Words & Photos by Danielle Urbina
It’s a fairly warm Sunday morning in downtown El Paso, and everything seems to be as it should. The banks are closed, the bustle of the busy streets is almost non-existent and there are small groups walking to and from church. Driving down Mesa is seemingly the same as it always is–until you see a small tent city covering the patches of lawn in San Jacinto Plaza.
Ralph Gallegos stands on one corner of the famous Plaza with a sign that reads “Occupy El Paso Veteran of USA Bank Wars” in red, blue, white and black capital letters. He’s protesting what he calls an “unfair government” and “weak economy”- this he says, happens because no one in Congress can get along.
“Basically, I’m here to protest about jobs. I’m unemployed, I’ve been unemployed for about a year and I can’t make ends meet,” said Gallegos. “I can’t afford Medicare so if I get sick, I have to go to the hospital. If I get admitted to the emergency room, I’m going to get a bill and how am I going to pay for that and utilities and rent?”
Although the Occupy Protests that have taken the United States by storm are more geared towards social and economic inequality, many war veterans, along with everyday citizens and business owners, are protesting the lack of jobs, corporate greed and a promise that was made to them concerning one word: hope.
Currently, the unemployment rate is at 9.1% and the public debt is at an astonishing $14.72 trillion.
In comes Mark Benson, an excitable middle-aged man who is more than willing to tell the public why he, personally, has occupied in downtown El Paso for the past 8 days.
“The entire nation, in little pockets, all over, is doing what we’re doing- occupying. This is a protest but it is a peaceful protest. What we’re really protesting boils down to this: 99%, we’re the 99%, me and you-because the 1% of the population of the United States controls and owns 42% of the wealth. That is way out of bounds, way out of proportion, and it shouldn’t be,” says Benson.
All over San Jacinto Plaza, the 99% is represented by many different walks of life- middle-aged business men and women, baby-faced young adults with political slogans pinned to their pants and hair spiked up about 6 inches high, even older citizens, who sat quietly on benches holding their signs under the sunlight. Yet they are all tied together by their heartbreaking stories. How they found themselves homeless, in debt, without jobs.
“This kind of abuse needs to stop,” said Benson. “Corporate law is written in such a way that you have to prove intent to actually prosecute anyone- this is how corporate businesses become greedy. There are so many loopholes. Our banks are failing, our government is covered in debt up to their eyeballs.”
But do these protestors actually believe their chants, signs and occupation will make a difference?
“No, this doesn’t make a difference, I don’t think so,” said Gallegos as he choked up. “They probably don’t watch the television and really hear what we’re saying. They read the reports but they don’t see what we see.”
However, Mark Benson thinks otherwise. His gentle, bright, blue eyes widen with pride as he explains being involved in a car accident prior to the protest. He was hit by a car on his way to listen to protestors before making up his mind about how he felt towards the issue.
“I limped back here that night and slept on the grass. I was hurt, and because I didn’t need immediate medical attention, it kept me in one place long enough- here, listening, actually taking the time to find out what is going on here. When I did find out, when I listened, I said, ‘I’m with you’ and I stand by that decision.”
It is unknown how long the protestors will go without jobs, occupying in the streets of El Paso, or if politicians will actually hear what is in their hearts, and on their minds.
As morning turns to noon, the lunch line grows significantly. A hot meal is being provided for the protestors by a friendly kitchen staff. Ralph Gallegos smiles and tells me, “Tent city- this is it. We’re supporting everyone, wherever it is around the world.”