Why Occupy Wall Street Matters
As Occupy Wall Street enters its third month, and as scrutiny exponentially increases with each passing day, see some of the real reasons it truly matters, regardless of political background.
Earlier this year, American politicians, pundits, and civilians widely applauded the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East–a wave of political and social unrest which ousted many long-time dictators–as smashing successes for democracy; however, the opinion regarding the Occupy Wall Street protests in our own country is decidedly less unanimous or approving. However, despite arguments that the protesters are naught more than a “public nuisance” or simply an aimless and malcontent mob, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement represents one of the most fundamental “safeguards” within the framework of democracy: the right to protest. This right, when used properly, has the power to bring focus to matters of importance, when all else fails to do so; to empower those with influence, by providing them with a platform with which to speak out on subjects that are normally politically distasteful or avoided; and also to promote and contribute to a healthy and accountable democracy, as opposed to simply ridiculing and condemning for no constructive reason. While you’ll naturally formulate your own opinions on which assertions or claims are true or not, in this essay I will at the very least provide you with an accurate portrayal of the seemingly riotous, unruly position of the Occupy Wall Street movement – beginning with why protest in general is a desirable aspect of democracy!
Imagine if the leadership of a country simply began ignoring the pressing needs of their people, despite having irrefutable evidence and statistics stating the desperation of their situation. Would this be considered in any way a stable, functional, and legitimate government? Many consider protest to be an undesirable, destructive result of malcontent among the masses; however, still others consider it a benchmark with which to gauge the success or failure of a country’s leadership. Regardless of how it is defined, one thing is for certain: protest promotes accountability, particularly in the absence of such, politically. This very accountability is necessary if a government can be expected to achieve its ultimate goal of providing a high quality of life to as many of its citizens as possible. How else would the government identify its own shortcomings, if not by being held accountable for their actions and policies? By staging protests and receiving widespread support, Occupy Wall Street draws a “line in the sand” separating the “1%”, who the protests claim have made their millions off a system that unfairly caters to them, and the remaining “99%”, the downtrodden and undervalued middle-class. By clearly identifying this division, the movement inherently forces those who choose to acknowledge the movement to also display their support of one or the other, ferreting out accountability with undeniable precision! Even now right-leaning politicians are scrambling to find a way to distance themselves from the causes for the protests, going so far as to change–very particularly–their wording of certain subjects, in order to prevent themselves from inadvertently “painting themselves into a corner” with the movements constituency. However, by devoting themselves to simply trying to manipulate and “outmaneuver” the protests instead of understanding and relating to them, those involved only succeed in providing prime examples of the overall “point” of the protests themselves–that the very close relationship between Wall Street and the political system has resulted in the neglect of the middle and lower classes. However, for some, the actual purpose and intentions of the Wall Street movement aren’t quite as clear as they seem!
As the Occupy Wall Street movement moves ahead, its longevity has resulted in an increasing amount of scrutiny and criticism. However, as Jim Tankersley points out in his article “For Occupiers, Protest Is the Point”, it would seem that many are putting far too much emphasis on the minute, specific details of the Occupy movements’ creed, missing the more relevant and important issue at hand! The complex diversity of the American public results in a high level of difficulty in reaching a majority agreement on any number of debates, a fact that is reaffirmed with every poll that’s released. With this in mind, shouldn’t the sheer amount of support garnered by the Occupy Wall Street movement validate its right to be considered and heard? While the various members within Occupy may have a broad spectrum of motives and reasons, their common wish to identify and rectify a shared grievance–regarding the failed policies of their government–is as American as apple pie or baseball. Looking back to such protests as the civil rights movement, the 60s, or–more recently– the protests in Madison, one can find numerous examples of the sometimes disastrous results that stem from ignoring the plight of a unified group for too long. However, these historical examples also provide us with the blueprint for handling the Occupy Wall Street movement; by responding quickly and considerately the changes needed to bring about a peaceful resolution become infinitely easier to achieve, especially considering that the general outcry from the movement has been that the middle and lower classes are being ignored. By protesting, Occupy Wall Street protesters are playing the only card they feels they have left to make their voices heard, not to submit their personal solutions to the nation’s problems, but simply to accentuate the fact that the American public is generally upset. Essentially, as long as Wall Street–and Washington–is able to see, in no uncertain terms, just how upset citizens are, Occupy Wall Street’s endeavor to make sure that that fact remains at the forefront of their minds will continue to be a smashing success!
