We are now entering the third month of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). What began as an isolated attempt to picket the New York Stock Exchange by a score of students and activists on September 17th has spread like wildfire throughout the United States. By early October, more than 800 “Occupy” actions existed in towns and cities across the nation. It has also crossed borders.Some 16 actions are reported from 9 provinces in Canada; while 300 people inhabit 200 tents pitched outside St. Paul’s Cathedral within the heart of London’s financial district. Who are these occupiers? What do they want? Where are they protesting and why is this important? Where is this occupation heading and what is its significance?
According to some cynics, these protesters are little more than a bunch of hippies, vagrants, entitled students, and liberal malcontents. There is little doubt that these people are part of OWS. Such critics, however, need to be reminded that everyone has a democratic right to assembly and protest. Moreover, what is striking about these occupiers is how ordinary they are. Rafael Cruz, a fifty-year old unemployed welder, and 23 year-old Boston College graduate John Armstrong, are among the 100+ tent occupiers in McPherson Square, Washington D.C. Jason Counts, a computer systems analyst, protests in St. Louis, Missouri. Elizabeth Lindquist, a small business owner, protests in Raleigh, North Carolina. At Occupy D.C., I have seen the employed and unemployed, students and graduates, homeowners and homeless, political activists and journalists, and others drawn to the cause. Public workers, teachers, unionists, state politicians, the unemployed, students, and supporters have all participated in the Occupy Raleigh action in North Carolina.
This social discontent has been fueled by some alarming economic and political developments over the last few decades. The most important concern is increasing social inequality in American society. Twenty-five years ago, the top 12 percent controlled 33 percent of the nation’s wealth; now the top 1 percent control 40 percent. This growing inequality is largely due to unfair tax policies, especially lowering tax rates in capital gains. The plutocrats, together with the financial industry and its political cronies, have manipulated the financial system in order to produce the sort of existing inequality that is wonderful for its beneficiaries. The wealthy argue this is the capitalist system at work; financiers and investors rationalize greater enrichment because of the high risks involved; while politicians say they need donations in order to get re-elected.
Such self-seeking greed does not satisfy many ordinary Americans who are not only frustrated at these increasing gaps but also the failure to do anything about them. Since 2008, corporations have not re-invested so that joblessness continues. Republicans refuse to support new employment initiatives and stall legislation. Meanwhile, banks who received tax payer bail-outs and rewarded themselves with fat bonuses have failed to reinvest in ordinary people. Tax fairly so the rich don’t pay less than their employees; increase employment opportunities; stop mortgage foreclosures; end US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan; and, invest the peace dividend in future generations. In short, OWS want policies shifted away from the 1% to the 99%. Some of the signs at these occupations say it much better than I: “We Are the 99 Percent,” “How Did the Cat Get So Fat?” “Create Jobs, Reform Wall Street, Tax the Wealthy More,” “The People are too Big to Fail.” And my personal favorite: “I Will Believe Corporations are People When Georgia Executes One,” a dual reference to a recent right-wing US Supreme Court decision that corporations are individuals and the execution of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis in the face of reasonable doubt about his conviction.
One of the most remarkable features of OWS is its location. In the last decade, we have been told that political mobilization has shifted from the street to the home, especially through privatized technology (TV political debates, computer list serves, electronic news dissemination etc.) But since mid-September, OWS has claimed public space in town and city parks, on statehouse lawns, and through urban streets. Moreover, many of these actions have wrought some impressive local organization. The Occupy D.C. encampment has transformed McPherson Square from a lunch time office-workers spot/night time homeless refuge into an alternative urban area of tent spaces, renamed pathways (Ghandi Avenue, MLK Avenue), library, garden, people’s kitchen, and two newspapers—all under the supervision of 17 local committees. The smartest thing about these actions is their occupation of public space as not only a democratic right but also as a collective expression of staying put unlike the usual marches and speeches that last a day or two and then are over. In other words, occupiers encourage emulation and are harder to dismiss. Perhaps this is the most powerful lesson in protest tactics from the tent city in Puerta Del Sol in Madrid and more famously Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Where is OWS heading? It is unlikely to fade away anytime soon, partly because of the seriousness of the economic crisis facing many Americans, but also because these occupiers are being empowered by their visibility. This is what participation in protests often does: it teaches people that collectively they can make change. It is also doubtful that OWS will be co-opted by the political and economic establishment. It is precisely the current political system that is largely being indicted for sleeping with corporate interests. Indeed, there must be some serious concern in the US corridors of political power that, unlike the links between the Tea Party and the Republicans, no such coalition of the willing exists between the Democrats and OWS. On the other hand, OWS faces some challenging days and weeks ahead. All movements ebb and flow and the winter cometh. But the biggest threat is that urban authorities will turn off utilities and shut down occupied public spaces in the name of sanitation, safety, and public access. Removals have already occurred in Atlanta, Oakland, and elsewhere. What OWS should be doing is to expand its public occupations further, conduct sit-ins at strategically important places, and build connections with institutions like labor, faith-based groups, local progressive organizations etc. It should also reach out to occupiers beyond national borders.
The historical significance of OWS is hard to determine because we are still within its orbit, but there are already some clear tendencies. First, what is taking place is a clear shift from the energy of the Tea Party to the galvanizing effect of the OWS in US politics. What this means for next year’s presidential political season is as yet unclear; but we should recall that many commentators initially seriously under-estimated the Tea Party. (Perhaps hard bargaining will pull enough Democrats to the Left.) Second, OWS is not an isolated action in US history. Protests against corporate power stretch back to the late nineteenth century. They strike a deep resonance within a culture of upward mobility because corporate power has often been identified with efforts to restrict common opportunities. The fairness with which many Americans traditionally view their society is being undermined by these unjust practices. Third, and most importantly, OWS is posing some basic questions about the legitimacy of the existing political and economic system… It is unlikely that this signals the beginning of a revolutionary transformation dreamed of by utopian leftists. On the other hand, when citizens begin to challenge the authenticity of the system, then the next issue becomes what are the alternatives to that which is propagating social iniquities? This is the first step toward a major shift from business as usual. As Shakespeare once wrote, big things have small beginnings.
This article draws from various electronic and printed sources including: theactivist.org, ALJAZEERA.NET, commondreams.org, Dissent Magazine, The Guardian (UK), The Hilltop, International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Morning Star (UK), The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post