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Notes From the Occupation: Occupy Wall Street is Not the Tea Party of the Left

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Every so often, I am so impressed by a comment to one of my columns that I offer to just turn my column over to the author, and let them have my soapbox. This doesn't happen often, usually around once per year.

I've written a few columns so far about the Occupy Wall Street protest, and what I like to call the 99 Percenter movement. But when I threw the subject open to my own blog's commenters as to what the next phase of the movement will (or should) be, I got one very interesting comment in response. So I asked the author to expand her comment slightly, and rewrite it as a column.

The author, when contacted, described herself thusly: "I am a longtime Netroots political junkie, avid reader of multiple 'left wing' or 'progressive' blogs and information sites, and I am following the OWS movement with great interest and deep satisfaction. Like many OWS sympathizers, my day job consumes my primary energy, but I am with the protesters in spirit. I've visited Occupy DC in McPherson Square where I've donated supplies, and I will continue to donate to the movement. I will participate in OWS when I can in actions nearer to home."

She has chosen to identify herself by her screen name "Paula." In the communitarian spirit of letting everyone have their say, I'm turning today's column over to her.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Occupy Wall Street is Not the Tea Party of the Left

I've read literally hundreds of articles and posts about Occupy Wall Street, and one recurrent idea is that OWS is or should become the "Tea Party of the Left." I think that's a misreading of both the movement's origins and its evolving aspirations.

The Tea Party burst forth as an expression of right-wing grassroots anger, but Tea Partiers weren't the only Americans who were angry. Most Americans have been angry and getting angrier at the state of the nation, the economy, and the apparent inability of our leaders to respond effectively. However, while the Tea Party created opportunities for Republicans to air their perennial tax cuts and deregulation "solutions" and provided populist cover for Republican union-busting and voter-suppression efforts, the rest of us were given no alternative solutions or narratives to support. President Obama and Democratic leaders spent two years agreeing with the Republicans' framing of our economic difficulties and the traditional media duly trumpeted "the deficit" as our most pressing concern. Many knew the deficit was neither the worst nor the primary problem, but what was?

For Tea Partiers, years of income stagnation, rising education and healthcare costs, the decimation of retirement funds and 401Ks, high unemployment, etc., could all be laid at the door of Socialist-Muslim-big-government-liberal-Democrats -- and the bailouts were the final straw. What to do? Lower taxes and deregulate, and then when the economy doesn't improve, rinse and repeat.

Others saw things differently. Very gradually a consensus was building. A critical mass of the citizenry was recognizing that corporations and exceedingly wealthy individuals (the 1%) had gained indirect control of our government. Through their influence in Congress and the courts they'd engineered conditions that exponentially increased their wealth and enabled them to exploit and prey upon the rest of us. "Too big to fail" meant their gains were privatized and their losses publicized. Competition and free market principles did not apply to them; they loved monopolies and corporate welfare. Citizens -- and democracy itself -- were expendable. The 1% and those that serve them were above the law.

But what to do? Most of us are too enmeshed in the system to risk challenging it. People with jobs don't want to jeopardize their employment or health insurance (even if their employer is a 1% entity that pays them, while hurting others). The Republican machine excels at defaming people who defy the system. Whistle-blowers are punished: Bradley Manning is abused in captivity, while Dick Cheney and Condi Rice do book tours. How do you challenge a system you're trapped in, and from which you can expect little mercy?

You don't. People NOT trapped in the system do. Young people without children or jobs who have nothing but debt and unemployment to lose. Activists who've fashioned lives outside the system. Retirees with incomes.

Occupy Wall Street, meet Zuccotti Park. You may only number in the hundreds but scores more will send you food, money, blankets, and messages -- and will honk for you, hassle their representatives for you, visit you, and thank you. Millions will accept your message because they have confronted the same problems and agree with your conclusions.

The OWS movement is growing spontaneously because it is reality-based and a wide swath of Americans actively relate to its 99% premise. It is confronting systemic problems that genuinely damage people's lives as opposed to the fantasies spun by the Tea Party. Indeed, it is so reality-based that the media has been forced to notice it and various power centers have had to publicly react to it (and try to silence it). In contrast to the "respect" accorded the Tea Party, OWS has made an impact in spite of its message being unwelcome in so much of the media. No one in power wanted to legitimize the movement, but the sheer weight of its accuracy has forced people into grudging admissions. Powerful people have publicly stated that protester grievances are understandable and even, maybe, legitimate. They don't want to do anything about the grievances, but they have not been able to deny the essential validity of the 99% message. In this OWS has already prevailed. But now what?

