Some interesting perspectives on Occupy Wall Street from my cousin in NYC. And I know what you’re thinking, and you are right. Activisty awesomeness isin my blood.
As a margin walker myself (having specific privileges, yet living within significant oppressions) I can both relate to my cousin’s perspective but also see it external support from someone who is not just like me. What he and I agree on most is that violence is not acceptable on either sides of this fight. Those who oppose us will be violent; they will be unjust. For that reason (among many others), we must be peaceful and promote justice. We must set the example - show them how it must be done. If we don’t then we are no better than our oppressors.
My cousin identifies himself as a capitalist. I’m identifying myself as a radical. Some radicals are anarchists (like those at the hub of Occupy Wall Street) and many radicals, myself included, are not. I believe that human beings thrive within structure. Structures are just skeletons of systems which make up the body of our societies. Systems control structures; who is in it, how it impacts them, and how much power they may have to change it. Power to change (to speak, to decide, to control) is at the center of human socio-cultural balance. Radicalism is about change – taking what is broken and using socially justice methods to find a new way to fix it. Radical does not equal ruthless. Deconstruction does not equal destruction. We can not build on broken glass or broken hearts. Our humanity must be more than preserved, it must be enlightened. Radicalism is about doing everything possible within a socially conscious and ethical framework to make positive change. Sometimes this happens in front of a desk, sometimes it happens on a city street - most often, it is both. Where ever it happens, we it must be through practices that rise above the ailments of humanity like selfishness, aggression, impatience, anger, pain, and try to embody the rare gifts of compassion, understanding, patience, empathy, sacrifice, inclusion, and love.
The importance of Occupy Wall Street I feel lies within the fact that there are people occupying Wall Street. There is movement in the streets, spreading to other places. Sometimes movement is significant, even if you don’t have any specific destination. Never underestimate the power of people in the streets. And then the power of knowing what happens to those people. Occupy Wall Street may not have a strict agenda, but it has something else – people and growing popularity. The growing visibility surrounding 1) the fact that there are people in this country willing to sacrifice the time and safety to send a message of unity and discontent 2) how the country, the media, the public, and the police are handling those people is politically, culturally, historically invaluable to everyone.
And bringing it back to “everyone” and diverse thinking: My cousin is a capitalist, but like me, he thinks and acts differently from what is demanded by societal systems. He does not remain silent in the face of oppression or turn blindly from movements of hate. He takes actions to promote change, and capitalist or not, that makes him radical. Movement is everywhere, and change, in some form or another, is coming.
The roots of Occcupy Wall Street are radical and anarchist, by which I mean that the people who organized it and who are at the heart of the occupation of Zuccotti Park are of that persuasion. Relatedly, the “aims” of the occupation are fairly diffuse. Anarchists don’t just think that corporate greed is bad or that the bailouts were wrong; they think that democracy as currently practiced in the United States is not just flawed but actually unredeemable. This explains nonsense like the list of “demands” they released, in which college loan debt forgiveness leads the pack of “ridiculous stuff that will never happen and which doesn’t really have anything to do with corporate malfeasance anyway.”
This is a present issue with protests generally, and leftist protests in particular: lots of people have their own individual agendas that don’t necessarily cohere into good soundbites or an actionable policy agenda. Arguably this was true of the Tea Party protests early-on, though they were always a little more united under an anti-tax banner - but it wasn’t clear what the main other objectives of that movement (IE, would social issues play a role, or not?) were for quite some time. This is a double-edged sword. People are looking at the OWS action and wondering what exactly it stands for, and this makes observers question its seriousness. At the same time, the fact that the action remains fairly protean (especially as it grows) represents an opportunity for other organizations and less-radical people to redefine it more broadly.
This is why you see larger organizations with more achievable goals, such as labor unions, becoming involved with OWS. This is also why I decided to go to the march yesterday. I’m not interested in hitching my wagon to an anarchist agenda. I think our system is flawed, but better than many alternatives, including that one. (I could get derailed here by analyzing the extent to which my privilege plays into this perspective, but let’s not for now). However, I think that there’s entirely too much public pressure on the government from the right, and that this explains the tendency of the government to treat financial institutions with kid gloves. I think our imperfect society could be improved if it reckoned effectively with its deep and defining financial inequality; I think that the titans of industry in this country have felt frightfully little of the shame they’ve brought upon themselves for precipitating such a deep recession; and I think that public protest highlighting these issues is an effective way of resetting the terms of our discussion of them, which has been dominated by the Tea Party and politicians afraid of it.
