In what’s fast becoming the progressive alternative to the Tea Party movement, the political left in the United States is trying to redirect populist anger about the nation’s long economic downturn on multiple fronts and convert it into action.
The most visible sign of the burgeoning trend is the “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York. The sit-in at the heart of America’s financial power began Sept. 17 and involves gathering people to remain on Wall Street as a means to challenge rampant corporate greed and push for reforms. Organizers eventually hope to gather up to 20,000 people there indefinitely and have them sleep on cots and in tents, eat in makeshift kitchens and erect peaceful barricades to disrupt the well-oiled machine that is U.S. predatory, anything goes-style capitalism.
About 700 sympathizers were arrested Oct. 2 after they marched on the Brooklyn Bridge and blocked traffic for several hours. Police carted them off in three buses.
Already several thousand protesters have participated, and more are headed to Manhattan. The fledgling movement has garnered the support of several labor unions including the Teamsters, United Pilots Union, a union representing Verizon workers and the New York Transit Workers Union. Surely, more are likely to join in the coming weeks. Also, more overtly political groups including MoveOn.org, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Center for American Progress are adding their endorsements to the protest.
Even Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has joined the cause. Appearing at the Manhattan protest this week, Stiglitz used a bullhorn to encourage protesters that their cause was just.
Stating that Wall Street firms profit from “socializing losses and privatizing gain,” Stiglitz added, “We bailed out the banks with an understanding that there would be a restoration of lending. All there was was a restoration of bonuses. Unless we deal with the anti-competitive practices with the reckless vending and speculative behavior, with the anti-competitive practices, unless we restore demand to the function it should serve, we won’t have a robust recovery.”
The New York demonstration has inspired solidarity protests in at least 30 cities and counting, including Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and — yes, even that hotbed of Midwest conservatism — here in Cincinnati.
Beginning at 11 a.m, three days after this issue of CityBeat is published, protesters affiliated with “Occupy Cincinnati” will congregate at downtown's Lytle Park. News about the event can be accessed on Facebook and Twitter, and organizers have put out the request for people to bring food, water, First Aid kits and other supplies in preparation for a long stay.
Mainstream, corporate-owned media seem taken aback by the protest movement, initially ignoring it despite the large numbers involved, and then not quite sure how to cover it. That’s probably at least partially because the protests are grassroots oriented and driven from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down like more traditional political movements.
Occupy Wall Street’s webpage describes the protests as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”
Although some mainstream media have pegged the movement as “anti-capitalist,” it’s actually more nuanced than that simple-minded, right-wing talking point. While different participants often have different aims, generally the movement is concerned about “the systems and institutions that support endless war and unrestrained corporate greed,” as organizers of the D.C. protest described it.
Or, as The Washington Post recently put it, it’s based on “a vague sense of grievance over the widening gap between the rich and poor in America” and “a general feeling that power needs to be restored to ordinary people.”
One central point of agreement is that court decisions granting the same rights to corporations as those held by individuals and allowing them to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns are wrong and detrimental to the nation.
As Occupy Wall Street’s declaration states, “No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”
Well said, brothers and sisters.
But it’s not just Occupy Wall Street and its brethren that’s firing up progressives. Van Jones, a former White House environmental adviser, has started the “Rebuild the American Dream movement” as the left’s answer to the Tea Party. Jones believes progressives should take a cue from Tea Partiers and eschew focusing on a single charismatic leader in favor of creating a “meta-brand” to bring together supporters of various liberal or left-leaning causes to advance broader policy goals and affect elections.
In an Oct. 2 speech at a Washington, D.C., conference, Jones said, “We have been on a one-sided offensive in this country where the worst people in America with the worst ideas have dominated the discussion. And I’m not mad at them, I’m not mad at the Tea Party. I’m not mad at them for being so loud. I’m mad at us for being so quiet.”
Jones, who is working with MoveOn.org to expand the movement, says about 127,000 people have committed to the cause so far. Like the Tea Party on the right, it plans on taking a more active role in local and state elections.
Jones — who often is inaccurately criticized as a “Marxist” and “commie” in crude attacks by conservatives — said he’s concerned about the excessive concentration of economic power. Quite correctly, he has said “an active government” is essential “to building a healthy middle class.”
Thirty years of so-called supply-side economics, tax cuts and offshoring of jobs have proven Jones right. Wages have stagnated as more and more Americans slip into poverty, while the rich get richer.
The simmering rage reminds me of a universal truth contained in this passage from John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath: “And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
A protester’s sign this week at the New York event put it more succinctly, “It’s only called class warfare when we fight back.”