2011 is shaping up to be the year of the protest, the time when ordinary Americans — laborers, teachers, police, those struggling for work — are finally banding together to let their voices be heard, and “fighting the power”. And it all began right here in Wisconsin as a reaction to Governor Walker’s stripping of collective bargaining rights for those who provide our most needed services. The people spoke out, petitioned for recalls, and won.
The Republicans can say the recalls showed that Wisconsinites support them because not all of their candidates were tossed out. And, of course, many people do support them, as is their right. But it is also true that two Republicans were removed, none of the Democrats were, and the balance of power has shifted to a more even keel — with moderate Republican Dale Schultz now becoming a mediator between two diametrically opposed factions.
But the figurative fire did not stop in Madison… it spread east to New York. If we are to believe journalist John Nichols and Representative Mark Pocan, the people in the streets of New York City are the logical extension of what was previously a local phenomenon. Occupy Wall Street, based in NYC’s Zuccotti Park, began September 17 and as of this writing has only grown with no signs of slowing down.
Those who march in the streets, waving their banners, believe in a variety of related objectives: reducing social and economic inequality, ending corporate greed, and halting the influence of corporate money and lobbyists. The protesters include persons of a variety of political orientations, including liberals, political independents, conservatives, socialists, anarchists, libertarians and environmentalists. This is one of the few times you might see a Tea Party member pushing for smaller government holding hands with an avowed socialist and anti-capitalist.
For those who say that the Occupy movement has no coherent message, they have not been paying attention. From day one the stated goal was simple: a presidential commission to separate money from politics. This goal may sound lofty, but it is a common sense solution for everyone — Republicans want union money out of politics just as much as liberal Democrats want corporate money to stop flowing. I stress “liberal” Democrats, because far too many Democrats have been suckling off the teat of big business.
Surprisingly, the response from politicians has been favorable. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “People have a right to protest, and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.” Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold says, “This is like the Tea Party – only it’s real… By the time this is over, it will make the Tea Party look like … a tea party.” Feingold’s polar opposite, Ron Paul, has many supporters on the ground. He says, “If they were demonstrating peacefully, and making a point, and arguing our case, and drawing attention to the Fed — I would say, ‘good!'”
The financial sector mat be seen as the enemy, but some people sympathize. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “People are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what’s happening…. Certainly, nine percent unemployment and very slow growth is not a good situation.” Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard W. Fisher said, “We have too many people out of work. We have a very uneven distribution of income. We have a very frustrated people, and I can understand their frustration.” But, what will they do about it?
The Democratic Party has tried to co-opt the movement as their own, urging people to forget the mistakes they have made. Do they remember President Clinton repealing regulations on the banking industry? Suddenly the Democrats have become amnesiacs. The Republican approach has been to attack the messenger rather than the issues they bring up. Presidential candidate Herman Cain bluntly said, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor calls out the new position of the Democrats, saying “some in this town have condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans.” To Cantor, the unemployed demanding work and fair pay is a civil war — but drafting bills that destroy these families is not. Revolutions do not begin in a vacuum.
The protest is further supported by countless academics, authors, actors and musicians. Celebrity endorsement should not count for much, but a protest concerning the economy is in good hands when it has Nobel award-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on its side. Most surprising, at least to me, is one celebrity not supporting the protests: arch-liberal, animal rights activist Alec Baldwin, who told the crowds, “Capitalism is worthwhile and capitalism demands the flow of money… You want the banks to do what the banks do.”
By the fourth week, protests had spread to cities throughout the country and the world, with dozens — sometimes hundreds — getting arrested in Boston, Chicago, Des Moines and elsewhere. Activist professor Cornel West was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court while holding a sign denouncing poverty, and “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan was arrested in Sacramento. Now the story has come full circle, with protests erupting throughout Wisconsin. Madison and Milwaukee are doing their part, as are our smaller communities of Appleton and Green Bay, right here in your backyard. Rallies and marches began on October 15, and are scheduled to continue right on through winter.
Tom Ryan of Milwaukee tells me, “Some people think we want to destroy America. That is not true. We want to save America. We want to bring about the America that should have been, the America that was envisioned by our founding fathers, an America where the super-rich and incorporated cannot buy our representatives. We are fighting for the livelihood of every working class man, woman, and especially the children.”
Edward E. of Green Bay concurs, saying, “This movement is for those who look at the political, economic, social, and even environmental state of our country and are dissatisfied with how our government (regardless of party) has allowed those with the most money to capitulate it. It’s a movement to get the attention of our elected officials, the average citizen, corporate shareholders and anyone else that is either part of the solution or part of the problem. There are no whispers of radical reform or of overthrowing the government, just calls to return the power to the people and not those who can silence us in the halls of government with large quantities of green paper.”
These are the voices of your friends and neighbors. Does anyone hear them? Do those in power have plans to take this message and translate it to policy? One man, Dennis Kucinich, does. “We need a government of the people and for the people. We need a financial system that is of the people and for the people. It is time we take our nation back and take our monetary system back from the big banks.” Why can the rest of the government not hear this voice of sanity drowned out by a cacophony of nonsense?
Gavin Schmitt (email@example.com) would be happy to run any comments from those who support or oppose the Occupy movement in future columns.