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Occupy Wall Street and the Scent of Revolution

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Growing up in a diplomatic family you learn to keep your nose to the wind, and read the writing on the wall, in case political turmoil suggests a flight for the border. The skills were useful doing business in South America, helping me skip one step before revolutions started.

In South American countries, the primary danger was populist uprisings, since in a coup d'etat foreigners can generally catch an airplane out if they move fast enough. When I no longer had access to classified diplomatic warnings, I got my news from four sources:

  • Foreign newspapers
  • Protest demands spray-painted on the walls
  • The expressions on locals' faces
  • The attitudes of the middle class.

Foreign newspapers were of course reporting on OWS while the U.S. mainstream media was still in blackout mode. This is an interesting leading indicator in itself, since while most reporters are liberal, as a veteran reporter dryly told me years ago, "I've worked at a lot of liberal newspapers, but I never met a liberal publisher." Did publishers quash the story? I don't know. Most South American newspapers certainly would have.

On the ground, though, this is how I got my information from graffiti and placards, watching people's expressions, and observing the normally disengaged middle-class:

Specific protest demands are an early warning sign that a serious uprising is on the way. Changing the name of the politician, so I don't end up on a persona non grata list in that country, I recall the progression of graffiti across from my local bus stop in one South American country.

When I arrived in the country, the graffiti read "Viva Gonzalez!" OK, whatever.... Then it was "Gonzalez para [for] Presidente!" But Gonzalez was legally ineligible to become president. Interesting -- I had heard no talk of changing the national constitution to allow him to run for president.

Then one morning the new bus stop graffiti read "Gonzalez al poder!", meaning "Gonzalez to the power!" Not just power -- the power. No mention of elections or constitutional amendments. I turned to my companion and asked, "Do you think it's a good time to visit Miami?" We were packed and gone in 48 hours, which was none too soon.

Mainstream media has made an effort to portray OWS protestors as lacking specific demands. This is laughable when a protestor is carrying a sign reading "Restore the Glass-Steagall Act." I have never seen a more specific demand at a protest. And "How about a Maximum wage?" might seem frivolous, but it's advocating legal caps on executive pay.

The protesters know quite well what they want. It just happens to be a long list, with the solutions not always immediately apparent.

Controlled anger is a sign that the people are serious. A street-smart cop can tell you that a pale angry face is potentially a lot more dangerous than a flushed angry face. The flushed face may be looking to lash out in some general violent way, but the pale face is edging towards intent -- specific intent.

Mainstream media is having fun photographing dancing and music at the protests, but if you look over the sea of faces, relatively few are there for fun. They have fun to break the monotony, but it's not a party. Even the protesters' smiles tend to be ironic, as media try to get them to show excitement.

The temper of the times seems similar outside the protests themselves. Two weeks ago I posted a Huffington Post article which mentioned "There is a huge sense across America that the rich are increasing their cruelty far beyond the point necessary to live lives of obscene privilege."

Before posting I asked several readers if I was going overboard with the word "cruelty." All said "No." The reaction was so uniform I became curious, and showed the article to over 20 people. Every one said "cruelty" was the right word -- and every face had the same expression: a cold hard anger. It was faintly eerie. These are minds that have come to their own conclusions; they can no longer be cozened with false statistics about how unemployment is falling, or not rising, or "rising more slowly." They do not buy stories about the dangers of a "double-dip recession," because they know that on Main Street the first dip is still going strong.

Loss of patience by the masses means the force of change has been unchained; there is no longer the weight of mass disapproval damping down the protests.

When the power elite see the masses slip away from them, they know they are down to their own resources: police and army. In America the masses are now slipping away from the one-percenters towards the 99-percenters, and about the only mindless supporters of anything mainstream are Tea Partiers.

To see anything like this loss of middle-class support in America you have to look back to old videos from the 1968 Democratic Party election convention in Chicago, and watch middle-class people hurling lamps and ashtrays from apartment buildings and hotels down on the attacking police as they fought it out with rioting hippies.

In a similar but more peaceful vein, residents around Zuccotti Park are now helping the protesters by letting them use bathrooms and warm up. Across America polls are reaching as high as 43% approval for OWS. Since most of the public only heard of the protests a month ago, approval can be expected to climb. Meanwhile the tide of Americans moving their money from big banks to credit unions is surging at unexpected speed.

Basically, the middle-class and the upper-middle class are withdrawing support from the Establishment, which leaves OWS free to roll onwards with no opposition (other than armed force).

Revolutions come in different shapes and sizes: some violent, some peaceful; some economic, others social; some front page news, others unseen until the new day has dawned. What they have in common is the very word "revolution" -- a turn of the wheel, with the cart moving forwards.

This puts them in sharp contrast to rebellions, which are inherently conservative. Rebellions shout "quit pushing us!" and demand a return to previous benefits and rights. Their demands are inevitably more specific than those of revolutionaries, since rebels want the exact things they used to have, whether it is a freedom from daily floggings or a return to lower gas prices.

In the Occupy Wall Street movement there are demands for a return to financial controls, and a return to reasonable executive salaries -- but these are the tip of the iceberg. The protesters are under no illusion that the factory whistle will blow and call them back to work, or that the rich will stop the financial floggings on their own initiative.

In fact they know there is no return to the American dream world of the 1950s and early 1960s. They don't believe that a few tepid anti-lobbying laws will clean up Capitol Hill's corrupt relationship with big banking, or that the Fortune 500 will start hiring Americans again.

So we will see specific demands for the new rather than a return to the old: clearer-than-ever separation of commercial and investment banking, genuine restrictions on lobbying, stronger consumer protections, and possibly legislated pay caps on executive salaries.

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