10/26/2011 11:43:25 AM
This post originally appeared at
As intense protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street continue to grow, it is worth asking: Why now? The answer is not obvious. After all, severe income and wealth inequality have long plagued the United States. In fact, it could reasonably be claimed that this form of inequality is part of the design of the American founding -- indeed, an integral part of it.
Income inequality has worsened over the past several years and is at its highest level since the Great Depression. This is not, however, a new trend. Income inequality has been growing at rapid rates for three decades. As journalist Tim Noah describedthe process:
“During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth -- the ‘seven fat years’ and the ‘long boom.’ Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80%of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20%. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.”
The 2008 financial crisis exacerbated the trend, but not radically: the top 1% of earners in America have been feeding ever more greedily at the trough for decades.
In addition, substantial wealth inequality is so embedded in American political culture that, standing alone, it would not be sufficient to trigger citizen rage of the type we are finally witnessing. The American Founders were clear that they viewed inequality in wealth, power, and prestige as not merely inevitable, but desirable and, for some, even divinely ordained. Jefferson praised “the natural aristocracy” as “the most precious gift of nature” for the “government of society.” John Adams concurred: “It already appears, that there must be in every society of men superiors and inferiors, because God has laid in the… course of nature the foundation of the distinction.”
Not only have the overwhelming majority of Americans long acquiesced to vast income and wealth disparities, but some of those most oppressed by these outcomes have cheered it loudly. Americans have been inculcated not only to accept, but to revere those who are the greatest beneficiaries of this inequality.
In the 1980s, this paradox -- whereby even those most trampled upon come to cheer those responsible for their state -- became more firmly entrenched. That’s because it found a folksy, friendly face, Ronald Reagan, adept at feeding the populace a slew of Orwellian clichés that induced them to defend the interests of the wealthiest. “A rising tide,” as President Reagan put it, “lifts all boats.” The sum of his wisdom being: it is in your interest when the rich get richer.
Implicit in this framework was the claim that inequality was justified and legitimate. The core propagandistic premise was that the rich were rich because they deserved to be. They innovated in industry, invented technologies, discovered cures, created jobs, took risks, and boldly found ways to improve our lives. In other words, they deserved to be enriched. Indeed, it was in our common interest to allow them to fly as high as possible because that would increase their motivation to produce more, bestowing on us ever greater life-improving gifts.
We should not, so the thinking went, begrudge the multimillionaire living behind his 15-foot walls for his success; we should admire him. Corporate bosses deserved not our resentment but our gratitude. It was in our own interest not to demand more in taxes from the wealthiest but less, as their enhanced wealth -- their pocket change -- would trickle down in various ways to all of us.
This is the mentality that enabled massive growth in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades without much at all in the way of citizen protest. And yet something has indeed changed. It’s not that Americans suddenly woke up one day and decided that substantial income and wealth inequality are themselves unfair or intolerable. What changed was the perception of how that wealth was gotten and so of the ensuing inequality as legitimate.
Many Americans who once accepted or even cheered such inequality now see the gains of the richest as ill-gotten, as undeserved, as cheating. Most of all, the legal system that once served as the legitimizing anchor for outcome inequality, the rule of law -- that most basic of American ideals, that a common set of rules are equally applied to all -- has now become irrevocably corrupted and is seen as such.
While the Founders accepted outcome inequality, they emphasized -- over and over -- that its legitimacy hinged on subjecting everyone to the law’s mandates on an equal basis. Jefferson wrote that the essence of America would be that “the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar.” Benjamin Franklin warned that creating a privileged legal class would produce “total separation of affections, interests, political obligations, and all manner of connections” between rulers and those they ruled. Tom Paine repeatedly railed against “counterfeit nobles,” those whose superior status was grounded not in merit but in unearned legal privilege.
After all, one of their principal grievances against the British King was his power to exempt his cronies from legal obligations. Almost every Founder repeatedly warned that a failure to apply the law equally to the politically powerful and the rich would ensure a warped and unjust society. In many ways, that was their definition of tyranny.
Americans understand this implicitly. If you watch a competition among sprinters, you can accept that whoever crosses the finish line first is the superior runner. But only if all the competitors are bound by the same rules: everyone begins at the same starting line, is penalized for invading the lane of another runner, is barred from making physical contact or using performance-enhancing substances, and so on.