Unfortunately, many of the true economic and political decision-makers take quite a bit more than a group of upset citizens to be convinced that their decisions have been less than successful! Luckily, the increasing amount of support shown to the Occupy movement has provided more outspoken, influential public figures with the opportunity to speak their minds, knowing they have the support of the people to reinforce their stances. These figures have the influence and profile to potentially sway the opinions of officials who may otherwise have dismissed the protests as nothing more than baseless malcontent. Regrettably, many politicians and policy-makers seem to “shape” their decisions based on sustaining the lifestyles that many of the wealthy have become accustomed to; however, it becomes much more difficult to reconcile maintaining that approach when those very people are asking you to do the opposite. Furthermore, as more and more of the “rich and famous” proclaim their willingness to sacrifice–in order to satisfy the “Occupiers” grievances– the more clear it becomes that the arguments being made must have at least some credibility; otherwise, what could possibly convince Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and the countless other millionaires who have petitioned Congress to raise their taxes, to volunteer themselves for less income? Yet another group empowered by the protests to stand up and take a stance are the politicians themselves. By showing just how much of the public supports their cause, the Occupy movement has cleared the way for political figures –who may have had concerns about how their own constituencies felt on the issue–to bring the topic up without fearing retribution, as remarks regarding the protests are now made daily by nearly all public figures. Instead of being antagonistic, the topic of Occupy Wall Street has become accepted political dialogue, rising above simple partisan politics or political posturing, to the realm of legitimate nationwide debate. As long as the topic remains at the forefront of American day-to-day culture, the potential to attract influential and powerful support to its cause remains one of the primary utilities of the Occupy Wall Street protests. However, as the saying goes,”With with great power, comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, stemming from the unavoidably chaotic nature of protest, Occupy Wall Street’s responsibility has become the source of some of the more audacious and unfair attacks that have been made against it.
Despite its constructive objectives, many of Occupy Wall Street’s critics point to the destructive side effects it has produced as a reason to forcibly restrain or even end the movement, altogether. While there is truth to the claim that the sheer amount of people is enough to cause health and sanitation concerns, the suggestion that this translates to the movement itself being dangerous, violent, or needlessly destructive, is quite a different matter. As is the case with any large group, there are always those who will have more aggressive, instinctive personalities. Furthermore, matters of such import as the one being protested by Occupy Wall Street generate quite a bit more vitriol than a discussion on which contestant on American Idol deserves to win. By its nature, a debate over income equality or political policy almost guarantees that a select few members on BOTH sides of the argument will take things to an unnecessary and potentially destructive level. However, as a society, America makes it a point to differentiate between what is indicates a common trait, and what is simply limited to a certain few individuals rather than the group as a whole.
In “The Organizers vs. The Organized in Zuccotti Park”, Alex Klein of New York Magazine assumed the responsibility of going out into the now-famous Zuccotti Park, to personally interview a sampling of the Occupy Wall Street protesters there. What he found was a seeming microcosm of modern society, a hierarchy within the protesters that handled such matters as sanitation, comfort, and food. While speaking with a “cleaner”, an actual fistfight broke out amongst two protesters who were arguing over how to handle the task of maintaining the park’s sanitation and order, a task required so as not to be evicted from the park entirely. For each person dedicated to maintaining a public image of responsibility and maturity, there seemed to be a polarizing example of a protester simply wishing only to waste away at the biggest “party” in town, uncommitted to either the movement, its preservation, or promoting its image of respectability. In itself, this may seem to be case enough to force an end to the protests; after all, if half of the presumed hundreds of thousands protesting were as uninspired as the half of Klein’s examples, it would constitute a fairly legitimate reason to be concerned for the safety and health of those involved! However, to allow these opportunists to derail the entire movement would be a tragedy of monumental proportions, as these layouts are obviously not the same people who began the movement, and therefore should not be able to determine those people’s ability to effectively protest. In truth, the commitment of the true protesters to counteract the effects of these “fake protesters” only provides further evidence of just how much the issue being raised means to those involved. Rarely, in this society, are people willing to tolerate the laziness or carelessness displayed by the “fake protesters”, much less devote themselves to compensating for their damage; however, in Zuccotti Park they are doing just that, attempting to overcome the poor public image displayed by the less-than-committed protesters, by simply assuming the responsibility of cleaning up the mess, for the betterment of the entire movement. In doing so, Zuccotti Park has, essentially, displayed the traits Occupy Wall Street so desperately wishes to see adopted by their government: a willingness to accept the need for sacrifices in order to better the lives of the entire group!