As I’ve already stated, I’m not much of a radical. In fact, I’m a capitalist. Since graduating from college in 2005, I worked steadily (until September) for several private enterprises – including a financial institution that engaged in highly-leveraged risky trading of the sort that made the crisis so severe, which I left voluntarily in August 2008. I didn’t make a sign for my visit to Occupy Wall Street, but if I had, it would have read something like “Capitalist Against Greedy Jerks.” Apparently, my brother, who works in DC, received an email today warning him of impending “Anti-Capitalist Protests” there. I don’t think that’s by any means a fair way of characterizing this movement, which is already broader than its radical roots.
“Capitalist Against Greedy Jerks” is unfortunately not much of an actionable agenda, though I think it kind of sums up my knee-jerk affinity for the protesters, despite the fact that most of them are significantly more radical and crunchier than I am. As a friend who I attended yesterday’s march with said, “When I look at the Tea Party, and I look at this, I know what team I’m on.” And I think my team has not been in the game as much as it should be, given the profound questions our country faces. So I decided to go down to the march, and stand up and be counted. As did many other fellow travelers, who from my observation probably had more politically in common with me than they did with the anarchists at the heart of the Occupation.
(Incidentally, I really don’t think that the reporting on yesterday’s march has done a good job of representing its size. Obviously, my anecdotal perception is just that, but there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people there. It seems to me that Tea Party protests of similar size would be major national news).
As should be obvious, I don’t know exactly how to solve the issues that got us into this mess. I’m not an expert in financial regulation or taxation. In fact, I’m generally much better informed on social issues and foreign policy than I am on fiscal issues – a problem I think is unfortunately endemic on the left. That said, I think it is contingent on those of us who are standing up in relation to the Occupy Wall Street movement to have some concrete and possible policy demands. So, here goes:
- Obama should fire Tim Geithner. He’s clueless, as his comments about Wall Street’s rejection of Obama make clear, and he’s failed. This would be largely symbolic – I don’t imagine his next Treasury Secretary would be exactly Krugmanesque – but it would be a clear way to signal consciousness that this way has not worked.
- Obama should fill his remaining Fed appointments and educate the public about the effect that the Fed’s failure to pursue inflationary policies is having on our economy.
- Tax reform should include higher rates on Americans making more than $250,000 per year; elimination of the preference for capital gains; and elimination of loopholes that allow major corporations with huge profits to effectively pay little or no tax.
- The administration must re-address the mortgage/foreclosure crisis in a way that includes cram-downs and debt forgiveness in many more cases than currently.
- Obama should make a big, public, populist stand on the appointment of Richard Cordray as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
I don’t know if OWS will have any effect on these issues. Probably, they won’t. I don’t think that unions are all that animated about most of them, either – and if unions move the protests more mainstream, as I hope they will, then they probably won’t highlight these issues along the way. So it goes. The next time I head to the protests, though, I’ll be representing for some of these.
When I was getting ready to leave the protests yesterday, a man in a suit blustered past my friends and I and yelled at us to “get jobs.” I was really, really disappointed that he didn’t append, “hippie!” to his cliché, but no matter. In point of fact, he was right. I’m currently unemployed, and certainly if I currently had a day job I doubt I’d have been at the march, which started at 4 PM, yesterday. I was also unbothered by his anger for another reason: more than anything else, in this early stage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it exists to tick people like him off. I guess I don’t really know whether this man is a highfalutin banker – and I don’t think that it’s right for these protests to inconvenience all of the people of this city – but the fact that the protests got under his skin implies that they niggled his conscience just a tiny bit. And that, to me, is the most basic point: for the irresponsible drivers of our jalopy economy, who can’t be prosecuted for their recklessness because their destructive actions weren’t technically illegal, to at least feel a little hot under the collar, a little up-front and personal shame. I don’t think my current joblessness is anyone’s fault, or related to the financial crisis, for the record. I nevertheless think they deserve it.
A final note, on safety: I left the protests around 7:30 last night, right as people started chanting “March on Wall Street,” which has apparently been sealed off for weeks. I didn’t want to get involved in any rough stuff, honestly. I was prescient: not long after, a group of protesters began trying to access Wall Street, which I believe precipitated some of the scenes of violence captured on video last night. My greatest concern about the radical nature of the key organizers of this action is that there will be significant violence or unrest in the streets, which I think will (rightfully) tend to discredit the movement. Yes, I am a concern troll. Yes, it’s true that the NYPD is spoiling for a fight, as shown by the officers who so charmingly wished on-camera for their nightsticks to get a workout last night. But from a pragmatic standpoint, nothing will be gained and a great deal will be lost from further violence. So I hope that among the activists, cooler heads will prevail.