If some of the runners start ahead of others and have relationships with the judges that enable them to receive dispensation for violating the rules as they wish, then viewers understand that the outcome can no longer be considered legitimate. Once the process is seen as not only unfair but utterly corrupted, once it’s obvious that a common set of rules no longer binds all the competitors, the winner will be resented, not heralded.
That catches the mood of America in 2011. It may not explain the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it helps explain why it has spread like wildfire and why so many Americans seem instantly to accept and support it. As was not true in recent decades, the American relationship with wealth inequality is in a state of rapid transformation.
It is now clearly understood that, rather than apply the law equally to all, Wall Street tycoons have engaged in egregious criminality -- acts which destroyed the economic security of millions of people around the world -- without experiencing the slightest legal repercussions. Giant financial institutions were caught red-handedengaging in massive, systematic fraud to foreclose on people’s homes and the reaction of the political class, led by the Obama administration, was to shield them from meaningful consequences. Rather than submit on an equal basis to the rules, through an oligarchical, democracy-subverting control of the political process, they now control the process of writing those rules and how they are applied.
Today, it is glaringly obvious to a wide range of Americans that the wealth of the top 1% is the byproduct not of risk-taking entrepreneurship, but of corrupted control of our legal and political systems. Thanks to this control, they can write laws that have no purpose than to abolish the few limits that still constrain them, as happened during the Wall Street deregulation orgy of the 1990s. They can retroactively immunize themselves for crimes they deliberately committed for profit, as happened when the 2008 Congress shielded the nation’s telecom giants for their role in Bush’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program.
It is equally obvious that they are using that power not to lift the boats of ordinary Americans but to sink them. In short, Americans are now well aware of what the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, blurted out in 2009 about the body in which he serves: the banks “frankly own the place.”
If you were to assess the state of the union in 2011, you might sum it up this way: rather than being subjected to the rule of law, the nation’s most powerful oligarchs control the law and are so exempt from it; and increasing numbers of Americans understand that and are outraged. At exactly the same time that the nation’s elites enjoy legal immunity even for egregious crimes, ordinary Americans are being subjected to the world's largest and one of its harshest penal states, under which they are unable to secure competent legal counsel and are harshly punished with lengthy prison terms for even trivial infractions.
In lieu of the rule of law -- the equal application of rules to everyone -- what we have now is a two-tiered justice system in which the powerful are immunized while the powerless are punished with increasing mercilessness. As a guarantor of outcomes, the law has, by now, been so completely perverted that it is an incomparably potent weapon for entrenching inequality further, controlling the powerless, and ensuring corrupted outcomes.
The tide that was supposed to lift all ships has, in fact, left startling numbers of Americans underwater. In the process, we lost any sense that a common set of rules applies to everyone, and so there is no longer a legitimizing anchor for the vast income and wealth inequalities that plague the nation.
That is what has changed, and a growing recognition of what it means is fueling rising citizen anger and protest. The inequality under which so many suffer is not only vast, but illegitimate, rooted as it is in lawlessness and corruption. Obscuring that fact has long been the linchpin for inducing Americans to accept vast and growing inequalities. That fact is now too glaring to obscure any longer.
Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional and civil rights litigator and a current contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books on the Bush administration's executive power and foreign policy abuses. His just-released book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful(Metropolitan Books), is a scathing indictment of America's two-tiered system of justice. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.
Copyright 2011 Glenn Greenwald
Image by david_shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/24/2011 11:43:39 AM
Racial segregation literally breaks a city into separate, isolated chunks. In the worst cases, neighborhoods are wholly delimited by the descent of its denizens, rather than its topography or history. This is how a metro area comes to resemble an archipelago—a series of homogeneous islands connected by proximity and late-night bus routes. Even still, it’s often hard to imagine the extent of segregation in a city when you weave between its neighborhoods on a day-to-day basis. Though they may be in the heart of the hustle and bustle, smaller inner city communities can be staggeringly isolated from each other.
