It’s been six weeks since the “Occupy Wall St.” movement started at Zuccotti Park in New York when protesters set out to make a statement against the financial state of affairs in this country. After being largely ignored by mass media, the movement is now featured on almost every daily news program. The country is intrigued by Occupy and, naturally, people are trying to understand what these protests are all about.
On October 14th, I headed down to Chapman Park in Portland, Oregon to see for myself what “Occupy Portland” was and how this local manifestation correlated with protests in New York and around the world. Here is a photo montage of what I saw that day. To anyone who is curious, I recommend going to a local Occupy rally, parade, sit in, or camp to talk to the people about their lives and hopes. I also advise watching these videos of respected industry economists Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman.
One of the many things that make this country great is the freedom to assemble and the right of the people to peaceably protest injustices. The labor movement, women’s movement, civil rights movement, environmental movement, and many others were spawned by a small group of dedicated individuals whose call for awareness and righteous action brought others to their cause to battle for a better society. Resistance to change was strong, and the battles were long; but ultimately, progress was made correcting major gaps in our imperfect union.
I believe that the Occupy movement represents a significant, modern economic movement of a similar scale. Why now? Because the income inequality of our modern financial system and its social consequences is reaching a breaking point. Record high and prolonged unemployment rates across the country, a housing and foreclosure crisis, a non-existent recovery, record levels of federal debt, and extreme budget shortfalls at the state levels have convinced people that now is the time for action. Six weeks of sustained protests signal to me that the activists have already challenged the two most formidable enemies to progress — ignorance and apathy. Winter’s arrival will test the meddle of those living in the camps, but I believe a significant core group will carry on the physical occupation; many have no other place to go. Many others will support the movement by periodically joining marches, making donations, and demanding that politicians take Occupy seriously.
The Occupy Wall Street website says the movement is against “greed and corruption of the 1%.” While noble, this mission statement is vague. In order for lasting progress to be made, protesters need to Unify Occupy with a coherent strategy and clear set of progressive demands. When asking the protesters in Portland, what, if they had to name one thing, was the primary issue behind the protests, they mostly said “money in politics.” That’s an issue that will surely come into clear focus as the 2012 presidential race heats up. A tangible precedent to battle in this case may be last year’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205 ruling by the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) which says that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
Greed and corruption are two things which no reasonable person would condone, but are difficult to define. The movement would be well served by communicating which current, legal business and government practices cross a sensible line. In my opinion, a solid set of corruption standards can be found with Transparency International, a German NGO. In their 2010 list of least corrupt countries, the US came in at 22. Not awful, but not an acceptable position for a country who pioneered the ideas of representative, balanced, and transparent governance.
The movement also needs to Unify Occupy on the concept and practice of non-violence, cooperating with the police and city authorities when needed. In the heat of a mass protest — with angry, motivated, and suffering protesters — it’s all too easy for mob psychology take over. This simply must not happen if the movement is to have a future. An example of protest gone wrong is the recent 2011 England Riots, which started to protest a fatal police shooting in Tottenham. A similar series of incidents, even if incited by the police, would be disastrous to Occupy. The burden is upon the protesters to avoid using violence in each and every protest, each and every day. When someone in the protests deviates from nonviolence, Occupy itself needs to bring their actions back into line, not the police.
If occupy truly speaks for the 99%, that includes a very large number of Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives. Although liberal organizations have been swift to support the movement, Occupy doesn’t break down neatly by party affiliation or the left/right spectrum. Even the arbitrary 1% is not necessarily the enemy. There are a lot of good people in the 1% who are open to fairness, change, and helping the poor. Significant charitable giving by the wealthiest Americans is testament to this. There’s also an interesting new project called the Wall Street 50 that has set out to find 50 conscious financiers who care about people AND profits. These conversations are at the very heart of constructive debate.
It’s the system that allows such an extreme and growing concentration of wealth at the very top, while the majority of the population sees declining standards of living that is the problem. The United States is one of the most unequal societies in modern times, and credible pundits from both sides of the aisle agree that income inequality is hobbling our country.
Another grassroots movement, the Tea Party, was recently successful in raising the country’s awareness of the massive and growing federal debt problem and helped to elect politicians who would not forsake the issue. And as a result, lawmakers from both sides finally sat down to negotiate major cuts to unsustainable government spending while exploring ideas for future deficit reductions. If protesters can Unify Occupy to sound the alarm on our nation’s severe and growing income inequality problem in the same way, Occupy stands to significantly affect our politics, including the 2012 presidential elections.
Those on Twitter, please respond with #UnifyOccupy.