By Reid Mukai, CAGJ Co-Chair
The dominance of neoliberal policies has made our world a crony capitalist dystopia. Wall Street connected legislators give multi-trillion dollar bailouts to big banks and corporations (1) as war-profiteers continue to reap benefits of both a “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs” costing trillions more taxpayer dollars (2). Infrastructure of cities and towns decay while police become increasingly militarized and the largest corporations boast record profits. According to a 2010 AFL-CIO analysis of 299 U.S. companies in the S&P 500, average gross CEO pay was about 11.4 million dollars, 343 times the median wage (the widest gap in the world) (3). Banksters, big agribusiness and corrupt lawmakers make healthy food inaccessible for growing numbers of people around the world while basic health care continues to become prohibitively expensive thanks to bloated medical, insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile corporate-owned media distracts and disinforms the masses just enough for the top-heavy self-destructively corrupt system to drag on a little longer. So when a group of activists (organized largely through the internet and social media) took a stand to occupy Wall Street, they also occupied the collective imagination. Occupiers’ critiques of corrupt political and economic systems are nothing new but today they’re so transparently and demonstrably true, occupation sites spread like wildfire across the country and world faster than the establishment’s concerted efforts to extinguish it with propaganda and violent coercion.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) represents another tipping point for international outrage in the context of a global struggle for justice and democracy. From late last year mass anti-austerity protests swept through European and Mediterranean countries while earlier this year Arab Spring revolutionary movements sprang up in the Middle East and North Africa (which I previously wrote about <a href=”http://www.cagj.org/2011/03/roots-of-recent-uprisings-by-reid-mukai-cagj-co-chair/”>here</a>) and in some cases continue today. Though there’s differences in the nature of the situations and struggles, what’s shared in common is growing awareness and desire to put an end to mass suffering and injustice due to neoliberal policies dictated by powerful institutions. Such institutions include Wall Street, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Government, and all other governments and organizations they’re aligned with and/or have influence over. Their policies include elimination of trade barriers, regressive taxation, private central banks, budget cuts for social services, privatization of public resources and deregulation. The top 1% would like us to believe these measures are necessary to strengthen the economies of nations and improve government efficiency but in reality it has done the opposite. There’s overwhelming evidence from around the world linking neoliberalism to erosion of democracy and national sovereignty, militarism, increased corruption and wealth disparity, weakened infrastructures, widespread unemployment and poverty, inflation, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation (4). Because wealth and power of big banks and corporations drastically increases under this system, the 1% would also like us to think no alternatives are possible. However, following a long tradition of dissident movements, OWS owes its existence to the desire to create alternatives that put people over profits.
Like all evolving social movements, Occupy Wall Street isn’t perfect. They’ve made strategic mistakes and have internal struggles but have also shown remarkable determination and ability to learn and adapt. One of the most common critiques leveled against OWS is “they lack focus and need a specific list of demands.” Such criticism is unavoidable for organizations that are not single-issue but seek to change a complex system responsible for multiple interrelated problems. The structure of OWS also confuses people because unlike hierarchical models most are familiar with, occupiers tend to be open-source, decentralized and collaborative. Decisions are made through General Assemblies using a process of consensus decision making, a form of participatory democracy. As with most forms of direct democracy it’s often a slow and difficult, but far more open and inclusive to a diversity of voices than republics and non-democratic systems. It also ensures that the decisions made benefit as many people as possible as equally as possible. What critics forget is that America’s forefathers (all wealthy white men) didn’t get around to drafting a constitution and declaration of independence until after the revolution. OWS might not yet have an official list of demands but it’s not difficult to find statements and documents online to get an idea of their values and goals, such as the NYC General Assembly’s Principles of Solidarity (5).
Other common charges against the Occupy Movement frequently parroted by corporate news include “protesters are too lazy to get a job”, “they’re just a bunch of dirty hippies” and “they’re looking for a confrontation with police”. These stereotypes can be dispelled simply by visiting an occupation site or talking to people at OWS rallies. Judging from the people I’ve met and heard interviews with, many have part time positions while others include students seeking jobs with which they can pay off student loans. Some unemployed activists were recently laid off and are still searching for jobs. To put their situation in perspective, in the sixties the unemployment rate was just over 4% while today the rate has more than doubled. When counting workers who are “underutilized” and “marginally attached”, the rate jumps to 16.7% (6). Out of the approximately 14 million unemployed in America, 46%, or over 6 million have been unemployed for 6 months or longer (7). In some cases unemployed homeowners at risk for foreclosure are trapped by underwater mortgages and couldn’t relocate even if they did find jobs elsewhere.
Though in our current system most of us need jobs and wages to access basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, all could be provided for free with just a fraction of the current number actually working (8). Approximately 60,000 tons of food is wasted annually to keep prices high (9) while banks faced with a glut of foreclosed homes demolish them to avoid taxes, maintenance costs and devalued markets (10). Companies such as H & M and Walmart have even been caught destroying unused clothing (11). More jobs might encourage more complacency but would do nothing to resolve structural problems such as overproduction outstripping demand, wealth disparity, devastating economic bubbles, corporate monopolization, and a culture of greed and hyperconsumerism. What could be a solution is a better socio-economic system, the creation of which is one of the Occupation’s fundamental principles of solidarity.