Sensing the urgency of this lingering social issue, software developer Jim Vallandingham programmed a data visualization that shows many of the top 10 most segregated cities breaking apart along racial lines. Take, for example, St. Louis, Missouri (pictured above). In Vallandingham’s animation, the mostly black core of St. Louis is abandoned by the first-ring suburbs, leaving a vast cultural moat between neighborhoods. Exurbia, for all of its sprawl, remains a tightly knit (or at least similarly skin-colored) community. (Pro Tip: The program runs much better on the Google Chrome web browser.) On his website, Vallandingham explains the math behind his data visualization:
[I]f a ‘mostly white’ tract is connected to another ‘mostly white’ tract, then the connection is short. If a city had uniform proportions of races in each tract, the map would not move much. However, longer connections occur where there is a sharp change in the proportions of white and black populations between neighboring tracts. These longer connections create rifts in the map and force areas apart, in some ways mimicking the real-world effects of these racial lines.
To some extent, Vallandingham’s program rehashes some foregone conclusions about race, demographics, and urban life, but it does so in a more visceral way than your average infographic. Not that static images can’t be powerful—for evidence, check out the segregation maps by Eric Fischer, Remapping Debate, and the University of Michigan Social Science Data Analysis Network.
Images courtesy of Jim Vallandingham.
10/19/2011 11:34:18 AM
The comedian Rob Delaney has a an interesting piece on Vice’s Tumblr about his voting track record and what that means in the larger picture of American politics. That is, voting specifically, and more generally, having your voice heard.
People on the Internet tell me every day to “stick to the jokes, pal” and I wanted to outline why I will do no such thing, and why you shouldn’t either. If in fact I should “stick to the jokes” since I’m a comedian, that would suggest that politics should be left to politicians. And we know that many politicians (like large numbers of those who make up the United States Congress, for example) are very, very bad at politics. They quite literally NEED my help. And your help. And since we live in a Democratic republic, I will continue to share my opinion whenever I feel like it. And please feel free to disagree with me. Jesus, I hope you do, because there are many things I don’t know and many things I’m surely wrong about. I am a comedian. But a comedian’s opinion matters in the United States of America, as does a pipefitter’s, a truck driver’s, and a heart surgeon’s.
Delaney explains why he’s voted, in the last four presidential elections, for Bob Dole (1996), Ralph Nader (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Nader again (2008). His goal in telling readers this is laudable:
I told you who I’ve voted for over the years because I wanted to lay bare my thought process and show some things that I would change if I had a time machine. I wanted to show evidence of a person who believed one thing, gathered evidence, and then changed his mind. I wanted to do something that most politicians refuse to do, i.e. show some humility/teachability.
Again, he’s not claiming his voice is any more or less important than anyone else’s. And that’s exactly why it’s as important to hear from him as it would be to hear from anyone else. As I wrote yesterday, though, because of voter suppression laws sweeping this nation, we’re likely to hear fewer and fewer voices at the ballot box next year.
Image by April Sikorski, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/18/2011 4:51:31 PM
Remember when buying fair trade meant something revolutionary? These days, purchasing fair trade products is about as subversive as wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. Heck, you’ll even be able to add “one-of-a-kind handicrafts made by artisans in developing countries” to your online shopping cart on WalMart’s website, according to Huffington Post.
Coffee was one of the first—and most effectively marketed—fair trade products. As I write this, I’m finishing my fourth cup of fair trade coffee this morning—we usually brew two massive pots every day at the Utne Reader office. But fair trade coffee, a certified product meant to supplant the neo-colonial exploitation of farmers in the global South, has done little to impress free trade skeptics and anti-capitalists.
“While it may channel slightly more income into agricultural communities,” writes Ian Hussey for Briarpatch, a feisty, radical Canadian magazine, “it ultimately fails to address the colonial capitalist structures that produce the impoverishment of farmers on an ongoing basis.”
Hussey goes on to bullet-point the moral problems and historical discrepancies that color fair trade economics—including the hemispheric imbalance of international power, ambiguous certification rights, romanticization of the lives of the impoverished, creation of a moral higher ground, and perhaps most important of all, the misperception that buying fair trade is anything but another form of consumerism.
Where Hussey’s screed is brief and boisterous, Sushil Mohan’s Fair Trade Without the Froth, a book published in 2010, is detailed and “dispassionate.” Mohan attempts to determine how beneficial the fair trade movement has been to farmers in underdeveloped countries with a cool, non-ideological, scholarly eye. In the book, Mohan argues against the pot shots lobbed by both fair trade’s supporters and detractors.
