the guy screamed. They were going to break his arms. I felt tears spring to my eyes. “Stop,” I screamed. “Stop. Please. You are hurting him.”
Stelline started to run and I ran with her. I was running blindly, down 12thStreet, away from the subway.
“I want to go home,” I yelled. “I want to go home.”
Stelline tripped, fell down on the street, and I toppled down on top her, and when we got up, we were standing face to face with that same black female police officer.
“Don’t move,” she said, and she pulled out this orange net and we were caught. There was nowhere left to go. I don’t know why, but I felt relief, because I had put my trust in her before. “I just want to go home,” I told her.
The girl with half a T-shirt was also in this orange pen.
“Police brutality!” she screamed.
“Police brutality!” Stelline screamed.
Everyone in the crowd was screaming. I hadn’t been arrested, but I would be arrested. I had been afraid, but all of a sudden I was mad, I was furious. This was Union Square. We were around the corner from Whole Foods. I should have the freedom to go there, to use the bathroom. To make a salad at the salad bar. I should have the freedom not to protest, to go home and read about it on the Internet.
“Police brutality!” I chanted along with the others. “Police brutality!”
Stelline was standing next to me. Her hands were scraped and bloody. We were chanting together. I had become part of this movement. I had my fist in the air. The cops weren’t going to protect me, they were going to protect the system, and I would be paying into this system until I died -- and I was still young. The police were pulling the philosophy T.A. to the van, dragging him on his back.
“Police brutality!” I screamed, as loud as I could, leaning over the orange net.
The pain came from nowhere.
I was blind, I couldn’t see, and I could hear Stelline screaming in pain. I was also screaming. It was as if someone had poured Tabasco sauce right into my eyes. I fell down on my hands and knees. I could still hear Stelline, but I couldn’t see her, we were no longer holding hands. I had lost her. I thought of my mother. She would be so angry at me. I wanted to apologize to her. Tell her I didn’t want to get arrested. That I had tried to go home. I wanted to tell her I was all right. I would be all right. The pain in my eyes, it was going to stop. I wouldn’t be blind forever.