Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering. That includes me, albeit with reservations.
As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.
On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”
Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?
Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?
Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:
The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.
Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time. Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.
Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional. I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.
In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:
In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.
Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.
Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.
You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.
And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.
OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning. That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.
While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change. That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.
History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ. Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5. All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.
The same can be said for the Tea Party. Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes. Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority. Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.
So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are. Learn from history. If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.
That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column. He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry. Nice try, Tom. Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years. As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.
So what should the protesters demand or do? Here’s two suggestions for starters. First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House. Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer. Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it. Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.
Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013. There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign. There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families. Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.
Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.