One of Mohan’s most interesting lines of research pertains to fair trade supporters’ claim that the monetary markup of certified coffee trickles down to the farmers in Ethiopia and Colombia. As summarized by Karol C. Boudreaux in a review of the book in The Independent Journal:
Unfortunately, the transaction costs associated with the certification process, exporting, marketing, and retailing eat substantially into any benefits producers might receive. Empirical evidence on this point is limited, but it seems that even in the most generous scenario fair-trade producers retain only 25 percent of the price premium; most probably retain significantly less.
“So,” as Boudreaux continues, “contrary to claims, it is not fair trade per se that guarantees producers a steady income; only consumers can do so.”
Swallow that, ethical shoppers.
Sources: Briarpatch, Huffington Post, The Independent Journal
Image by matt.davis, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/18/2011 4:49:26 PM
From new photo ID requirements to permanently disenfranchising citizens with past felony convictions to ending same-day registration, many states have introduced bills and passed legislation this year that will put in place obstacles that make it significantly harder for millions of people to vote in 2012. Five million, in fact, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, an institute that focuses on issues such as voting rights and campaign reform.
In a report on the voting law changes the authors, Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, write:
Ahead of the 2012 elections, a wave of legislation tightening restrictions on voting has suddenly swept across the country. More than five million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year—a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.
As writer Ari Berman points out in this video, these changes are coming “just in time for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.” While those leading the charge for voter suppression laws cry foul on charges of intentional disenfranchisement, claiming the moral high ground as warriors against voter fraud, Berman points out in a recent Rolling Stone article, “A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop.” He continues:
Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Heather Digby Parton gives some historical context to this current state of affairs, arguing that, against the interests of the wealthy and privileged, voting rights for all Americans “was one of the great American democratic accomplishments of the 20th century.”
In the United States, there has always been tension about the franchise, going all the way back to the beginning of the Republic. Aristocrats were afraid of it for the simple reason that it would mean the government might have to represent and defend people whose interests interfere with their own interests: to maintain their wealth and pass it down to their heirs.
Whenever you give the vote to poor people and others who need government's protections against the predations of privilege, you are endangering that arrangement - and the privileged fight back. Conservatives are traditionally their soldiers in that battle….[Today] conservatives have been able to leverage racial resentment and a sort of perverted populism to help their wealthy benefactors keep their money.
The Brennan Center for Justice report looks to be “the first full accounting and analysis of this year's voting cutbacks” and seeing them all together—along with their possible consequences on future elections—is sobering, to say the least. It begs us to keep in mind what Utne Reader associate editor Danielle Magnuson wrote in an earlier post on this topic: “voting for our leaders is not a privilege but a sacred right. A disenfranchised person’s vote has the same weight as that of a wealthy and powerful person—and that’s the way it should remain.” Unfortunately, many in charge around the country seem to disagree.
Source: Brennan Center for Justice, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera
Image by robertpalmer, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/17/2011 10:35:22 AM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
These last weeks, there have been two “occupations” in lower Manhattan, one of which has been getting almost all the coverage -- that of the demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park. The other, in the shadows, has been hardly less massive, sustained, or in its own way impressive -- the police occupation of the Wall Street area.
On a recent visit to the park, I found the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) -- on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it. At the park’s edge, there is a police observation tower capable of being raised and lowered hydraulically and literally hundreds of police are stationed in the vicinity. I counted more than 50 of them on just one of its sides at a moment when next to nothing was going on -- and many more can be seen almost anywhere in the Wall Street area, lolling in doorways, idling in the subway, ambling on the plazas of banks, and chatting in the middle of traffic-less streets.
This might be seen as massive overkill. After all, the New York police have already shelled out an extra $1.9 million, largely in overtime pay at a budget-cutting moment in the city. When, as on Thursday, 100 to 150 marchers suddenly headed out from Zuccotti Park to circle Chase Bank several blocks away, close to the same number of police -- some with ominous clumps of flexi-cuffs dangling from their belts -- calved off with them. It’s as if the Occupy Wall Street movement has an eternal dark shadow that follows it everywhere.
At one level, this is all mystifying. The daily crowds in the park remain remarkably, even startlingly, peaceable. (Any violence has generally been the product of police action.) On an everyday basis, a squad of 10 or 15 friendly police officers could easily handle the situation. There is, of course, another possibility suggested to me by one of the policemen loitering at the Park’s edge doing nothing in particular: “Maybe they’re peaceable because we’re here.” And here's a second possibility: as my friend Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, said to me, “This is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and they’re scared. Look how amazed we are. Imagine how they feel, especially after so many decades of seeing nothing like it.”
