Unhappy Campers: The Occupy Movement & the Election

By Pasquale, Frank | Commonweal, September 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Unhappy Campers: The Occupy Movement & the Election


Pasquale, Frank, Commonweal


Nearly a year after it began, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which quickly turned into the larger Occupy movement, continues to confound the media in ways small and large. In some early reports it came off as little more than a festival for the counterculture. Soon some observers feared--while others hoped--it was a rehearsal for some kind of revolution.

The revolutionary impulse was fueled by a few outrageous numbers. Twenty-five hedge-fund managers had been paid, in one year, as much as 650,000 entry-level teachers--and the teachers had to pay higher taxes. In 2010, 93 percent of the economy's gains went to the top 1 percent, which owns more than 60 percent of the nation's financial securities and business equity. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent is saddled with more than 70 percent of personal debt, and the bottom 40 percent own less than half a percent of the nation's wealth.

Impressive as they were, the raw numbers weren't enough. They had to be translated into a language that was morally resonant and intelligible to non-economists. Not surprisingly, references to the Bible were not uncommon among the protesters. The anthropologist David Graeber proposed a debt jubilee to redress decades of rising inequality. Chaplains and rabbis carried a golden calf around Zuccotti Park. Late last year Catholics United brought the calf to Washington, where they petitioned House Speaker John Boehner to support a tax on financial transactions. At the center of New York's financial district, Christian occupiers reminded the masters of the universe bustling past them in Brooks Brothers suits that it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.

I visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment about six times before it was expelled in late fall. The Occupiers I met brought news I wasn't reading in the New York Times. I talked with an Army reservist who had traveled from Indiana to take part in the protest. He said that where he lived frustration with politicians from both parties had never been higher. He had slept in the plaza for a couple of nights but had to get back for reserve duty by the weekend. He told me that unemployment for troops returning from Iraq was almost 35 percent. I thought that must be a problem particular to the rural Midwest--until I looked at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics website and found that for veterans aged twenty to twenty-four the national jobless rate is around 30 percent. Another protester had recently lost her position as a receptionist in New Jersey. She told me she came to Zuccotti Park whenever it didn't interfere with her job search.

By the end of Occupy Wall Street's first month, the reaction against it was already taking a predictable form: The occupiers were not to be taken seriously because they failed to make specific demands. The media had at first been mesmerized by police violence and the spectacle of disorder so near the site of the 9/11 attacks. But as days turned into weeks and then months, journalists began to focus less on the novelty of the encampment and more on the refusal of OWS's General Assembly to lay out a detailed policy agenda. In late September members began to propose demands at the website OccupyWallSt.org, but these were never formalized into an official list.

There were to be no litmus tests for membership in the movement, no platform on which to run a primary campaign against squishy Democratic politicians. OWS did not try to chase out libertarians or socialists. It welcomed nearly everyone, unconcerned with "message discipline: which is widely supposed to be the sine qua non of effective political movements in an age of fragmented media.

At the height of OWS's fall activities, there were encampments in more than a thousand cities. But after the crackdowns and the arrival of winter, the movement seemed to go into partial hibernation, and people began to speculate it would never fully reawaken. …

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