Saturday, October 1, 2011


The other night (9/27) I visited Manhattan to take one last bike ride with James before my exodus from Jersey into Quaker country. Instead of taking our usual routes across the piers and over the bridges, we headed east to find Zuccotti Park and have a look at the campers at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, which was then on its tenth day.

I've never been good at counting jellybeans in jars, so don't quote me when I say there were about 200 - 300 people gathered there when we stopped by at 11:00 p.m. (not counting the cops, who mostly hung out in little clusters on the sidewalks and played with their phones). They sat in circles and talked politics, perused the books in the Liberty Square Library (which had evidently grown much larger since the photograph was taken), dozed on mattresses, took food from a community "kitchen," and pointed phone cameras at a police officer addressing the drivers of a WikiLeaks truck that had pulled up to the curb.

Maybe one of the causes of my initial disappointment with the scene was the crowd: it was composed of pretty much the same people you find at every demonstration in this country. At least 90% of the folks camping out were under thirty, and of these, more than half must have been twenty-five or younger. Gangly hippies with dreadlocks, tie dye shirts, dirty jeans. Anarchist kids wearing bandannas over their mouths. Aged veterans of the Love Generation who have obviously done too much acid in their lifetimes. Students, graduate students, and jobless graduates. PETA and Legalize It folks trying to wedge their own messages into the conversation. Cardboard signs and chalk drawings on the sidewalk.

If I initially felt underwhelmed, it must have been because of my experiences at other protests. A group of kids show up brandishing signs and slogans. Maybe one or two get arrested; everyone else goes home. The status quo remains unchanged, the event is mentioned at the bottom of a blurb in a local paper (if it gets any press at all).

As I listened to myself express my reservations to James, I felt increasingly surprised at myself. If I agreed with the demonstrators' cause (nebulous thought it might be), why should I feel even the slightest disdain for them?

In my case, I suppose it was pessimism. As a naive college student I went to Washington, D.C. to participate in the "Turn Your Back on Bush" event and went home that evening feeling like an imbecile. But pessimism in itself is a foolish reason not to support an endeavors like this. How much progress has been made by people who shrug off action with the insistence that it won't work, so why bother trying?

It nevertheless strikes me as odd that liberals, Democrats, and other ideological sympathizers would roll their eyes at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

A friend of mine working for the Obama reelection campaign dismisses the group as a bunch of kids without a plan. "They're event organizers, not community organizers. They have no structure, no organization. What they're doing won't translate into votes."

Another friend of mine expresses her reservations more succinctly. When I expressed my sympathy for the demonstration, she began to press me for explanations and answers.

  • What are they trying to do? Specifics, please.
  • What do they hope to change?
  • Seriously, what do they hope to accomplish with this?
  • They won't accomplish anything. What they're doing is pointless.

When I mentioned that eighty people had been arrested on Monday (9/26), she asked me if they had a permit to gather at the park and on the streets.

"Not to my knowledge," I answered.

"Well, there you go," she said with a dismissive shrug.

(Does it seem strange to anybody else that many of the same people who cheered on the broke, twenty-something student participants in the Arab Spring uprisings a few months back are now sneering and rolling their eyes at the Occupy Wall Street kids?)

(No? Not even a little?)

Well, let's examine some of this. First: what is their message? What's the point they're trying to make?

The demonstrators' lack of a unified message and prescriptive agenda is a problem, but hardly a surprising one. During a period of recession, war, governmental intransigence, income disparity, widespread under/unemployment, people have a hard time narrowing their list of grievances down to a two-sentence mission statement. But Occupy Wall Street has the advantage of being an ongoing (and apparently growing) movement. As long as the demonstrations persist, there will be time to hone their messages and goals. Two different statements have been floating around the web lately; I'm not sure which, if either, should be counted as the "official" version. 

Short version:


1. Campaign Finance Reform 

All votes are no longer equal in our Democracy. Money must be put outside of politics, or politicians will continue to pander to those who contribute the most to their campaigns, rather than their own constituencies. Specifically, we abhor the decision by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC. Corporations are NOT people. 

2.True Shared Sacrifice 

While corporate profits have been skyrocketing and the wealthy have been getting wealthier, the average worker’s income has dramatically dropped. While the cost of living has exponentially increased, wages have not followed. It has been shown time and time again that tax cuts for the wealthy are NOT effective. Taxes on those who practice greed should be raised. 

3.Equality in Justice 

This great nation was founded on liberty, but also, on equality. When the balance of justice is swayed in favor of those with wealth, the very fabric of this nation is torn apart. The decision of a judge should not be based upon the race, creed, or wealth of an individual, but rather, the content of the case. 

