Having gained serious momentum since its inception in Zuccotti Park on September 17 in lower Manhattan, the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has spread to cities both large and small, both domestically and globally. Occupations have sprung up in cities from Boston to Boise to Bogota and beyond. In Rome, an estimated crowd of 300,000 marched in solidarity with Occupy protests. All of this action, and yet many Americans still are clueless to the movement’s agenda, which is essentially to restore the American Dream. I will thus distill its essence, though it is not an exhaustive list of demands and objectives, but my experience and voice as a member of the Occupy Los Angeles Media Team.
The financial regulatory agenda is foremost. In a nutshell the demands are the following: 1. Reinstate Glass Steagall, 2. Overturn Citizens United to get money out of politics and end corporate personhood, and 3. Prosecute Wall Street financiers and governmental officials responsible for the meltdown. Part of holding Wall Street accountable is ending the profligate compensation packages made to those executives guilty of systemic fraud, and thus removing the incentive to gamble with other people’s money. Occupy is not anti-capitalist, but anti-crony-capitalist; pro-democracy, and anti-plutocracy. Harvard Law professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren is a hero to many for her efforts in financial regulatory reform.
A populist movement, Occupy espouses human rights and environmental reform in order to conserve the planet’s resources for the benefit of the majority. Single-payer health care is a major objective, as it is viewed as a civil right that ought to be saved from the conflict of interest inherent in the for-profit system. Occupy rejects bias on the basis of gender, race, socioeconomic status, disability, or sexual orientation, and thus is a proponent of civil rights equality generally and gay marriage specifically. Many support the legalization of marijuana and ending the War on Drugs. Ending American wars and torture practices in Afghanistan and elsewhere are top priorities for the military. OWS seeks to enact tougher environmental regulations, and to hold corporations accountable for their environmental abuses, the costs of which have been socialized to the taxpayer. These abuses are seen as detrimental to the civil rights of the majority.
Occupy, a steadfast supporter of the Constitution, rejects any efforts to abridge the rights listed therein. First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition are obviously of the utmost importance as they are the basis for the movement’s peaceful protests. The movement strives for inclusivity rather than exclusivity, often to its own detriment. General assemblies are open to all and consensus on anything is often difficult to reach as a result.
Protection from unlawful search and seizure, due process, and the right to trial by jury are also key. Thus, Occupy stands against the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The NDAA allows for the use of military force against U.S. civilians and indefinite detainment without having to provide due cause; while SOPA ostensibly aims to prevent online pirating, but may actually be used to censor dissent.
Other objectives and demands do not have such straightforward answers. For example, what to do regarding crushing mortgage, credit, and student loan debt. Or the outsourcing of American manufacturing and service jobs to less costly Indian and Chinese labor forces. Or the glaring income disparity that has grown wildly over the past several decades, to the point that now the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million people…
The debt issues are correlated, and exist within a vicious circle, or negative feedback loop. Many protestors have proposed debt cancellation, but most realize that is not really a viable option. Occupy supports foreclosed homeowners in actions like “Occupy Foreclosed Homes” due to the failure of the government to penalize banks for their role in the 2008 financial meltdown, and of the banks to significantly renegotiate mortgage terms for underwater homeowners. In regards to outsourcing, OWS stands in solidarity with worker rights by condemning corrosive effects of a capitalist system that partners with authoritarian regimes, e.g. sweatshop and child labor, deplorable workplace safety, and the suppression of dissent. The major initiative addressing income disparity is the effort to impose new taxes on the very highest earners, referred to within the movement as the 1%. (Hence, Occupiers refer to themselves as “the 99%.”) The move has been decried by the Republican party as “punishing the job creators,” but has seen some recent success in New York State, where Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo raised taxes on the top income tax bracket on December 6.
All of these demands and objectives strike at the heart of what it means to be an American in pursuit of the American dream, loosely defined as the ability of every American to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, regardless of economic station in life. It used to be that if a man worked hard five days a week, he would be able to provide for his family from his paycheck alone. Nowadays, even with two-earner households the norm, the combined income is not enough. Workers work longer and longer hours for less and less compensation. The “hard work = success” truism has been broken, and may even be a farce as Americans struggle to compete in the global corporate landscape, wherein third world workers are in a race to the bottom in terms of wages.
Business schools and economists will tell you that this migration is a good thing, because the American economy will transition to higher paying service-based rather than manufacturing-based jobs. What they don’t say is that the time frame for the transition occurring is not definitive; could very well be generational; and is entirely dependent on the emergence of new technology. Let’s hope that Occupy can forge solutions to these pressing structural concerns before the Dream is all but dead for America’s youth.