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Age divides Occupy movement, some older activists say they're left out

Protest movement wears its multi-generational colors proudly, though some older activists say they’re left out

By Caroline McMillan
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Michael Zytkow describes the Occupy Wall Street movement as a horizontal line – no hierarchy, no preeminent issue, no singular tactic, no age-determined rank.

In short, the opposite of society.

“We’re all active on equal footing,” Zytkow says.

But even the utopian movement has societal dynamics. Among the most noticeable is a generation gap.

Unlike the early days of the Vietnam War protests which were championed by youth, most Occupy movements, including Charlotte’s, span three to four generations.

‘Shepherding’ the next generation

At Marshall Park in Charlotte, where Occupy DNC set up camp, a couple of war veterans have pitched a camouflage tent on a hill, overlooking the 20- and 30-somethings by the fountain below. They sit outside a tent with a sign that says: “There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

The occasional bearded guy or tattooed girl will slink up to hang out, swap grievances or bum a cigarette.

A prominent figure in the camp is veteran and Asheville resident, John Penley, 60, a former air traffic controller for the U.S. Navy and one of the original Zuccotti Park occupiers.

On Tuesday, before the Occupiers led a “Veterans’ Rights and Free Bradley Manning” march to the intersection of Stonewall and South Caldwell streets, he donned a white yacht cap and draped an American flag around his shoulders.

“Call him Captain,” says Gregory Gifford, 47.

But among the Occupy crowd, Penley says he and his peers, 1960s- and 70s-era activists, have to cede most of the power to the younger generation, only mentoring as needed.

“Most of the kids know me, and I feel like I’m shepherding in the next generation,” Penley said. “I’m really happy about that.”

“For me,” Zytkow said, “I’m just ready to soak up all their knowledge.”

Baby Boomer Donna Dewitt, an Orangeburg, S.C. resident and leader in the labor-rights movement, said she’s inspired by the millennial generation. She worked with youth leaders on the March on Wall Street South and the Southern Workers Assembly.

“They’re organized. They’re strategic,” Dewitt said. “They have such good ideas, they just need this older generation to listen.”

Left out

But some long-time activists don’t see a place for themselves.

Paul Maloney still has dents in his skull from the police beatings he got in 1971. Maloney, then 20, was protesting the Vietnam War in Washington D.C., alongside hundreds of thousands of like-minded people.

Forty-one years later, Maloney, 61, is equally displeased with the government – the bank corruption, the bailouts, the presidential candidates.

But when the Gastonia resident protested at the Democratic National Convention, it wasn’t with Occupy, the seemingly natural contingent.

“Most of them don’t want to talk to the old guy,” said Maloney, 61. “They’re like, ‘What you did was 50 years ago, and this is now. We’re here and you’re there.’ ”

A generational fight

It’s an interesting set-up at the Occupy camp, with its mix of young socialists, communists and anarchists. They’ve never been drafted to a war they didn’t agree with. They never poured decades of work into a system they now feel has failed them.

“You have a generation full of waiters and bartenders with no investment in this country,” said 31-year-old Rami Shamir, one of the original Occupy Wall Street protesters in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

But this makes it easier for them to escape “the system” they despise.

Meanwhile, most of the dissatisfied 40- 50- and 60-somethings can’t sacrifice their full-time jobs, mortgages and car payments to live in a tent, clash with police and buck the government.

So Occupiers like Lauren Digiola, 27, from Long Island, NY, said they’re fighting on behalf of everyone, the 99 percent.

“It’s a global fight,” Digiola said. “It’s a generational fight. We’re all in this together.”

Jack Amico, 24, who was part of Occupy Wall Street, said he knows a man in New York City who just paid off his student loans at 55 years old. “He told us, ‘I’m glad you’re fighting the fight we can’t fight anymore.’  ”

Amico and his fiancée traveled from Wassaic, N.Y., where they now live with 30 other people on a commune. The spot is on a 186-acre farm owned by an “old-time activist” who, in the 60s, swam in front of a nuclear sub to protest nuclear weapons.

Now the former demonstrator lets the Occupy crowd live on his farm and maintain their own garden. “This isn’t the beginning,” Amico said. “We can’t keep believing we’re the only ones. We’re picking up the ball where the ’60s left off.”

Zytkow has hope that as people see how their lives are being harmed by these interconnected issues, the Occupy movement will continue to grow, to absorb people of all backgrounds, cultures and age.

“A lot of people before saw protesting for “the other,” (for) a certain class of people,” Zytkow said. But now people are realizing that “when we see injustice, we should stand up for it.” Observer staff reporter Gavin Off contributed.

McMillan: 704-358-6045
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