(Cross posted from my blog Left in Lowell. I’ve been thinking a lot about where we are and where we are headed lately in light of the Occupy[America] protest movement. Are we seeing a sea change, or just another blip like the anti-Iraq-war movement? Is this finally where the real work begins?)
I’ve been following (mostly online) the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston protests since nearly the beginning. They got traction and coverage on blogs and Twitter long before the media was covering it – in fact, before the unprovoked pepper spray incidents that made the news, the only place to read about what was happening was online.
The media complained that they weren’t cohesive enough and there wasn’t news to cover. Well, that has quickly changed and evolved. For starters, there were some very bad decisions from the NYPD – both institutionally, and by some idiot individuals – which put the protests on the map for the media, and solidified the motivation of participants and supporters. What’s more, it seems the organic sort of organizing that has sprung up has – and I have to use the word evolved again – to meet the challenges of running a protest, dealing with the media, finding a set of demands to articulate why they are angry and not going to take it any more. OWS has spokespeople and media tents and a strong online presence – all while being relatively leadersless in the traditional sense.
In some ways, my personal cynicism alert flag is up. (Yeah, I know, I’m too young to be truly cynical…) I spent years organizing with the peace movement against the Iraq war, butting my head up against the sheer stubbornness of the Bush administration and, later, Obama’s. After all, GitMo is still open, the USA PATRIOT Act was reauthorized and is being used to spy on Americans without due process, we’re still in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan though with some troop drawdown, and Obama even unilaterally bombed, for right or wrong, Libya, without the consent of Congress.
The only satisfaction we got out of our fight was that most of the American public got on our side after a while. But it still reelected Bush and let itself be lied to about Kerry’s war record and ability to lead, and we never got a truly different kind of leader to replace him in 2008, either. Obama put Wall St executives in charge of the economy even after it was evident they were full of shit.
But there is something really interesting happening with Occupy[America]. For one thing, it’s just average citizens (not diehard liberals or extremely informed people like me) who are protesting. Photo after photo, interview after interview, this is very evident.
There are so many people in this country who have been foreclosed on, laid off, unable to move forward, that a segment of them, with nothing left to lose, are truly taking the fight to the streets. Since they have nothing left to lose – no middle class lifestyle, no prospects – they have a lot to fight for. I always said the worst part about being an anti-war protester is that most of our citizens, even when sympathetic (and the majority was by the time I left that movement) are busy with their lives, making their livings, feeding their families, going to soccer games, and being generally content that things aren’t that bad for them, personally. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s totally human, and what’s more, a legacy of the last century of American progress. We built the middle class. A country with a middle class able to make ends meet is a relatively politically stable country. It’s a good thing.
Which is why I think there is something different in the air.
Gradually, we’ve seen the erosion of the buying power and the salaries of the middle class. For so many decades before, our children did at least a little better than their parents. Then, since the Reagan era, we started to see the slide. We began to only tread water…then occasionally swallowed some. Then we began drowning, but we as a people were the last to see it happen.
Even in the 2008 economic meltdown, we failed to notice our lungs filling with something other than air.
This generation of young people really are the first who truly believe – nay, who know – they are not destined to do better than their parents. Unlike the spoiled kids of my generation (raised largely in the 80s and coming of age in the 90s), they see the coming tide sweeping over them and pulling them under the water before they even get a chance to begin. They are left behind. And they know that if they do nothing, it will only get worse. They have nothing left to lose.
They join every one of their older siblings, parents, grandparents who have lost a house, a job, a future, despite being of the generations born with more promise. For some of us older ones, we’ve experienced firsthand how it’s gonna be going forward if there are no changes. For the rest of us older ones, we are beginning to understand how fragile our position of comfort is. The OccupyWallSt movement presents this to us in bas-relief – the notion that the middle class is under siege and has been for quite some time.
The thing that is different from now from these previous movements is that the situation that has caused these long term problems is not going to be alleviated by last generation’s leaders. Obama is cut off at the knees to even patch a pathetic temporary band-aid (the jobs bill) on our economic slide by Republican intransigence. And even Obama’s half-measures would probably only prove to elongate the stagnation, not solve the underlying problem. We’re now seeing the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us reach the levels seen right before the 1929 crash. Eventually, this was going to get noticed by someone. By everyone.
Even the Tea Party movement, while misguided to the extreme, is an expression of this loss of power by the average person. Why did they catch fire? Despite being such a minority of even the Republican party? Because poor and middle class Republicans too are suffering in this economic climate, this class warfare on us by the super-wealthy. They just aren’t right on who to blame for this.
Most of America, on the other hand, already knows what and who is to blame. They already overwhelmingly want to see taxes raised back up on the uberwealthy. They know that Wall St needs taking down a peg or three, and that we need to go back to regulating our economic system so that the playing field becomes level again. They just need the energy to look up from their day to day struggles against the tide, to look up, and see that horizon again.
I don’t know where the Occupy movement is going to go. It seems to change and swell bigger by the day, though it could have an upper limit, I suppose. But if this truly is the moment where the American people reach the tipping point, if this is the straw that, finally, after 30 years of straws, breaks the camel’s back, then maybe we can make the changes without the economic crash that I have been foreseeing for years. That crash (which will make 2008 look like cakewalk) could still be coming. But if we organize enough in advance, if we can offer an alternative to the American people now, perhaps we will not lose a decade like they did in the Great Depression. After all, we have history to inform us how best to rebuild the American middle class and spread prosperity around to everyone.
So, occupy on! There may not be an immediate result, but it could offer a long term solution. Hats off to the most powerless among us.