Say what you will about 20-something anarchist-hipster-losers and aging rebel hippies – this whole Occupy Movement is almost starting to look a little promising. The middle class, the lower class, students, unemployed workers, union members, and even some folks from that legendary 1% – lots of folks from all walks of life are standing up together, demanding change. I, for one, am glad to see the people rising up and saying, “Enough, already.” I especially embrace the younger generation getting out on the streets; when’s the last time they gave an indication they care about anything? Maybe during the Obama election, or Prop 8 or something. Apathy comes from a place of feeling that there’s no hope for change, of feeling that your voice doesn’t matter. And maybe that perception is starting to shift with the agitation of the Occupy protests.
The more I poke around and read stories of people supporting this mass protest, the more I see both revelation, and the tiniest spark of potential for real revolution. Spend any time reading the stories of those standing in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and you will see yourself, or your friends, or your family, or your neighbor. And yes, it heartens me to see some 1-percenters standing up and saying, hey, I stand in solidarity, too; tax me more, I can afford it. I hear what you’re saying, you who resent these rich kids standing in solidarity with the working class. What right have any of those spoiled-rotten trust fund babies to raise their voices, right? They’re part of the problem – or to be more accurate, some of them come from the problem … but that’s not quite the same thing, is it? It’s not much different, at the end of the day, than the white people who stood in solidarity with black people during the Civil Rights movement; they are seeking to not be a part of the problem any longer. Trust fund kids didn’t choose to be born rich, anymore than you and I chose not to be born rich. What would you have them do? Quirk their pinky fingers and trill, “Let them eat cake!”? I’m glad to see at least some of them standing up and saying, “Look, we want things to be fair for everyone. We want change.” What’s the problem with that, oh cynical ones?
Those of us who support generally the idea of Occupy Wall Street should be more concerned with the lack of a coherent message as to what exactly these protests are about. Right now, the movement lacks specificity, which makes it easier for those who fear change to attack the messenger by saying, “Look, these people don’t even know what they want! What are they protesting against? Damn kids.” And the thing is, they’re right, in that generally speaking, for a movement to have cohesion and continued momentum, there has to be a clear understanding of what the message is. What did the abolitionists want? An end to slavery. What did the suffragists want? The right for women to vote. What were civil rights marches and lunch-counter protests about? An end to racial discrimination. What are pro-choice marches about? Protecting the right of a woman to control her own body. Very simple messages. What the Occupy Wall Street movement needs, desperately, is to communicate simply what the goals are: Parity of taxation rates, more fairly distributing the burden of supporting the societal infrastructure across income brackets. An end to big banks and corporations controlling our government. A government that gets back to our roots: Of the people, by the people, for the people. An end to spending billions on wars that are about oil and money while we’re cutting social programs that support our citizens, and our society, on the domestic front.
The thing is, this isn’t as cut and dried a battle as, say, pro-choice versus pro-life. There are myriad, murky, intertwined issues here. I’d say it’s more akin to the peace and love and protests over war and race that heralded the mass social changes of the 1960s; people are coming together and agitating for change, finally. But the 1960s had its charismatic, fearless leaders, its soldiers, its troubadours, its voices: Martin Luther King, Jr. The Kennedys. Malcolm X. Bob Dylan. Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg. Who speaks for this generation? We have our commentators, our Rachel Maddow and our Jon Stewart. I would argue that Charles Ferguson, director of No Way Out and last year’s scathing Inside Job, which gave the world a right proper schooling on the financial meltdown crippling our economy, has become an important voice. Michael Moore and Alex Gibney with some of their docs, as well. Eric Schlosser, perhaps. A few internet personalities. President Obama, I guess, is about the closest thing to a political hero our side has. But a leader or two or three need to emerge from the Occupy Movement. We need strong, clear, passionate voices that stand above the fray to keep the momentum going, to give the people someone to rally around, someone who can articulate that message with the intensity of a King or a Kennedy or an X.
You want evidence that Occupy Wall Street lacks a coherent message? How about is the existence of the site “The 53%,” whose message as stated on their page can be summed up thusly: “Those of us who pay for those of you who whine about all of that… or that… or whatever.” Clearly we have a serious miscommunication here if those who are calling themselves “The 53%” honestly think this is about whining and wanting handouts. Either the message is not being communicated succinctly, or they are simply shutting their eyes to the reality of the world around them.