I interpret "becoming the tea party of the left" as OWS aligning itself with the Democratic party and working to elect progressive Democrats. But from the beginning, OWS activists have resisted going down this path. They want to emphasize their representation of the 99% and don't want their efforts reduced to "Democrat versus Republican" political battles. They consider both parties to be servants of the 1% -- and thus, part of the problem. Instead, their current activities have two trajectories: (1.) to highlight existing power abusers; and (2.) to find ways to return power to the people. OWS is a work-in-progress, developing in real time.

OWS's lack of pre-packaged solutions, lists of demands, etc., indicates we're in uncharted waters -- not a comfortable place for many people. The hard slog of real problem solving isn't sexy, and doesn't easily reduce to soundbites. But that has been one of OWS's strengths. Traditional solutions have failed -- often repeatedly -- so OWS is exploring new approaches. They're invested in reaching consensus, achieved through the laborious process of people hashing things out until they find common ground. It's the polar opposite of our current winner-takes-all system. Will their methods lead to "the" solution? I have no idea.

At present I think their greatest value lies in continuing to shine light on the fact that none of our emperors are wearing clothes. Our major institutions have failed us, one by one, and citizens have ceased to matter. Through their simple presence; through their continuing inspiration of more Occupy groups (Occupy Accountability, Occupy Marines, as well as location-based Occupations, etc.), the message continues to spread and evolve. It may well be that, say, the New York group never generates any specific outcome in terms of new laws or prosecutions, but I'll bet that some offshoot groups they have inspired will.

Meanwhile, OWS has shifted the media's focus from deficits to unemployment and the extreme income disparity and concentration of wealth and power that many economists, activists and pundits have long talked about (to no avail).

Simultaneously, violent reactions by some police have also been enlightening -- they have exposed the militarization of our police forces; the criminalization of poverty in America, and the lie that is "freedom". We are free only so long as the comfortable remain comfortable. Upsetting of applecarts will be punished. Leaders deplore our exponential increases in poverty while making it ever harder for the homeless: it's against the law to sleep in public or put up a tent in a park. Who knew?

True to form, Republican reactions to OWS highlight their innate nastiness and absurdity (with Fox News reaching new heights in hysterical invective).

Democrats, meanwhile, are unsure where this movement leaves them, which may generate some badly needed soul-searching. For OWS is unflinchingly condemnatory about the party's failures. Democrats stand guilty of: serious enabling; refusing to take strong party-wide stands against Republican excesses; cooperating rather than condemning; choosing safe acts of cowardice over risky acts of courage.

For years there's been a go-nowhere argument raging on the left over what to do about the Democratic party when it fails us. The answer has always been "elect better Dems." The problem with that answer is that it stinks. It is unsatisfactory. It supports a rigged system. Candidates can say anything to get elected and then immediately renege on their promises. It isn't good enough to say "wait for 2-4-6 years" to hold them accountable. It isn't good enough to have to wait for the future while they do damage now. We shouldn't have to fight our way through right-wing disinformation while a corporate media aids liars in their lies, and our representatives know we're being lied to but do nothing.

OWS is saying: No More. Not gonna keep playing a rigged game. Don't feel like going around in circles anymore. There has to be a better way. Must we settle for this travesty of a democracy?

Prior to OWS, I was mired in a tired kind of despair. Congress is a nasty joke. The president has not been the change we need. His genuine sense of responsibility makes him better than any Republican adversary, but he is so enmeshed in the 1% world that I don't believe he really grasps how our country has degenerated, or why (ditto for the rest of the inside-the-Beltway crowd). Obama is "better than the alternative", but that certainly isn't going to be an exhilarating message for the campaign season.

Now, partly (if not wholly) due to OWS, Obama is showing some fight -- but whether he fights one minute beyond his second inauguration remains to be seen. In any event, since it's both unfair and unrealistic to expect one man to engineer the level of change we need, and since Congress has proven such a weak reed, OWS offers a third avenue of change.

So, if the OWS goal isn't to become "the tea party of the left," what should it be? Well, I think they've done a hell of a lot so far simply by following their noses -- doing whatever came next. Doing what they feel is right. Doing what they agree together to do. So maybe the question shouldn't be: "what should they do next?" Maybe the question should be: "What should I... you... we do next?"

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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