Chelsea Elliott, 25, was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and became part of one of its early infamous incidents: the Sept. 24 pepper-spraying of protesters in Manhattan by the New York City Police Department. The Brooklyn resident spoke to TIME'S Nate Rawlings:
TIME: What brought you down to Zuccotti Park in the first place?
Chelsea Elliott: Well, I graduated from college in 2008 and was not prepared for what happened, but I guess it's just like this building of constant stress and watching friends and family suffering for so long. And my roommate's friend told me about it she heard about it on Twitter and so I just decided to go down on the second day and see what it was all about. And it really spoke to me.
What was it like on day two?
Well, I went there the evening of day two, and it was the second general assembly, and there were probably like 30 people there, and everyone was just saying their crazy, outlandish ideas, and people were freaking out because the cops were taking down our signs you know, very different, it was just kind of small and still kind of silly and fun.
What was it like to watch it grow those first couple of weeks?
It was pretty amazing it was really unbelievable, actually. The first week I was there, I got to spend a lot of time there, because I had some time off from work, and so I really got to grow and be part of this community. As it's increased, it's definitely gotten more chaotic, but it's just really amazing and unbelievable to see something like that.
So the first big march, when you guys got penned in, I know it wasn't a fun time. Can you describe that, what it was like? What did it feel like?
Basically it was we were leading the march, we were really hungry, and we were going to get some slices of Occu-pie make a lot of jokes but we were walking down the sidewalk, and all of a sudden this line of cops came and told us to stop walking, and we were penned in. I just remember it was completely chaotic. There were fights. I couldn't really see; I was toward the edge of the pen; I was like right next to the cops; I was trying to talk to them ...
But it was just really chaotic, and the moment that was really horrifying for me was, there was this girl near me that was slammed down on the ground and dragged underneath the net right before I was maced, and that was kind of what me and the other girls were responding to, this girl out of nowhere who just gets slammed down, and then a cop just walks over and sprays us. It was just really confusing it took a second for it to register, what it was. The cop in front of me said something like, "Thanks for the warning, buddy," in response to the officer that walked over real quick, and that's kind of when I realized it, and you just feel like, this sting in your eyes, you can't open them, you can't breathe. It's kind of like time just stopped, and we fell down.
From the video, it looks like it just kind of leveled you guys.
Yeah. I was luckier than some of the other girls, but it was completely out of nowhere, and I just remember asking everyone around me, "How long am I going to feel this way? Make it stop!" And just pouring vinegar all over our faces. I don't know. It was terrifying, and I think what happened afterward, after it happened, I got kind of paranoid. It was on the Internet, and I got kind of overwhelmed by the attention. It was really just a terrifying and shocking experience.
It was a really galvanizing moment. A million and a half people watched it on YouTube. People told me, "I saw these women getting assaulted on YouTube, and it brought me down to the park." How does that feel?
It's really amazing; it's extremely humbling, because I really didn't do anything special, but I'm so happy to have the opportunity to be part of this movement, and I'm happy that something like that ... I'm happy to get maced if it helps the movement. I'd do it again. [Laughs] And I'm happy to be a voice, and it's really humbling to hear people say that.
What is it about this movement that's different from other protests, that you would be willing to get pepper-sprayed for this particular cause?
I think it's really important that the movement is leaderless and that all these people are encouraged to be autonomous. It's really a movement for everyone. What we're trying to change, the system itself, these are things that will affect my children if I ever have any, and this affects my grandparents. It's about everyone. And as the economy gets worse and worse, I feel like I've been quiet and distracted, or trying to distract myself from things for so long that it's almost like a breath of fresh air to get to go outside and scream about it, and talk about it, politely.
What do you see as the next step? Do you think it should become involved in politics or stay clear of politics altogether?
I feel like the economic situation and politics go hand in hand. One of the huge problems is money and corporate involvement with government. So obviously politics is something that definitely needs to be changed. As far as the movement specifically, I feel like at this point in time, our biggest goal is to spread and to wake up America to want to contact their politicians, and to get people to care and to realize that they have a voice and empower them. I feel like that's kind of the step right now. It's gotten so big so fast, and there's so many different levels of ways people are becoming involved with it, that it's kind of hard to see what the specific next steps should be. But for right now, it is that it grows, which is important if we're ever going to affect politicians.
What about your future plans?
I'm working on starting a working group that will help people stay safe and warm this winter. And other than that, I've been trying to learn as much about finance and our government and the economy as possible, and just talking to as many different sources to understand what happened.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the movement, your experience, what you'd like to see for this country?
Everyone I talk to, when I tell them about the movement, they're so they're interested, but they're all so hopeless. And everyone's just already given up. And I feel very differently. I feel this is an amazing time to be alive in America at this point we actually have the opportunity for change, in this moment of destruction. So I feel like there's a great chance to rebuild, and I hope people get involved and realize that our economy is not the way that it is because of a change in wind, it's because of wrongdoing on our government and very powerful businessmen's part.
In a new book from TIME, What Is Occupy? Inside the Global Movement, our journalists explore the roots and meaning of the uprising over economic injustice. To buy a copy as an e-book or a paperback, go to time.com/whatisoccupy.