The Work Farce: The Death of the American Dream

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.

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Police State: A Prelude to the Ports

On Tuesday, November 29, 1400 Los Angeles police officers clad in riot gear descended on the Occupy LA encampment at City Hall in order to evict the protesters. I was one of many there reporting on the raid for Occupy LA Media. I also had covered the first eviction night on Sunday. I must say I was not quite prepared for the massive showing of brute force unleashed Tuesday night.

Because there were rumors that the National Guard was assembling at the Police Academy in Elysian Fields and adjacent to Dodger Stadium, I drove there to do some reconnaissance work. There were no National Guard troops. I did, however, see hundreds of police and police cars staging at Dodger Stadium. I spoke with media trucks on sight, and discovered that 27 buses would be en route downtown… It was definitely showtime!

I hurried back downtown to find that many streets had been blocked off by police in preparation for the eviction, a fairly large perimeter around City Hall– from Broadway by the 101 Freeway down to Alameda, up to 3rd Street, and back over to Broadway. I made my way home, parked my car, and headed to City Hall on foot. It took me quite some time to find a way in to connect with the Media Team. After protesting at the corner of Broadway & 1st Street, I then made my way around the perimeter with a larger group.

We found an opening in Little Tokyo, and walked over to City Hall. I found the Media Team set up across from the park in the plaza of the LAPD Headquarters, and picked up a video camera. Shortly thereafter, the riot cops were on the march, and I was in the thick of the action. The police fell into formation of staggered lines surrounding the Occupy encampment. Their numbers and speed were overwhelming. There were police in riot gear, police in hazmat suits, police outfitted with tear-gas canister vests, police carrying bean bag pellet guns… It was insanity.

Suddenly a Police Ranger, a four-wheel drive utility vehicle emblazoned in LAPD insignia, charged toward the park. The Ranger stopped, and the officer driving it, Orlando Nieves, attempted to address the camp. The sound system faltered as the officer tried to regain control, and the protesters swarmed around shouting, “Mic check!” Then Officer Nieves appeared in a police patrol car to finish his job. He declared the camp an unlawful assembly, and gave notice that the remaining protesters in the park would be arrested. Shortly thereafter, City Hall Park was stormed by riot police, followed by a crowd of protesters armed with cameras. Mayhem ensued as the police started to destroy a large art installation. Everyone not inside the park was pushed further into Main Street, and then to the opposite side, by police wielding batons in unison.

I was videotaping all of this, and getting pushed back, too, by the butt of a baton continually thrust forward by one Officer Robinson. This officer was burly and surly, and clearly enjoying his job. At one point, he knocked a protester beside me down, and the line of protestors momentarily fell as everyone grappled with this man to prevent him from fighting the officer. Chants of “we are peaceful” prevailed.

Phalanx after phalanx of riot police moved to secure the corner of 1st and Main Streets, as crowds of reinforcements streamed through the hole in Little Tokyo to join the street protests. Standing on an SUV bumper to get a better vantage point, I could see more police filling the street corner and a white police truck approaching to give a dispersal order to the crowd. People milled about, but started backing away on 1st toward Los Angeles Street.

My friend Mike and I were about halfway down the block, when we could see commotion behind police lines, and then a line of riot cops running down the sidewalk. We bolted down the street, and barely escaped as 1st was sealed off up to the corner of Los Angeles. I turned around to see one of these riot cops beat an unarmed woman with his baton, keeping her and another man from exiting. There were many people “kettled” in this fashion.

The crowd of pushed-out protestors organized to march around downtown in solidarity with the protestors in the park, but had difficulty in deciding on a direction. More riot cops were running toward us, and thus the crowd was put on the run. That running march wound through the streets of Little Tokyo, as protestors hit police barricades that they were reluctant to pass. Eventually the mob hit Alameda Street, which is pretty far removed from the City Hall site. Protestors attempted to hold a GA, or general assembly, in the street to plot the next course of action. Riot police then appeared to the south, thus pushing everyone north. Once the crowd headed north on Alameda, a line of riot police ran in to block it off from that direction. We were kettled in… Buildings and rows of police prevented escape… Unless…

The crowd, which had been running north, had turned back southbound, and with police quickly approaching from both directions, it fled through the Office Depot parking lot back into Little Tokyo. At this point, Mike and I were trying to stick together and avoid arrest. Protestors and individual police officers were running past us as the crowd surged into the smaller corridors of the main plaza in Little Tokyo, like blood surging out of arterial main streets into the smaller surrounding veins. Contemplating what might lie at the end of the plaza corridor, I followed a few people into a gated parking structure. Mike and I sat to rest and wait it out, as helicopters whirled overhead with lights scanning the streets.

After thirty minutes or so, we found an exit through the garage, and with trepidation, we calmly walked the streets of Little Tokyo past patrolling police cars and eventually the barricades. While it was a relief to be on the outside unscathed, we wondered about the fate of the protesters in the park and those in the running march. We would later learn that 292 protesters were arrested that night.

As the December 12 date of Occupy the Ports approaches, I am filled with dark premonitions of a greater danger. The amount of force amassed to evict Occupy from City Hall was an incredible display of the power of our police state. This force was amassed in the dark of night to displace peaceful protesters from a public park. Now imagine a much larger group of Occupiers protesting the union-busting actions taken against the Longshoremen. That group will be impeding, with the goal of completely stopping, the flow of business from 2 of the nation’s busiest ports, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach… not to mention the other port actions up and down the west coast. Because this action is affecting interstate and global commerce– and the bottom line of Goldman Sachs (half-owner of shipping giant SSA Marine), a greater force than the LAPD will intervene, namely the Coast Guard and/or the National Guard. If you thought that the 11/29 raid was a scary showing of police state power, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!