By now, most Americans have heard of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Most Americans know that the protests have something to do with rising income inequality and the growing concern over corporate influence on our politics. Beyond that, however, questions linger – questions like “who are these folks?” and “what, exactly, is it that they want?”
Last weekend, I decided to investigate these questions for myself at the Government Plaza in Minneapolis, where an ongoing event is being held in solidarity with OWS. When I stepped off the light rail late Friday afternoon, I was greeted by a large sign that read “Welcome to the People’s Plaza.” Around the sign, a crowd of mostly young people gathered, some beating hand drums and others chanting familiar slogans like “we are the 99%” and “this is what democracy looks like.” Another group of protestors stood along 3rd Avenue holding signs and cheering as cars honked and bicyclists rang their bells.
Thirty or so minutes later, I noticed that a large rally had begun on the plaza. An American Indian man recounted the various injustices committed against his people by the US government. Particularly striking were the statistics he gave that 80% of American Indians are currently unemployed and that “we have been living in a recession for 200 years.” He was followed by two women from the Minnesota Nurses Association, who explained that they were taking to the streets because “it’s always worked for us,” adding that “people think solidarity is just a union word . . . but it’s all of us together.” An organizer outlined several goals for the movement, including ending all of the following: corporate personhood, the Federal Reserve, free trade, and fossil fuel and nuclear dependency. The protestors are nothing if not ambitious!
One of the more common criticisms of OWS is that it lacks focus and a cohesive message. As I listened to these speeches, I began to wonder about this myself. What did it all amount to? Talking to demonstrators did little to address my question. One demonstrator told me he wanted OWS to be a left-wing movement, and said he wished the Ron Paul supporters (of which there were many) would go home. Another, who held a sign that read “keep high tech and creative jobs in the United States,” said he had been responsible for outsourcing at a large firm, only to have his own job outsourced. For him, free trade was the issue. And then there were the anti-Federal Reserve libertarians.
A bit of online research helped clear the air. In an interview with Utne Reader, event organizer April Lukes-Streich explains why the movement’s aims have remained open ended:
…because we wish to give voice to the 99 percent of Americans who do not currently have a meaningful voice in politics and economics in America, we are unable to present a list of cohesive demands in the way that many people seem to think we should. Ordinary people of all political persuasions are part of the 99 percent; what we want is not to all agree on policy or legislative issues, but to bring voice to the people to engage in meaningful, constructive debate about these issues without moneyed interests influencing the process and manipulating ordinary citizens.
This, of course, raises the question as to whether the protestors do in fact represent the 99%, or if (as their critics would contend) they amount to little more than a motley band of left-wingers. After perusing the OWS Tumbler page in which ordinary Americans share their stories of economic woe, Ezra Klein reaches the following conclusion:
. . . 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.
This is consistent with what I observed. Many of the young people at the Government Plaza spoke of student loan debt and shrinking job prospects. A middle aged woman lamented that this is the first generation that will not do as well as its parents.
At the same time, there is a utopian streak to the movement that is difficult to ignore. Before leaving on Friday, I attended the General Assembly meeting at an adjacent park, where demonstrators gathered to collectively make decisions regarding finances, events, public safety, media outreach and other matters. At one point, when a facilitator explained that only selected committee members had the authority to spend money, a young man stood up and protested that this was an “authoritarian” measure. Because the GA is supposed to be a “horizontal system” in which “all share the power” the man’s comment led to a lengthy, but probably unnecessary digression.
So it would appear that Ezra Klein is mostly right: 99% of the 99% taking to the streets are doing so because they want to see the fundamental bargain of our economy restored. Yet the past thirty years have taught us just how much power 1% of any given population can have, and it would be a shame to see legitimate grievances sacrificed at the altar of utopian fantasies.
One final observation. As many within the African American community are painfully aware, this recession has hit people of color particularly hard. According to CNN Money, “black unemployment surged to 16.7% in August, its highest level since 1984, while the unemployment rate for whites fell slightly to 8%.” One would expect these numbers to be reflected in the OccupyMN demographics, but my overall sense was that people of color were somewhat underrepresented. Further outreach and greater inclusivity are clearly needed if the movement is to acheive its desired “99%” status.