Two years ago, an isolated demonstration in Zuccotti Park was swiftly mutating into a national movement, and Stephen Colbert wanted in on the action. The Comedy Central host headed on down to the Occupy Wall Street protest where he encountered “two young idealists”–Justin and Ketchup.
During a pair of interviews filmed in a Financial District penthouse overlooking the park, and broadcast over two consecutive episodes of the Colbert Report, they taught Colbert about the mic checks, temperature checks, and points of process used to build consensus at an Occupy Wall Street general assembly.
In return, he offered to co-opt the movement for a tidy sum of money.
It’s Occupy’s second anniversary and, two years on, we’re still mulling a lot of questions over–where have all those activists gone? Did camping out in Zuccotti Park change their lives in any meaningful way? Did Occupy make a difference at all?
And: who better answer those questions than the two young idealists from the Colbert Report?
Two years ago today, Justin, a New York City teacher, was at Zuccotti Park. He was there on day one, and he stayed until protestors were forcibly removed by police.
“The eviction was painful for many of us,” Justin says. “Our hopes and dreams were suddenly smashed and much of our personal belongings were confiscated, but beyond that, it was painful because we were so nonviolent, we were so peaceful.”
Looking back on it now, Justin says the eviction wasn’t actually all bad–“It created a sort of diaspora that I believe continues to this day, of people all around the country, all around the world, who shared experiences in that space and are now off doing many, many pieces of social justice activism–some of them coordinated and some of them not.”
If you want proof that Occupy’s impact is still being felt today (other than campaigns like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Student Debt, and Occupy Your Home, an anti-eviction movement) he says just take a look at the New York City mayor’s race: “You have Bill de Blasio, who spoke in Zuccotti Park, who was the only mayoral candidate who said he would not have shut down Occupy Wall Street, as the forerunner to be the next mayor of New York City.”
Justin now directs an after-school program and summer camp born out of an Occupy-inspired protest against New York City school closures. (Not for money though–he does “freelance tech consulting, graphic design, web design to support myself.”) He says he keeps in touch with some of the folks from Zuccotti, but “I haven’t spoken to Ketchup in a long, long time.”
Catching up with Ketchup, after the break.[
Before Occupy, Ketchup–who still goes by that name–lived in Chicago. She was a recent Northwestern graduate, a theater major, working on a web series about “social and ecological justice issues” when she read the call for activists to come occupy Wall Street in Adbusters.
Ketchup figured she’d talk to folks at protest and get some footage for her web series, but, she says now, “I got very involved pretty quickly, and kind of let that fall off for the time that I was in New York.”
She was only in Zuccotti Park for a total of six weeks. “By the time I left New York I was in a very difficult-to-cope-with place, emotionally, which is something I’ve heard echoed by a lot of other people who were involved,” Ketchup says.
“It was a very difficult experience because, even without witnessing or experiencing police brutality, which was very real and traumatic,” within the protest community, she says, “people’s emotions and tensions were running very high.”
That aspect wasn’t confined to Zuccotti Park, either. Back in Chicago, she found a similar dynamic at work in that city’s Occupy protest. It’s part of the reason Ketchup is no longer active in the movement.
Another part has to do with her appearance on Colbert. “I was little bit paralyzed by it–concerned that I had maybe not adequately expressed whatever people within the movement might have wanted me to be expressing, and I think it was part of why I kind of, sort of disappeared off the face of the earth,” she says. “I was just very worried that anything I said would be taken as representative of Occupy and that’s just a big load to bear.”
She’s still in Chicago today, working full time (although she declines to say what she does, or to even name the industry) and still working on that web series too.
“I went to school to be an artist and I think my greatest contribution can be as an artist,” Ketchup says.”This is the avenue that I have always wanted to take and plan to continue to take. I think there is more than one way to be an activist, and this is my way.”
Send story tips to the author, Tessa Stuart