A few days ago, my sister Pegeen and I, along with two old friends from Long Island, joined the Occupy Wall Street protestors at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan’s Financial District. My homemade sign, “Out of Work in Ohio” attracted a lot of interest, and quite a few interviews. I was glad to see that there was at least a small network news presence (I was interviewed by CBS News) but most were very small news outlets, school papers, independent radio stations, etc. And unfortunately, the video that CBS ended up airing seemed to focus on some of the more disparate elements of the mass of people, such as a young man who, while he played with his pet rat, complained about “Wall Street” taking his 40K inheritance.
Admittedly, there is some truth to the description “rag-tag” used by some journalists, in both its meanings: somewhat shabby, and mixed or diverse (in focus). Living in Yellow Springs for the past 25+ years, I’ve long since learned that it’s pointless and deceptive to judge people simply on the basis of appearance, although “establishment” types will tend to take you more seriously if you dress more conventionally (truth be told, though, how much sartorial splendor would you expect someone to display who’s spent the past few nights in a sleeping bag on the pavement?). But even a pierced and pony-tailed twenty-something man, whose beard was tied neatly at intervals (think King Tut mask), told me he was glad to see a “normal-looking person” such as myself taking part.
People are making too much of the fact that the majority of the people present are young – of course they’re young! – they’re getting out of college now with mountains of debt, but without the prospect of a job that will enable them to pay off that debt (not to mention daily living expenses). They also have a lot of physical and mental energy, and are willing to sleep on the street for days at a time to keep the occupation going. I’m here to tell you that there definitely are people of all ages and walks of life there. But if you figure it’ll be helpful to have more folks there in business suits, then put one on and get out there yourself!
As far as cause and demands, you might talk to 20 different people and come up with a few different answers, but generally speaking, dissatisfaction seems to stem from the fact that this country is – and has been for a while – a plutocracy, with a very small fraction of the population wielding power – socially, politically, economically – by virtue of its great wealth.
20% of the population controls over 80% of the financial and housing wealth in this country, meaning that the vast majority of the population has control over a measly two-tenths of those assets. To put an even finer point on the disparity, the richest 1% control fully one-third of the wealth in this country. Contrast that with the huge number of folks who have recently lost their homes and jobs, and continue to do so. (In 2009, a Deutsche Bank analysis of the housing and mortgage markets estimated that 25 million borrowers, representing a record 48% of all Americans with mortgage loans, would plunge underwater before 2011. I’ve been digging for figures and it’s not easy to find a total and yearly comparison, but during fiscal year 2010, nearly 3 million homes were foreclosed on, with an additional 1.2 million the first half of 2011.) Does this bring to mind something out of Dickens? A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if many of these super-rich people give a damn about the plight of us “just plain folks.” How ironic is it that Wall Street’s swankiest shops (Tiffany, BMW, etc) were holding their second annual “Luxury Night Out” at the same time that some of the aforementioned unemployed were assembled en masse in the same neighborhood? And that a cadre of well-dressed people on a balcony at Cipriani 55 (a restaurant associated with Cipriani Club Residences’ luxury apartments) laughed, sipped champage and cocktails, and snapped touristy photos as marchers passed underneath? Sort of a new millennium equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Is Warren Buffett the only “one-percenter” honest and humane enough to admit that he pays a lower tax rate than his own secretary, and that he can easily afford to and should pay far more?
Since the NYPD has been garnering a lot of attention, here are my own observations from my few hours with the NYC protest: There was an obvious police presence around the park, which grew larger with time. Liberty Street, on the north side of the park, went from containing small groups of cops and a few vehicles to being filled (side-by-side, so more could fit, rather than bumper-to-bumper) with squad cars and vans before 3PM, and as we walked up Broadway just before the march started (we had to leave early to retrieve our friend’s car from a closing parking garage), many police vans, filled with cops, were racing, lights flashing, down toward the park. They were obviously expecting something to happen. (And something did – an hour or so later, 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.)
Any enforcement-based interaction I had with cops was minimal, but for the most part, it involved a few officers calmly asking protestors to move back so that pedestrians could easily pass on the sidewalk (and the protestors complied, equally calmly). I did notice something a little curious – the line of police directly in front of us was a mix of races, and it was very noticeable to us that there were a couple of white cops who definitely seemed angry, jumpy, and what I would describe as “on the verge” – looking as if they were wanting to grab someone and give them what-for. They wouldn’t talk to anyone, and when approached, told the people curtly to get away. The black cops we talked to were polite, easy-going, and cordial, laughing and joking as they did their jobs. Don’t know what, if anything, that might signify, but we thought it was interesting enough to comment on to each other.
The movement may have started out seeming small and amorphous, but it’s gaining strength and purpose as time goes on. A few mainstream journalists, including Mike Konczal, of the Roosevelt Institute, and Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the NY Times, offer some advice on articulating demands that protect public – rather than private – interests (click on their names to read the articles). And “The 99%” itself – meaning YOU! – can be part of formulating and then voting on demands by going to this page. You can participate in a local protest or march – check out www.occupytogether.org – there are links to local groups across many states and countries (47 states, and 14 countries so far). If a group in your area is not listed, keep checking – it’s growing every day. And if you can’t be there yourself but would like to contribute in some way and have a little money to spare, you can help feed and otherwise keep the protestors going. You can also help to make sure there is universal coverage of the events unfolding by asking the local and national media outlets to feature it prominently in their daily news coverage – if they can send reporters to the Middle East for round-the-clock coverage of the Arab Spring, they can sure as hell send a reporter to the closest protest, or even to NYC!
Some people have expressed worry that this movement will not keep Republicans out of the White House and the majority in Congress. I’d like to have a Democratic President and congressional majority myself, but I think that’s not really the point. The political arena, as extremely partisan as it has become, is accomplishing nothing that truly benefits us. Because people are so partisan, standing solely against one party or another (as opposed to deeply investigating and then deciding to support specific issues), lots of them end up voting against their own interests as citizens and individuals. I see this as a movement that people of all political, religious, etc persuasions can get behind, working together to demand real accountability and an end to big money (and private gain) having the greatest influence in our government and economy.
Remember – WE ARE the 99%, and the marchers’ chant can really come true – THE PEOPLE – UNITED – CAN NEVER BE DEFEATED!