Now that they’re growing, spreading and getting some more serious attention, here’s a couple of news articles and blog posts that I thought were worthwhile to get some insight into how the Occupy Wall Street movement developed, what the background is, and what they seem to express. There’s also some stuff that compares them to the Tea Party (as a progressive variant, of course), and people speculating at how this might help Obama and the Democratic Party. In short, it provides some perspectives that might be interesting or useful.
The Occupy Wall Street protests, for their part, shine a spotlight on an industry that has attracted mass disgust yet escaped accountability. Almost everybody hates Wall Street, but the anger at Wall Street was deflected to the financial bailout, and thereby (even though it preceded him) to Obama. In a development that may have appeared shocking three years ago, Wall Street has resumed its place of privilege in Washington. Politicians are courting the financial industry, its barons speaking out with pre-crisis confidence. The Republican Party has openly pledged to kill the Dodd–Frank regulations.
The protests, for all this incoherence, restore Wall Street to a central place in the economic narrative. Here is the financial industry, not just as recipient of taxpayer funds but as originator and aggravator of the crisis. The protests may not have an agenda, but they do not need an agenda other than to return political focus onto Wall Street.
The larger role of the protests, should they continue, ought to be to reestablish the terms of the political debate. Historically, liberalism best succeeds when compared against a radical alternative. In the thirties and sixties, fear of extremism and mob violence made business elites eager to accept liberal compromise designed to preserve the system. Since 2009, the question of how to respond to the economy has been framed as a debate between meliorative liberalism and vicious reaction. In this climate, Wall Street has been howling about Obama’s mild verbal scolding of the industry, his plans to impose some measure of regulation upon it, and ever-so-slightly raise the tax levels of the very rich.
The protests can usefully re-center the debate. When Wall Street CEOs are expressing even tepid fear for their personal safety, terms like “class warfare” might start to be reserved for more stringent measures than the return of Clinton-era tax rates
It’s not the arrests that convinced me that “Occupy Wall Street” was worth covering seriously. Nor was it their press strategy, which largely consisted of tweeting journalists to cover a small protest that couldn’t say what, exactly, it hoped to achieve. It was a Tumblr called, “We Are The 99 Percent,” and all it’s doing is posting grainy pictures of people holding handwritten signs telling their stories, one after the other.
These are not rants against the system. They’re not anarchist manifestos. They’re not calls for a revolution. They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it. Or, worse, they have tens of thousands in debt to show for it.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t really the 99 percent. If you’re in the 85th percentile, for instance, your household is making more than $100,000, and you’re probably doing okay. If you’re in the 95th percentile, your household is making more than $150,000. But then, these protests really aren’t about Wall Street, either. There’s not a lot of evidence that these people want a class war, or even particularly punitive measures on the rich. The only thing that’s clear from their missives is that they want the economy to start working for them, too.
But you look around and the reality is not everyone is suffering. Wall Street caused this mess, and the government paid off their debts and helped them rake in record profits in recent years. The top 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income and 40 percent of its wealth. There are a lot of people who don’t seem to be doing everything they’re supposed to do, and it seems to be working out just fine for them.
But this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street — or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement — seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.
The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.
I’m embarrassed to admit my first reaction to Occupy Wall Street was cynicism. Along with some other folks on Twitter when it began Sept. 17, I wondered aloud why it started on a Saturday, when Wall Street was quiet. I couldn’t find a list of its goals. Visiting New York a few days later, I walked along Wall Street in the rain trying to find protesters, but though there were barricades all along that dark canyon, and cops everywhere, nobody was protesting; I later saw a few dozen people among tents at Liberty Plaza, but by that time I was running to catch my plane home.
The next day, the New York Police Department cruelly pepper-sprayed female protesters, and suddenly the movement came alive. Ever since, I’ve been struck by the good sense the protesters have used in dealing with the police (in contrast with the poor sense of some of the cops): They are not making them the enemy. In fact, as 700 people were being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, they were chanting at the cops: “We’re fighting for your pensions!” It didn’t keep the protesters from getting arrested, but it kept them on the moral and political high ground.
The over-reaction of the police, the restraint of the demonstrators and the irresistible enthusiasm of the Occupy Wall Street crowd now has powerful allies streaming to support the movement. On Wednesday evening, major New York unions, including SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers and the Transit Workers Union, will join what is likely to be the biggest protest yet. TWU head John Samuelsen filed a federal injunction to stop the police from using city buses to transport protesters, the way they did on Saturday. “We intend to stop the NYPD from pressing our people into service to transport people who shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place,” Samuelsen told the New York Daily News.
MoveOn is backing the expanded Oct. 5 Wall Street protest, and national union leaders, including the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, have endorsed the movement. Trumka’s “been publicly supportive and I know a number of local unions are getting directly involved,” says AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein. “As for our direct involvement, we want this to continue in the organic way it has. How we can be supportive and not overshadow it is important.” The federation’s executive board will vote Wednesday on whether to make a formal endorsement.
