One month ago, on Sept. 17, a colorful band of rag-tag protesters descended on Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district and vowed to “Occupy Wall Street” until its, as yet unspecified, demands were met.
They were ridiculed. They were dismissed as irrelevant. They were condemned as communist agitators. But here’s the funny part: They’re still there. Not only that, they’ve sparked sister protests in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Denver, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and almost every city and town in the country.
Occupy Wall Street has become Occupy America. And here’s what’s really amazing. All of this happened with no recognized leaders, no goals, no list of demands and no agenda. It’s the least organized, yet one of the most effective, protest movements in our lifetime.
The question I’m most often asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement, or OWS, is: “What’s it all about?” And, every time, I’m reminded of the famous New Yorker cartoon of the man who walks into a showroom for luxury yachts. “If you have to ask the price,” the salesman solemnly informs him, “you can’t afford it.”
Similarly, if you have to ask what OWS followers are protesting, you’ll never understand. Is it corporate greed? Persistent unemployment? Record-high corporate profits? Home foreclosures? Income inequality? Stagnant wages? Foreign wars? Money in politics? Yes, it’s all of the above – and more. Quite simply, the protests are directed against every manifestation of a system today that is dramatically tilted in favor of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans at the expense of the other 99 percent. If there’s one statement that sums up the entire movement, it’s the banner “We Are the 99 Percent.”
Veterans of other protest movements insist that, in order to succeed, OWS must get more organized, elect leaders and publish a list of specific goals. Frankly, I hope that never happens. Part of the strength, and beauty, of the Wall Street movement is the fact that’s it’s so unstructured. On my Washington-based radio show, for example, I’ve interviewed several activists from Occupy D.C., but they all insist they’re not the movement’s leaders. In fact, the first line of their website warns: “We do not have a spokesperson and we shall never have one.”
The first time I visited Washington’s Freedom Plaza (how appropriate!), protesters were holding a town meeting to decide how to respond to a warning from the Park Service that their permit had expired. Nobody was in charge. One man up front simply handed the microphone to the next in a long line of speakers until everyone present had a chance to express his or her opinion about whether they should defy the Park Service, or meet with them. And, if so, meet in public or in private. Then a vote was taken. It was democracy in action.
Where’s it all going? Who knows? All we know is that the movement is growing, spreading and picking up more backers every day. Most of the major labor unions have offered their endorsement and support. Teachers, doctors and nurses have joined in solidarity. So have many prominent Democratic politicians, including President Obama – who says he identifies with their message. And, as further proof of the global economic crisis, similar protests have popped up in Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Kuala Lumpur and other world capitals.
We also know, from the reaction of many conservatives, that OWS is already making an impact. Eric Cantor condemned them as “mobs.” Herman Cain called them “jealous Americans” who want “to take somebody else’s Cadillac.” Florida Rep. Allen West said their “hypocrisy is laughable” and accused them of having ties to communists and Nazis. Republicans wouldn’t be whining if the OWS message was not getting through.
No wonder Republicans are so nervous about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because, even though protesters are critical of both parties – and, indeed, accuse President Obama of surrounding himself with “corporatists” – their very presence on Wall Street raises public awareness of President Obama’s call to cut taxes on the bottom 99 percent of Americans – while further exposing and undermining Republican attempts to pamper only the top 1 percent.
That’s why Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and others wish the protesters would simply fold up their tents and slink away. But that’s also why it’s important that they stay, as the voice of the people.