leanor Foa Dienstag

Seniors Join the Protest in Zucotti Park

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Photographs by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

On Tuesday I woke at dawn to the sound of helicopters overhead, and I knew immediately that something big and probably bad had happened at Zuccotti Park. (We live downtown and sleep under the flight path, so there’s always an early warning of change.) My stomach is still tight with anxiety. The first images of a deserted Zuccotti Park stunned me. The golden trees so luminous, the power wash so needed, but I miss the blue tarps. They looked like pieces of bright autumn sky that had fluttered to the ground.

I managed to see the two-month old encampment just in time—the Sunday before police with riot gear evicted the protestors in a 1 a.m. raid—as a tagalong with a group called 50+’ers in Support of Occupy Wall Street.

With a membership drawn largely from The Transition Network and The Institute for Retired Professionals at The New School, the 50+’ers share two core OWS beliefs: (1) income inequality in the U.S. is intolerable and (2) corporations have too much influence on government.

And they were distressed by the public perception that the occupiers were a bunch of young dropouts who had never contributed to society. In their first demonstration of support, back when OWS marched to Times Square, the 50+’ers were joined by other seniors and they were all scooped up by OWS to show the media that the 99 percent were indeed diverse: we, not they.

Deliberately echoing the OWS style of horizontal leadership, the 50+'ers are lightly led by an organizing committee. So our 2 p.m. meeting time on November 13, in front of Noguchi’s Red Cube in a plaza just across Broadway from Zuccotti Park, was casually observed, and there were good-natured complaints about an absence of reminder notes. (The group had originally intended to mass there on October 29, but got snowed out.)

One early arrival was lifelong radical literary agent Frances Goldin, sporting a sign in her trademark purple ink, “I’m 87 and I’m mad as hell.” We first met, two decades ago, on the board of the Foundation for Research on STDs (FROST’D), a scrappy HIV/AIDS agency founded by Joyce Wallace, the first physician to write about the disease in women. Aside from a new impudent streak of lavender in her hair, Frances looked unchanged—same luminous skin, delicious grin, energetic step, and sharp focus that originally won my admiration. Sisters, I have to tell you: Being mad as hell is perhaps the ultimate anti-aging beauty tincture.

But everyone looked good in the rich autumn downtown light, shiny with purpose, buffed by the memory of struggles past—protests against the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, civil rights marches, and all the varieties of gender struggle. A woman sporting an OWS button on her handsome tweed jacket told a bunch of us: “I wore this button to a dinner party in Bronxville last week, and a woman said, ‘So you’re supporting the crazy kids?’ I told her, ‘It’s not just kids!’”

But I couldn’t help feeling both kid-like and officially senior in that energetic, motivated group of about 70 adults, maybe two-thirds women.

“If you get arrested, call the AARP,” cracked eminent housing policy specialist Vic Bach, although inquiry and eavesdropping made it clear that few of the group were retired (and none of the cheeky sign-wavers could be called retiring). The 50+’ers are psychotherapists still taking referrals, academics at the height of intellectual vigor, non-profit activists, working artists, and small business owners.

Yet I cast a wistful glance around, hoping to find someone grizzled enough to have been in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It’s chastening for a former red-diaper baby to realize she’s now the Old Left. Even when the company brims with goodness. After a lusty democratic debate about whether to sing or chant, we settled on the latter, more or less lined up, and approached the crosswalk. A young police officer held up his hand to stop traffic so we could cross Broadway en masse. (Surely he didn’t hurt anyone during the eviction—not that sweet-faced Eagle Scout!)

Our voices rose in chorus as we started west along the metal barricades that encircled the park. “We’re fifty plus! Don’t mess with us!”

We stopped to talk with an impressive group of white-coated doctors and nurses, young and seasoned, offering free flu shots “for the 99 percent.” One asked me if I’d gotten my shot and laughed approvingly when I said, “Yes, and my pneumonia shot, too.”

There’s no inoculation against bad news. After Mayor Bloomberg decreed that the park was not a home, I was buoyed by State Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings’s decision that Bloomberg had erred—but fully expected her colleague Michael D. Stallman to overrule her. We do go on hoping, though, and I emailed a civil liberties lawyer pal: “Can’t the tarps be seen as symbolic speech, like the black armbands in Tinker v. Des Moines?” That 1969 case had upheld the right of high school students to wear emblems of mourning to protest the Vietnam War. “Afraid the tarps are much bigger than the armbands,” my friend emailed me. Damn. But, Lawyers Guild, please take notice.

What now for 50+er's? Support OWS? “This is just the beginning of the movement, in no way the end,” one of the organizers told me. “We will see where it goes.” (NYCitywoman will update you as we learn more.)

And it won’t be over until Lucy Billings is elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now there’s a New York City woman!


Nancy Weber is at work on The Life Swap: the Novel, a sequel to her 1974 memoir about trading places with another woman. A French Culinary Institute grad and longtime caterer, she happily answers NYCitywoman readers’ food questions pitched to nancywriternyc@gmail.com.


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E-mail at efoa@usa.net