Even some politicians are beginning to express support for the demonstration. The co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva and Rep. Keith Ellison, released a statement supporting it on Tuesday. “We have been inspired by the growing grassroots movements on Wall Street and across the country,” the pair wrote. “We join the calls for corporate accountability and expanded middle-class opportunity.” Asked whether President Obama is following the protests, press secretary Jay Carney said he was sure he was, although they hadn’t spoken about it. Then he added, “to the extent that people are frustrated with the economic situation, we understand.” Don’t expect more from the White House, but it’s almost certain other liberal Democrats will begin to speak out to support Occupy Wall Street, unless the Wednesday protest goes awry.
Yes, young people are on the front lines of protest again, but this time, they’re more intrinsically sympathetic, and emblematic of what’s gone wrong in our country. Youth unemployment is the highest in decades. Only 55 percent of Americans aged 16 to 29 are employed today, compared to 67 percent in 2000. A third to a half of African-American youth, depending on the under-30 subgroup examined, is unemployed. College educated students are leaving with unprecedented levels of debt; about 15 percent of student loans are currently in default. On the movement Tumblr blog, “We are the 99 percent” – the 99 percent of the country left out of the prosperity monopolized by the top 1 percent – the voices and photos of unemployed and underemployed young people are some of the most riveting.
Political action on the ground can (…) lead to increased presence at the polls. The Tea Party mobilized so many voters because of its activism prior to the 2010 mid-terms. Asking a political group to go back in time to get voters to the polls is absurd. Telling people to just shut up and quietly vote for one of the two parties is to misunderstand democracy. It’s more than just voting.
Furthermore, as Matt Yglesias convincingly argued, the lack of a mobilized left and a mobilized youth movement is largely the fault of Democratic leadership, including president Obama. Matt writes, that in light of the Occupy Wall Street protests “it’s hard not to be reminded of the lost opportunity to mobilize a left-wing popular movement back in the winter of 2008-2009 and the spring of 2009. That was a time when Congress was psychologically prepared to address the issues of joblessness, the availability of health care and education, and the ecological sustainability of the global economy.”
Writing off protesters because they’re young, because they weren’t politically active before, or because their demographic didn’t hit the polls as hard as the already-organized conservative base is really off-base.
This sort of condescending nonsense was hurled at the Tea Party. That movement has effectively pushed the entire national conversation the right, and the Republican party along with it. I respect the activism and drive that they drummed up to achieve that. They didn’t do it by just voting either.
From a really inspiring interview with one of the movement’s initiators at Salon:
After Tunisia and Egypt, we were mightily inspired by the fact that a few smart people using Facebook and Twitter can put out calls and suddenly get huge numbers of people to get out into the streets and start giving vent to their anger. And then we keep on looking at the sorry state of the political left in the United States and how the Tea Party is passionately strutting their stuff while the left is sort of hiding somewhere. We felt that there was a real potential for a Tahrir moment in America because a) the political left needs it and b) because people are losing their jobs, people are losing their houses, and young people cannot find a job. We felt that the people who gave us this mess — the financial fraudsters on Wall Street — haven’t even been brought to justice yet. We felt this was the right moment to instigate something.
We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab Spring recently, we are students of the Situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world. All of a sudden universities and cities were exploding. This was done by a small group of people, the Situationists, who were like the philosophical backbone of the movement. One of the key guys was Guy Debord, who wrote “The Society of the Spectacle.” The idea is that if you have a very powerful meme — a very powerful idea — and the moment is ripe, then that is enough to ignite a revolution. This is the background that we come out of.
1968 was more of a cultural kind of revolution. This time I think it’s much more serious. We’re in an economic crisis, an ecological crisis, living in a sort of apocalyptic world, and the young people realize they don’t really have a viable future to look forward to. This movement that’s beginning now could well be the second global revolution that we’ve been dreaming about for the last half a century.
Originally we thought that the idea of one demand was very important. There’s been a debate going on between the one-demand vision and this other vision that is playing itself out right now on Wall Street. I think it’s a wonderful debate and there are good pointers on both sides. Currently this leaderless, demandless movement — that is still growing in leaps and bounds — I think it is fine the way it is. After these assemblies have been conducted and debates have been had in cities all around America, demands will emerge. These demands will be specific things like reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act or a 1 percent tax on financial transactions or the banning of high-frequency trading. We will get into specifics, just give us time.
The political left has always had problems with this. All my life I’ve been sitting in meetings where loony guys get up and talk, and eventually very little happens. This is the kind of weight that is dragging the political left down. We don’t seem to have the clarity of vision that for example the Tea Party has. This may be our undoing again. This whole movement may fizzle out in a bunch of loony lefty kind of bullshit.
Then again, at the same time, I’ve been in daily touch with dozens and dozens of people in cities all around the world who are involved in this. And I have a feeling that because of the Internet and a different kind of mentality that young people have, a horizontal way of thinking about things, this movement may not just come up with some really good demands and put incredible people pressure on our politicians, but a more beautiful thing may come out of this movement: a new model of democracy, a new model of how activism can work, of how the people can have a radical democracy and have some of their demands met. This new model may well be a new kind of a horizontal thing that in some strange way works like the Internet works.