Sunday, October 02, 2011

Recommended Reading on #OccupyWallStreet

Frank Pasquale

In previous posts, I've worried that a large-scale effort to protest inequality in the US would spark a backlash. But the Occupy Wall Street movement has carefully and skillfully built up a network of alliances (from local community groups and unions). As news outlets and citizens consider how to react to the hundreds of arrests made yesterday, they should be aware of these sources:

Mark Engler, Five Things That #OccupyWallStreet Has Done Right

Micah Sifry, #OccupyWallStreet: There's Something Happening Here, Mr. Jones.

Mike Konczal, Understanding the Theory Behind Occupy Wall Street’s Approach

Doug Henwood, The Occupy Wall Street non-agenda

Glenn Greenwald, What’s behind the scorn for the Wall Street protests?

Not surprisingly, the mainstream media has been condescending and dismissive. I recommend the alternative sources above because of the people I met on Thursday evening when I went to see the protest for myself.

Overall, I was impressed. I talked for about a half-hour with an Army reservist who had traveled from Indiana to take part in the protest. He told me that unemployment for returning troops from Iraq was near 35%. He said that, where he lived in Indiana, frustration with politicians from both parties had never been higher. He had slept in the plaza for a couple nights, but had to get back for reserve duty by the weekend.

Another protester had recently lost her job in New Jersey. She told me that she came to visit Zuccotti Park when it didn't interfere with her job search too much. She said that a a friend of hers who worked for a Wall Street firm as an accountant for $40,000 per year also plan to join the occupiers. According to her, he has been stuck in the same job at a stagnant pay level for years because more senior employees are too anxious to retire.

At 6PM there was a teach-in called "How to Tax Millionaires." A woman of about 25 gave a brief speech about how 136 millionaires in Congress were opposing the "Buffett Rule," and she urged us to sign fax forms to demand that they at least allow the legislation to be considered. We also had a good discussion about tax havens, UK Uncut, and the need to equalize taxation on labor and capital gains.

The atmosphere was both positive and serious-minded. A band played music or drums that could be heard throughout the plaza. A group manned laptops on stone blocks. Dozens of beds and cots, covered in plastic, spread diagonally from southeast to northwest. I didn't catch the "church" vibe that Matt Stoller describes, but I did find this description of his spot-on:

Many of the organizers were inspired by Wisconsin and Egypt, by attacks on teachers, by corruption on Wall Street, by money in politics, and are just happy to be out in the streets after a long period of absence of formal protest. . . [U]ltimately, the energy of just having a bunch of people in one place for a long period of time is very different, and much more interesting, than just a march. The protesters are creating a public space for the discussion of economic justice, just by showing up. Some told me they are planning teach-ins.

And you can sort of tell that this protest really bothers the community on Wall Street, stirring up deep existential questions for the people that work there, many of whom know there is a spectacle going on in the streets below. I don’t think anyone knows where and how this ends, or if it does. . . . But perhaps success and failure isn’t the right way to think about what’s going on in downtown New York, any more than thinking about a church as successful or failed based on its political objectives is the right way to think about how those in the pews satisfy their thirst for spiritual vigor. What these people have found in themselves, and created for each other, is meaning.

For some, the question is how to channel the meaning into concrete demands. (Mike Konczal suggests three: create a financial transaction tax, investigate Wall Street, and forgive bad mortgage debt.) I have heard that OWS is working toward a list of demands now. The right to formulate these demands, express them, and petition government in a way that can actually get results is at the core of the First Amendment the framers gave us. I hope the NYPD remember this as they watch the protest---and that, as Jamie Kilstein tweeted, "NYPD, when your benefits get cut, these were the kids that were trying to save them."

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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