Occupy Wall Street is the populist movement that the Tea Parties claimed to be. And in its third week of confronting the nation’s financial overlords, Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percent Movement are trying hard not to repeat the mistakes of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Parties supposedly were inspired by Rick Santelli’s Feb. 19, 2009, rant on CNBC against President Obama’s program to help homeowners and lenders avoid foreclosure by refinancing mortgages but the Tea Party movement quickly was co-opted by Republican partisans and promoted relentlessly by Fox News and other corporate media. Before you knew it, the teabaggers became the shock troops for the Republican assault against health care and financial services reforms.
Occupy Wall Street started out with a call to action at Adbusters.org on July 13 with the goal of gathering 20,000 people to Wall Street on Sept. 17 to begin an occupation of the financial district for at least two months. The largely leaderless movement was inspired by popular assemblies in Egypt and elsewhere.
The movement has been criticized for its lack of specific goals, although in the original call, Adbusters said that a central demand was that President Obama “ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It’s time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we’re doomed without it. …
“This could be the beginning of a whole new social dynamic in America,” it continued, “a step beyond the Tea Party movement, where, instead of being caught helpless by the current power structure, we the people start getting what we want whether it be the dismantling of half the 1,000 military bases America has around the world to the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act or a three strikes and you’re out law for corporate criminals. Beginning from one simple demand – a presidential commission to separate money from politics – we start setting the agenda for a new America.”
“We Are the 99 Percent” started out as a Tumblr page (wearethe99percent.tumblr.com) to give ordinary people a way to testify about their experiences and their frustrations with the economy by inviting them to submit pictures with a hand-written sign explaining how hard times have affected them. The site has been getting more than 100 submissions a day, one of the founders told Adam Weinstein of MotherJones.com. One example is an anonymous girl who posed with this message Oct. 11: “My mom worked on Wall Street for almost 30 years. In 2008, when the market crashed, the company she worked for shut down. The CEOs were taken care of, but all the loyal workers were left with nothing. My mom still hasn’t found work. I am the 99 percent.”
Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percenters may not have a specific policy agenda, but Robert Borosage noted at OurFuture.org that the grassroots movement has utter moral clarity. “The demonstrators have built an island of democracy in the belly of Wall Street. The bankers looking down on them would be on the street had not taxpayers bailed them out. And now they are confronted with students sinking under student debt with no jobs, homeowners who are underwater and can’t find mortgage relief, workers desperate for work.
“No one is confused about the message. Wall Street got bailed out; Main Street was abandoned. The top 1% rigs the rules and pockets the rewards. And 99% get sent the bill for the party they weren’t even invited to.”
The movement showed admirable discipline in the face of provocation by police, including the New York police deputy inspector who attacked peaceful protesters and videographers with pepper spray Sept. 24. Video of that attack spread on the Internet and finally broke through to the corporate media. “Suddenly this wasn’t a disorganized, rag tag gathering,” Borosage wrote. “These were citizens under attack for exercising their rights. That struck a powerful moral chord.”
People from around the country have responded to the movement. Not only unemployed young people, but also white-collar workers and blue-collar union members have expressed support from Main Street to the occupiers of Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percenters are pointedly non-partisan. They were not set up by the Democrats and they are not defending President Obama. But if they get Obama and congressional Democrats to return to the progressive principles of the Democratic Party and defend the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society, that will be a good thing. The Tea Party forced Republicans to choose sides, and that took the GOP hard right to protect corporate interests.
The 99 Percenters can force Democrats to protect the interest of working people, small businesses and family farmers and ranchers. It will take a leap of faith for Democrats to give up the money that Wall Street can shovel to compliant politicians, but even with the threats that corporate-funded PACs can flood the airwaves with attack ads because of the infamous Citizens United decision, the people still get to vote in the election. It is up to the Democrats to prove that they are trying to provide opportunities for those people who are pursuing the American dream.
Young people have a choice: They can become a lost generation sliding into cynicism or apathy, or they can unite and take action. With Occupy Wall Street they choose action. Where that action takes them remains to be seen, but they have our attention. Now the rest of us need to do our part.
Middle Class War Games
As a member of the late ’60s generation, I participated in protests of the Vietnam war (about as much as I could in a small Iowa town) but marches and rallies didn’t stop the war, any more than they guaranteed civil rights for Southern blacks. But the coverage of those marches and rallies in the news media and particularly on TV made the middle class across the US confront the questions about the war in Vietnam that was largely fought by the children of the working class. The middle class also was forced to confront the shame that American citizens were denied civil rights because of their skin color. The laws were changed, integration began and eventually the troops were brought home.
That’s why Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) expressed alarm at the publicity the Occupy Wall Street protests were getting, saying, “I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy.” He added, “We can’t allow that to happen.”
The beginning of the end of the Vietnam war was a change of the Selective Service Act in November 1969 to start using a draft lottery, instead of allowing deferments for university students and married fathers. Then the children of the wealthy were subject to the same chance of going to war as children of workers (unless their parents were able to get them into the National Guard, which in those days was not deployed overseas). After the Guard’s rolls were filled, middle-class parents started questioning the war. By 1972, President Nixon was winding down US involvement in the war and in 1973 the creation of an all-volunteer force allowed the draft to be suspended.
In the generation since then, the US military has taken pride in its all-volunteer status. But as it falls upon American troops to enforce the new world order, once again the burden of war falls upon the children of the working class who are unable to afford to go to college because of cuts in state and federal funding and they can’t find good manufacturing jobs because multinational corporations have moved the factories overseas. And even with the economic incentives to enlist, an all-volunteer force doesn’t provide enough troops to patrol an empire, which is why the US government has had to press the National Guard into active duty to fill out the ranks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you want to stop the wars, you need to put middle-class skin back in the game. Either reinstate a draft or figure out some other way to get the middle class to pay attention.