And then there’s a third possibility: that two quite separate universes are simply located in the vicinity of each other and of what, since September 12, 2001, we’ve been calling Ground Zero. Think of it as Ground Zero Doubled, or think of it as the militarized recent American past and the unknown, potentially inspiring American future occupying something like the same space. (You can, of course, come up with your own pairings, some far less optimistic.) In their present state, New York’s finest represent a local version of the way this country has been militarized to its bones in these last years and, since 9/11, transformed into a full-scale surveillance-intelligence-homeland-security state.
Their stakeout in Zuccotti Park is geared to extreme acts, suicide bombers, and terrorism, as well as to a conception of protest and opposition as alien and enemy-like. They are trying to herd, lock in, and possibly strangle a phenomenon that bears no relation to any of this. They are, that is, policing the wrong thing, which is why every act of pepper spraying or swing of the truncheon, every aggressive act (as in the recent eviction threat to “clean” the park) blows back on them and only increases the size and coverage of the movement.
Though much of the time they are just a few feet apart, the armed state backing that famed 1%, or Wall Street, and the unarmed protesters claiming the other 99% might as well be in two different times in two different universes connected by a Star-Trekkian wormhole and meeting only where pepper spray hits eyes.
Which means anyone visiting the Occupy Wall Street site is also watching a strange dance of phantoms. Still, we do know one thing. This massive semi-militarized force we continue to call “the police” will, in the coming years, only grow more so. After all, they know but one way to operate.
Right now, for instance, over crowds of protesters the police hover in helicopters with high-tech cameras and sensors, but in the future there can be little question that in the skies of cities like New York, the police will be operating advanced drone aircraft. Already, as Nick Turse indicates in his groundbreaking report [at TomDispatch], the U.S. military and the CIA are filling the global skies with missile-armed drones and the clamor for domestic drones is growing. The first attack on an American neighborhood, not one in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, or Libya, surely lurks somewhere in our future. Empires, after all, have a way of coming home to roost.
Read Nick Turse's essay, “America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases” at TomDispatch.com >>
Image by WarmSleepy, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/11/2011 10:09:36 AM
President George W. Bush made it legal for government-funded religious organizations like World Vision to hire and fire employees based on their faith, writes Lauren Markoe in The Christian Century (June 22, 2011).
Six years later, presidential hopeful Barack Obama campaigned against this idea, saying it’s discriminatory to hire people using federal money based on their religious beliefs. And yet, now that he’s president, the legislation hasn’t been overturned, even though President Obama could issue an executive order. Baptist Press (October 7, 2011) reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has just reinforced the notion that a federally-funded Christian organization may hire only Christians and fire those who disagree with their doctrine.
Lawmakers as well as some religious leaders are urging Obama to change these discriminatory faith-based hiring rules and make good on his campaign pledge, writes Markoe. These types of practices are plain discrimination, say supporters of overturning the legislation:
“It is shocking that we would even be having a debate about whether basic civil rights practices should apply to programs run with federal dollars,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.). “There is just no justification for sponsors of government-funded programs to tell job applicants, ‘We don’t hire your kind.’”
Source: The Christian Century, Baptist Press
Image by Duncan~,
licensed under Creative Commons.
10/6/2011 5:06:24 PM
It’s true: We’re covering the Occupy Wall Street movement to death over here (and yes, there’s more to come), perhaps because it was granted so little coverage in the first days of its contentious life. Need a primer-cum-rallying-cry? Read Tom Engelhardt’s essay on the movement’s importance. Pointing to a counter argument by political activist and cartoonist Ted Rall, our editor-in-chief David Schimke asks us to consider if Occupy Wall Street is pushing hard enough. Also, we’re trying keeping you up to date on our Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
Occupy Wall Street is straight up the most vocal, progressively populist demonstration in years—yet from the get-go has suffered from poor media portrayal and position articulation issues. OccupyMN’s April Lukes-Streich, answering via e-mail, tries to clear up a few things before the protest occupies the Minneapolis Government Center Plaza on Friday, October 7, and turns it into the People’s Plaza.