4.The End of the Revolving Door 

The Obama administration was supposed to bring change and hope to our country, but instead, brought us into despair and insecurity. Those working in his administration are the very people whom we are fighting against. Those who enter Washington should not be representatives of the elites, but representatives of the people. One cannot simply enter an administration, reap its benefits, and simply exit. 

Long version:

As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their brethren; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that 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.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give CEO’s exorbitant bonuses.

They have perpetuated gender inequality and discrimination in the workplace.

They have poisoned the food supply, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.

They have continuously sought to end the rights of workers to negotiate their pay and make complaints about the safety of their workplace.

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.

They have sold our privacy as a commodity.They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty book keeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.

They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.

They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.

They have participated in a directly racist action by accepting the contract from the State of Georgia to murder Troy Davis.

The first is obviously preferable to the second, but neither is exactly the Declaration of Independence or Ninety-Five Theses. We can pick apart their wording, inclusiveness, punctuation, and overall relevance to the general purpose of the event, but that's beside the point. If you wanted to know what the demonstrators are worked up about, these should give you a decent idea.

The demonstrators' unifying belief is this: as it stands now, American capitalism exists to benefit an entrenched wealthy minority at the expense of the majority, and that this situation cannot be allowed to stand. 

Agree or disagree? 

The circumstances themselves are not a matter of opinion. From Paul Krugman:

Since the late 1970s the America I knew has unraveled. We’re no longer a middle-class society, in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared: between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose only 13 percent, but the income of the richest 0.1% of Americans rose 296 percent.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, executive salaries have been increasing at a fast and accelerating pace. In 1980, the average American CEO earned 54 times the salary of his average employee. By 2000, the average American CEO was pulling in 548 times the salary of his average employee.** (These stats courtesy of Kevin Murphy and

Right now the unemployment rates are holding strong at about nine percent. If we combine this with the percentage of underemployed Americans (who work part time because they cannot find full time employment), we get a number close to twenty percent. (Neither of these numbers account for wage slaves -- people who work full time, but still don't earn enough to buy themselves a decent standard of living. Back when I worked for Borders, several members of my store's managerial staff worked full time, but still couldn't afford to move out of their parents' houses.)

Circumstances being what they are, I have a difficult time fathoming why a thinking person would categorically oppose the Occupy Wall Street crowd's cause. Three possibilities do spring to mind:

1.) You have yet to slip and fall into the widening income gap. (In this case, just give it a few years.)

2.) You're an upper-percentile earner and helping to push people into the gap. (Why should you see anything wrong with this arrangement?)

3.) You suffer from Broke Southerner Syndrome. Mr. Pangrac explains the condition thusly: 

Most [people] railing against the so-called 'Obama tax hikes' a couple months ago wouldn't have been affected by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent because (duh) they aren't in the top two percent. But they're all convinced they might become rich some day, so they all argue for a system of low taxes for the wealthy in the hopes that one day they'll benefit from it. Just as many of the Confederate soldiers fought to preserve the slave system even if they didn't own slaves or directly benefit from the system's existence; they hoped they may someday be rich enough to own slaves, so they'll fight for the system.

In reality, the United States has one of the lowest social mobility rates of the developed world.

Though my friend on the Obama campaign probably won't dispute the facts or the necessity of reform, she disdains Occupy Wall Street for its methods. If we are really dissatisfied with the economic disparity in this country, she says, we should be trying to increase voter turnout -- specifically, voters for the Democratic ticket.

Funny. I thought that's what we did in 2008.

Not that nothing good has come from the Obama administration, but he's certainly proved himself a sorry excuse for a progressive leader. When shown a crumbling foundation, the best he could manage was to spackle some cement over the surface of the cracks and call it a day.

But what would you expect from a candidate whose campaign was subsidized by Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, UBS AG, etc.?

(And where do you suppose his reelection funds are coming from now that he's squandered his razzle-dazzle with "small donors?")

Complaining that the Wall Street demonstrations won't increase voter turnout rings more than a little hollow when our elected officials have proven themselves impotent at best and perfidious at worst. With both major political parties panicking at the Tea Party scarecrow, the whole Republican Party has made its fundamental opposition to economic progressivism absolutely clear, while the Democrats are too worried about the independent vote x-factor to risk being pilloried as "job killers" or "prosperity haters." Now that Citizens United has allowed wealthy entities (corporate or otherwise) to pump as much money as they like into prospective officials' campaign coffers, we may reasonably expect 2012 candidates proposing some methodical means of moving wealth from the pockets of the wealthiest 1% toward the other 99% to find themselves the subject of relentless multimedia attacks paid for by representatives of the 0.01.

Do you suppose that this will lead to future candidates being less friendly or more friendly to the interests of big business and Wall Street (even when these interests are often in direct opposition to the those of their constituents)?

With all respect to my friend on the Obama campaign, I don't think the demonstrators' energy would be better spent trying to rally Democratic party votes.

