Occupy Wall Street activism is gaining strength daily, but pundits and politicians are struggling to understand the emergence of this movement. The reaction in Washington says more about us -- the political insiders -- than it does about the thousands of participants. Almost as soon as it formed, the protesters were criticized for not having concrete demands. No one could identify the group's "leader." Even the media didn't take the New York occupation seriously until YouTube videos showed people being arrested. Now in their fourth week, the protests are proving that it is not the concreteness of their demands but the staying power and resonance of their anger that have caught our attention.
The Occupy movement is attracting ordinary Americans through concrete action that conveys a clear message. The message is that working Americans want Wall Street to be accountable. The message is that working Americans want a fair tax system. Americans want the Congress to pass legislation that produces jobs.
Ordinary Americans understand that Wall Street's transgressions are clear. Wall Street set off the global financial crisis by gambling with our retirement savings and mortgages. Companies like Goldman Sachs bet against the very mortgages they were selling, knowing these investments -- and the middle class's -- would fail while they made millions. After taking billions in taxpayer bailout funds, banks cut small business's credit lines and, in the case of Bank of America, laid off 30,000 American workers. They've increased consumers' fees and won't lend to worthy customers. Years after the crisis hit, the mortgage industry was still using fake signatures to sign documents and the foreclosure crisis persists. The Occupy movement seeks accountability.
The demands are implicit in the people power of the movement. The message of Occupy Wall Street is being spread using the best tradition of American populist movements. Like the labor protests of the early 20th century and the social/civil rights movements of the 1960s, the protestors are responding to unjust conditions in the most visceral way they can: by taking to the streets. The Vietnam War protestors did not start with a list of policy prescriptions; they started with action. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 didn't happen overnight; it had started decades before with sit-ins and freedom rides calling attention to unjust conditions.
Occupy Wall Street's anger is justified, and Washington bears significant responsibility for letting Wall Street run wild before and during the crisis. But we in Washington should not pretend we are part of the movement or that it is directed toward one party. We must avoid acting as usual, which means talking instead of listening.
If we really listen to the Occupy activists we will learn that regular Americans are fed up that Wall Street was not held accountable for the economic debacle they triggered. Regular Americans are frustrated by continued income disparities and the inability of Congress to invest in jobs.
We don't need concrete demands to sympathize with the frustration and anger that Americans feel. This movement is the grassroots activism we need to pay attention to -- and it is the start of action. Next year, Americans will have an opportunity to vote for legislators who can stand up to Wall Street. We can get a head start by listening to their real message.