Case in point: One of the stories on the site for The 53% is this chick who says she’s from a middle-class family who couldn’t afford to send her to college, but she’s attending Wellesley on a free-ride scholarship program thanks to beneficent rich alumni. So she’s all for the rich folks – why? Because she perceives herself as directly benefiting from them. What she neglects to mention (or overlooks in spite of the education afforded her by that free ride) is that those rich people get tax write-offs when they donate money to things like scholarship funds. The very kind of tax write-offs that her middle-class, working family can’t get because their income is lower and they don’t have money to throw around donating to scholarship funds. Her family, who couldn’t afford to send her to college, is most likely paying a larger percentage of their income out in taxes than the rich people whose money funded her scholarship. And she can’t see that there’s a lack of parity in this? Really?
A good many stories from The 53% are of the good old-fashioned, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, and you could too if you just tried harder, dammit!” variety. Give me a break. Huzzah for you that you’ve not been impacted by the crap economy and the financial shenanigans of banks and corporations, but the smugness with which some of these people are basically saying, “Shut up and quit whining” speaks to a practically incomprehensible degree of ignorance of the world around them. It’s not just about whether you personally are doing okay in spite of the economy. It’s about whether your neighbors, both those you do know, and — shocking but true, folks — even those you don’t know, are doing okay too. It’s about being able to see the world as larger than your personal bubble of family and friends, about looking outside yourself to see the bigger picture. My kids’ elementary school, in a suburb with above-average income levels, has 37% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch this year. Nearly 40% free and reduced lunch qualification in this area is rather astounding. My own kids are two of that number. We are the 99%.
So. Occupy Wall Street is about the need to fix what’s so clearly broken. Beyond that, though, what’s the message? What are the concrete things that the 99% wants to see done? We need a shortlist here. Because short of takeover and anarchy, much of that work to actually enact change has to take place by convincing the politicians we elected into office to listen to the people they are supposed to represent and not corporate interests. And change needs to happen within the walls of major corporations where they somehow got the idea that giving already rich (mostly white, mostly male) executives these multi-million dollar payoffs for the very incompetence that’s gotten our economy so screwed is a super-dandy idea. We, the 99%, do not have powerful lobbyists working for us in Washington to make sure our interests are being served on an equal footing with those who do have power. The power we have is in our voices, and our votes. And we need to articulate exactly what it is we want. It’s not enough to say it’s broken, we need to be coming up with the ideas for how to fix it. For starters, pull your money out of that major bank and put it into a small, private credit union. I’ve banked with Bank of America for 12 years; today we close down our BoA accounts and move everything to my husband’s credit union. Not just because of their new debit card fee nonsense, but because of their overall corporate policies. I’m not supporting them anymore.
Speaking for myself as a part of the 99%, I want to see the tax laws changed to shift a significant portion of the tax burden off the shoulders of the working class. I want to see the government stop giving tax cuts to the wealthiest corporations and individuals while the rest of us do the heavy lifting. I’m not saying we shouldn’t all do our part to support the infrastructure, but I agree with Warren Buffet that he should be paying the same tax rate as his employees, not a lower one. Beyond that, the Occupy Movement seems to be not just about tax rate, but about the power corporations have over our government and, by extension, our lives, and I honestly don’t know how or if that can be fixed without a serious dismantling of the existing power structure. Those that hold that power sure as hell aren’t going to go down a path of change without a fight, but it won’t be fixed without a major overhauling of “That’s Just the Way Things Work.”
But wait: Is Occupy about overthrowing the government completely? Maybe for some of those out protesting, it is. Reading Twitter feeds and Occupy blog posts and comments from around the country, there’s certainly a faction that seems to think that Occupy is not just about overhauling, but significantly changing the way things are from the foundation up. Advocating for complete revolution is a very different thing than just saying, hey, our basic system works, but there are some things that need to change. One implies working within that infrastructure to just fix what’s broken, and whereas the other implies throwing the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning the foundation of our entire system of government, and saying we need to reboot and start fresh. And the problem with that, of course, is that even assuming we could peacefully dismantle everything and start over, how on earth would we ever get all the various factions to agree upon what new thing should be built?
I’m not offering any easy answers here, because there aren’t any. Clearly there are fundamental problems, but we just as clearly have different groups with differing opinions about how it’s broken and what to do to fix it. The common ground is that we recognize that it’s broken to begin with; if we can agree on that, we can eventually agree on a path to fix it. The voices of the people are being raised; it’s time for our elected officials and Wall Street to hear them.