Several months ago I was discussing the decline of progressive politics with a friend who, like me, had been in university during the sixties. We marveled at the popularity of politicians whose actions harm their constituents and yet are elected repeatedly; radio hosts who gather enormous audiences while professing bizarre right-wing fringe views; and the size of a Tea Party that represents primarily the interests of a few masters of large corporations. Even more unlikely, the title of Christian seems to have been appropriated by people who share nothing whatever of Jesus’ pacifism or his solidarity with the poor, outcast, suffering, and oppressed.
My friend said that large numbers of citizens will not oppose the fat cats unless middle class people can be shown how big business is picking their own pocket. He argued that ordinary people do not sympathize with the underclass; indeed, the respectability of some lower middle class people is built on contempt for a group beneath them. The anger arising from economic anxiety or distress even of educated people is often directed at the weaker and poorer rather than at the powers that be. According to this analysis, campaigns for such righteous causes as gay marriage or for the environment are counterproductive because they fail to appeal to the masses and, indeed, alienate some potential allies in the larger economic struggle.
I recalled this conversation last month when the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began. Though the participants were criticized for lacking a specific set of demands, it is precisely this openness that allows people of all sorts to unite against the economic inequities in our system. The extraordinary tenacity of the New Yorkers and the remarkable proliferation of similar actions in other cities suggest that my friend’s analysis was accurate. Whether one likes it or not, most people will only move to seek their own advantage, and Occupy Wall Street has proclaimed the fact that nearly all of us are being cheated by the present system. The college students with onerous debt from student loan, youth who cannot find jobs, the transit workers whose new contract is worse than the one before, retired people seeing their investments shrink as social security is threatened, nursing home aides without medical benefits or pension, all these find themselves in the same slowly sinking boat. Only when these “mainstream” elements act in concert with advocates for smaller groups such as the disabled, welfare recipients, immigrants, gay people, ethnic minorities, and radicals can they move America.
Many unions, which had had no part in Occupy Wall Street at the beginning, saw the potential for a strong alliance and declared solidarity. On October 5 I joined a bus from the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation to support the demonstrators. Traveling with me were a crew of young Teamsters (with shirts reading “kicking ass for the working class”), representatives of other unions (teachers and nurses were well-represented, though it was a work-day), and a few older activists lit by new hope.
In the city we joined an even more diverse group: black and white; middleclass, working class, and underclass; toddlers and the elderly. The event itself was decentralized, in part because our numbers and the peculiar police lines kept the crowds in odd and awkward positions, leading occasionally to chants of “let us out” directed at law enforcement (as well as “Who pays the police? We pay the police!”). Far from a scripted rally (such as one sees at the national political party conventions), there was an amiable chaos. A loudspeaker carried some speaker’s words, but three-quarters of the crowd was more engaged with what was happening closer to hand. Three or four bands played in different areas, many people carried homemade signs. As the most popular chant of the day had it, “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”
In spite of the atmosphere of anarchy, people behaved in an exemplary fashion, obeying the General Assembly’s dictates about peace and orderliness. Once, when an excited marcher began loudly contesting with the only heckler I saw all day, several other marchers approached him to settle the scene. In the sixties, I had witnessed government agents provocateurs incite stone-throwing to justify a violent police attack. Such a gambit, it seemed, would have been immediately suppressed here.
My support of Occupy Wall Street is based on these considerations.
1. The group points to the correct source of America’s problems: maldistribution of wealth and corporate control. Society’s inequities are particularly evident when one considers the financial sector which produces nothing whatsoever and yet is absurdly highly compensated. The favored slogan “we are the 99%” expresses the fact that, though we do all useful work, the corporate parasites and those living on what is properly called “unearned income” take most of the wealth.
2. The occupiers have somehow maintained effective order within their own body, insisting on orderly demonstrations and absolute nonviolence, while maintaining a direct democracy, consensus-seeking decision-making process at the daily assemblies. They have to this day no leaders, no spokespeople, only a community of equal citizens calling for redress of grievances.
3. Because of its general character and the lack of specific demands, this action has succeeded in motivating youth and many otherwise unaffiliated individuals. Union actions, like those by environmental, feminist, ethnic, and neighborhood groups, though they have sometimes attracted large numbers of participants, have failed to ignite the interest of those not directly involved.
As filmmaker John Wellington Ennis said, “How can we not occupy Wall Street? Wall Street occupies US.”