Occupy Wall Street began as a protest of thousands which has spread to tens of thousands in cities worldwide. Hardly anyone (myself included) thought this was possible, and it keeps on growing. But what do they mean? Both domestically and internationally? As the U.S. protests have grown, I’ve been working to understand them as best I can from a distance. I’ve spent hours clicking through Facebook photo essays, commentary, and blogs. I’ve been particularly reliant on this now-famous tumblr. Although young people are certainly not the only ones demonstrating, across the Atlantic, a youth perspective predominates from the protest camps of New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. (and many others). Recurrent themes include oppressive student debt, unemployment, and lack of any type of safety net. What does the American dream mean for my generation? Is the American dream no longer attainable? If it once existed, who did it exist for? Without, what are we working toward?

I’ve also been trying to look through the lens of the Occupy protests which have sprung up in Europe to better understand marginalized perspectives in my new temporary home. How do European youth envision their futures? This past Saturday (October 15) marked a day of international protest in cities around the world. As a student city, Bologna was papered with flyers advertising ride shares down to Rome for a large-scale protest. Although October 15 protests around the world touched upon common elements (frustration with exploitative economic policies), individual protests also included issues of domestic concern. In Italy, this included cries for Berlusconi to leave office. What began as a peaceful protest in Rome turned violent, as men dressed in black began attacking cars and property.

photo credit of NYMag http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/10/occupy_wall_street_goes_global.html

Nio, an Italian rapper and member of Zero Plastica (also known as the Italian Public Enemy), a politically conscious rap group based in Genoa, expressed deep disappointment and frustration over the turn of events in Rome. As media attention focuses on the violent turn to the Rome manifestations, there is less substantive discussion over the social issues motivating people to the streets. Zero Plastica’s latest album, Basta! (Enough), explores youth frustration due to lack of economic opportunity, state controlled media, stagnant political system, and corruption in the public and private sectors. Nio explains, “It’s not just Berlusconi,” but systemic issues which are motivating more and more Italians to take to the street as they lose their jobs and political change remains stymied.  At the same time, Nio links the struggle of Italian youth to other political and social movements throughout Europe. In regards to Occupy Wall Street, he concludes, “I am happy that a lot of people in the States are getting conscious.”

As we concluded our phone interview, Nio excuses himself for a moment to close the street-facing windows of his apartment in Genoa. A protest of school children aged 8-12 was marching by, speaking out against shortages of supplies in their schools (children are asked to bring toilet paper and chairs from home). I hung up with Nio wondering if children taking to the streets at aged eight imagine themselves as becoming one day a part of Italy’s political process or if they are already defining themselves outside of it.

As I listen to the personal stories of new friends in Italy as well as those of complete strangers in the United States, I feel humbled at the immensity of the popular protests of the past few months. At the same time, I wonder what will happen when these demonstrations inevitably end. When such a diverse array of people comes out in agreement over little more than their collective rage, how can we agree on steps moving forward? Are the Occupy protests a starting point or a symbol? These questions are not for any one person to answer, and as a graduate student of international economics, I am buried in papers proposing conflicting solutions to shared problems. A dominant criticism of worldwide Occupy protests is that they do not propose any concrete set of demands or potential solutions. This is true (group consensus is hard when organizers remain committed to the purest form of direct democracy).

But these protests have generated something hundreds of pages of policy proposal haven’t: human faces to deep-seated social and economic tensions; a sense of solidarity as more and more families around the world work to balance their budgets. These issues have been simmering for years. These protests have their roots deep in our domestic systems. In a globalized world, a protest in New York echoes around the world. A bank crash on Wall Street causes market fluctuations half a world away. It’s not just about policy. It’s about how we interact with each other, how we hold each other accountable. Whatever future we build, we need to remember this.