Ad hominem attacks against OWS regarding hygiene and appearance initially struck me as oddly childish and superficial. Camping without a shower would have the same effect on anyone and it has nothing to do with the issues. Then I recalled how characterizing groups as “dirty” and subhuman is typical of ruling elites’ tried and true “divide and conquer” strategy. In this case it seems like an attempt to prevent the average corporate news consumer from paying attention to the ideas of OWS and identifying with them as part of a unified 99%. A leaked memo from a lobbying firm has already confirmed an $850,000 proposal to spread “negative narratives” about the Occupy Movement (12). Occupiers are also certainly not all hippies. OWS includes people representing a wide spectrum of backgrounds and ideologies. Many tend to be on the progressive side but I’ve also met libertarians at Occupy events holding some beliefs associated with the Tea Party. Not surprisingly, at a recent joint Occupy/Tea Party forum in Memphis, the two groups clashed on certain issues but also found points of agreement such as frustration regarding unresponsiveness of government to average citizens and opposition to bank bailouts and crony capitalism (13). With further conversation the groups may find many other common interests such as ending perpetual wars on terror and drugs, eliminating NAFTA and similar unfair trade agreements, abolishing or restructuring the Federal Reserve, prohibiting militarized police state tactics, protecting civil liberties, creating fair election and mass media systems, and keeping pollutants out of our air, food and water. These are shared goals that 99% of the rest of the world could agree with as well.
Most critics who accuse OWS of trying to pick a fight with police usually don’t understand the purpose of non-violent civil disobedience and believe more conventional channels of political expression such as voting or letter writing are enough to fix the system. A central insight of OWS is that our problems go beyond politics to sources of power and wealth gaming the system and are in fact part of the same beast. Unfortunately voting and letter writing in themselves can do little to counteract massive amounts of money used to finance campaigns, shape legislation, and influence politicians and public opinion. When there are no longer true avenues of political and judicial redress, civil disobedience is exactly what is needed. It’s a tactic that has been used with great success in the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War and Women’s Suffrage movements as well as the American Revolution. Critics who complain about tax dollars wasted on policing Occupy sites need to remember that city officials decide how to spend that money (and how much violence police use). There has been incidences and allegations of sexual assault occurring on or near OWS camps reflecting a sad reality of our patriarchal society that even within groups trying to change the society it could still happen. Though a relatively rare occurrence, it’s a serious issue more OWS General Assemblies need to openly address and create preventative measures for as some have already done.
Conservative news channels like FOX focus disproportionately on reported crimes and isolated incidents associated with the Occupy Movement to create a false image of police simply defending themselves and the community. If that seems far-fetched, just google keywords “fox news” “ows” and “violence”. Other corporate news also cover such incidents in addition to police violence but usually within a limited context and far less airtime than similar protests in the Middle East. Independent and alternative media (including citizen journalists using social media, blogs and YouTube) have been by far the source of the most detailed and comprehensive coverage of OWS. Without independent cameras on the street, fewer people would have known about the mass pepper spraying, beating, tasering and rubber bullet shooting (all effectively forms of mass torture) of peaceful protesters across the country (14). Numerous videos and accounts can be found online revealing a pattern of coordinated violent crackdowns at all major Occupy sites including New York, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Denver, Berkeley, U.C. Davis, Portland, and Seattle (where among the victimized crowd were an 84 year old activist, a Methodist Pastor in clergy robe, and a young pregnant woman who miscarried a week later). Or how in Oakland, Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull from a gas canister shot at close range and 8 days later Afghanistan and Iraq War vet Kayvan Sabeghi was beaten by police while trying to return home. Unnecessary indiscriminate and excessive police brutality is nothing new, but citizens now have a greater ability to document and report it than ever before without censorship and distortion.
Such incidences of violent police provocation could have escalated to wide-scale riots were it not for the self-control of the Occupiers and their determination to remain a peaceful movement. They understand that besides being in a struggle for survival, they’re involved in a philosophical struggle for the hearts and minds of the world. To resort to violence would be to adapt the mentality of the oppressors and be maligned as threats to national security (though that’s often how they’re treated by the State). Police and military are well armed and trained to deal with violence but they’re not prepared to deal with public shaming and unarguable facts that may someday override orders, threats and conditioning from the 1%. There’s probably nothing ruling elites fear most than an awakened 99% united in solidarity, including people of all political and religious persuasions, occupations, races, and nations. Once that happens, one percenters know it’s “game over” so we should expect them to do everything in their power to divide and conquer, especially if as recent research has theorized, some of them may be literally psychotic (15). To counteract this effort, it’s more important than ever to think critically and stay informed. Be aware that it’s perfectly legal for corporate news media to lie (16) and there’s plenty of sources online to find more accurate and up-to-date information. Better yet, visit a local Occupy site or event to get firsthand knowledge about who they are and what they believe in. By becoming in effect a citizen journalist you’ll be well equipped to challenge common fallacies about OWS when talking to family, friends, coworkers and strangers. Whether they realize it or not, we’re all in it together. A Global Occupation may not bring utopia (probably nothing ever will), but it’s the best opportunity yet to prevent our world from falling further into dystopia.