Over the past ten days, hundreds of people have occupied Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan in New York as part of Occupy Wall Street. Citizens have faced down a city that has fortified Wall Street with blockades so corporate criminals responsible for the economic collapse in 2008 can avoid confrontations with angry, passionate Americans.
Citizens have camped out and held daily marches in the face of a massive police presence, which has sometimes been very intimidating as individuals have been arbitrarily picked off and arrested. And last weekend, the police corralled them into an area near Union Square and proceeded to make a number of violent arrests; eighty to one hundred were arrested on Saturday.
The organizers, who pride themselves in being “leaderless,” have sought to bring together a diverse crowd of various political persuasions. They have rallied behind the slogan, “We are the 99%,” to show they will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the top 1% in America. They have rallied against banks that engage in tax dodging while at the same time foreclosing on Americans’ homes and charging exorbitant interest rates on student loans putting young citizens in deep debt. They are rising up against increased unemployment and war against the poor in America. And they have used what is known as the General Assembly process to make decisions, which democratically gives all people present an opportunity to influence the continued organization of Occupy Wall Street.
Traditional media have characterized the plurality of voices and the number of issues the occupation is seeking to challenge as a weakness. Establishment media has been openly condescending. Ginia Bellafante’s report in the New York Times has generated significant attention for her focus on the fact that some “half-naked woman” who looks like Joni Mitchell to her is the leader of this movement of “rightly frustrated young people.” Bellafante accuses the protesters of lacking “cohesion” and “pantomiming progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably.” NPR reiterated NYT’s focus on the “scattered nature of the movement” in its coverage of the occupation (and tellingly used a photo of a man holding a sign that reads “Satan Controls Wall St”). Local press have treated the occupiers as if they are a tribe or a group of nomads focusing on occupiers’ behavior instead of trying to understand the real reason why people are in the park.
Liberals have shown scorn, too, suggesting the occupation is not a “Main Street production” or that the protesters aren’t dressed properly and should wear suits cause the civil rights movement would not have won if they hadn’t worn decent clothing.
The latest show of contempt from a liberal comes from Mother Jones magazine. Lauren Ellis claims that the action, which “says it stands for the 99 percent of us,” lacks traction. She outlines why she thinks Zuccotti Park isn’t America’s Tahrir Square. She chastises them for failing to have one demand. She claims without a unified message police brutality has stolen the spotlight. She suggests the presence of members of Anonymous is holding the organizers back writing, “It’s hard to be taken seriously as accountability-seeking populists when you’re donning Guy Fawkes masks.” And, she concludes as a result of failing to get a cross-section of America to come out in the streets, this movement has been for “dreamers,” not “middle class American trying to make ends meet.”
First off, nobody in the last week can claim to be reporting on Occupy Wall Street and genuinely claim it isn’t gaining traction. Ellis conveniently leaves out the fact that Occupy Wall Street is inspiring other cities to get organized and hold similar assemblies/occupations. Second, if the protesters did have one demand, does Ellis really think that would improve media coverage? Wouldn’t pundits then be casting doubt on whether the one demand was the appropriate singular demand to be making? Third, so-called members of Anonymous are citizens like Ellis and have a right to participate in the protest. It is elitist for Ellis to suggest Occupy Wall Street should not be all-inclusive. And, finally, there is no evidence that just “dreamers” are getting involved. A union at the City University of New York, the Industrial Workers of the World, construction workers, 9/11 responders and now a postal workers and teachers union have shown interest in the occupation.
The Middle Needs to Rise Up
Nothing captures the disapproval the establishment has for the people in Zuccotti Park like the conversation on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last Friday. Center-right establishment pundit John Avlon had nothing but a smug grin and atrocious centrist political talking points for musician Tom Morello and filmmaker Michael Moore. He and former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman provided an example for why Americans are so frustrated with American politics:
Maher: You have to wonder what will make people rise up?
Avlon: I’ve been there. It’s a couple hundred [minimizing what is going on with a smirk]
Harman: The people in the political middle rise up and demand that people in Congress get some work done. Where are they?
