The message of #OccupyWallStreet has been getting lost in the media haze, and it’s something that really ought to be heard. The protests started off weakly, and based on the first few days, I expected them to peter off into nothingness in short order. Perhaps it was this general instinct that, partially, helps to explain the lack of news coverage in the initial week.
Instead, the movement has carried on, gaining numbers and more attention from the world. Various NYC unions have voted to join up and today saw controversial arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, the scope and strategy of which are still being sorted out.
Yet, many of my friends and family still don’t understand what’s happening. So, here’s the deal:
As often happens with demonstrations, a few bad apples are in the mix, individuals who can’t come up with a coherent list of demands. However, to use them as an excuse to dismiss the entire protest would be disingenuous. There are many individuals there with valid complaints. The demonstration is made up of graduates with too much student loan debt and no work; Veterans who, like John Rambo, came back from Hell-on-Earth to find few civilian opportunities awaiting them; uninsured citizens who want the same healthcare protections found in most of America’s peer nations; and plenty of people ticked off about Corporate Personhood and Citizen’s United. People feel disconnected and disillusioned, and that’s a recipe for unrest.
The #OccupyWallStreet tag is an umbrella for all sorts of various grievances, but the main message is that our income distribution is no longer tolerable. What we’re watching unfold in lower Manhattan is a natural, organic social outcome of out-of-whack economic conditions. The problem of inequality is linked to our recession, our “jobless recovery,” and our high public and individual debt.
In the United States, we’ve got a serious problem of income inequality. This wasn’t always true. Up until the mid-1970s, all income groups rose equally. After that post-war period, that quickly changed. The top income brackets began to skyrocket, and the other groups either grew at a snail’s place, didn’t climb at all, or actually reversed. Here’s a great illustration, via Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot writing for MotherJones:
Whatever each individual protester’s rationale for being there, they can, by and large, be connected to the above graph. Income inequality is the most serious problem currently facing the United States, and solving it is going to be key to stymying social unrest and getting the economic engine of America running like a champ once again. Until real progress is made towards that end, as Mayor Bloomberg said, you can expect to see more demonstrations like the one happening here in New York unfold across the country.
Two weeks ago, the demonstrators were chanting and taking part in drum circles. Today, they’re getting maced, arrested and they’ve attempted to take the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Where will this go in another two weeks? It’s impossible to say, but hopefully the message starts getting through.
Edit: My friend Tom S. argued that the geographic location for the protesters is wrong, and they should be marching on Washington. His is a political argument – that politics caused the financial collapse and the income inequality problem moreso than Wall St. did. I don’t necessarily disagree with that in full, but Wall St. is the target of the populist anger of today. Taxpayers funded a bailout (which undoubtedly was necessary), but top CEOs continued getting massive bonuses and there has been little investigation into the mortgage-backed securities fiasco by the DOJ or Attorney General of New York, despite the latter’s willingness to poke around a bit.
My argument in favor of New York over D.C. is a matter of message impact. The Mall is huge, the number of protesters in NYC wouldn’t come close to filling it, they would look silly there. In Zuccotti Park, they fill the place up. The image of hundreds of protesters attempting to take the Brooklyn Bridge may become the image of the movement, or now at least. There is incredible messaging power in an image like that. People are starting to take notice, that would not be happening had these protests been occurring on the National Mall.