Utne Reader: The participants in the Occupy movement often come from either a background in local activism or a background in Anonymous, the hacktivist group. What is your activism background?
April Lukes-Streich: I’m unaffiliated with any activist group or organization, but have been a longtime political activist and blogger.
:What personally draws you to the Occupy movement? What are your personal motivations?
ALS: I was inspired by the recent occupation of the Madison, Wisc., Capitol building, and realized at that point that with the erosion of our voting rights by way of gerrymandering congressional districts, changing electoral college procedures, and voter ID laws—not to mention the corporate and moneyed influence in politics on both sides of the political aisle—that being present together is really the only chance we have to reclaim our voices to ensure meaningful participation in our political and economic system and the democratic process. I am continually personally inspired by a desire to reform our economic system in a way that ensures fairness for all participants. I cannot speak for all participants and know many to disagree with me, as we come from varied political philosophies, but I am strongly critical of the capitalist economic system and wish to see reform.
: The media has portrayed the Occupy Wall Street movement as somewhat directionless, lacking a central message. In your words, what is the central message of Occupy Wall Street?
ALS: That our movement is seen as directionless or lacking a central message is something that confuses a lot of participants, and I believe rightly so. As many have noted, if it’s unclear to anyone why we’re protesting, they’re not paying attention. Our economic system is in shambles, people are out of work and deep in debt with no discernible solution in the foreseeable future. The unified message of OccupyMN is “People Before Profits,” and we are continually working on lists of common goals. But because we wish to give voice to the 99 percent of Americans who do not currently have a meaningful voice in politics and economics in America, we are unable to present a list of cohesive demands in the way that many people seem to think we should. Ordinary people of all political persuasions are part of the 99 percent; what we want is not to all agree on policy or legislative issues, but to bring voice to the people to engage in meaningful, constructive debate about these issues without moneyed interests influencing the process and manipulating ordinary citizens.
This is a different kind of movement than any other we’ve seen. The process is new to everyone, participants and observers alike.
: Another criticism of the Occupy movement is that it has largely been the pursuit of well-educated, middle-class, white people. Has OccupyMN reached out to groups with cause for concern—minority, unemployed, disabled, etc.—to engage them with the movement/issues?
ALS: OccupyMN is very aware of these issues that are all too often present in activism and of the criticism. We are making every effort to reach out to all minority communities and ensure that folks from privileged backgrounds—namely white, middle-class men—are not dominating the conversation and direction of the movement. Our group is unified in this attempt and we expect to achieve the goal of making sure that everyone has a chance to speak and be a part of the decision-making process through our daily General Assemblies that we will have on the Plaza.
: What are some specific reforms that you’d like to see come about as a result of the Occupy movement?
ALS: I can’t speak for the entire group, but I would personally like to see election financing reform, an end to corporate personhood, and an overhaul of our tax system, including fairly taxing capital gains and instituting a nationwide corporate income tax. I would also like to see an honest conversation about the effectiveness and fairness of the capitalist system.
: Downtown Minneapolis is home to many corporate headquarters and business campuses of large banks—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, etc.—as well as a Federal Reserve building. Why is OccupyMN demonstrating in Government Plaza with all of these symbolic institutions around?
ALS: Our group voted during our first public forum at Stevens Square Park to move the occupation from the Federal Reserve to the Government Center Plaza for mainly logistical reasons. While occupying the area surrounding the Federal Reserve would be appropriately symbolic, we do not expect that we would have been allowed to remain there. The Government Center Plaza is public property, does not require a permit, and is in the heart of the financial district. We are not protesting at a bank because, beside being private property that we’d surely be arrested for occupying, rendering the movement effectively worthless, we are not protesting any one bank. We’re protesting the entire system, which leaves us without a meaningful voice. We believe that public, taxpayer-funded property is the most realistic place to achieve this goal.
: Is non-violent protesting the only course of action that OccupyMN is taking in the movement, or are there any plans for behind-scenes-work like lobbying and community outreach?
ALS: Many members of our organizational team, as well as countless other participants, are individually involved in lobbying and community outreach, but as a group/movement, we have not yet made plans for behind-the-scenes action. We are compelled to occupy primarily because our exhaustive efforts to lobby and outreach are not working. We need to be heard before we are able to change policies.