While the health of the protesters may only concern those involved, many of those not directly
involved in Occupy Wall Street are displaying concern for the protests’ effects on the health of the country, itself! As the debate grows in scope and spectrum, the question of whether these protesters are simply “taking shots” at the country–instead of taking responsibility for their own shortcomings– has become more and more common. Many–mostly right-leaning–pundits claim that the majority of the protesters are nothing more than lazy, unemployed Americans who are irrationally frustrated that their own insufficient efforts to improve their situation haven’t borne fruit. These pundits claim that the movement ultimately only wants to ridicule, blame, and otherwise deride their country, while providing no real solutions, nor showing interest in providing them. While it would be easy to come to this conclusion, given the heated language being used by the protesters and their opponents alike, it would also fail to give proper consideration to why these debates reach such heated levels. Is it possible that the argument–that the government is responsible for their failures–is true? It has been proven time and time again that a government has immense–almost complete–control over the welfare and quality of life its citizens are subject to, so why would so many simply dismiss the Occupiers claims an unwillingness to accept their own failures? With the “experts” emphasizing how the character and qualities of the protesters affects the credibility of their claims that America is in trouble,
Douglas Schoen of the Wall Street Journal–in an attempt to clarify who is actually involved in the Occupy protests– refers to a polling of 200 Occupy protesters done by Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at his polling firm. The study concluded ,” The vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed, 15%, is within single digits of the national unemployment rate of 9.1%”. While this may not seem to be conclusive evidence that the protester’s claims that America is in need of fixing are accurate, it does exemplify the lengths which American society is willing to go to avoid admitting they have a problem, which is in itself a problem. While it can be expected that more than a few protesters may be victims of their own failures, to generalize an entire movement as a group of self-made failures may be a better example of what’s endangering America’s democracy than Wall Street. After all, it would seem that this same off-handed dismissal of their rights and interests is what inspired the movement’s creation in the first place, is it not? As easy as it is to dismiss another’s complaints as simple malcontent, it is just as easy to assume that simply because a country is subject to a highly publicized protest or debate that it is in some sort of danger or has failed as a nation, somehow.
On the contrary, as Robert Kuttner attempts to prove in his article “Protest and Possibility”, a healthy democracy can only exist when its citizens care as passionately about its flaws or deficiencies and rectifying them, as they do about the things that make it better or preferable to another country. One of the hallmarks of Adolf Hitler’s leadership ability was the ability to convince his subordinates of the merit and value of his line of thinking. While it has now been proven that some of his subordinates did, in fact, take issue with some of his ideals; it is easy to see what effects complacence and/or disinterest can have on a nation’s citizens, when faced with choosing between their love of their country and their need to see it do what is right. Unthinkable atrocities have been committed in the name of national solidarity, and while national unity is obviously something worth striving for, the line between pride in one’s nation and fanatic, blinding devotion to one’s nation can be a fine line indeed, yet no less important or pivotal of a distinction can be made. While Occupy Wall Street may seem as anti-American as slavery or oppression, those who can make the distinction between an attack on, and constructive criticism of, their country will begin to see the far broader reason why Occupy Wall Street matters.
By its very nature, the Occupy Wall Street movement exposes itself to intense scrutiny and ridicule. If protest went unnoticed, uncontested, or unexamined it would fail in its primary utility, to create and expand dialogue on the issues most important to those protesting. While the merits and validity of the REASONS for protest are of a more normative nature, the topic of whether a protest is either allowable by, or beneficial to, a democratic society is actually quite irrefutable! Historically, protests have proven to be the most effective tool a citizen has for ensuring that their voice is heard and their concerns heeded. These beliefs were vocally heralded by many of history’s most respected figures, including the likes of Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams, all revered proponents of democracy! As evidenced by the sweeping reforms being implemented across the historically oppressed nations in the Middle East–as well as the recent uprisings in Russia– it’s obvious that as the human race becomes more connected and the rights and freedoms each receive becoming more and more noticeable, the citizens of the countries of the world are becoming less reluctant to resort to the one tool they have complete control of: protest. As simple as it seems to surmise which revolutions–taking place elsewhere– are legitimate successes, and which are simply violent and senseless coups, it’s quite a different matter when attempting to form an opinion on the protests occurring in our own country.
Indeed, even a polling of my own friends and family came to the predictable conclusion that while most of those responding supported the OWS movement’s right to protest, as well as their purpose and goals, there were a few who either hadn’t seen enough to know what their purpose WAS or who supported their right to protest, if not their particular grievances! With such split decision amongst a family of admittedly liberal-leaning opinions–and given that many of my friends and family eagerly devote themselves to staying informed, especially on political topics– it becomes even easier to see how the protests themselves could become misunderstood, if one’s information wasn’t thoroughly vetted and complemented. However, although things seem much simpler when they aren’t happening “in your own back yard”; as we’ve discussed, effective protest ensures that regardless of political climate or effectiveness, everyday citizens will always have the tools to make their opinions and concerns heard, in times they deem extreme enough to warrant those tools’ use. Furthermore, so long as both sides of the “picket line” respect the guidelines and laws regarding such events, how can the unification of a group of people with a common grievance be BAD for our country? By providing for such ideological differences, our country continues to uphold the traditions and beliefs that inspired its founding in the first place. After all, it was this same spirit of unified unrest that convinced a group of British colonists to secede from their “homeland” in order to found a country that would forge an identity based on providing such freedoms!