I took these photos at Occupy Wall Street a few weeks ago. As I've tried to articulate why I support OWS, my slow brain hasn't been able to keep pace with the changes in events. Like a lot of people (see Paul Krugman, for example) I wonder if Bloomberg's heavy-handed raid may have been a blessing in disguise, keeping the occupation from fading away as winter approached, and galvanizing many of us to greater enthusiasm for the movement. Counter to my usual thinking, I believe the lack of specific demands was a strength of the occupation, but wonder if now we've reached the next stage in the process, and will begin working on particular goals.
It probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me that I support OWS, and the vast majority of my friends and family probably agree with me. But I know some of my friends don't agree, and are rather disgusted with me for my support. It's you I hope to reach with this post. Let me explain my view of things.
Study after study has revealed stark economic discrepancies in our country now. The richest 1 percent of the population holds more net worth than the entire lower 90 percent. The richest 400 people in this country have more money than the poorest 150 million. These claims don't seem to be in dispute. Everyone appears to agree they're accurate. Where we disagree is how we explain this discrepancy. Friends of mine truly believe most of those wealthy folks got that way from sheer hard work and sacrifice. They earned their fortunes, every penny of it, fair and square.I simply can't agree. And I believe events in the last few years back me up. We now know hedge fund investors and mortgage lenders made fortunes on bundled investments they knew were bad, often earning money by betting they would fail. Multinational corporations ran the economy off a cliff through incompetence and greed. Thanks to years of deregulation their actions may not, in fact, have broken any laws, but a child could see that those actions were irresponsible and unethical. Bailouts were granted by the government in an attempt to save the economy, specifically the millions of workers who were in danger of losing jobs, homes, and pensions. A lot has been made about the fact that most of those (interest-free) loans have been paid back. Many of those companies have gone on to have record-breaking profits. The fact that thousands of their workers still got laid off, or lost their pensions, that's where I get stuck. Even CEOs who were forced to resign nonetheless often still walked away with generous retirement packages even as their company workforce was gutted. I can't see that, and not see blatant economic injustice. It seems undeniable to me that people got rich unethically if not illegally, have not been held responsible for their actions, have in many cases been allowed to keep their ill-gotten wealth, and, to add insult to injury, are now working hard to shift the blame to unions (especially government employee unions, like teachers, fire fighters and police officers) and the working poor.
What is being exposed now is what many of us had suspected all along, that a tiny minority of wealthy people have manage to buy our government, and insure the laws and policies enacted protected them to the detriment of the larger society. It became increasingly clear that there was one set of laws (tax and criminal) for the 1 percent, a different set for the rest of us. That tiny minority managed to put its finger on the scale, allowing it to amass and protect great wealth, while the income of the majority froze, shrank, at best rose more modestly.
A specific example getting lots of play right now is Wal-mart. When you have a CEO worth billions running a business where the vast majority of the workers are earning so little that they're eligible for food stamps, then I think you have a business model that is broken. The people who helped build that fortune (here and abroad) are not benefiting from their labor adequately. No, I don't think everyone should earn the same flat wage, but it's ludicrous to think the rich guy at the top did it all by himself.
Are there people out there looking for a handout, wanting to get something for nothing? Oh, I suppose such people exist. And if they can be bothered to do anything, I guess some of them might be willing to camp out in a city park for weeks at a time. But the idea that they're running this movement, and are in danger of taking over the country is laughable. The shiftless layabout is merely the most frightening bogeyman detractors claim dominates the occupation. Whenever a movement is as big and sprawling as this is, many of us feel the need to say "I support the movement BUT I'm not a..." trust-fund kid, dirty hippy, lazy whiner, anti-American, terrorist lover, druggie bongo player, etc. etc. If you're determined to find such people at the rallies and actions, you'll probably be in luck. (Hell, I've been accused all those things at some point.)
A popular movement will always have a wide range of opinions and viewpoints. Democracy is a messy, inefficient, infuriating endeavor. It just is. Much to my surprise and delight, this ragtag, sprawling mess of a movement has managed to keep our attention on important questions far longer than I would have ever imagined. Kardashian marriages and Republican front-runners have come and gone and our media, normally blessed with the attention span of a fruit-fly, has been forced to keep coming back to this story, these issues. Maybe they come back still wanting to know what do these people want, maybe Fox News comes back looking for ways to be outraged, but they keep coming back.
As I said, I think we may be moving into the next phase, when actions become more focused, demands more clear. When that happens, it will inevitably cause strife inside and outside the movement. Some ideologies that have managed to share space will find it impossible not to clash in the future. I would happily throw my support behind a major overhaul of the medical industry, for example, transforming it from one where pharmaceutical and health insurance profits are protected to one where people actually receive adequate healthcare; on the other hand I will not be signing any petitions demanding an end to private property. If we can keep the energy and momentum this movement has set off, however, I think we could be on the cusp of real reform in this country.