Moore: How would you have them rise up? Write a letter to the editor?
Harman: No. They have a vote…
Moore: Uh-huh. And who do they vote for? Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dummer…
Harman: No, I think there are a lot of good people in Congress but it is a broken place.
Maher: If you mean like centrist Democrats, I think they’re the problem. Like the Democrats have 53 senators… Like forty of them are good but it’s people like Mary Landrieu—Jim Webb came out against Obama’s taxing the millionaires plan. It’s those centrist Democrats who are really corporatist Democrats, who work with the Republicans—That’s what cockblocks everything in this country.
Avlon shakes his head – couldn’t be more wrong he says
Harman: Working together is what Congress used to always be. We can disagree with each other but to get something done you have to work together…
Maher: Who works together? It’s those Max Baucus Democrats with the Republicans. That’s who works together.
Morello attempted to set people like Avlon and Harman straight:
Morello: …A lot of people who put [Obama] in office put [Obama] in office to fight for them—to fight against the Tea Party, to fight against this bullshit in Congress, to fight against the sonsofbitches who are attacking the working class and the poor in this country. And he hasn’t done any of that [Avlon wags finger at Morello, shakes head “no.”]
At the same time, I’m not waiting for him. I’m with the people in Madison. I’m with the people occupying Wall Street. That’s what my music is about. And I know Michael knows this too – when progressive, radical or even revolutionary changes happen, it’s always come from below. When women got the right to vote, when lunch counters were desegregated, it was people you do not read about in history books who stood up in their time for what they believed in.
Avlon: But, Tom, all these changes happen when good ideas are adopted by reformers. Politics is really not divided between left and right. It’s radicals and reactionaries and reformers and that’s why the center matters. We got a divided government. The only way you can get anything passed is if you try to reason together. That’s the core idea of our government. It’s broken down. The hyper-partisanship, the polarization of the two parties, that’s hurting our country because it’s stopping us from solving…
Avlon is an example of why many Americans do not support Occupy Wall Street. They understand that Occupy Wall Street wants to have an impact on the system and force the system to respond to the occupation’s demands, but they see protesters do not want to work within the system and lobby members of Congress and sign petitions and find out what piecemeal reforms representatives and senators think they can manage to deliver without jeopardizing their re-election campaigns. They are afraid of people power or “too much democracy.”
Managers of Democracy First, Citizens After
People like Avlon and Harman fear people power or acts of rebellion because they choose to be managers of democracy rather than citizens. And, actually, media and the elites aren’t the only ones who think like this. Numerous politically engaged Americans operate like managers of democracy in America because they believe “purism” on issues will create gridlock and prevent anything from being done. They despise making urgent demands of power because they believe Washington is only and has only ever been capable of incremental reform. To them, making demands and refusing to budge places an unacceptable burden on President Obama and legislators.
Demonstrations are demeaned because everything is supposed to come back to the political process. The truth is, corporate executives and business managers are and have been constantly protesting. They just do it in the halls of power instead of in public squares.
Corporate executives, business managers and free market ideologues have worked to avert any changes to the status quo. They have aggressively turned opportunities for change into chances to leverage power over government so they can reap huge financial or monetary advantages in the long run; for example, the watered-down financial and health reform bills.
The Myth of the American Dream
Compounding the contempt for grassroots struggle in America is the unwavering confidence in the myth known as the American Dream. The American Dream rests upon the idea that all Americans can prosper if they try hard enough. In its most perverted form, it cons Americans into believing they could not only prosper but be rich one day. This was discussed on “Real Time w/ Bill Maher” Friday night too.
MAHER: Do [Americans] really think everyone can be rich? How can that really work? Who would do the things for rich people that allow them to be rich people if we are all rich?
MOORE: 400 Americans have more wealth than 150 million combined
HARMAN: I don’t think we can all be rich. I agree with that. But look at who is rich and how young people who are colossally inventive can become the billionaires?
MAHER: So anecdotal.
HARMAN: Have polices that promote innovation and enterprise in this country.
