By DeWayne Wickham
Stacey Patton knows better than most people who've joined the Occupy Wall Street protest about the perils of such a decision.
Eleven years before, she joined demonstrators in New York City's Foley Square to protest against corporate greed and wealth disparities, Patton was arrested while taking part in a march following the not-guilty verdict for the four New York policemen who killed Amadou Diallo.
The African immigrant was shot 19 times in the vestibule of his apartment after the cops mistook his wallet for a gun. That protest ended for Patton when she was arrested and jailed overnight after a clash with police that left her with a severely injured leg — and nightmares.
Back then, Patton was an idealistic 22-year-old undergraduate at New York University. Now 33, she recently earned a doctorate from Rutgers University and was reluctant to join the loosely organized protests that began Sept. 17 and have spread from Boston to San Francisco.
"I never thought I'd be a part of something like this," she told me. Not after the price she paid for her snap decision to join that protest in 2000. Though that past haunts her, Patton said she worries about the future.
"I got out there because I still believe in democracy," she explained. "I think this is a movement about economic justice. I think it's pretty obvious what people are protesting. They are protesting greed, recklessness, illegal behavior, home foreclosures and rising student debt. We can't get jobs, but we have mounting student debt."
Patton said the Occupy Wall Street protest is the counter-narrative to the Tea Party movement, which is demanding that government become smaller and less involved in people's lives. But many Wall Street protesters want government to do more to end home foreclosures, generate jobs and punish those whose greed brought this nation to the verge of economic collapse.
While it's not clear exactly what will satisfy this movement — or for that matter who its leaders are — this much seems certain: The Arab Spring has come to America.
Unlike the Tea Party movement that seeks to remake the political process through elections, Occupy Wall Street is more of a revolt than political takeover. The people who have taken to the streets under this banner are demanding a more responsive government, not plotting a government takeover.
For Patton, Foley Square isn't very far removed from Egypt's Tahrir Square as a staging ground for a second American Revolution — not a violent struggle, but one of ideas about good governance. For all this nation's greatness, too many Americans live below the poverty line. And for too many people who are unemployed, underemployed or about to lose their home, the American dream is a nightmare.
The protest has awakened in a wide swath of Americans the kind of passion for change that earlier this year drove millions of Arabs into the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Ironically, Foley Square is just a short walk from a park named for Thomas Paine, a Revolutionary War leader who once wrote of that American crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls."
The same, it seems, can be said of the protests that forced Patton to suspend her fears and anxieties to join a street demonstration in New York City that threatens to engulf the nation.