Without some additional leverage, none of our policymakers are likely to feel compelled to make a serious move against the one percent for the sake of the ninety-nine -- especially, again, since Citizens United has effectively made them more beholden to the one percent than ever before.
When I look at the Occupy Wall Street campaign, what I see is a river without a turbine.

As the river swells and grows in momentum, so does its potential.

This is a show of willpower. It is one thing to bitch about the state of things; to tweet links to Huffington Post articles, to slap political statements on our back bumpers, or to copy/paste a pre-written letter in an email to our congressman about the hot-button issue du jour. None of these speak of much initiative. It is another thing entirely to show that you are willing to camp out in the October rain, risk violence and arrest, and put your personal income on freeze in order to make a point.

I don't expect the demonstrations to have much immediate persuasive impact on the denizens of Wall Street or Congress. But the longer they persist, and the more support they receive, the more difficult it will be to ignore them. It will also increase the likelihood that the hitherto quiet, inactive sympathizers will feel compelled to step out of their comfort zones and take a more proactive stance on the problems we face rather than just complain about them.

Right now, the demonstrators' lack of a prescriptive solution should not be held against them. At the risk of presenting a disproportionate metaphor, sniping at them at them for their not having a step-by-step plan is akin to ragging on the Founders for not having a pre-drafted Constitution and governmental org charts in place before signing the Declaration of Independence. First thing's first: before anyone can demand systemic change, it must be shown that the people demanding it speak for a sizable portion of the populace and that they're not about to just go away.

No change has ever occurred without impetus.

If we write off the demonstration -- especially if we sympathize with its basic aims -- because we believe nobody will take it seriously, we show ourselves to be even more useless than the demonstrators.

If you are an American citizen suffering from under or unemployment, wage stagnation, unreasonable healthcare or housing costs, or simply feel appalled at the unscrupulous behavior of big business, you have no reason not to support Occupy Wall Street. If any of these criteria apply to you and you live in or around New York City, there is no reason not to participate if you are able.
Your grievances will only receive lip service until you give those in power a reason to take you seriously.

Ezra Pound (we will say nothing of the unfortunate conclusions to which his political convictions led him) once wrote: 

When the total nation hasn't or cannot obtain enough food for its people, that nation is poor. When enough food exists and people cannot get it by honest labour, the state is rotten, and no effort of language will say how rotten it is. But for a banker or professor to tell you that the country cannot do this, that or the other because it lacks money is as black and foetid a lie, as grovelling and imbecile, as it would be to say it cannot build roads because it has no kilometres.... 

It is the business of the STATE to see that there is enough money in the hands of the WHOLE people, and in adequately rapid EXCHANGE, to effect distribution of all wealth produced and produceable. Until every member of the nation eats three times a day and has shelter and clothing, a nation is either lazy or unhealthy.

I don't know what, if anything, will come from these demonstrations. But the American economic divide will only have a chance at being addressed with any degree of seriousness if the people suffering from it make it impossible for it not to be addressed. This means to stop blogging and bitching and put yourself on the line -- or to at least offer support to the people who are.

I've mentioned earlier that I'm in the process of moving to Pennsylvania. Next weekend I intend to head back east and spend at least one day in Manhattan. Even if the demonstrations ultimately come to nothing, it's better to participate in a worthy cause than to sit on the sidelines conjecturing about its chances of success. 

UPDATE: As I was proofreading this, I noticed an article on BBC News: Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters arrested. Good. I see this as a test of the demonstrators' resolve. I sincerely hope they will not disappoint. (My plans to revisit Zuccotti Park next weekend remain unchanged.) 

** Early 2011 update, from's J. Jennings Moss: 

The last year for which Murphy has done the calculation is 2009. The ratio was 264.4 percent—the smallest difference between CEO and employee in 13 years. Average compensation in 2009 was $8.47 million while the average worker made just over $32,000. One note: Included in a CEO's compensation were stock options granted, and Murphy figured their worth based on the date they were granted.
Murphy said much of the recent focus on pay can be traced to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that passed Congress last year. That law required firms to report the median pay for all workers and compare it with the pay for the. [sic] "The provision serves no purpose but to try to 'shame' CEOs into lower pay...what this is doing in a 'Wall Street Reform Act' defies logic," Murphy wrote in an email to

"The 'level' of pay is the perceived problem they are trying to solve. But...what is the right ratio? How do we know if it is too high or too low?" Murphy wrote. "Isn't it probably mostly a measure of the type and location of business? For example, smaller highly skilled white-collar firms will have low ratios, while manufacturing firms with many low-cost foreign plants will have high ratios. So what?"

That's the question that a bunch of very highly paid business executives are pondering in Davos. Or not. As Justin Fox writes: "It's hard to imagine major progress on the subject of economic inequality being made over cocktails at ski resort."

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