Arab Spring, American Fall

The nights are getting cooler, temperatures dropping to near freezing as autumn moves in with beguiling subtlety. Around the country there are thousands of people who are huddled in sleeping bags and tents on public spaces, the movement of Occupy Wall Street spreading beyond the confines of Manhattan and into large cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Washington, and much smaller ones such as Longmont, CO, Auburn, NY,  and Vermillion, SD. The movement, which is well into its third week, is finally garnering the level of media attention that many of the original participants, those taking the first stand at Zucotti Park, so desperately wanted.  The early reactions from media sources were mostly confused, bemused, and dismissive. Mayor Bloomberg has been quick to chastise protesters for their verbal attacks on “Wall Street”. First, Bloomberg warned that vilifying banks might make them less willing to extend credit to average citizens (NYT 9/27/2011), as if economic decisions rested on whether bankers’ feelings were hurt. The Mayor of New York, himself a billionaire, seems genuinely confused that people would link their individual economic misfortunes with the politically protected practices of an instutionalized financial machine that ultimately is managed by actual Homo sapiens, with names and addresses and everything. House minority whip Representative Eric Cantor has expressed feelings of concern over the growing “mob” on Wall Street.  Praise and condemnation has not fallen along political lines.  It should be pointed out that OWS, while largely interpreted as liberal or progressive, doesn’t claim allegiance to any particular political party. Just the opposite, the movement is critiquing the actions of both parties, which are increasingly isolated from developing viable social policy and more focused on internal political machinations. For both of these reasons I have found it somewhat surprising that the Tea Party has not joined in the fray, although I would not be surprised to find self-identified tea-partiers in Zucotti Park.

Early articles described the carnival atmosphere and the lack of any specific demand as major weaknesses of the gathering, failing to see the potential. The primary criticism of this group has been that there is no demand for those on Wall Street or Pennsylvania Ave to act on. I have found this disingenuous in the extreme. The limited organization and public statements of anyone claiming to be associated with the movement have made it abundantly clear that this is a leaderless movement without specific demands. The multiplicity of grievances by the participants in OWS illustrates the deep level of interconnectedness between people, institutions and governments. Our economic systems are inextricably intertwined with our political systems, with our health, food, environment, education- you pull the thread in one institution, all the others will feel the tug. And so will the people who rely on those institutions to achieve daily, mundane tasks like feeding their children. The protesters know this because they feel the tug. Some of them are even feeling the unraveling. What our elected politicians are failing to acknowledge is that there are many reasons for Americans to be angry. The demand for our politicians is for them to enact change, and do it now. The demand is simple:  give us Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  Nothing less is acceptable.

Since September 17, I have thought that the real danger to these protests is the inertia of our politico-economic system. We are unable to topple a leader in the United States the way that can be done on other places. Change in the United States takes time to work its way through the courts, through the legislatures, and through the board rooms. While the police may push some protesters to the ground, mace young women in the face, lose independent journalists in the system for a night to keep them from witnessing and reporting the event, the real violence will come from our leaders who ignore the outrage, dismiss participants as pseudo-citizens living on the fringe, and wait for everyone to exhaust themselves into going home. It will be easier to do with the nights getting colder, the days shorter, and the media’s short attention span moving on to the latest distraction. I sincerely hope that the collective energy and insight of everyone taking part in and supporting the protests creates a momentum that is bigger than the behemoth they are up against.

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One thought on “Arab Spring, American Fall

  1. Great commentary. What I find most interesting about the juxtaposition of the Arab Spring protests and the OWS protests happening in the US now is the difference in our perceptions of the locus of power, and WHO we protest as a result. The Arab Spring protesters, for obvious reasons, fingered their dictatorial governments as the oppressive institution, whereas Americans have realized that right now, our government is nearly as powerless as the average citizen is in its ability taking on the financial services industry, the real force behind the economic pain we’re feeling.

    Did I say “nearly as powerless?” I meant, “nearly as powerful.”

    I, too, find the criticism that OWS is “message-less” ridiculous. A REAL grassroots movement (unlike fabricated ones – you know who I’m talking about) is by its nature a decentralized operation. In fact, it speaks directly to the pervasiveness of the problem that people from myriad political perspectives and walks of life have come together to change the system. It does not matter that there is no single definitive, actionable “message” coming from the movement; what truly matters is that, by protesting on such a large scale, we send a message, and thus transmit our power, to our representatives in Washington who actually DO have the means to make meaningful reforms and changes in our system. Yes, many politicians are deep in the pockets of the financial services industry themselves, but there are others who, like most Americans, do want to reform and rein in our run-amuck financial system, but who have lacked the political capital and momentum to do so. Up to now.

    To me, this is the importance of OWS. If the movement can lend political capital and momentum to reform-minded people in positions of power, and put pressure on those who would oppose reform, then it will have been a success. If the pleas for reform continue to fall on deaf ears, more direct action, with higher degrees of organization and sophistication (or the opposite of that – more insistent and possibly violent forms of protest) will be necessary to make our voices heard. I hope it doesn’t come to that. If I were Wall Street/Congress, I’d take the deal – true reform of the financial services industry – on the table now.

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