: What does success—either immediate or long-term—look like for you?
ALS: I will see success when I see meaningful reform to our economic and political structure. How this will happen, we have yet to know. First, we simply demand to be heard. I believe that, because of this widespread movement, we will be.
10/6/2011 10:29:53 AM
This post originally appeared at
In some ways, Zuccotti Park, the campsite, the Ground Zero, for the Occupy Wall Street protests couldn’t be more modest. It’s no Tahrir Square, but a postage-stamp-sized plaza at the bottom of Manhattan only blocks from Wall Street. And if you arrive before noon, you’re greeted not by vast crowds, but by air mattresses, a sea of blue and green tarps, a couple of information tables, some enthusiastic drummers, enough signs with slogans for anything you care to support (“Too big to fail is too big to allow,” “The American Dream: You have to be asleep to believe it,” “There’s no state like no state,” etc.), and small groups of polite, eager, well-organized young people, wandering, cleaning, doling out contributed food, dealing with the press, or sitting in circles on the concrete, backpacks strewn about, discussing. If it were the 1960s, it might easily be a hippie encampment.
But don’t be fooled. Not only does the park begin to fill fast and the conversation become ever more animated, but this movement already spreading across the country (and even globally) looks like the real McCoy, something new and hopeful in degraded times. Of the demonstrators I spoke with, several had hitchhiked to New York -- one had simply quit her job -- to be present. Inspired by Tunisians, Egyptians, Spaniards, and Wisconsinites, in a country largely demobilized these last years, they recognized what matters when they saw it. As one young woman told me, “A lot of people in my generation felt we were going to witness something really big -- and I think this is it!”
It may be. The last time we saw a moment like this globally was 1968. (Other dates, like 1848 in Europe and 1919 in China, when the young took the lead in a previously dead world, also come to mind.) It’s the moment when the blood stirs and the young, unable to bear the state of their country or the world, hit the streets with the urge to take the fate of humankind in their own hands.
It’s always unexpected. No one predicted Tahrir Square. No one imagined tens of thousands of young Syrians, weaponless, facing the military might of the state. No one expected the protests in Wisconsin. No one, myself included, imagined that young Americans, so seemingly somnolent as things went from bad to worse, would launch such a spreading movement, and -- most important of all -- decide not to go home. (At the last demonstration I attended in New York City in the spring, the median age was probably 55.)
The Tea Party movement has, until now, gotten the headlines for its anger, in part because the well-funded right wing poured money into the Tea Party name, but it’s an aging movement. Whatever it does, in pure actuarial terms it's likely to represent an ending, not a beginning. Occupy Wall Street could, on the other hand, be the beginning of something, even if no one in it knows what the future has in store or perhaps what their movement is all about -- a strength of theirs, by the way, not their weakness.
It’s true, as many have pointed out, that they don’t have a list of well thought out demands, but the demand to have such a list is just their elders trying to bring them to heel. The fact is, they don’t have to know just what they’re doing, any more than a writer or filmmaker has to understand the book being written or the film shot. It’s not a necessity. It’s not the price of admission. If there’s one thing that’s obvious and heartening, as my friend, the novelist Beverly Gologorsky, said to me while we oldsters circumnavigated the park, “The overwhelming feeling I have is that no one here is planning to go home any time soon.”
Never have they been more needed. Theirs is certainly a movement, like the ones in the Middle East, inspired in part by economic disaster and aimed at an airless political as well as corporate/financial system controlled by the 1% left out of the signs in the park hailing the 99% of Americans whom Occupy Wall Street hopes to represent. It’s a world set on screwing just about everyone in that vast cohort of Americans without compunction, shame, or even, these days, plausible deniability.
The young face a failing world -- and if you want the proof of just how thoroughly it's failed all of us in recent years, check out TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll’s post today [at TomDispatch.com, “Flat-Lining the Middle Class: Economic Numbers to Die For”]. Nowhere else can you find assembled such a range of evidence of an American world on the decline, one which doesn’t work and shows no sign of being capable of righting itself.
If, on a planet in crisis, their government has repeatedly failed them, the Wall Street demonstrators deserve a small, hopeful cheer for their efforts. They may not be the perfect size and shape for the movement of everyone’s dreams, but they’re here and, right now, that says the world.
Image by _PaulS_,licensed under Creative Commons.
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