AVLON: This is part of the American character. Right, this is the idea. It’s not just anecdotal. It’s Google. It’s the guys behind Google. There’s dozens and dozens and hundreds — This is the story of America. There are two things going on here. One, eighty percent of Americans always think they are middle class and that’s a good thing. The problem is we have seen the middle class get squeezed for around four decades now. And the average CEO’s salary is around $9.6 million while the average family of four still makes 50 [thousand?] …
Avlon concludes, “You can’t dismiss the idea of the American Dream because people live it every day and that’s what animates our country.” But, as Moore responded, “That dream is a nightmare for most people” these days.
Progressive leader Van Jones has kickstarted a movement called Rebuilding the American Dream. The movement aims to stand up to right wing attacks on unions and the middle class in America. It is a feel good movement and also politically safe. It gives upset Americans the opportunity to get involved in a well-organized advocacy venture that is likely to work with power. The more people who get involved in advocating for changes, the more people who elect representatives in city, state and federal government, the more likely America is to see the American Dream “restored.”
No person participating in Occupy Wall Street will talk about some mythical American Dream that has been held over Americans to pacify them. They understand this country has owners and like comedian George Carlin said there is a club and they “ain’t in it.” They are out planting the seeds of rebellion and for many it is either annoying because they think it will divert and suck off too much energy and fail or, worse, lead to a confrontation that sparks riots.
They Fear Encouraging Occupy Wall Street Will Lead to Riots
Here is how CNBC covered the history of “civil unrest” or protest in America earlier this year:
On January 25, 2011, the people of Egypt took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who has kept the nation under a state of emergency for three decades. The riots have continued unabated into the month of February, and it’s anybody’s guess when the disorder will end.
The United States has endured its share of civil unrest as well. Some riots have been carefully planned in advance to protest government policies, and some have begun spontaneously in communities plagued by poverty and unemployment. But while riots start for many different reasons, they usually end the same way, with mass arrests, loss of life and damage to public and private property.
To establishment media and the power elite, Occupy Wall Street can only be ineffective or destructive. CNBC has nothing but scorn for the Arab Spring. CNBC and other media organizations care little about the “moral imperative to fight,” as writer and journalist Chris Hedges puts it. They do not see the consciousness of America awakening as a positive development because it will put additional pressure on government. They see Occupy Wall Street as a movement exacerbating political polarization in America, which is why they advocate for mobilizing people in “the middle.” They want to see disgruntled Americans demobilize and channel their energy into more controlled arenas like electoral politics.
“Power Elite Will Define Whatever You Do as Failure”
Hedges has cautioned occupiers, “The power elite will define whatever you do as failure.” The future of Occupy Wall Street and any future act of rebellion or resistance to economic, political and social injustice depend on understanding this truth.
The growing threat to power Occupy Wall Street poses does not rest upon its critique of the financial system or its ability to show the world how the security state of America squelches dissent. It lies in its ability to convince Americans that people have the power, that if they abandon fear and cynicism and step out into the streets they will find community and hope.
The power of Occupy Wall Street is, as Hedges also said, the movement’s ability to “break the kind of atomization or isolation that enables fear.” It is the ability “to endure frightening situations and know someone is standing next to you” and be around people, who have “empathy toward you,” that will create the kind of rebellion in America necessary to challenge the power of Wall Street and other corporate and special interests putting not just this country but the entire planet at risk.
Criticism of Occupy Wall Street is just a way for establishment media, the power elite and those who believe in their views to defend their ideology on how politics is supposed to work. It is their way of affirming their conviction that at some point the children need to leave the streets and the grown-ups must be allowed to work in peace. It is also part of the culture; expressing support for “hippies” or a “plurality of voices” preaching against capitalism will not win friends and influence people in the Beltway. And so, they will make criticisms whether there is evidence to support what is said or written.
So, move forward and let the elites and establishment media come to the realization that the people outnumber them and they are on the wrong side of history. Instead, remember the words of the late people’s historian Howard Zinn:
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future.
The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.